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Met. Basil's Presentation on the Episcopate To The Synod of Antioch

(Editor's note: The following translation  of Metropolitan Basil of Akkar's recent presentation to the Synod of Antioch appeared this morning on the site "Notes on Arab Orthodoxy". You can read the original here. We are grateful to the translators for making this important document available in English.)

The Office of Bishop in the Patriarchate of Antioch during the Modern Era

Speaking theologically about the office of bishop, it can be said that that anyone who receives canonical consecration to the episcopate is a “bishop.” Differences of rank among bishops are not a matter of priestly order or of dogmatic significance, but depend on the relative authority associated with a particular position. Such positions include the rank of auxiliary bishop (usquf musa'id), a bishop in charge of an archdiocese (sa'ib abrashiyya), a metropolitan (mutran),[1] an archbishop, and a patriarch (or head of an autocephalous church).

There has been no uniform arrangement of episcopal titles by their respective responsibilities in world-wide Orthodoxy to the present day. For example, in Russia, a metropolitan has wider administrative responsibilities and greater authority than an archbishop. In Greece, however, the archbishop is the head of all the Orthodox bishops of the Greek Republic. Likewise, the archbishops of Poland and the Czech Republic bear both the rank of metropolitan and the title of archbishop as heads of autocephalous churches.

The office of bishop developed within the Patriarchate of Antioch and as such it spread everywhere the Gospel reached. The ancient Christian document known as The Didache’ (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), affirms that the Apostles installed a bishop in every place where they won souls for the Lord. There was no differentiation in this earliest period between various forms of episcopacy within the Patriarchate of Antioch.

In time, the Church found it necessary to appoint bishops for rural areas (chorepiscopoi) to support the faithful in the face of spiritual challenges. Furthermore, the metropolitan system developed concurrently with the evolution of the Roman administrative system. This gave the bishop of the capital of a broad region with multiple bishops authority over all the bishops of his region, and subordinated them to him as their metropolitan. Thus the institution of the synod arose, a gathering of regional bishops headed by the metropolitan or by the bishop of the capital.

The metropolitan of Antioch was the first bishop to be called “patriarch” in a fully Orthodox sense. This ought not be confused with the way the Donatists used the title, or the way the term appears in the letters of St. Basil. The latter concerns certain monastic leaders who inappropriately claimed the ecclesiastical description properly given to heads of monastic groups.

The office of bishop in the Church of Antioch passed through two stages. The first stage stretched over approximately ten centuries, up to the time when the rank of rural bishops was practically abolished. The second stage lasted through the twentieth century, including the years between 1900 and 2010. We presented the historical and canonical information that we were able to gather about rural bishops and others in our previous study.

In these last hundred years, however, the situation has been different because the Fathers of the See of Antioch did not mention rural bishops at all in the synods of this period. Rather, they used the title of “bishops” to refer to auxiliary bishops and those who were consecrated to obsolete dioceses[2] (titular bishops). The first study along these lines appeared in canon 24 of the year 1906. It gave the patriarch the right to nominate three names, one of which would be chosen by the metropolitans as a titular bishop. The canon of the year 1929 stated that the agreement of the Synod was required if the patriarch wanted to appoint another titular bishop. The first titular bishop was called the patriarchal vicar, and the second, the head of the divan (ra’is al-diwan, perhaps ‘head-chancellor?’).

Here we must stop to look at history: “It was stated in the Travels of the Patriarch Makarios ibn Zaim that during his absence from the lands of the Christians, he made the Metropolitan of Homs, Athanasius ibn Ofeish, his vicar. Likewise the Patriarch Sylvester asked the Metropolitan of Hama, Neophytos, to be his vicar until he returned from the Holy Mountain. Thus the patriarchal vicar was not at that time the metropolitan of Damascus; the status of patriarchal vicar was given gratuitously. Damascus was the diocese of the patriarch and the use of a (auxiliary) bishop as patriarchal vicar existed in Antioch but had not been long-standing.”

Despite the fact that the canons of the Patriarchate of Antioch are not often concerned with ordering the affairs of (titular and auxiliary) bishops, they do reveal their existence. They also show their status and the status of those nominated for the metropolitanate to be equivalent.

In the countries of the Diaspora, the office of bishop has played a beneficial role in cementing relations between the people, their traditional homelands, and their new nations. Thus the office developed along with the growth of the Antiochian emigration.

Around 1860 groups of the faithful began arriving in the countries of the New World—North and South America, Australia, and finally Europe. The immigrants were concerned from the outset with their spiritual affairs, and thus requested priests from their homeland to perform weddings, baptisms, and services for the souls of their dead. They established churches, charitable organizations, and youth groups to teach the faith. Many of these immigrants created a prominent, visible, and deeply rooted presence in their respective countries of the New World. The first bishop of the immigration was Bishop Raphael Hawaweeny, recently glorified among the saints, who worked as an auxiliary bishop to the Russian metropolitan[3] in America ministering to the spiritual needs of Arabic speaking Orthodox Christians.

News of the emigrants and their successes in the New World eventually reached the ears of the Holy Synod of Antioch. The Holy Synod decided to care for the emigrants who were eager to communicate with their homeland regarding their spiritual affairs. They sent both bishops and metropolitans to them. The latter were dispatched to Brazil, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Santiago, Chile. They also sent bishops as patriarchal representatives to the Arab Orthodox Christians that hailed from territories outside the boundaries of the old country archdioceses. The jurisdictions that were formally created in such places were directly under the authority of the Patriarch. Patriarchal representatives were placed in Chile, Mexico, Australia, and in Rio de Janeiro (according to some, the center of the Archdiocese of Brazil). After the death of Metropolitan Meletios Soueiti, patriarchal representative Kyrillos Doumat of blessed memory was placed in Argentina.

It appears that the Holy Synod of Antioch established representations and chose bishops for them in its regular sessions without creating provisions for their rights and responsibilities, retirement, travel funds, or other needs. Representative bishops, abbots of monasteries, patriarchal assistants, and titular bishops, where they existed, were all considered to be subject to the patriarch. They were personally under his direction as to where he needed them and subject to his wishes. Even Bishop Ghufrail al-Salibi, assistant to the Metropolitan of Beirut, Iliya al-Salibi, was a patriarchal bishop according to the canon that subordinates all (titular and auxiliary) bishops to the patriarch. The same was true of Bishop Elias Najim, auxiliary to the Metropolitan of Mount Lebanon, Iliya Karam – may God have mercy on them.

The status of the dioceses (usqufiyyat) of Tartous and of Pyrgou (Homs), was the same as the rest of the obsolete dioceses whose names were given at the consecration of titular bishops. Both Bishop Basil of Tartous and Bishop Yuhanna of Pyrgou were patriarchal representative bishops to help the metropolitan of Akkar in the two sections of his archdiocese situated within Syrian territory.

The majority of patriarchal dependencies were turned into metropolitanates by decision of the 1996 meeting of the Holy Synod at the Monastery of St. Elias in Shwayya. The last one to be so designated was the dependency of Australia. Similarly, both the dioceses of Tartous and Pyrgou were left vacant after the election of the bishop of Tartous as metropolitan of Akkar (succeeding Boulos Bandaly of blessed memory) and the bishop of Pyrgou as metropolitan of Western Europe (succeeding Ghufrail Salibi of blessed memory). Furthermore, the diocese of New York and All North America was considered to be a diocese dependent on the Patriarchate of Antioch. (Canon of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch of the year 1949). We do not know if this canon was put into effect or not.

The first auxiliary to a metropolitan in the overseas archdioceses of the Patriarchate of Antioch was Bishop Antoun al-Khoury, auxiliary to the metropolitan of North America. Later, the metropolitan of the North American Archdiocese acquired two more auxiliary bishops, Joseph Zehlawi and Basil Essey. Until the decision of the Holy Synod granting self-rule to the North American Archdiocese, these three bishops were patriarchal bishops assisting the metropolitan of North America. After the aforementioned decision, three other bishops were consecrated and assigned to American dioceses agreed upon by the Synod. They were all considered to be members of the synod of the Archdiocese of North America under the leadership of Metropolitan Philip Saliba.[4]

In spite of these developments, nothing was changed in the constitution of the Patriarchate of Antioch. It remained as it was regarding the subordination of all (non-metropolitan) bishops to the patriarch. The canon law of Antioch did not provide for auxiliary bishops dependent on a metropolitan until the Synodal decision of February 24, 2009. On that occasion, an explicit text was released distinguishing between patriarchal bishops and bishops assisting a metropolitan. It stated the latter are responsible to the metropolitan in the diocesan council, and the metropolitan is responsible for them within the metropolitan council.

(Non-metropolitan) bishops[5] do not exist today in the Patriarchate of Antioch other than the bishops of North America and three patriarchal bishops. Even the representation of Rio de Janeiro is not currently led by a bishop because of the illness of its last bishop, Demitri Hosny. The male patriarchal monasteries are led by hieromonks with the rank of archimandrite.

For thirty years the fathers of the Holy Synod of Antioch have affirmed the unacceptability of raising someone to the rank of titular bishop. They believe that it is more appropriate – even necessary – to create a geographic region for a bishop to head, even if he is authorized to perform other tasks. This conforms to the understanding of role of the bishop in Orthodox ecclesiology. We hope that the Fathers of the Holy Synod of Antioch will reach a permanent, conclusive, and appropriate solution to the subject of bishops. If this is done, they will not remain vulnerable to intellectual conflicts or material and temperamental fickleness on various issues by those in ecclesiastical authority. Then, as is the case with heads of archdioceses, a clear and complete canon dealing with bishops (as'ab abrashiyyat) will have been codified, defining their relationship with their flocks, their finances, their retirement, and their relationships with the heads of their archdioceses (as'ab abrashiyyatihim).

At this point, we will propose a few suggestions on the basis of what is stated regarding rural bishops in the ecumenical and local councils and what has appeared in the constitutions of the Patriarchate of Antioch since 1900. Some of these appeared in our historical and canonical study of the rank of auxiliary bishop, and are also based on my experience in the Archdiocese of Akkar as an auxiliary bishop of Metropolitan Boulos Bandaly of blessed memory.

First of all, I see the following necessities:

1. Of identifying the archdioceses which need auxiliary bishops.

2. To define the number of dioceses [usqufiyyat] in each archdiocese in a carefully studied manner.

3. To define the functions which require bishops so that they can be listed.

4. To define the conditions in which auxiliary bishops may be placed in archdioceses which have no dioceses.

After defining matters in the above list, we could proceed to research the right to declare dioceses in archdioceses. Is it the right of the metropolitan synod or is it by its proposal to the Holy Synod of Antioch after a complete study?

A second question may be proposed regarding the promotion of clergy within the archdioceses of the Patriarchate of Antioch: Does this depend on the recommendation of the metropolitan of the archdiocese? Would he present it to a committee of clergy in his See for consent to his recommendation for promotion? Or has the bishop been given the power to do so individually?

As for the bishops, I propose the following:

1. The auxiliary bishop is elected from among the celibate clergy whose names are registered in the list of those eligible for the episcopate.

2. The people of the vacant diocese elect three eligible members of the clergy known for their piety and their pastoral life with the agreement of the metropolitan and the metropolitan council, if such exists. The metropolitan in turn submits the agreed-upon names so that an auxiliary bishop is elected from the names for the designated diocese [usqufiyya].

3. The auxiliary bishops attend the Holy Synod as advisors but they will have full membership in the metropolitan’s archdiocesan synod [abrashiyya].

4. The bishops commemorate the leadership of the metropolitan in the divine services. When he is present with them they commemorate his name, then the priests commemorate the bishop of the diocese [usqufiyya].

5. In cases where the bishop is serving by himself within his diocese, the priests commemorate his name alone, but in the rest of the parishes the name of the metropolitan is commemorated, followed by that of the bishop (for our father and metropolitan ….. and of our bishop… let us pray to the Lord).

6. The diocese annually offers a sum of money to the general fund of the archdiocese to help the metropolitan with his duties.

7. The bishops participate in the election of the metropolitan for their archdioceses [abrashiyyat], if the metropolitan see [markaz al-abrashiyya] for any reason becomes vacant. They likewise participate in the election of diocesan bishops [asaqifa usqufiyya] if there is more than one diocese [markaz usqufiyya] in the archdiocese.

8. The bishops head all organizations within their dioceses and periodically inform the metropolitan on how things are going either personally or in the diocesan council, if one exists.

9. He (the bishop) performs all the episcopal educational and liturgical duties within his diocese.

10. The metropolitan of the archdiocese convenes and presides over the spiritual court. He can also assign one of the auxiliary bishops as his representative.

11. In matters pertaining to the clergy, the bishop does not undertake any action except after the agreement of the metropolitan.

12. In administrative matters, he has freedom in directing existing departments (idarat), but the metropolitan must first agree to the creation of new ones.

13. If it is determined that the bishop is incapable of administering church properties, and that he will endanger them by his behavior, then the metropolitan may forbid him to administer them and form a committee to oversee church properties. This committee is composed of five members, two from the clergy and three from the laity who have expertise in this field.

14. The bishop cannot punish a clergyman in his diocese for more than three months.

15. The metropolitan cannot belong to secret societies or political parties; this also applies to the bishop because the name of Christ is the sufficient and most sure guarantee for our life, our dignity, and our salvation.

16. In case of a bishop’s disability, his diocese has the responsibility to support him until his last breath. The diocese will cooperate with the metropolitan in such matters as placing him in one of the monasteries of the archdiocese or in a care center for the elderly.

17. The canons of the Church and the decisions of both the Synod of Antioch and the Archdiocesan Council apply to everything pertaining to local matters in accordance with the laws of the Church.

18. The bishops have the right to be nominated to fill vacant metropolitan sees.

19. After a specified number of years have passed in honorable service as a bishop, it is possible that he be given the title of titular metropolitan in cases where he is not transferred to lead a metropolitan see.

20. He (the bishop) does not have the right to accept clergy from other dioceses or archdioceses permanently or for a long period of time unless he receives written permission from the metropolitan.


[1] Translator’s note: this could also be rendered ‘diocesan bishop, mutran- metropolitan’. However, throughout the translation I have translated ‘abrashiyya’ as ‘archdiocese’ and ‘usqufiyya’ as ‘diocese’ which seems to be a distinction that the author consistently makes. It is unclear if ‘mutran-metropolitan’ is an appositive for ‘sa'ib abrashiyya’.

[2] Despite the fact that the Holy Synod of Antioch in many of its sessions and constitutions has only mentioned the matter of bishops in a very cursory way, it has mentioned them in passing with much interest. For example in the canons of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch that was decided in the session of the Holy Synod of Antioch that was held at the Patriarch’s complex in Damascus on April 2, 1952 it says the following: “What is said in paragraphs four and five of this canon regarding the election of the bishop and his rights and responsibilities, including the assistant bishop (usquf mu’awin) to the patriarch, his nomination is that patriarch’s” The assistant bishop is called the patriarchal vicar, as decided by the basic canon of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, which was decided by the general Orthodox congress meeting on the November 18-19, 1955. In this same canon it says for the first time that the fullness of the dioceses [kuliyyiat al-usqufiyyat] “is in all the dioceses and the connected agencies”. Here is the question, what are these dioceses? It appears that greater concern and regard for the matter of the bishops is in the internal order of the See of Antioch published on April 7, 1983 which dedicates to the bishop articles 75 to 81, with the content of 81 with the broad parallels it makes between the metropolitan and the bishop in numerous matters.

[3] Translator’s note: This information is erroneous. The Russian bishop at this time did not carry the title metropolitan.

[4] The archdiocesan or metropolitan synod includes the bishops of dioceses with the metropolitan of the capital of the region and meets under his leadership.

[5] Translator’s note: this sentence does not have an explicit subject in the original. Presumably the sense requires the subject to be ‘bishops (usquf)’ in the sense of ‘bishops who are not metropolitans’.


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