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Metropolitan Replies to Wichita Priests, But Raises More Questions

On Friday March 27, 2009 Metropolitan Philip published a reply to the "15 Questions" of the Wichita priests in which the head of the Antiochian Archdiocese in America raised more questions than he answered. (Read his reply here.) In terse, declarative sentences, and in never more than three sentences, Metropolitan Philip tried his "best to answer these questions" . But if the goal of this second letter, as his first, was to avoid confusion, he failed.


On February 24, 2009 the Synod of Antioch amended the bylaws of the Patriarchate. (Read that here.) On March 3, Metropolitan Philip issued a directive to all parishes in the Archdiocese to read this "narrow administrative decision" at services the folllowing Sunday. (Read that here.) On March 4, the Metropolitan then issued a "Letter Regarding The Decision of the Holy Synod" affirming the amendments and trying "to answer questions so that confusion may be avoided." (Read that here.)

In the March 4th letter the Metropolitan stated his primary goal in approving the change was "to preserve the unity of the Archdiocese." "We cannot take any chance that disunity would occur in the Antiochian Archdiocese," the Metropolitan wrote. "In my judgment, the models of other Orthodox jurisdictions simply do not work," he continued, "and the examples are numerous....If we do not learn from the mistakes of history, we will be condemned to repeat the same mistakes." The Metropolitan then offered two examples of how having other diocesan bishops within the Archdiocese endangered the Archdiocese's unity. Both related to challenges to decisions of the Metropolitan. The Metropolitan wrote: "It is now clear that in the few instances in which the Metropolitan disagrees with the action of a bishop, that the Metropolitan has the authority to reverse that decision." And again: "While we have vacancies in some of the dioceses, it is important that the Metropolitan have the flexibility of moving a bishop to a place where the best interests of the Archdiocese can be service." Whether or not that diocesan Bishop might wish to be moved is not addressed.

The second issue addressed in the March 3rd letter dealt with the 'status' of the bishops. In his reply the Metropolitan asserted: "We need to focus on the practical application of that change, and not just a title." In short, what is important is not what the bishop is called, but what he does.

Finally, the Metropolitan dealt with the impact of this decision on the provisions of Self-Rule as well as certain articles of the Pittsburgh Constitution. Here the Metropolitan made contradictory claims. In one sentence the Metropolitan affirmed that "Our Self-Rule status remains in effect with regard to the relationship of this Archdiocese to the Holy Synod of Antioch." However, by deposing its bishops, degrading its dioceses, and by unilateraly amending the Constitution without any reference to the Archdiocese (or its local Synod, or its Board of Trustees, or its Archdiocesan Assembly, etc.) the Synod of Antioch clearly "modified the relationship" - at least from the American point of view, if not the Antiochian.

The Metropolitan then admitted the discrepancy in perspectives, writing; "As you are all aware, there are still some differences that exist between the Archdiocese Constitution that was approved in Pittsburgh, and the constitution that was proposed by the Holy Synod of Antioch as an alternative." He concluded by stating that "These differences will be addressed with the Patriarch, myself, and the Holy Synod in due time," leaving one to conclude that the Self-Ruled Archdiocese, its local Synod, Board of Trustees and Archdiocesan Assembly have little, if any, say about the Archdiocese's internal life, apart from what the Synod of Antioch and Metropolitan Philip decide.

The 15 Questions

Because of such assertions (such as the unity of the Archdiocese was threatened) and contradictions (that the "Self-Ruled" Archdiocese could not even control its own internal life) , the Council of Presbyters of the Antiochian Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America sent a letter to Metropolitan Philip on March 17th, asking clarification on 15 points. (Read that letter here.) It was to these "15 Questions" that Metropolitan Philip fashioned his reply of March 27th.

What is "Normal"?

Three things stand out in the Metropolitan's reply.

First, the Metropolitan writes three times, in answer to three different questions, that it was necessary to "normalize" the status of the Bishops. Unfortunately, at no time did he explain or define "normalization". At no time did he suggest what was "abnormal" about their previous status.

It is fully 'normal' for a bishop to be chosen, enthroned, and lead a diocese - as was the case of the American Antiochian bishops. The Metropolitan himself now admits in this reply that they were indeed "diocesan Bishops" (See answer #10). He then admits that what they were doing in their dioceses was fully normal. Or, as he puts it: "Once again, our bishops did not do anything that precipitated this decision. It should not be viewed as a matter of discipline, since this was not the intention." (Answer #9)

What then required "normalization", since by his own admission, they did nothing abnormal to "precipitate" this decision? Or, to put it another way: what was "abnormal" ? One might suggest it was not their 'status' that was abnormal, but the unilateral and arbitrary decision to reduce their 'status' once they had been enthroned and serving that is 'abnormal' - as if diocesan Bishops were simple Church "employees" to be promoted or demoted at will.

Are There No Limits to Power?

Such is a most dangerous idea, and precedent, not only for the Archdiocese, but for Orthodoxy in America and abroad. Many Orthodox leaders in America have expressed concern at the change - and the incomprehensible ease with which the question of the deposition of the diocesan bishops was, first, received as an issue by the Synod of Antioch without canonical cause, then quickly described as a disciplinary 'matter' and finally defined as an issue of policy to be determined by a vote. This is especially egregious when the new administrative decision flatly contradicts the existing By-Laws of the Patriarchate which states (Chapter 6, #81) that  "The Bishop is subject to those By-Laws concerning the resignation, deposition, and permanent disability of a Metropolitan."

The Orthodox Church in America, for example, has been served by diocesan Bishops in America and Canada who were later imprisoned, exiled or martyred by the State. It has known diocesan Bishops retired voluntarily. It has experienced expansion of dioceses and redefinition of boundaries. But it has never witnessed total repression of dioceses, or the deposition of diocesan Bishops without canonical cause and ecclesiastical trial. It has never, even in the darkest days of Communist oppression, seen them reduced "in status" by administrative fiat.

The assertion by Metropolitan Philip that the Synod of Antioch possesses such powers makes one wonder where such powers stop? What if the Communists had influenced the Synod in Moscow to reduce all foreign diocesan bishops, to "auxiliary" status during the Cold War? Or a totalitarian or authoritarian state in the future would demand the same? What is the meaning of a thousand-year-old tradition of canons protecting the Church from State interference if "narrow administrative decisions" can circumvent the same? Or that such decisions need not be based on unanimity or even consensus of a Synod, but as the Metropolitan wrote,  it is sufficient "that the decision was approved by a majority of the Holy Synod"?

No Binding Agreements

Equally disturbing, from an American point of view, must be the Metropolitan's new assertion that "The Synod has the prerogative to modify any decision that it had previously approved. " In such is true, can Self-Rule, or any autonomy agreement, or even any future autocephaly be held to be valid or enduring? Who could ever enter into an agreement with the Archdiocese, or the See of Antioch, if they retain the power to change their mind at some point in the future, as it appears they did with Self-Rule in America? If one can revoke Self-Rule, why can one not revoke autocephaly in the future? Even Constantinople explicitly rejects this idea, most recently in the controversial speech of Dr. Lambrianidis at Holy Cross on March 17th. (Read that speech here). In short, it would seem Metropolitan Philip is asserting a prerogative for Antioch to which no one else in the Orthodox Church has ever pretended. And one that if carried to its logical conclusion, would open a Pandora's box which even Constantinople shudders to unlock...

Self-Rule: Reality or Marketing Strategy?

One has to wonder why the Metropolitan finds it necessary to assert such powers, though, since they are not necessary to accomplish the goals he has set. In Answers #5 and #6 the Metropolitan revealed that there was never an irrevocable agreement concerning Self- Rule, and that the Patriarchal Constitution was never amended to reflect Self-Rule. The fact that the local Synod, Board of Trustees, Archdiocesan Assembly, and Archdiocesan publications were certainly led to believe the former, and trumpet it across Orthodox America, is now ignored by the man who initiated the process. Since there never was a valid agreement, why then does he now need to assert the Synod has the authority to rescind it?

The Metropolitan did not address such issues, preferring instead to downplay the See of Antioch's actions. In response to Question #1, he offered the example of five other Antiochian Bishops who were also reduced to auxiliary status by the decision. But the fact is that two of the bishops, as he himself admitted, recently assumed Metropolitanates, and so are not relevant cases. As for the "Patriarchal Vicar" the By-laws of the Patriarchate (Chapter 5 #79) clearly state that he although he is not a diocesan Bishop, he was to be treated like the Metropolitans of the Patriarchate: "The Patriarchal Vicar participates in the nomination and election of the Patriarch, the Metropolitan, and the Bishop." No, by any reasonable standard this is only an American issue, although the implications, as we have seen, transcend the Antiochian dioceses in the USA, and concern all Orthodox Bishops throughout the world.

Given these problems, it is not surprising, therefore, that the Metropolitan was forced to conclude this letter by contradicting his first. In the first letter he stated: "But we need to focus on the practical application of that change, and not just a title." Here he suggests just the opposite, that nothing practical has changed, only the title. He writes: "To dethrone a bishop is to remove him from his episcopal throne. This has not been done. The status of the bishops has changed from diocesan bishop to auxiliary bishop." No wonder the Wichita priests were confused.

Variations on a Theme by Schmemann

The decision to depose the Bishops and degrade the dioceses in everything but name by a decision not of the Archdiocese, but a foreign Synod, reveals something which many Americans have suspected for a long time but which now is confirmed beyond any doubt - the total, truly and built-in indifference of the Old World to anything beyond the sphere of its own problematics, of its own experience. Notwithstanding their claims to the contrary, the Patriarchates have always been, and still are, a purely Old World phenomenon, based on Old World presuppositions and determined by specifically Old World agendas. ( As evidence, consider Metropolitan Philip's amazing admission in answer #9: "To my knowledge, the Patriarch did not discuss this with our bishops during his visit in the Fall of 2008.")

To assert the above is not "American arrogance". On the contrary, Orthodox America is almost obsessed with deference regarding the Mothers it has left behind....It is rather a total inability of the Old World to transcend itself, to accept the simple idea that its experience, problems, thought forms and priorities may not be universal in the Orthodox world of the 21st century. Never self-reflective, they cannot bring themselves to consider that they, too, may now need to be evaluated and judged in the light of a truly universal, truly "Orthodox" experience beyond their immediate desires.

Thus when Patriarchates decide -- on the basis of their own limited and fragmented, specifically Old World culture and politics -- that they must deal with something in America, they plan and do it without even asking what, in this particular case, the Americans may think about it. They, like +Philip are then sincerely amazed and even saddened by lack on the part of many Americans of "Patriarchal spirit", sympathy and comprehension.

Such failure is now bearing its considerable bitter fruits in the Antiochian Archdiocese. The Metropolitan's failure to address such issues, rather than his one-line answers to questions, ensures that these bitter fruits will continue to be harvested for the foreseeable future.

-Mark Stokoe




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