Fr. Touma (Bitar)
on Auxiliary Bishops
The Holy Synod’s Statement about Auxiliary Bishops
During the Forty-Sixth regular session of the Holy Synod of Antioch which took place from the 17th to the 20th of August 2010, it appears that the fathers of the Synod worked hard in dealing with many sensitive questions that occupy the Church at the present time, such as the responsibility for religious education and the auxiliary bishops. They succeeded in creating an atmosphere of peace and contentment in their deliberations. This was at least the impression among most of the members of the Synod whose comments we have heard or whose impressions have reached us. We thank God and we hope for success, because matters need further clarification and more complete definition to resolve the debate!
However, when we read the Synod’s report, we felt that ambiguity clouded the text, especially concerning the auxiliary bishops. The feeling one gets after having read the text is that those who wrote the report perhaps ran into obstacles which were subject to debate and that they looked for a way of compromising between various opinions and wound up with unclear words which are open to interpretation and raise more questions about the issue under discussion than they provide answers!
In this article I will limit myself to discussing the paragraph dedicated to “auxiliary bishops” in order to highlight some expressions with the aim of better understanding the text, or the necessity for clarification!
This paragraph mentions the study prepared by Metropolitan Basil (Mansour) about the historical status of the bishop in the Orthodox Church. It gives the impression that in light of the study “lengthy and detailed discussions” were held on the topic, which led to regarding the bishops of the Archdiocese of North America—and this was, as it seems, the original reason for the question—“auxiliary bishops assigned to dioceses and entrusted by the Metropolitan of the Archdiocese to dioceses. They are subordinate to their spiritual point of reference, the metropolitan of the Archdiocese, who has general authority over the whole Archdiocese.”
The words about the auxiliary bishops being “assigned to dioceses”, “entrusted by the Metropolitan of the Archdiocese to dioceses” and “subordinate to their spiritual point of reference, the metropolitan of the Archdiocese” pile on elements that appear to be disparate. The description of the “auxiliary bishops” as being assigned, entrusted, and subordinate makes one think of things that do not easily fit together. The statement that they were “assigned to dioceses [muqamun 3ala abrashiyyat]” gives the impression that when they were assigned, they were assigned by God and tied to the land and people of these dioceses and that they were named for them. Putting the assignment in the passive voice, “assigned” gives the impression that the mechanism for their assignment is that the metropolitan is the one who proposes their assignment to this or that diocese and the Holy Synod agrees to the proposal. This is effectively what happened, as Metropolitan Basil showed in his study. The matter remains like this, as it is assumed that the assignment of bishops to specific dioceses will in the future be in general subject to the proposal of the metropolitan of the archdiocese with the agreement of the Holy Synod. But if the matter became dependent on the metropolitan of the archdiocese alone, as the current statement seems to say in the communiqué, that they are entrusted by the metropolitan of the archdiocese to dioceses and there is no need, or there is no longer a need, for the agreement of the synod to the metropolitan’s assignment or withdrawal, then the first statement that the bishops are “assigned to dioceses” is no longer useful and the second statement is sufficient and expresses everything. In any case, the matter is in need of clarification, as is the relationship of the auxiliary bishops in North America to the Holy Synod of Antioch! To have two statements each with their own content and their own ambiguity is something that causes unease and makes the text the source of controversy.
From a different angle, the use of the expression “assigned [muqam]” and the expression “entrusted” following each other creates two incompatible images that go in opposite directions. If you say that they are “assigned” then you give the impression that the relationship between the bishops and the metropolitan is within the framework of a local synod, presumably governed by specific and explicit basic internal canons which govern the relationship between the metropolitan and the bishops in pasturing the people of God as well as the relationship between the local synod and the Holy Synod of Antioch. If this is what was originally in mind, then the description of the “bishops” as “auxiliary” creates an equivalency between their being called “auxiliary” and their being named for the land and people to which they were assigned. So then there is no need to characterize them as “auxiliary” but rather to name them the Bishop of Canada, Bishop of Los Angeles and its dependences, Bishop of Witchita and its dependencies, etc… But if you say that they are entrusted by the metropolitan of the archdiocese, then in that case you tie them to the person of the metropolitan. In this case, the permanent relationship of these bishops to a specific land and a specific people and there is no need, or even no justification, for the existence of a local synod in the true meaning of the word. There is only an advisory role for the bishops to help the metropolitan administer the affairs of the archdiocese. He delegates them as he pleases and moves them in the direction he desires. The auxiliary bishops, in this case, are “auxiliary” in terms of their role but necessarily titular bishops in terms of their bishophood since where there is no land and no people you cannot assign a bishop, according to the practice of the Church, except for obsolete bishoprics! And bishops who are assigned to obsolete bishoprics are necessarily titular bishops, even if you don’t call them that, and even if they perform the role of auxiliaries for the metropolitan. The name “auxiliary bishop” is ambiguous and not sound in any case, from the Orthodox ecclesiological perspective because we do not have administrative bishops or bureaucratic bishops. If you did not name them to obsolete bishoprics, then you would have to do this to keep them harmonized with the theology of your church! As for the invention of the rank of “auxiliary bishops”, in different services without a connection, even nominally, to an obsolete bishopric, this would require the decision of an ecumenical council, not local councils, because there is a universal theological aspect to the issue that a local council cannot ignore. There is no doubt that it is a very strange thing to assign bishops in the New World, in North America, where there is a land and there is a people, who in terms of their episcopacy are bishops of obsolete bishoprics whose names are borrowed from the history of the Patriarchate of Antioch, and in terms of their service are auxiliary bishops for the metropolitan for this or that matter! There is no doubt that this is serious regression! The office of the titular bishop, which the Holy Synod cancelled thirty years ago as a sign of backwardness has left the door of the mother church only to re-enter, in practice, through the window of the diaspora in the Archdiocese of North America!
Also, if the emphasis is on the bishops’ being subordinate to their spiritual point of reference, the metropolitan of the archdiocese, “who has general authority over the whole Archdiocese”, then the Holy Synod has brought upon itself a very disturbing precedent which will cause difficulties for the other archdioceses now and in the future. The titular bishops, in the practice of the Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, were for a very long time subordinate to the patriarch, and his beatitude the patriarch would designate them to assist this or that metropolitan according to his request or to fill a vacancy that that he could not fill. But now you are confronted with a situation that makes the bishops directly subordinate to the metropolitan! Why this exception for the Archdiocese of North America? Perhaps you will say that currently in North America there is internal independence! But was the internal independence there not connected to the creation of territorial dioceses [usqufiyyat 3ala al-ard] and a local synod and local canons? But if you in effect get rid of the local synod and replace bishops over a land and a people with titular bishops over obsolete bishoprics, then what remains of the internal independence? Every metropolitan in his archdiocese has in any case internal independence understood by the canons of the church and a relationship to the Holy Synod of Antioch. In this situation, what distinguishes the metropolitan of North America from the other metropolitans? He is still part of the Holy Synod and subject to the canons within it! So the internal independence of the Archdiocese of North America has been effectively eliminated even if it remains in theory! The auxiliary bishops, now and in the future, become subordinate to the metropolitan instead of the patriarch in every place.
Again and again the question is repeated: If the metropolitan of North America has the right to have a certain number of titular auxiliary bishops, because his archdiocese is sprawling, then why is it not right for the Archdiocese of Australia and New Zealand, for example, to have the exact same privilege? His archdiocese is also expansive and sprawling! Among us, the Archdiocese of Mount Lebanon is in practical need of one or more auxiliary bishops as well! Likewise the metropolitan of Akkar! Then the metropolitan of Baghdad and the Gulf needs an auxiliary, though for another reason. The bishops, if they are considered auxiliaries, then it is assumed that they will assist the metropolitans if they are found to be unable to take up the burdens of their tasks appropriately and in good order, for one reason or another, and this is not unique to North America! This requires re-opening the file on metropolitans and titular auxiliary bishops once more! The question, if we are to understand it along these lines, becomes complicated and we do not see, in the near future, a solution! There is an increasingly thick fog that surrounds the topic and which leaves the field wide open for debate. The text is ambiguous and everyone can interpret it according to his whim, in this direction or that!
To close, I will quote what Metropolitan Basil (Mansour) expressed in his study about the crisis of the subject of auxiliary or titular bishops or those who have territories, call them what you like. He said, “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 will have been codified, defining their relationship with their flocks, their finances, their retirement, and their relationships with the heads of their archdioceses”
With all love and respect
Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan
September 12, 2010
(This originally appeared in NOTES ON ARAB ORTHODOX (here). The Arabic original can be found here.)