TROUBLED TIMES IN THE ANTIOCHIAN ARCHDIOCESE
As the Orthodox Church in America begins a debate about the status of its dioceses and that of its Central Church Administration, the Antiochians seem to have abruptly ended theirs. The result is of great consequence for all Orthodox in North America.
On February 24th the Synod of Antioch, meeting in Syria, amended the bylaws of the Patriarchate to read:
The Patriarch is the point of reference of all bishops in Damascus, Patriarchial Monasteries and Vicariates; and they are under his authority.
The Metropolitan is the point of reference of all bishops in his Archdiocese and they are under his authority.
All bishops within the Antiochian See are auxiliary bishops and are directly under their (sic) spiritual authority.
The Metropolitan defines the responsibilities of the bishops and the place where they should serve. The bishop does not do anything contrary to the will of the Metropolitan.
The aforementioned articles 75,76,77 and 78 are applicable in all Antochian Archdioceses and whatever contradicts these articles is null and void."
In short, a stunned 'Self-Ruled' Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America woke up on the morning of the 25th of February to find that it was not. In effect the Archdiocese has been returned, by Synodal fiat, to its status of some six years ago, prior to the establishment of its nine local dioceses. Then the Archdiocese was simply one entity with several regions. Now there are no longer six diocesan Bishops gathered around a Metropolitan Archbishop: there is but one Metropolitan with six auxiliary Bishops.
Metropolitan Phillip, the long-time leader of the Antiochian Archdiocese in North America, is widely held to be behind the Synods decision, as it affects his above all others. Although he did not sign the Synod's official decision, +Philip welcomed the change -even as he tried to downplay its importance by referring to it as "a narrow administrative decision". One can only ask: how many other 'narrow administrative decisions' has he ordered to be read immediately from every pulpit of every parish throughout the Archdiocese?
The answer: none.
For the average Antiochian parishioner the unexpected Synodal decision means changes that are both administrative and liturgical (only Philip will now be commemorated, unless an auxiliary is physically present) . But the most profound change is symbolic and psychological. How 'self-ruled' is the Archdiocese when it does not govern its own episcopacy or administration? For the Antiochian clergy, however, the potential consequences are much more immediate and personal - especially regarding placement in parishes, transfers and promotions. Once again everything will be run out of the Archdiocese's Englewood, New Jersey headquarters - and the Metropolitan's memory is famously long and famously unforgiving. Of course the greatest single effect will be on the six Antiochian Bishops, many of them publicly unhappy, as all of them have been singularly demoted, five years after what was certainly publicly portrayed as their elevations to ruling diocesan bishop status.
A Drama Unfolds
On March 4th, Metropolitan Phillip issued the following letter to his Archdiocese, explaining the unilateral action of the Patriarchate and why he, +Phillip, supports it. The Archbishop wrote:
"There have been some questions raised regarding the February 24th decision of the Holy Synod of Antioch which addressed the status of bishops across the entire See of Antioch. The purpose of this letter is to try to answer these questions so that confusion may be avoided.
The first question deals with whether or not I am supportive of the decision of the Holy Synod of Antioch which was taken on February 24, 2009. I am supportive of this decision, for a simple reason. I am convinced that the institutional structure of our Archdiocese here requires it at this time. One of the greatest assets that we have been blessed with in this Archdiocese is our strong unity. We cannot take any chance that disunity would occur in the Antiochian Archdiocese. I believe that this decision supports maximum unity and guards against any fracture in the future. I approved the decision of the Holy Synod based on my background and personal experience. I came to this country in 1956 from a divided nation. I found in North America a divided Antiochian family: first between 'Russy' and 'Antaki', and second between New York and Toledo. I worked very hard to unite this family at the cost of blood and tears. I will guard this unity with my life and I will leave to our future generations a strong and unified Antiochian family in North America. If we do not learn from the mistakes of history, we will be condemned to repeat the same mistakes. In myjudgment, the models of other Orthodox jurisdictions simply do not work, and the examples are numerous. Most importantly, I do not see the action of the Holy Synod of Antioch as making that much practical change in the way we operate. Most of the auxiliary bishops will remain where they are. The auxiliary bishops will administer the dioceses on behalf of the Metropolitan. 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. 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 served.
The second question deals with the exact status of our bishops. The decision makes it very clear that our bishops within this Archdiocese will now be considered Auxiliary Bishops. But we need to focus on the practical application of that change, and not just a title. in due time we will begin the work of editing the 'Manual of Hierarchical Duties and Responsibilities' so that these changes will be clear. The Archpastoral Directive of March 3, 2009 made it clear that the Metropolitan is to be commemorated in all divine services. The auxiliary bishop will be commemorated only in the case that he is present at the divine service.
The third question deals with the impact of this decision on the provisions of our Self-Rule as well as certain articles of our Pittsburgh Constitution. Our Self-Rule status remains in effect with regard to the relationship of this Archdiocese to the Holy Synod of Antioch. The decision of the Holy Synod is a narrow administrative decision, addressing only the standing of bishops across the See of Antioch. As we know from church history, administrative structures come and go as the needs of the church change over time. 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. These differences will be addressed with the Patriarch, myself, and the Holy Synod in due time."
The Metropolitan's letter clearly reveals some well-known, and some previously little-known, fault lines in the Antiochian Archdiocese, not the least between the Bishops. Consider his words:
• "We cannot take any chance that disunity would occur..."
• "I believe this decision .. guards against any fracture in the future..."
• "In the few instances in which the Metropolitan disagrees with the actions of a bishop, the Metropolitan (now) has the authority to reverse that decision...;"
• "While we have vacancies in some of the dioceses, it is important that the Metropolitan have flexibility of moving a bishop to a place where the best interests of the Archdiocese can be served..."
They conclude with a clear warning of more serious changes to come:
• "Most of the auxiliaries will remain where they are...."
Equally revealing is the public acknowledgment of continuing differences between the Patriarchate and the Archdiocese as to the actual status and constitution of the Archdiocese in its 'self-ruled' status. +Phillip writes: "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."
Since the issue was first raised there has been ambiguity regarding certain key expressions used to explain the Archdiocese's much-touted autonomy. These ambiguities between the Arabic and English translations in key documents of such phrases as "self-administration" and "blessing the wishes of the faithful" have never been resolved.
It was no wonder, then, that misunderstandings about the meaning, nature and reality of 'self-rule' between Damascus and its American Archdiocese continues to fester. The Patriarchal delegation which came to Geneva (in November 2002) to meet the North Americans expected to participate in what one writer has called "a process of dialogue and discernment". Negotiations were not part of their mandate. The North Americans, on the other hand, came on the assumption that autonomy had been granted, and there remained but a few details to be hammered out. The North Americans understood their role to be crafting an agreement for an official "tomos" of autonomy.
The "Geneva Accord" which emerged was not the Patriarchate's final or authoritative word on 'self-rule'; while in North America, the document was hailed as precisely that. Presented to the Archdiocese's Board of Trustees, and later to the Convention of the Archdiocese in 2003, as if it was the ultimate resolution, the reality has now been made clear that it was not. Benefitting from the lack of clarity on both ends, Englewood has encouraged the ambiguity for its purposes - continuing to maintain to this day that any decisions from Antioch, even this one, were "minor".
Change is Coming
Of course, the downgrading of the dioceses and their bishops is not a "minor administrative change". Despite +Phillip's desire that the Archdiocese "focus on the practical applications of that change, and not just a title", the reality is that 'self-rule' apparently means
"rule by one" -- in this case, +Phillip. As his letter makes clear regarding the continuing 'differences' with Antioch - "These differences will be addressed with the Patriarch, myself, and the Holy Synod in due time." Other Bishops, other clerical or lay bodies in Antiochian America need not concern themselves. Nor is this abrogation of diocesan or episcopal authority limited to formal relations with the Mother Church. Things are going to change inside the Archdiocese as well. As +Philip notes: " ... in due time we will begin the work of editing the 'Manual of Hierarchical Duties and Responsibilities' so that these (other) changes will be clear."
Reaction has been swift and vocal, even in the usually quiet Antiochian Archdiocese. This past Sunday, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, was the first many of the laity heard the new form of commemoration--or should one say, lack thereof. Laity throughout the Antiochian Archdiocese are now questioning their clergy why their bishops are no longer being commemorated in the Divine Liturgy - and what this "minor administrative change" really means. Clergy, too, have begun to question the change on the internet, although largely anonymously for fear of retribution.
In a March 3rd letter to the Metropolitan Bishop Basil (Essey) of the former diocese of Wichita and Mid-America, joined those asking questions:
"What, Sayyidna, did my brothers and I do that resulted in our being so humiliated as to be summarily reduced from enthroned diocesan bishops to mere auxiliaries? And because I - like you and all members of the Holy Synod - publicly pledged on the day of episcopal consecration to 'confess, accept and defend' the sacred canons, I ask which of those sacred canons permit such an action to be taken without formal charges being brought?"
The Bishop's very serious canonical question is not idle - but flows from his heart. In the letter he confesses:
"The knowledge that your communique of February 26th, 2009 was being read and published in all parishes and churches this past Sunday became so overwhelmingly heavy on my heart and soul that I had to leave the Cathedral halfway through Orthros."
It is now widely discussed in Antiochian clergy circles that +Basil, who is well-regarded in the OCA as a former lecturer at St. Vladimir's Seminary, may be one of the those Bishops not only whose dioceses, but whose own career is on the chopping block. His differences with +Phillip regarding monasticism, seminarian placement, clergy dress, the role of traditional customs and mores in the Church, etc. are well-known. Speculation is growing that +Basil will not be transferred , for his diocese is very supportive of him, but simply retired, along with another more contemplative Bishop, +Thomas of Charleston (WVA), whose perspectives contrast with Philip's vision for Orthodoxy in America.
The Knives Come Out
If +Basil is devastated by events, Bishop Mark of Toledo is just plain angry. And with good reason. He, like Bishop Alexander of Ottawa, are widely rumored to be on Philip's chopping block as well. In +Mark's case this is for having drawn the ire of 'old guard' Arab priests, mainly in the Detroit area, who seem to have Philip's ear. On March 5th some of these priests, who could not contain their glee, issued the following public 'Statement':
"The clergy and laity of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America received with greater excitement and with much gratitude the decision regarding the Amending of Articles concerning Bishops according to the By-Laws of the Patriarchate of Antioch. It affirmed once and for all that the Archdiocese is united under one leader who becomes again the point of reference of all bishops, priests, deacons, and the laity of this God protected Archdiocese. The Metropolitan is the hierarch who defines the responsibilities of the bishops and the place where they should serve. After four years of captivity, our church in North America will regain its direction under the mandate of our Metropolitan.
We salute His Beatitude Patriarch IGNATIUS IV and the members of the Holy Synod for issuing this historic decision on February 24, 2009. We pray that, as things take their normal and natural order, we will experience and enjoy the unity of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in North America, under the spiritual leadership of our Primate. Under this wise decision, the relationship between our Archdiocese and the Mother Church will reflect harmony and cooperation and appreciate our mission in North America. At the same time, it will help our hierarchs and brethren in the Mother Church witness the labor of love in the vineyard of our Lord.
The clergy and laity of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in the Midwest Region and, in particular, in the Greater Detroit Area, offer our thanks to God for this gift as we prepare to enter into the Lenten Journey.
We pledge to work under our spiritual leader, His Eminence, Metropolitan PHILIP, and pray that the Lord grant him many, many years,Ê that under his blessed leadership and vision, we will respond to all challenges and proactively, lay the ground for a fruitful and glorious future.
Among the first be mindful, O Lord, of our Father and Metropolitan PHILIP, whom do thou grant unto thy holy churches in peace, safety, honor, health and length of days and rightly dividing the word of thy truth.
On behalf of the Antiochian Orthodox Churches in the Greater Detroit Area,
St. George Church of Troy
V. Rev. Fr. Joseph Antypas
Rev. Fr. Ayman Kfouf
St. Mary of Livonia
V. Rev. Fr. George Shalhoub
St. Mary of Berkley
V. Rev. Fr. George Baalbaki"
+Mark's response was swift. In a letter to +Philip that very same day, the usually mild-mannered +Mark showed Philip's concern for the unity of the Archdiocese was not his alone. He writes:
"I just received this letter from the V Rev Joseph Antypas; the V Rev George Shalhoub and the V Rev George Baalbaki filled with hatred and malicious slander towards our bishops of this Archdiocese. Their letter was sent throughout the entire Archdiocese. As I mentioned on the phone the action of the Holy Synod and your approval of it could have devastating consequences dividing the emigrant clergy from those born here. As you can see they cannot retain their venom and disrespect. This is what I have endured for four and a half years. Now their animosity and guile, especially towards me has been fully revealed for the whole Archdiocese to see by their own hand.
As the clergy of the Diocese of the Midwest will attest, I have overlooked their refusal to be a part of the Diocese. They have always come to meetings late and left early. They refused to mix with non-emigrant clergy even before I was consecrated. Their disdain and hatred I have endured. Now they have finally revealed themselves to the whole Archdiocese. Your Eminence, for the sake of our Archdiocese, they must write an apology to you for the division they have caused, to all our bishops whom they so freely insulted and to the faithful for the damage they have done. This must be done publicly as their letter was public. Their apology should be posted on the Archdiocesan website and every Diocesan Website as well as in the Word Magazine and Again Magazine to reunite what they have divided. Over the past years I have made numerous attempts to work with them and suffered insults time and again. I have asked what I have done to them. The answer was always, 'there is nothing wrong.' I have left them to their own devices never commenting on the church sponsored gambling and their disdain of their own Orthodox Christian Traditions, such as serving the required liturgical services and observing the fasts of our Holy Church. Let us have peace! "
+Philip concurred. The following day, March 6th, the four signers 'clarified' their previous statement in a letter posted on the Archdiocesan website (www.Antiochian.org.) It reads:
"An Important Statement from the Clergy of the Greater Detroit Area
We have heard, to our dismay, that our honored hierarchs, including Metropolitan PHILIP, are upset by a statement, which was recently circulated in the Greater Detroit Area, in support of the decision of the Holy Synod of Antioch, concerning all bishops in the See of Antioch. This letter is to clarify and articulate the true meaning of that statement. We, indeed, have no intention of hurting and/or intimidating any of our hierarchs. We sincerely apologize for any hurt caused unintentionally. As obedient children of the Holy Church, we accept, with humility, this historic decision with much gratitude. We assure our love and respect to all revered hierarchs, and we pray for a smooth transition for our Self-Ruled Antiochian Archdiocese. May the Lord, our God, guide our steps.
V. Rev. Joseph Antypas
V. Rev. George Shalhoub
V. Rev. George Baalbaki
Rev. Ayman Kfouf
A Smooth Transition in Due Time?
And so things stand in the Antiochian Archdiocese today: a troubled and hurt episcopate, a demoralized clergy ("It's worse than it was during the Joseph Allen affair," wrote one disillusioned senior priest to OCANews.org), and a laity confused.
Only two things seem clear:
1) Although the Archdiocesan website still maintains that ".... in 2003, a truly historic event occurred under the leadership of Metropolitan PHILIP. The Archdiocese of North America requested, and was granted by the Holy Synod of Antioch the status of a self-ruling archdiocese. In conjunction with this event, the archdiocese established a diocesan structure, and elected three new Diocesan Bishops who were consecrated by His Beatitude IGNATIUS IV in the Patriarchal Cathedral in Damascus, Syria..." the fictions of 'self-rule' and "diocesan structures' have been exposed in that they can demoted and ignored at whim.
In this sense, the Archdiocese, which has been positioning itself to lead Orthodoxy in America, has taken a giant step backward. If one couldn't envision Orthodoxy unity in America under a troubled autocephalous Orthodox Church in America, one might have envisioned unity in North America emerging under a 'Self-ruled' American Antiochian Church. But it is unlikely that the OCA, now emerging from its trauma, would embrace rule by the Synod of Antioch - and even less likely that the Greek Archdiocese, or any of the other smaller ethnic jurisdictions, would trade their foreign Patriarchate for another....
With the Greek Archdiocese trapped in its paralyzing stasis that has led to a 20% delcine in membership and donations, the OCA still struggling to regain its footing after years of self inflicted wounds, it is ironic that the Antiochians, the most forward-looking Orthodox in the past 15 years, have now turned to the past in the immediate future. +Philip is once again asserting full control, just as he did more than a decade ago. Perhaps, in Philip's mind, the way forward requires a step backward. Having written "In my judgement, the models of other Orthodox jurisdictions simply do not work, and the examples are numerous.." is it any wonder he now repents of the diocesan structures he formerly embraced? On the other hand, is there a real, practical alternative to local bishops and regional dioceses given the continent-wide ministry that the Antiochians, like the OCA and the Greeks, now aspire to?
+Philip has successfully convinced the Synod of Antioch to take an approach, which given his age of 78, is by definition short-term. Assuming he can, through personal relationships and a tradition of obedience, navigate the next few months without serious difficulty, the real question for +Philip, like that of the last absolute monarch, Louis XV, is not so much what happens now, but what happens to his Archdiocese after him. Having exposed the faultlines in the Archdiocese, the Metropolitan might do well to remember it is not the earthquake that devastates - it is the tsunami which follows. Or as Louis XV famously said: Apres moi, le deluge.
- Mark Stokoe