I started this blog with the intention of never commenting on the current controversy in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. In fact, for geographical reasons I’ve never been a member of that diocese and so it's hardly my place. The purpose of this blog is to increase awareness of the Arab heritage of the Orthodox Church among English speakers and hopefully to encourage love for our Arabic-speaking brethren in Christ. That said, I ran across the following comments by Archimandrite Touma (Bitar), abbot of the monastery of Saint Silouan at Douma and author of Forgotten Saints in the Antiochian Heritage, about the ecclesiological controversy which has lately flared up in the Church of Antioch. As readers of this blog might guess, I have great respect for Fr. Touma. His thoughts on the current crisis were posted on his website on July 12, and I have yet to find any notice of them on the anglophone Orthodox web. Since his words need to be heard, I will post my own translation of them here. Please, if anyone has any corrections to the translation, let me know in the comment box.
Pastoral Care and the Crisis of Power!
In the See of Antioch, at the current time, there is a confrontation, a crisis of opinion, and painful consequences may follow. Are the bishops, within an eparchy that is headed by a patriarch or a metropolitan as an ecclesial administrative unit, bishops over a territory and a faithful people, or are they auxiliary bishops (asaqifa musa’idun)?
The traditional position, within the Orthodox ecclesiological framework, makes the bishops within a single eparchy brothers and the primate (mallak) of the eparchy first of all the first among equals and secondarily the head of a local council, governed by principles and canons and made up of the bishops of that eparchy. This assumes that each of them oversees a territory and a people. In principle, bishops are not titular or auxiliaries, dependent upon the metropolitan or the patriarch.
But, historical events came about in past eras that divided some bishops from their territories and their flocks, as happened in the Byzantine Empire after the fall of some of its regions to the Ottomans. It was hoped at the time that exiled or refugee bishops would return to their regions. However, matters became more complicated and situations worsened and such bishops found themselves permanently exiled from their flocks. Or, the dioceses which they had overseen in principle were emptied of their Orthodox people.
With the passing of time, this inaugurated the custom of consecrating titular bishops who, at first, longed for military or political turnarounds that would return an Orthodox presence to their former regions. When the years went by and the winds did not blow as the boats wished, hopes changed to almost a formal etiquette, and the custom became firmly entrenched of choosing titular bishops who quickly became helpers (musa’idun) or auxiliaries (mu’awinun) to some of the actual primates of the eparchies, dependent on the patriarch. This gave birth to an unintended custom, without any ecclesiological base. However, it became accepted and enshrined in practice insofar as the ancient traditional practice among us of each bishop being the bishop of a people and a territory into decline in practice. With it, the page closed on local synods within one eparchy and it sufficed to have synods on the level of patriarchates or the equivalent.
Some circles, today, hold fast to the contingent practice over ecclesiological theology because it has become widespread and followed for many years. The temporary became permanent. Others hold to intellectual principles of ecclesiological theology and hope to rectify the current historical deviation in this situation and to return dioceses to their traditional function, especially since there exists a need, here and there, for more bishops of territory and people so that we do not go too far in making the episcopate in general only an administrative, ritual function. The bishop is the pastor par excellence and must remain so in practice.
Between those who seek this or that line of thought, today, there is confrontation and debate. It does not appear that it will result in a speedy understanding in the foreseeable future and it is to be feared that it will grow into an impasse and from there into something with an unpraiseworthy outcome.
How to get out of this dilemma?
The answer is not easy. However, if we were to put forward the reasons for this crisis, we do not find it to be simply ecclesiological or canonical in nature, but also historical, temperamental, and psychological. We have become accustomed to such with the passing of generations! It is not easy for those who have become accustomed to sole power in their eparchies and to dealing with titular bishops almost like deacons to have partners in power within the lifetime in which they work. Let us say it frankly: the problem is the problem of a power struggle! Few are prepared to let go of their prerogatives! The issue, at the base, is not ,as it is put forward, a theological issue and it is not a pastoral issue. What determines the traditional or the ecclesiological, theological or the canonical argument, at the basic level, is the holding on of each of the concerned parties to the power which they think rightly belongs to themselves and not to others. Each one brings forward this or that evidence, in reality, because it is convenient for him. If we were to hold fast to ecclesiological theology and the traditional canons, in the matter before us, then we would have to openly express only a small number of the positions we implicitly adopt or to which we consent and which are not in agreement with [Orthodox] principles.
The question of the diaspora, especially North America, is today in our opinion the foundation of the current problem and what brought to light the intellectual divide which had long remained hidden. The status of any of the Orthodox churches, the See of Antioch included, is not sound there, either from an ecclesiological or a canonical standpoint. By what right do we hold on to the dependence of the Antiochian Archdiocese in North America on us? That eparchy is no longer at the stage of just being sent out. We helped it during its beginnings, but now it is mature, and more mature than us here in its theology and its learning and its organization. By what right, then, is it assumed that it should be under our care? Is it because some of its people have left us? So what? Generations and generations have grown up there for years and the people in those lands have become American. Is it because there is a sentimental heritage which ties us to them and them to us, or because there is something like nationalist feelings which hold us to them and them to us so that they must be subject to our local ecclesial structure? This has no relation in any case to ecclesiological thought nor to the ancient ecclesiological practice which has come down to us from the Apostles and saints. Thus the practical theology which we use in this matter is faulty and unacceptable if we were to be fair and correct.
And what is to be said about the canonical disorders that we’re up to our ears in over there?
The situation of all the Orthodox eparchies dependent on mother churches in North America is uncanonical. There is one Orthodox church in those lands whose situation is sound and canonical: the American Orthodox Church (OCA). This alone is independent and autocephalous and this is de-facto recognized by the other Orthodox eparchies. Its recognition, formal or implicit, by the eparchies depending on mother churches is clear and frank confirmation that the status of these eparchies is uncanonical and unsound. If these eparchies and mother churches on which they depend were to be logical with themselves and consistent with Orthodox ecclesiological and canonical thought, in the true sense of the word, then they would belong to the OCA or would at least enter into an understanding with it and the thorny crisis of the Orthodox presence there, theologically and canonically, would end. The simplest position and the most sound is for us to leave the Orthodox in North America to themselves and to encourage them to arrange their affairs themselves! We and the other mother churches are the ones who are complicating their affairs!
Naturally, there are those who claim that the problem of the diaspora is, to a great extent, a problem of nationalist sentiment. The sentiments exist, but not to the degree that is thought. The Church in the past has dealt with nationalism-- in Constantinople, in Antioch, and elsewhere-- and she is able to deal with it in every time and place whenever proper ecclesial sentiment abounds. But if nationalistic notions eclipse concern of the Church, then this is a dangerous event and a serious deviation because we are no longer a church possessing one faith, but rather a group of tribes. The truth is that the mother churches hold on to their eparchies in North America because they do not want to be stripped of their prerogatives and their benefits and their power there. The issue of money plays an important role in this matter and likewise does political and ecclesial influence. None of this has any connection to the Church in the exact meaning of the word, not to her theology, nor to her canons, nor to pastoral care for her people nor to her spirituality.
I will return to the subject of the bishops and I will say that the hidden cause behind the debate going on between those who hold to the concept of titular, helper bishops and the concept of local bishops over a people and a territory is, in reality, related to the passions. There is struggle for power, in the worldly sense, going on, and the arguments put forth call for each to claim his own power and leadership. But we have no power to receive, rather service to give for the Church of Christ and the People of God. For this reason, if we were to be just, then we must, first and last, to put pastoral care for the People of God before ourselves and before any other standard. The struggle for power going on today is, unfortunately, on account of this pastoral care! The single legitimate and acceptable question in this context is: what is most appropriate for the care of the Orthodox faithful here and there?
For this reason it is to be hoped that the interaction of the metropolitan with the bishops within a single eparchy, wherever they may be and especially right now in North America, will be first of all with goodness, love, humility of heart, and magnanimity. The issue of the episcopate, which has long been outside the genuine ecclesiology, will not be solved by emptying it of its pastoral content and enshrining its titularity, and not by, in response, idolatrously harping on the application of cannons but rather by the metropolitan embracing the bishops as brothers, and the bishops the metropolitan. Calmly and deliberately we will become able to solve our issues in cooperation and simplicity and flexibility, relying on [Orthodox] principles, and we will raise up the People of God in truth so that God will be glorified in us. The way of dividing, subjugating with decisions from on high, and debasing is of no avail. It will only alienate and create factions and lead to schism! I say this and it is to be feared that we are in a delicate and dangerous situation. Orthodox America will not be treated in the ruinous way we are accustomed to in our lands here! If we do not leave our selfishness and our pride and build each other up with kindness and generosity and put the good of the Church and its unity and theological principles ahead of any personal consideration, whatever it may be, then worse is to come!
Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan the Athonite-- Douma
Sunday July 12, 2009