AXIOS! A big sigh of relief! There will be no battle of Tripoli! A consensus emerged in favor of a man of God, “a chosen-one of God”, Fr. Archimandrite Ephrem, a man of prayer, a worthy representative of the Athonite monasticism which we love, a monasticism that is demanding of the spirit, not of the letter, a monasticism acting in humility, transparency, and love after the image of the tradition of the spiritual fathers of Mount Athos.
On the first day of its regular fall session, the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch (which began its work today presided over by His Beatitude patriarch Ignatius IV)has just finished electing a new metropolitan for the metropolitan see of Tripoli (North Lebanon), an “angel” of the diocese, that is, its protector as our local tradition calls it. The new metropolitan-elect, archimandrite Ephrem Kyriakos, was until then abbot of the monastery of the Archangel Michael in Baskinta (Lebanon).
The fall synod has caused much ink to flow during the summer before the election! The election of the new bishop for the metropolitan see of Tripoli was there for a reason. This diocese had been vacant since the calling back to the Lord of His Eminence metropolitan Elias (Kurban) on July 30 at the age of 84, after having served the diocese of Tripoli for 47 years.
The capital of North Lebanon, Tripoli (from the Greek Tripolis, the city divided in three), with its seafront and its ancestral port, is the second largest city in Lebanon. The presence of Greek Orthodox goes back several centuries in this coastal region of Lebanon, bathed in the oriental sun. The “Rum” were deeply rooted in the heart of the city and also in the neighboring regions, that of the Orthodox stronghold of Koura. The diocese of Tripoli’s 91 churches and places of worship is an illustration of the hours of glory of that sociological rootedness. For a long time orthodox families populated the city of Tripoli itself and especially its mythical, half-Orthodox port neighborhood known as “al-Mina”.
A pastor admired by the faithful, considered one of the best cantors of the Church of Antioch, +Elias (Kurban) had been elected to the see in 1962 after having served in an Antiochian parish in Boston following his graduation from St. Vladimir’s Seminary. The long years of his episcopacy, spent in the service of the people of Tripoli, allowed him to develop his pastoral work and also to cause to flourish a number of socio-educational and charitable foundations, clinics, homes for youth and for the aged, as well as orphanages. The diocese currently has 42 parishes served by 51 priests and two deacons, as well as nine monasteries.
The new bishop-elect, Abuna Ephrem, is a man of God, a “chosen one of Christ”, one of the greatest contemporary spiritual figures of the Patriarchate of Antioch. Born in Reshaya, a village along the border between South Lebanon and the Bekaa in Lebanon, he was first off a man of science, an engineer who completed his studies in the late sixties at the Jesuit l'Université Saint Joseph. He even continued his studies by doing specialist work in Paris. After gaining professional experience, he chose the path of theological study on the hills of Balamand at the Saint John of Damascus Institute of Orthodox Theology, study that was completed at the Academy of Theology of Thessoloniki in Greece.
It was in Greece that he discerned his monastic vocation. A monk he wanted to be and a monk he became. He spent several years on the Holy Mountain under the direction of his spiritual father, the Elder Parthenios, abbot of the Monastery of Saint Paul on Athos, who tonsured him a monk and gave him the name Ephrem in honor of that saint of the orient, Saint Ephrem the Syrian. He returned to Lebanon by the express demand of His Beatitude the patriarch Elias IV (predecessor of the current patriarch), who asked him to take charge, during the period of the beginning of the Lebanese war, of the Saint John of Damascus Institute of Theology. He did this and was dean from 1979 to 1981, at which time he decided to found a monastic community in the village of Baskinta, on Mount Lebanon, a village perched at an altitude of 1200 meters, opposite Lebanon’s mythical mountain chain, Sannine. The monastery, which is in the jurisdiction of the diocese of Mount Lebanon, is under the omphorion of His Eminence metropolitan George Khodr. It is under the protection of the archangel Michael and its church is dedicated to Saint Ephrem the Syrian. Multi-lingual, knowing Arabic, French, Greek, and English, the new metropolitan is a man of great spirituality but also a man of science, in the model of that other great elder named Paisios.
For many years, over the past century the elections of metropolitan bishops in the Orthodox Church of Antioch have been, according to the situation, the object of deal-making and multiple struggles between the members of a current called “conservative” and those of the current called “reformist”. The former is made up of clerics formed in the traditional school while the latter is essentially nourished and inspired by the ideas and the members of the Orthodox Youth Movement (MJO).
Founded in the forties, notably by members who knew the theology of the Paris School and of the Saint Sergius Institute, the MJO fostered a necessary reform within the Orthodox Church of Antioch and sought to apply the precepts of an ecclesiology of communion, favorable towards more synergy between the different parts of the people of God.
The movement especially supported a greater role for the laity and better cooperation, “association” or “synergy” between the representatives of the “priesthood of service”- bishops, priests and deacons on one side- and on the other those of the “royal priesthood”, laity engaged in the life of the Church, conscious of the demands of their baptism and of their ecclesial responsibility in the building up of the Church, of its life and of its expression.
In retrospect, some argue that the breakout of the Lebanese war (1975-1990) prevented the proper application of the reforms, the introduction of which into the statutes of the patriarchate was facilitated by the arrival at the head of dioceses of bishops called “reformists”, notably coming from the ranks of the MJO. Others today think that the official end of the Lebanese war (in 1990) and the return of a sort of stability to the country should have, despite occasional backlashes, allowed the re-application of the reforms and the formation, within the dioceses, of diocesan forums that allow for more communion and synergy between the essential parts of the people of God in the “production” of ecclesial and pastoral life. In reality, however, in most cases ecclesial situations have not sufficiently evolved and this has caused during the past several years some regrettable incidents in the governance of the dioceses.
The discontent and the opinions that have been recently expressed during the run-up to the election of the metropolitan of Tripoli are a serious illustration of this.
For the first time in a while, questions of this nature (particularly, that of the degree of participation by the faithful, clergy and laypeople, of the diocese in the process of selecting the candidates for the metropolitan’s seat, to be elected by the Holy Synod), have gone beyond church circles and find, in one way or another, expression in a certain national press.
A journalist for the Lebanese Daily Al-Akhbar dedicated two articles, one on August 25 and the second on October 1, to the questions which, according to him, agitate the Orthodox around the election of the metropolitan of Tripoli. These articles have not found unanimity and were judged by some as being polemic al and by others as being half-right and sometimes erroneous and not taking into account the way in which the Orthodox deal with their internal ecclesial affairs.
In a totally different register, metropolitan Georges (Khodr), metropolitan of Mount Lebanon, a major point of reference for all of us and for the entirety of the patriarchate and even beyond, dedicated a very interesting editorial entitled “The Conciliar System in the Eastern Church” to these questions. In this editorial, published Saturday October 3 in the Lebanese national daily An-Nahar, +Georges explained Orthodox ecclesial tradition and the ecclesial and theological foundations o f Orthodox “conciliarity”, of which the Holy Synod is, in the Church, the ultimate expression.
Another toll of the bell, also versed in Orthodox tradition, came from archimandrite Touma (Bitar), abbot of the Orthodox monastery of Saint Silouan the Athonite, located in the region of Douma, North Lebanon, considered a spiritual point of reference who expresses himself radically and audaciously. In a weekly article entitled “The Coming Holy Synod!”, published on Sunday October 4 2009 on the website of the Holy Trinity Family, archimandrite Touma indirectly challenged the members of the Holy Synod, indicating that “the image of the holy synods, generally, is not clear in our minds”. He attempted to explain the importance of what is at stake- “the choice of bishops is not like that of members of parliament or a municipal council”- and to put in relief the work of “synergy” between the bishops, the people of God, and the Holy Spirit for the choice of a bishop who is chosen as being “the chosen-one of the Lord [lit. “the messiah of the Lord”].” “We hope,” he writes, “for a choice by the bishops and the people of the of the one who is chosen by God as His messiah, His witness, and His servant after His own heart.”
The current debate indirectly poses the essential question of the governance of the dioceses and the way of organizing the spheres of communion within them in a manner which conforms to tradition while at the same time takes into consideration the current needs of witness.
Two models are indirectly clashing. On the one side, that of “direct governance” which advocates in a certain manner a “president” bishop who administers, governs, and finds himself in the first place in all diocesan forums, including the parishes. On the other, the model of “indirect” governance that makes the bishop less of an administrator but the true and unique ultimate “reference”, who inspires, gives impetus, blesses, and oversees initiatives and without whose advice and consent “nothing important” (according to the terms of article 14 of the Canons of the Holy Apostles) can be done within the diocese.
The first model could, in reality, favor the emergence of a “monarchic” structure, pyramid-shaped, putting the bishop at the head of a pyramidal structure while the second would more likely, being of a “conciliar” structure, guarantee better collaboration, conciliarity, and synergy between the different parts of the diocese, under the impetus, inspiration, spiritual direction, and blessing of the bishop who is and remains according to our Orthodox ecclesiology, as in the Divine Liturgy, at the “center” of the Church, around which, according to Affanasief, everything is organized.
It remains that the world today, both in the East and in the West, is an increasingly complicated world. The Church should, in order to confront the many challenges of this age, reinforce the circles of communion, necessitating close cooperation between the different parts of the people of God within the same diocese. Each diocese should have concern for communion with the others in order to extend the circles of “communion”, and to be the Church, the Body of Christ.
Thus, the setting up of diocesan lay-clergy forums which allow, under the direction, impetus, and blessing of the diocesan bishop and his parish priests, better synergy between all the members of the diocese with an eye toward “co-producing” the life of the church and of the parish, remains the basic question which the Holy Synod would be called to bring about through the election of a new metropolitan for the diocese of Tripoli, a response for the glory of resurrected Christ God and His Church.