Readers of this blog know that I very rarely give my own thoughts or opinions here. I prefer to provide translations, which is more fitting with my purpose of increasing knowledge and appreciation of Arab Orthodoxy among English speakers. However, I think that the current controversy in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America is a very good illustration of the need for more activity like this, done by more people.
I would suggest that all those interested take a look at Fr. George Aquaro's analysis of the Holy Synod's recent decision. It can be found here. Fr. George consulted quite a lot of knowledgeable people when he was writing it, and from my own point of view it is the most plausible interpretation of the Holy Synod's reasoning.
However, a reader who has only been familiar with the language used in official communications of the Archdiocese of North America might be forgiven for perhaps feeling a bit tricked. After all, how could an 'archdiocese' be an eparchy, and a 'diocesan bishop' essentially be a chorespiscopos? But in my experience, it is common that when communicating between two languages, that both sides agree on the equivalency between two words and both think they are communicating when in fact each side has a completely different notion of what is being said. Another pitfall of the translator's art is to translate a text that is ambiguous in the original into terms that are unambiguous in the translation. This is at times inevitable, but the result is an interpretation, not a translation.
Bearing Fr. George's analysis in mind, and also keeping in mind the Patriarchate's ambivalence about the whole notion of 'autonomy' or 'self-rule', I think it is worthwhile to take a look once more at the text of the 2003 decision of the Patriarchate of Antioch granting 'self-rule' to the Archdiocese of North America. Try to find the Arabic equivalent of 'diocesan bishop'. There's not one. Where the English says 'Recognition of Auxiliary Bishops as Diocesan Bishops and Eparchial Synod', the Arabic says "iqamat al-asaqifa al-musa'idun 'ala usqufiyyat wa-l-majma' al-ma7alli" This is literally "establishment of the auxiliary bishops over bishoprics and the local synod." It's clear from the meaningless switch from the Arabic "local" to the English "eparchial" that the translator was not pursuing literal accuracy. In that case, it's not a big deal. But when it mentions bishops, this is a very big deal, because the English is not a translation of the Arabic but rather an interpretation of what the translator believes is implied by the Arabic text.
So what does it mean to be muqam 'ala usqufiyya? In earlier translations I've done on this issue, I've been translating the word 'muqam' as 'assigned', but it's probably better rendered as 'established' or 'set up' or something like that. The Arabic text, then, is not discussing the recognition of a new status for the auxiliary bishops, but rather their establishment in new roles. Therein lies the ambiguity that is interpreted by the English translation: does the establishment of the bishops in a new role alter their status as auxiliaries? In an October 2003 article in an-Nahar (available in a serviceable but imperfect translation here) Metropolitan Georges Khodr seems to believe so, as he says that they will no longer be auxiliaries to the metropolitan, but rather 'territorial bishops' (asaqifa al-ard) who will have the authority to choose the priests whom they ordain. But notice that he does not use language perfectly corresponding to the English notion of 'diocesan bishop'.
In Metropolitan Basil's study, he makes a big distinction between titular bishops, a practice which the Patriarchate has more or less abandoned, and auxiliary bishops. That is, he assumes that the 2003 decision changed the status of the Antiochian titular bishops, who were canonically auxiliaries to the patriarch, to auxiliary bishops over a territory, who are canonically dependent on the metropolitan and have authority in a defined territory. He is, however, unclear about their exact authority or the authority of the Archdiocesan Synod. In that regard, Met. Basil's own suggestions are quite interesting and it seems to me that his vision of an auxiliary bishop has more authority than American Antiochian 'diocesan bishops' have had over the past seven years. Suggestion six, for example, implies that the auxiliary bishops' territories will have their own finances, out of which they will provide a fixed sum to the Archdiocese.
However, the Patriarchate has not officially spoken on these details, most of which were also left unaddressed in the 2003 decision. Thus Fr. Touma Bitar's frustration at the ambiguity of the recent decision and his appeal for further clarification. To his mind, a bishop cannot be both an auxiliary and established for a territory and a people, and so their status may have been reduced in practice to that of titular bishops. He highlights how the decision was likely cobbled together to include language preferred by parties who were at odds with each other and is thus ambiguous to the point of meaninglessness.
It would not be unwise to expect further clarification. As Fr. Touma points out, this decision effects the life of all the archdioceses of the Patriarchate, not just North America. In this process of clarification, we must be aware of the role that translation, both official and unofficial, plays. We must be aware of its pitfalls and of its capacity for concealing agendas. The act of translation requires trust and familiarity. We must work for broader communication between Arabic and English speakers within the Patriarchate and we must do all that we can to encourage greater familiarity between these two communities, these two nations, lest we allow only a small group of people to act as the sole bond between us.
What can we do to achieve this?