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From the Canons and History to the Innovative Anomaly of Antioch, 2009

When the recent decision of the synod of Antioch regarding diocesan bishops first became public knowledge, my initial reaction was one of surprise and incredulity. Surely, I thought, this could not really be true. Did I understand the decision correctly? Were there to be no diocesan bishops—only metropolitans and auxiliary bishops?

It was not clear to me why such a decision was made. Soon enough, I was given two explanations. I was told that it was a personal favor to Metropolitan PHILIP and that it had to do with friends of Metropolitan PHILIP not caring for decisions made by at least two diocesan bishops. After this, I had a priest tell me that he and others were upset but since there was nothing “uncanonical” about the act, on what basis could one object?

Although many have no doubt continued discussing the various angles to this recent decision, further thought and prayer led me to revisit the canonicity of this act. Is it really in keeping with the canons? More broadly, is it really “standard” or “normative” behavior for Orthodox patriarchates?

For me, those became important questions. “Why” it happened is not central to my thinking at the moment. So, what is the “canonical” status of this decision to eradicate all diocesan bishops and demote them to the level of “auxiliary bishops”?

As most contemporary Orthodox in America know by now, “canon” refers to a rule or measurement, and is a way of speaking of something that is a normative guide for the Church. From the point of view of the canons themselves, there is nothing that explicitly and technically prohibits a patriarchate from making such a move. In this sense, there is nothing “uncanonical” about the decision. This should be admitted upfront.

For some things, we do have specific canons. For example, there is a canon against a clergyman selling the Eucharist. Nor can milk and honey be offered on the altar. At times, the Church has had to spell out specifically what not to do. There is no canon that specifically states a patriarch may not nullify all dioceses. In this sense, one cannot state that Antioch’s behavior is “uncanonical” in the sense that it breaks a specific canon.

This does not, however, provide a canonical basis for Antioch’s recent decision. To state that an act is not specifically proscribed is only to state that the act is “noncanonical,” or one for which there is no specific canon. Further, we should remember that our canons are largely written after the fact, when something has happened that needed to be addressed. The canon against placing milk and honey on the altar exists because it had happened.

In the case of this recent decision, there is no historical precedent in the entire history of the Orthodox Church! It has been suggested that individual cases of bishops being demoted in ROCOR provide such precedence but they do not. They are simply individual cases.

Further, I am very hesitant to declare that ROCOR’s ecclesiastical history should be binding upon the Church at large, but again, even ROCOR has not experienced what Antioch has done.

To put it simply, there is no example from Church history of a patriarch dissolving all dioceses and demoting all diocesan bishops to the level of “auxiliary bishops.” If ever there was an ecclesiastical innovation, this most certainly is one! There are cases in Church history when autocephaly came and went, and one might think of how the Bulgars could have a patriarch for a time but then an archbishop in Ohrid later, but such acts are not what Antioch has done.

So, if the act in question is not “uncanonical,” but “noncanonical,” do any of the canons provide any guidance at all on this matter?

At least three, in fact, do, and it is to them that I wish to turn. Were I to include canons that speak to when bishops are to be deposed or removed from office, there would be many canons to enumerate, but they do not apply precisely because they are speaking about individual cases, when a bishop does something unbecoming of the apostolic authority granted to him. I, at least, am unaware of sustained charges against all the diocesan bishops of the Antiochian patriarchate, and were there such things anyhow, proper canonical procedure would be required for such depositions.

Therefore, I wish to mention canon eight of Nicea, canon twenty-nine of Chalcedon, and canon thirty-seven of Trullo. These canons point in a general direction, one that ought to provide guidance to us in these times and should have provided guidance to the synod of Antioch when discussing this question.

Canon eight of Nicea dictated that if bishops of the Novatian schism, labeled “Cathari,” entered back into the Church, they were to retain their rank of bishop when possible. When there was already an Orthodox bishop present, they were then given the option of being amongst the “chorepiscopi” or presbyterate. The chorepiscopi had varying functions, depending on geographical locale and the various canons guiding them, but the general point can be made that when a Novatian bishop became Orthodox, he could be demoted if there was already an Orthodox bishop in place.

Canon twenty-nine of Chalcedon is a ruling by papal representatives and Patriarch Anatolios of Constantinople regarding some bishops that had been demoted to the rank of presbyter. The ruling stated that if the bishops had committed an offense worthy of deposition, then they were to be deposed and not serve as priests but if no such thing had occurred, they should be retained as bishops. They were either full bishops, with episcopal rights, or deposed clergy. No intermediate state was contemplated.

Canon thirty-seven of Trullo stated that if bishops were ordained for lands outside the empire and they were unable to take possession of their sees because of this, they were still to retain the full authority of their office. Otherwise, the “necessity” of the situation would circumscribe the episcopal office itself. This canon built upon canon eighteen of Antioch. Canon eighteen of Antioch stated that if a duly elected bishop could not serve in his see due to an uprising of people or some similar disturbance, he was to enjoy his rank and ministry within the bounds of the synod to which he was joined.

These three canons uphold the rights of a bishop to serve as a bishop. Canon eight of Nicea is entirely inapplicable since the diocesan bishops of the Antiochian patriarchate were already the Orthodox bishops for their dioceses. They were not part of the Novatianist schism entering the Orthodox Church. In the case of Chalcedon twenty-nine, both Rome and Constantinople argued against demoting bishops unless there were grounds for them to be deposed outright. Canon thirty-seven of Trullo argued that episcopal prerogatives remained in force even when the bishop could not take his see. Nothing in these latter two canons points in the direction of demotion and nothing in them indicates support for removing the episcopal rights of a bishop for any reason other than deposition. The only example we have of such a possibility involved individual cases of Novatian bishops entering the Orthodox Church in cities where there were already Orthodox bishops. The recent decision of synod of Antioch may not have broken these canons in the literal sense, and thus is not “uncanonical,” but the spirit of the canons has been transgressed and so the ruling is “noncanonical.”

Now, one might object that patriarchs and primates may decide to break the spirit of any number of canons. After all, bishops are transferred, a canonically debatable practice in itself (see Sardica 1, Antioch 21, and Apostolic canon 14). Dioceses may even be restructured and created. This objection confuses issues, however, as neither the act of delineating diocesan boundaries nor the act of transferring bishops is the same as declaring episcopal rights and dignities null and void without a reason of deposition.

A more fundamental problem with this objection is that it fails to realize that canons are set down in order to guide, not be nominal recommendations. At least one Antiochian priest has argued that questioning the recent decision demonstrates disobedience but we are not called to blind obedience of contemporary hierarchs. We are called to follow the faith of our fathers and questioning this decision is part of that process. At least two canons of our fathers in the faith point in a direction opposite of Antioch’s recent decision and the third offers guidance for receiving bishops from a specific schism that no longer exists. Nothing from the annals of the history of the Church suggests our fathers in the faith engaged in such a definitive dissolution of the diocesan bishops for an entire patriarchate.

Therefore, it seems to this poor priest that much explaining has yet to be done. On what basis do we now produce innovative noncanonical rulings, especially when the most relevant canons guide us in the opposite direction? Metropolitan PHILIP has cited “unity,” but I was unaware of any schism within the archdiocese that was of such great import that the synod of Antioch had to do something never done before in the history of the Church.

I remain astounded and several questions still run through my mind. Are we not to strive to be as canonical as possible? Are we not to maintain as much continuity as possible with the Church that has gone before us? On what grounds should we support a decision that finds no express support from the canons and in fact is contrary to the general guidance or spirit of the more relevant ones?

Many of us decry the noncanonical jurisdictionalism of Orthodoxy in America as it is. Shall we now kow-tow unquestionably and add to the noncanonical chaos?

- A priest who has served in Antiochian parishes at times



Other Reflections:

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Fr. Michael Plekon  

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Fr. John Scollard

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