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The Cassock of the Heart:
The 'Foreign Factor' & the American Domestic Church
by Another Anonymous Antiochian Priest

As I jump into a controversy that is bound to leave far more people wounded than healed, I would like to emphasize that my remarks are tempered by love for the people involved. The Church of Antioch is my family, but it is also a historic institution. It existed before I was born and will go on after I am dead. I love the people of the Church, and I accept them for who they are, both good and bad.

Now, to be fair, all of the sundry churches have their particular ethnic identities, and so I know that the Arab Christians are not singularly guilty of ethnocentricity. In fact, I'd say it is inescapable: I am just as much a prisoner of my ethnic sensibilities as anyone else.

In the Antiochian Archdiocese, I found a place that was accepting of 'step-children' like myself, those grafts onto the vine. I realize that this is not 'my' Church, but rather that I am the Church's. I belong to her, and she changes me, instead of the other way around.

By this, I know that much of what goes on in the Church will not make sense to me as an American with American sensibilities, simply because Americans, at least those who are culturally, are not making the decisions. Metropolitan Philip, Patriarch Ignatius and the other Bishops of the Antiochian See know American culture the same way I know Arab culture: while I might enjoy and embrace it, it is never entirely 'mine.' I am always having to 'translate' what I see, or at least explain to myself that what I observe is not evil, but just different..

I guess the easiest way to explain the difference is to demonstrate something that seems to pop up as a topic every few years: clergy beards and cassocks. Whenever this topic has been discussed, it usually boils down to fight over whether clergy look 'American' or not. As an American, I can assure of one thing: I have never, ever looked into the mirror in the morning after dressing and wondered if I looked 'American' enough. For an American, it's not an issue in America .

However, in my travels when I have sought not to look like 'the tourist', I have gotten dressed and wondered if I could pull it off as a 'local'. I'm not as free with my appearance in a strange land as I am in my homeland.

Now, you are probably wondering what this has to do with the latest controversies regarding Self-Rule, Auxiliary Bishops, unity and the like.

Very simple: the people making the decisions have no idea how bad this latest 'decision' looks in America.

Allow me to illustrate.

Just a few years ago, the Archdiocese was in the throws of major changes to become 'autonomous.' We were all puzzled by the necessity of this, but went along with it because, for the most part, people liked the idea of having local bishops and a Synod, thus a bit more 'American influence' on policies.

Since then, we then have been treated to all kinds of 'Byzantine intrigues' and back-door politics. Then, you had all the usual complaints about change, made all the worse by the Metropolitan and the Bishops and the clergy jockeying for 'turf'.  Priests who had spent their lives ingratiating themselves to the Metropolitan suddenly found themselves staring down the staff of a very annoyed diocesan bishop. All their political clout was in New Jersey, not in their dioceses. And, so, they set about causing all kinds of friction between the hierarchs, who obliged all the clergy nonsense because it fit nicely with the low opinions they already had of each other.

If you read the public statements of these 'inner circle' clergy, you notice that they can't bear to even mention their former diocesan bishops' names. It is as if they did not exist. Worse yet, they couldn't even bring themselves to say something kind about them. As public figures, one cannot say that they have not learned to smile and greet those they disdain. One can only now imagine the private animosity they must have to be so ungracious.

Recently the Metropolitan held several fund-raising drives for Patriarchal charities. These are worthy ministries, but Americans are not lost to the idea that 'quid pro quo' is a way of the world. Then there's an off-schedule Holy Synod meeting with one agenda item not long after the checks are cashed. People are putting two-and-two together.

Where else in the See of Antioch are their functioning dioceses? It seems like most of the rest of the See is run by Metropolitans. Now, some of these Metropolitans have fewer parishes than the average deanery here in the US , but they are Metropolitans nonetheless.

It has taken me a while to 'get' Arab culture. Whereas Americans value planning, consistency and, above all, consultation when decisions are made, Arabs see all of these as burdens. Just read the Metropolitan's reply: it's too hard to make decisions in a group, so we're getting rid of the group. You can imagine the cure for headaches!

This get's back to the point I made about looking in the mirror. Metropolitan Philip is concerned about wearing a suit because it makes him 'look American', but in his heart he still acts like the fellows in the black hats with a shaggy beards that he despises. He speaks fondly of Arabic poetry. He's not willing to give up some of the other elements of the Church, including the imperial 'Roum' Êsakkos, miter, jibbie and eagle rugs that were also imposed by the Turks as the Church fulfilled its 'milet' duties (the' kalimivki' came with all these other imperial signets).Clearly, he loves his Arab culture and the majesty of Orthodox worship. He is also a prisoner of his culture, both Arab and Arab Christian. He acts out of these.

So, major changes are suddenly announced with little preparation or even the appearance of forethought, almost ambush style, and Americans are left wondering what kind of insane world we are in.

Ladies and gentlemen, it isn't insane, it's just how Arabs 'do their thing'. It is indeed strange to us, but that's how they are and they are not going to change. Of course, we can better understand the motives, though that isn't going to assuage the embarrassment many of us will feel having to explain to people outside the Church what has been going on lately.

This is another tragedy.Metropolitan Philip has no clue that priests like Frs. Antony Gabriel, George Shalhoub and Joseph Antypas really make him look bad. Their public antics, coupled with their repeatedly bad advice (pushing the autonomy quest, followed by their cries to rescind it), should have causde the Metropolitan to stop taking their calls. Rumor has it that even the bishops could not get through - but their calls were always taken.

The Metropolitans will never understand us, and so they (Metropolitan Philip and the Holy Synod) are not insulting us when they act this way. It is, as one could say, 'culturally acceptable'.

If you think this is bad, just wait until you see how chaotic things will get when Metropolitan Philip passes from this life to his reward! I suggest taking a long vacation for about 24 months.

Sadly, most of the Metropolitans in the 'Old World' think that they have spent enough time watching American TV shows and making occasional visits to know American culture. However, as my Arab friends remind me, residing in Beirut (or Dearborn) does not an Arab make. While we are all saddened and hurt by this latest decision, we must understand the limits our hierarchs have in really understanding us, and vice-versa.

We must always remind ourselves of the common Faith and Love we have for one another.We have to remain anchored in the Spirit.

To paraphrase President Obama, we can't disown Metropolitan Philip for acting the way he does, because he's not doing anything out of the ordinary for him, or for any other Middle Eastern leader. He's doing what he has done for over 40 years, and he has some good accomplishments under his belt. He will leave behind a healthier, stronger Archdiocese, though I think this latest move has undone a lot of the goodwill our non-Arab community had for the Patriarchate.

Let's not also forget that some of his accomplishments are a little less glamorous upon close examination. Mending the Toledo 'schism' gained the Archdiocese a whopping seven parishes.. The Evangelical Orthodox Church acquisition only happened after the Greeks and the OCA turned them down, leaving Antioch as second runner up. The 'self rule' status was only achieved after the Patriarchate flatly refused 'Autonomy' as an option. What 'self-ruled' meant, or means now, is anyone's guess. By all accounts, there isn't even a commonly agreed-upon Constitution.

We are floating in a sea of ambiguities, which have served Metropolitan Philip well until now.

In a sad way, I think this latest move will play into the Metropolitan's worst fears, because such actions as these will leave many more people less willing to give to charities (let's think about how important American money is to the Patriarchate) and more likely to play 'hard ball' the next time a conflict arises.
Furthermore, this draws attention to the fact that Americans historically value the idea of taxation requiring representation. In essence, many Americans are coming to realize that Metropolitan Philip has one vote on the Synod while representing nearly half of the Patriarchate's total parishes. As emigration further diminishes the native Orthodox population in the Middle East, the lack of balance will become all the more increasingly stark.

Do we want to end up with vacant Metropolises dictating Church policy and priorities, while the largest community has only one vote in decision-making?

Let's not forget that the Church has traditionally ranked its dioceses based on secular standards: Constantinople got the number-two spot for being the 'Second Rome'. If America is indeed as large as it is, should it not deserve more votes? Secretly, many Antiochian-Americans dread the idea that the Patriarchate of Antioch is heading down the road of Constantinople...

The membership here in America may very well demand the break-up of the Archdiocese if it means acquiring four or five vote on the Holy Synod. Metropolitan Philip has already pledged never to return to Damascus, and so we know that his only real influence is with money. Do we want that kind of relationship to continue with our Mother Church ?

If we are going to have organic unity with the Patriarchate, it will require more direct participation of our community with the Synod, and that can only happen when we have more votes on the Holy Synod. Otherwise, the relationship will be cynical at best.

To some degree, Metropolitan Philip has prevented an organic unity between the North American Archdiocese and the Patriarchate. Minutes of the Patriarchal Synod are almost never published, let alone translated. Clergy are required to dress differently from their brothers in the rest of the See.Seminarians are never sent to the Balamand that we so routinely support. We are certainly separated by language and culture, but even the most basic functions of the North American Archdiocese have become so hybridized that we have very little in common with our brethren overseas.

What really needs to happen is that the North American community and the rest of the Patriarchate need to get to know each other again. There must be more American participation in the greater Church. Right now, we are isolated. Metropolitan Philip exercises influence because, though he holds only one vote, he controls the flow of money from North America and the flow of information from the Patriarchate to here.

Spiritually speaking, we need to have more immediate contacts with the Mother Church by having our demoted bishops elevated to Metropolitans and given seats on the Holy Synod.

The rearranging of the Archdiocese into several Metropolises (Metropolitan Philip can retain Archbishop status under such an arrangement, as seen in the GOA) cannot be held in comparison to the New York-Toledo split, since they both laid claim to same geographical territory. When Metropolitan Philip calls attention to the split, he fails to mention that both dioceses were recognized by the Patriarchate, and the Patriarchate blessed their separation as well as their reunification!

I think the Metropolitan missed the fact that Americans liked the Local Synod, since it made them feel closer to the decision-making of the local level. The arrangement never would have led to a split of competing jurisdictions like the New York-Toledo days. In fact, Americans would have likely accepted having a single vote on the Holy Synod because the Synod was seen, and I emphasize 'was',' as being rather hands-off. Everyone was rather pleased with the seeming endless patience of the Patriarchate for the Metropolitan's refusal to put the Patriarchate's amended constitution up for a Convention vote.

Now he has succeeded in making himself look dictatorial and greedy, all the while casting the Holy Synod and the other Metropolitans as greedy and phlegmatic. Never mind the fact that he has emboldened 'his' priests to publicly unveil their hostility in a most unchristian way.

Many of us sorrow for the fact that Metropolitan Philip never heeded the scripture, "Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked." Deut. 10: 16.

In his case, he needs to strip off not the outer cassock, but the inner one that constrains him to thinking and acting in an Old World manner. I know that he won't, but I regret the fact that his own success in building up a large American Archdiocese will ultimately lead to his demise as a respected and loved leader.

Perhaps he would consider addressing the issues of why so many clergy are struggling to wear cassocks after a generation that fought hard to avoid them. The answer is simple: just as many immigrants want to look American, 'native' Americans (those born here) want to look, and thusly feel, like they are part of the Church. They know they are outsiders, second-class citizens, mostly because that is how they are treated. They are constantly told that things overseas are too complicated for them to understand. When they speak their minds, their complaints are shut down because they don't 'have the phronema of the Church'.

Just as the generation of Metropolitan Philip wanted to be accepted by Americans, so Americans want to be accepted by the Church of Antioch .

Metropolitan Philip brought in many Americans, but failed to understand them on an instinctual level. He changed his outsides, but his inner self remained untouched. He's an Arab through and through. Goodness knows, I don't think I could ever make such a psychological conceptual jump either. But, I'm not leading an Archdiocese made up of over 250 parishes.

I am not advocating that Metropolitan Philip be forced from office or disgraced.I am not advocating that clergy and laity disobey him in the exercise of his rightful duties or what is for the good of others.However, in the same spirit called forth by Fr. Antony Gabriel (the Spirit of '76), I think it is time to discuss these matters with love and Christian charity.

Let's ask Fr. Antony to ask Metropolitan Philip to bless an open dialog in this matter without fear of repercussions. Let Metropolitan Philip state that he will not depose or transfer clergy he disagrees with... or who disagree with him.

As I recall, Metropolitan Philip faced stiff opposition to the "Allen Affair", though in the end he did not punish anyone who spoke out. The only difference now is that this situation began with the punishment of the bishops for dividing the Archdiocese, a charge not necessarily obvious to the rest of us. I hear that many clergy are afraid that if Metropolitan Philip can get away with kicking a bishop out of his diocese, there's nothing he can't do if he wants it bad enough.

For those making the long trip out West for the Archdiocesan Convention, it will be interesting to see if the 'natives' plan another Tea Party.



Other Reflections:

Fr. Paul Harrilchak
Holy Trinity, Reston VA

Fr. Ted Bobosh

Special to OCA News

Fr. Michael Plekon  

Special to OCA News

Holy Trinity, Boston

Fr. John Scollard

Special to OCANews