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When two worlds collide…
Metropolitan Philip Saliba and the problem of leadership in a multiethnic jurisdiction

by "Marlin Perkins"

As we see tensions publicly surface in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, I have been taking copious notes of what has been transpiring of late and asking a few questions of my own observations. Why are so many people outraged by Metropolitan Philip Saliba’s (not to mention the Holy Synod of Antioch’s) recent actions?

In my estimation, the outrage comes not only from years of pent-up fear and hostility, but a profound difference in perception between native Arabs and native Westerners when it comes to leadership.

I have spent more time that I really would like to have scrutinizing and analysing my dear friends in the Antiochian Archdiocese. They are good folks and I have a deep respect for them, both Arab and convert. Now, if you want to talk about strange bed-fellows, Americans and Middle Easterners are on polar opposites of just about everything imaginable when it comes to being human aside from anatomy. Somehow, however, they have succeeded in pulling off a rather successful go at growing a prosperous church in the Americas.

This makes it all the more difficult for leaders to lead when so little is shared, culturally speaking. There are important differences between the two that Metropolitan Saliba has had to balance, and may very well have lost his footing of late.

Arabs are known to prefer ‘strong’ leaders. When so much is riding on the role of the leader, Arabs prefer a leader who is powerful and authoritative. They want a leader who is able to impose his will without limitation, so that his decisions cannot be overturned or avoided. It gives them a sense of calm and permanency amidst turmoil. The person of the leader provides safety and security. Consequently, a leader that obeys nothing and no one, whose will cannot be bounded, is the best leader. In essence, the one who is ‘disobedient’ is the one who must be obeyed.

The leader does not necessarily have to be ‘correct’ all the time in terms of facts, but he is ‘always right’ in terms of establishing right and wrong. His decisions are absolute in this regard, and obedience is demanded and expected precisely because the opposite is, quite literally, contrary to nature. There is no concept of a ‘loyal opposition’ or ‘constructive criticism,’ just as one would not rationally ‘question’ the existence of gravity.

Leadership is also entirely relational, meaning that one’s relationship with the leader is all that really matters. If the leader loves you, then your failings and foibles are forgiven. The further from the leader you are relationally-speaking, the less likely you are to receive a break from the leader’s standards.

This type of leadership culture informs how Arab Christians see God and even their hierarchs. God is an absolute monarch from this perspective. His decisions are unquestioned, and rebellion against Him jeopardizes the world. Such thinking, when applied to the episcopate, yields mixed results. After all, the Canons of the Church and elementary Tradition provide for ‘conciliarity.’

This conciliarity was ‘incarnated’ in the Local Synod, when the Auxiliary Bishops were elevated and enthroned to dioceses. When Metropolitan Saliba encountered resistance to some of his decisions (especially regarding the powers of the diocese bishops), he abandoned the model of conciliarity and went straight for the ‘Sheik model’ of le grand roi. The Holy Synod, not being alienated by such behavior, were all too willing to enable him.

Western, and in particular American, leadership is very different. From the Magna Charta of England to the Electors of Germany, leaders have been seen more as consensus builders than a lone authority figures. The power of the leader comes with his ability to ‘manage’ an army or court. Whereas an Arab leader absolutely differentiates himself from those he leads, the Western leader is dependent upon the cooperation of subordinates.

In accordance with our post-Enlightenment thinking, even the lowest followers of the leader have a ‘degree’ of the leader’s glory, and thus deserve a proportional degree of respect. When the leader becomes overbearing and disrespects those under him, he becomes disreputable and is seen as incompetent. Ultimately, the Western leader is measured by performance and outcome of his actions, yet not at the expense of how those goals are attained. In the Arab mentality, attainment of goals is all that matters.

Western leaders are considered less honorable the more personal ‘favoritism’ they show certain subordinates. This leadership model requires the leader deal with all people according to a single standard, even being severe with those closest to him for the sake of maintaining good order. This is quite the opposite of the Arab model. Therefore, the normal give-and-take of favors to ‘favorite sons’ is quite disturbing to Americans, while Arabs feel rather comforted by such exchanges.

As an aside, Saliba more than likely believes he has shown extreme favoritism to the converts of the Archdiocese, particularly those clergy that he did not require to fulfill even the most rudimentary steps of spiritual formation. With that, he assumes that they ought to feel indebted to him for his generosity. When the clergy of the Antiochian Evangelical Orthodox Mission spoke out against Saliba’s decision to allow a widowed priest to marry a divorcée in his parish, Saliba invoked the ‘you owe me’ clause of his internal contract with them.

What was lost on him is that the average convert I have encountered have little if any sense that they owe anyone but God alone for the privilege of being received into the Church. Perhaps converts are a bit too depersonalized when it comes to religion, which makes them rather difficult to pastor and overly intellectual when it comes to faith matters. But it is obvious Saliba did not understand this difference then and he certainly does not understand it now. His American ‘flock’ follow him strictly out of a sense of obedience to the church rather than his personal virtue as the leader of the community.

Another aspect of American leadership is that, rather than grand displays of wealth and power, Americans prefer a leader who works harder than any of his underlings. He must have talents and abilities that exceed those of his subordinates. Rather than displaying his glory through lavish displays of ‘glory,’ the Western leader must display his toughness and strength by displaying his ability to do more than any one else… and better. This way, he humiliates subordinate who can’t ‘keep up with the boss,’ whereas an Arab leader would be discredited for lowering himself by publicly doing the same work as an inferior, even if he could do it better. In this case, credibility is shown by not having to do work at all.

There are other differences. In the Arab mind (and by this, we are speaking of the Moslem-influenced culture that now permeates the Middle East), deception is a legitimate option in the practice of authority. The greatest example of this was the lie told by Muawiya’s emissary to the emissary of Ali that ultimately led in the defeat of the Shiite. The fact that Sunni Moslems have no problem with winning through lying and false treaties is indicative not only of the ambiguous nature of Moslem morality, but also the Arab relationship with the truth in general.

This is because the ‘enemy’ is not worthy of moral treatment, and must be defeated at all cost even if the cost is the truth.

While all societies value truth, the Moslem influence on Arab culture leaves some Arab Christians (those influenced by Islam more than the Gospel) with the idea that the truth and the lie can be interchangeable in service to the goal. Coupled with ‘Byzantine’ politics (the practice of secretiveness and convoluted relationships), and you have a deadly combination.

Pure Byzantine intrigue is nothing other than the leader pitting his subordinates against each other so that they become dependent upon the leader to mediate their conflicts. Such conflict always requires an ‘enemy,’ and Saliba has found many, from real and imaginary ‘Orthodox Fundamentalists’ to ‘foreign powers’ to his fellow bishops on his own synod. A close look at Saliba’s public discourses leaves one with a treasure-trove of adversaries or people ‘getting things wrong.’ What he is trying to do is set himself up as the ‘Defender of the Faith’ and therefore the évêque des évêques.

The problem with this strategy is it involves imputing motives and characteristics to others that are simply not true, such as Saliba’s recent statement, “In my judgment, the models of other Orthodox jurisdictions simply do not work, and the examples are numerous.” Again, it leaves the incautious reader thinking the rest of the Orthodox world is simply incompetent and only Saliba knows the way out, when in fact his own model had gotten him into the trouble he now finds himself, and everyone else in the Antiochian Archdiocese, in.

Saliba has miscalculated this technique rather severely, since many Antiochian clergy have much more regular contact with non-Antiochian clergy than they do with their fellow Antiochian Orthodox. What Saliba appears not to realize is that many Antiochian clergy gush with apologies and excuses for him to their non-Antiochian clergy and friends, not unlike what one does after a family member gets a bit too boisterous in front of company. Having been on the receiving end of many such apologies, I can attest that some clergy and other members of the Archdiocese may be tired of having to repair damaged relationships caused by Saliba’s adversarial stance towards the other jurisdictions.

At this point, I must emphasize that Arab Orthodox Christians are known in the Middle East for their peacefulness, truthfulness and honesty above their Moslem neighbors. There are many, many more Arab Christians who abhor lying, deception and dishonesty than those who participate in it. I certainly would not darken the door of an Antiochian church if I thought otherwise. What I am emphasizing here is the Islam has certainly influenced some members of the community and, in certain cases, influential members of the community who have forgotten Christ’s commandments.

Metropolitan Saliba has understood certain aspects of Western leadership, and continued many of the Western-style activities of the Archdiocese begun by Metropolitan Antony Bashir. Conventions, boards, committees and constitutions all play a part in tipping the hat to Western culture. Yet, like some many concepts in the East borrowed from the West, they only represent a thin veneer of ‘genteel’ Western behavior masking a truly top-down Eastern organization.

The institutions and organelles of the Archdiocese, from the Board of Trustees to the National Conventions are meant solely to manifest the will of the Supreme Leader. Like the votes under Communist and Third World dictatorships, unanimity with the leader is expected. Criticism and dissent are squashed as threats to the whole. There is a serious problem when popular approval rates drop below 125 per cent!

This is why Metropolitan Saliba is virtually inseparable from the Archdiocese in terms of identity. It is unlikely that he, or most people from the ‘Old World’ who have this same sense of the personal side of leadership, can make such a differentiation between the two. To criticize one is to criticize both, which brings ‘shame’ to the entire community, which totally identifies with the leader. Therefore, when Saliba says ‘the Archdiocese,’ he’s really saying ‘me.’

Metropolitan Saliba would never agree to the label ‘dictator,’ but primarily because he knows it does not sound nice. Yet, he would not reject the standard abilities associated with a dictator. Rather, he has sought to reestablish himself as the sole leader precisely because he sees the questioning and criticism of his policies as a destabilizing force threatening the Archdiocese and those within it.

This is why he has been so unable to handle even mild criticism. He has lashed out at even clergy who have followed him with complete loyalty when they voiced public criticism, from Fr. John Namie to Fr. Elias Bitar. To criticize him is to directly assault his authority and thus the entire Archdiocese.

That’s not to say that the reverse is true: Metropolitan Saliba has been rich with criticism and insults of other jurisdictions. At the 2008 Clergy Symposium held at the Antiochian Village, Saliba reportedly mocked the Serbian Archbishop by pointing out that the manner of traditional dress of Orthodox clergy was ‘Turkish,’ then snidely excused his dishonored (though not at all dishonorable!) guest. For those who are unclear as to offense of these remarks, one may only call a Jew a Nazi to find a similar correlation between Serbs and Turks.

As recently as a few weeks ago, Saliba took a swipe at the Greek Archdiocese and the OCA in the quote I previously mentioned regarding ‘other jurisdictions.’ He might as well put a sign on the front lawn of his Englewood mansion reading: “You dress funny and can’t even properly run your churches. Let’s unite!”

He sees no hypocrisy in calling for ‘Orthodox Unity’ when he openly ridicules and despises other bishops. That’s because he not interested in any other kind of unity than what he attained in the 1970’s when the Archdiocese of New York swallowed the Toledo diocese. If all the other Archbishops resigned, Saliba would be more than happy to oblige them by taking over their dioceses. Then, of course, they would be signing up for more of the same leadership he has already shown.

In the eyes of Arab Christians, Metropolitan Saliba’s latest back-door subversion of his ‘brothers in Christ’ is a magnificence political move. However, to the American eye, it appears to be the failure of his leadership and a revelation of the moral bankruptcy of the Patriarchate of Antioch. While this all sounds pointed and terse, there is no getting around the significant difference perceived by one side and the other.

Saliba has had to play both sides. He stated that:

I will guard this unity with my life and I will leave to our future generations a strong and unified Antiochian family in North America. If we do not learn from the mistakes of history, we will be condemned to repeat the same mistakes. In my judgment, the models of other Orthodox jurisdictions simply do not work, and the examples are numerous. Most importantly, I do not see the action of the Holy Synod of Antioch as making that much practical change in the way we operate. Most of the auxiliary bishops will remain where they are. The auxiliary bishops will administer the dioceses on behalf of the Metropolitan. It is now clear that in the few instances in which the Metropolitan disagrees with the action of a bishop, that the Metropolitan has the authority to reverse that decision. While we have vacancies in some of the dioceses, it is important that the Metropolitan have the flexibility of moving a bishop to a place where the best interests of the Archdiocese can be served.

Here, Saliba plays the ‘strong leader’ role. He is making sure people understand he is in charge. However, the paragraph began:

The first question deals with whether or not I am supportive of the decision of the Holy Synod of Antioch which was taken on February 24, 2009. I am supportive of this decision, for a simple reason. I am convinced that the institutional structure of our Archdiocese here requires it at this time. One of the greatest assets that we have been blessed with in this Archdiocese is our strong unity. We cannot take any chance that disunity would occur in the Antiochian Archdiocese. I believe that this decision supports maximum unity and guards against any fracture in the future. I approved the decision of the Holy Synod based on my background and personal experience.

Here he is trying to play the ‘obedient to the Holy Synod’ card to assuage Americans who are reeling from his naked aggression. Of course he has dodged the entire question which no one has asked, namely, who asked for this ‘special synod’ meeting to begin with? ‘Supportive’ or ‘generative?’

In the Byzantine world, such questions are hardly satisfactorily answered. In the Arab world, such questions are moot. Just look at who benefits and the rest is clear.

Another unanswered question is why Saliba would even want to sit on a Synod where none of the other members have any real voice, participating in nothing more than a manifest hoax. After all, if all are auxiliaries to him and they end up voting in majority against his wishes, why should he not simply over-rule them? The local Synod then becomes a ‘fig leaf’ of a kind, strategically designed to obscure the obvious so as not to offend the more modest sensibilities.

The Board of Trustees has also functioned in a similar role, appearing to give the laity a voice when, in fact, the members are screened and regularly tested. Many are ‘true believers,’ and so they have come to see their wills as being in harmony with Saliba’s. The trustees are trustees of Saliba rather than ‘the people.’ If you understand it that way, the title and the function make perfect sense.

At the core of the controversy is the total lack of trust Saliba has in his brother bishops or, in fact, the people of the Archdiocese. They cannot be trusted with either diocesan bishops or even elected representatives of their own choosing apportioned in a representational manner. To Saliba and those like-minded, such a concept is as ludicrous as it is dangerous: he can’t trust them because he fears they have the same level of commitment to the ‘truth’ and ‘above-board action’ as he does.

Saliba certainly has succeeded in using his mastery of these two modes of leadership to keep Americans and Arabs in the same boat for many years. He has done far better than most other bishops. It would seem, however, that the ship is too big for one man to turn on his own.

Rather than inspiring the diocesan bishops to follow his lead, he took an adversarial role and bristled at the ‘threats’ they were to his one-man philosophy. By many accounts, Saliba rarely spoke to the other bishops except when forced to do so by circumstances, and so he left them to form their own opinions, which ended up being very different than his. He then inserted himself into situations within the dioceses to back his ‘friends,’ which further alienated the bishops to the point that open hostilities were witnessed between Saliba and several of the other bishops in public at the Montreal Convention in 2007.

In a leadership style that favors relationships over regulations, many clergy who were not ordained by Saliba and have more than likely had almost no contact with him are intimidated by his power in light of his contradictory styles. He elicits from Americans their opinions by stating he understands Americans (who have no shortage of opinions), but then shuts them down when he does not like what he hears. This has left more than a few men jaded and cynical about Saliba.

Another disjunction in the Archdiocese is the ever-increasing displeasure many Americans have to the ostentatious displays of wealth that are the Archdiocesan Conventions. The venues are always the finest hotels, offering grand banquets for the people and grand suites for Saliba and his entourage who, when they choose to, turn around and wear the monastic garb while speaking of the Savior’s Passion. While such grandiosity is important in the Arab mind, to most Americans it is in bad taste when the Church preaches a message of humility.

As an example, many Arab homes feature a ‘salon,’ appointed with rococo and gilded furniture, that no one actually uses. Such displays make no sense to Americans, but they are important social rituals to Arabs. And, since casinos are also known for such over-the-top displays, it is no wonder that many Arab members of the Archdiocese were not at all scandalized that Bishop Demetri Khoury was in a casino to begin with.

In the end, it will be paranoia and distrust that will bring down the long regime of Metropolitan Philip Saliba, fed by the inability to reconcile two modes of leadership. In the immediate future, he will more than likely shuffle a few of the bishops and 'disloyal' clergy to demonstrate his powers and live up to his Arab model of leadership, but this will more than likely cause further resentment and alienation amongst the Americans and widen the divide. If Saliba does not find a way to appease his Americans, they will likely make the upcoming convention a football riot and force the Patriarchate to step in, which may have been their plan all along. Remember, the bishops in Damascus are far better at Byzantine politics than anyone else. I don't think that either Metropolitan Swaiko or Saliba quite understand the internet, which is a serious mistake. It brought down the Chief Shepherd of the Orthodox Church in America, and has the ability to utterly humiliate Saliba just by connecting his detractors into a single 'cyber-stormcloud.'

As for a post-Saliba future, the prospects are grim. Saliba seems to have taken the attitude of King Louis XV of France, ‘après moi, le déluge.’ He has made no clear plans for his own departure from office in whatever form, and has even dangled the prospect of his imminent death as a means by which to elicit further cooperation in his last days. I do not imagine this strategy working much longer as he continues to baffle doctors by continuing to live with only a small fraction of living heart tissue. The ‘Fred Sanford’ theatrical distractions are beginning to wear thin with those I have spoken to who are preparing to fight Saliba to his bitter end.

More than likely, the Patriarchate of Antioch and the East, which has grown accustomed to the infinite generosity of Saliba, will seek to find another rain-maker in his image once he passes, retires or is removed. However, so many people have given for the purpose of access and influence, so much so that the new Metropolitan will more than likely find himself in a very uncomfortable position of being reminded of who-owes-who for years of ‘access payments.’

The next Metropolitan will have to once again balance the Arab need (both domestically and with the Patriarchate) for a strong centralizing leader while an ever-increasing number of Americans will demand more say in what goes on within the Archdiocese or its inheritors, which will in turn make the next Metropolitan look weak and ineffectual. However, a forceful show by Saliba’s replacement will more than likely split the Archdiocese much as the Archbishop Spyridon fiasco demolished the GOA some years back.

The main difference between the two is that the Greeks were and remain fairly homogeneous, whereas the Antiochian Archdiocese, in part due to these latest moves by Saliba, partly in an attempt to assuage the worries of his Old Guard Arab clergy, is beginning to rupture along ethnic lines that simply do not exist within the Greek Archdiocese. The bright side is that many Arab and American clergy see the positive in one another’s cultures and are willing to set aside differences for the sake of real unity based on mutual respect and love rather than wheeling-and-dealing.

We may be called to consider whether or not a parting of company with the Patriarchate is in order after this incident, as we can see that the Synod is incapable of differentiating between acceptable behavior in the West and in the East. Given that so many of the richest and thus most influential members of the Archdiocese are immigrants, the Patriarchate’s primary advisors (not to mention Saliba’s favorite clergy) represent a shrinking percentage of the overall Archdiocese. To overcome years of false impressions and bad advice, there will have to be an attention-getting moment, perhaps at the next Convention, staged by the people who are displeased with Saliba’s style. There may be a need to call for new leadership.

Tomorrow’s leaders are here today. All it requires forthem to come forward is for the hierarchs, clergy and laity to make the decision to think about the future of the Church in North America.

Editor Note: "Marlin Perkins" is the pseudonym of one who describes himself as "a UK-educated scholar who has spent much of his life in the US and abroad studying the Orthodox Church and other religions." This essay was first published on the St. Andrew's Discussion Board and may be found here.)



Other Reflections:

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Fr. Michael Plekon  

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