Translation and Meaning:
A brief overview of the Patriarchate of Antioch’s decisions regarding the North American Archdiocese
By Fr. George Aquaro*
Like many of you who are not fluent in Arabic, I have struggled over the past few years to understand the various rulings and directives of the patriarchate of Antioch regarding the Archdiocese of North America. Accordingly, you may have felt as I did that there was always more to the situation than was immediately apparent.
Having attended a seminary here in the USA and taken courses in church history, canon law and ecclesiology, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the basics of what traditional church life entails. Well, as I tell my people in the parish, there’s always room to learn, and so I have never stopped being a student of the Church. Recently, I’ve learned a few things I would like to share with those of you non-Arabic speakers who have questions about the various decisions of the Holy Synod of Antioch. I think the facts presented here will help many people understand the essence of the matter regarding the Holy Synod’s decisions over the past eight years.
Before I launch into this topic, I would like to inform the reader that the purpose of this presentation is not to admonish or lay blame for ‘mistranslations,’ but rather to acknowledge the complexity of translating ecclesiastical information from one language to the next. We, as Orthodox Christians, come from many lands with various languages, but we share a common faith that unites us. Those of us who are members of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America also come from many backgrounds, and we have the great challenge of overcoming linguistic hurdles that impede our intimacy with one another. Through the action of the Holy Spirit, the Church has overcome this challenge before, and undoubtedly it will again. My sincere hope is that those who have been involved in translation will neither be offended nor give up hope. Ultimately, our Lord, who overcame death and the devil, will triumph over language issues as well.
For the purposes of this presentation, I am relying on various sources: the rulings of the Holy Synod, the Patriarchal By-laws, Metropolitan Basil Mansour’s report to the Holy Synod, The Pedalion (also known as The Rudder), and An Overview of Orthodox Canon Law by Metropolitan Panteleimon (Rodopoulos). I would like to emphasize that I am not a canonist and have received no formal training in canon law, but I have tried to use the resources at my disposal to create a basic model for understanding our circumstances. Most of all, I would like to thank those who have helped me understand the subtleties of the ecclesiastical Arabic.
First, I would like to define what an Archdiocese ‘is’ in terms of the canons and their practical application within the Church of Antioch. Now, that sounds strange, since we read the word ‘archdiocese’ and most of us will assume it is a large territory with component dioceses, each of which is led by a bishop who reports to Synod, over which his Archbishop presides. That’s the model for an ‘Archdiocese’ as we see followed by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America and one that we assume is model followed by the Church of Antioch.
The truth is, the word ‘archdiocese’ was an attempt back at the establishment of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian jurisdiction here in the US and Canada to translate the Arabic word ‘abrashiyya,’ which in turn is a rendering of the Greek word ‘eparchy.’ (i)
In Orthodox Christian canon law, an eparchy is the basic ecclesiastical unit of a bishop, just as a ‘diocese’ is the smallest episcopal unit of the Western churches (e.g. Roman Catholic, Protestant Episcopal, Anglican, etc.). According to the canons of the Orthodox Church, you can’t make any further subdivisions to an eparchy for a bishop to preside over. It constitutes a single district for a bishop to rule.
In America, we commonly think of this primary unit as a ‘diocese,’ reflecting Western canon law term, rather than ‘eparchy’ as specified in Orthodox canon law. For the purposes of clarity, it would be convenient for us to assume that ‘eparchy’ and ‘diocese’ are different words for the same institution. Other Orthodox churches use the same word ‘diocese’ to translate ‘eparchy’: the Russians (???????), the Romanians (eparhie) and the Serbs (??????ja) all use ‘diocese’ as the translation of choice for ‘eparchy.’
The Church of Antioch consists of over 20 eparchies (i.e. ‘dioceses’ as we understand them) which, for the purposes of consistency, are referred to as ‘Archdioceses’ by English-speaking Antiochians and official translations of the Patriarchate going back 80 years. What is important to remember is that an eparchy, which has been translated as ‘Archdiocese,’ is a ‘diocese’(ii) in the sense we use the term: to denote a single episcopal province. They are all the same, with no further ‘sub-dioceses’ within each eparchy/’diocese.’
So, the Antiochian Patriarchate has always understood that its North American Archdiocese could not be further broken down into ‘dioceses’ as we understand them, and I believe the Holy Synod’s understanding of the discussion here was never that the Archdiocese would be delineated by further ‘diocesan’ structures as we may think based on our understandings of ‘archdiocese’ and ‘diocese’ in Western terminology.
So what, if any, divisions did the Holy Synod intend? This leads us to the second point, which is how the Patriarchate most likely sees the structures we now call ‘dioceses.’ Since the Archdiocese of North America is an eparchy in the canonical sense, then the only further division of an eparchy would be the creation of eparchial ‘regions’ (referred to in Metropolitan Basil Mansour’s report as ‘usqufiyyat’ or what we would call in English ‘bishoprics’) which historically were supervised by a ‘regional bishop’ called a ‘chorepiscopos’ or ‘country bishop.’ The chorepiscopos supervised a remote region (in Arabic, usqufiyeh) for the eparchial hierarch. For the most part this term and position is not used in the Orthodox Church of today, but can be found in the Eastern Christian Churches aligned with Rome – e.g. the Maronites.
The word usqufiyeh (the singular version of usqufiyyat), is a derivative of the Arabic word usquf or ‘bishop’ (asaqifa is the plural). An usqufiyeh is a ‘bishopric’ or ‘area of a bishop,’ which I will refer to throughout the rest of this presentation as ‘region’ because it is less clumsy but preserves the original meaning.(iii) The eparchial bishop is not an usquf but a mutran or ‘diocesan bishop’ which is often used interchangeable with the Arabic mitropulit. We will discuss more about this later.
These regions/usqufiyyat are specific areas within the eparchy and have no independent existence. An example in American political life would be counties within a state. While a county has certain local regulations and governance, it is still part of and dependent on the state.
This type of bishop that would administer an usqufiyeh was described by the Holy Synod as ‘bishops who assist’ in this ruling of June 17, 2009:
"The Holy Synod of the See of Antioch, after long discussion and deep deliberation of the Synodal decision of February 24, 2009, and with the recommendations of His Beatitude, the Patriarch, it affirms that the nature of the Episcopate is one and the same to all those who are consecrated as bishops.
The Holy Synod of Antioch affirms and reminds that all bishops (asaqifa) of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America are bishops who assist (asaqifa musa`idun) the Metropolitan,
And that, furthermore, any diocese of the one united Archdiocese, under any circumstances, cannot be considered an independent Archdiocese. The Holy Synod of Antioch alone has the prerogative to establish Archdioceses in the See of Antioch."
Notice here that the Holy Synod is clearly stating (though I have to admit that I did not pick up the full implication of this until much later) that the ‘eparchy’ of North American cannot be further subdivided because of its canonical structure as a single unit, and to make actual episcopal subdivisions would require new eparchies for each of what we call ‘dioceses’ here in the US and Canada. The Holy Synod had no such intention.
Now, before I get too far ahead, I would like to address the Holy Synod’s clarification of ‘bishops who assist’ (in Arabic, asaqifa musa`idun) versus ‘assistant bishops’ (in Arabic, asaqifa mu`awinun). The former we understand to be bishops with accountability for a region/usqufiyeh, but not full pastoral prerogatives. The Arabic rendering for this usquf musa`id regional bishop’s title is usquf, which simply means ‘bishop.’ An Assistant Bishop/asaqifa mu`awinun is also called an usquf, which has led to some of the confusion in the discussions over the roles of the American bishops. The language is not precise in terms of differentiating the two roles by separate titles.
Certain prerogatives remain with the eparchial bishop (i.e. the mutran(iv) in Arabic), but the canons are clear (as is the declaration of the Holy Synod) that a chorepiscopos or regional bishop/usquf assists in his region. This is important: the Holy Synod and the canons recognize that the ‘regional bishop’ (understood as chorepiscopos and usquf representing the same concept) is responsible for his area, and that the usquf/regional bishop and the mutran/eparchial bishop must work together for the good of the flock in the region. It is not merely an ‘errand boy’ position, which is why the Holy Synod affirmed the equality of the hierarchy. The usquf/regional bishop bears the name of his region and is to be treated as the responsible supervisor in that area.
An ‘assistant bishop’ is also not an ‘errand boy,’ but he is a bishop who has no delegated pastoral duties and is called usquf mu`awin (assistant bishop) in Arabic. This is why he is given the title of a non-functioning diocese, so that he has no responsibilities other than to help the eparchial bishop/mutran. The Patriarchate has several such bishops who assist with central administration.
When the Holy Synod declared on August 20th that all the bishops were ‘auxiliaries’ (musa`idun) of the Antiochian Archdiocese, it was affirming that the Archdiocese is still an eparchy and that there was only one eparchial or ‘diocesan’ bishop (i.e. the mutran/metropolitan). However, this proclamation did not really change the status of the asaqifa/bishops here in America, since the Holy Synod had previous declared them to be ‘auxiliaries’ (asaqifa musa`idun), but with special pastoral duties within the Archdiocese (since they received the titles of their usqufiyyat, which was not changed by the Holy Synod’s declaration) rather than ‘general auxiliaries’ (i.e. asaqifa mu`awinun) without specific regions to administer.
When the Holy Synod made its declaration regarding the North American Archdiocese’s ‘Self-Ruled’ status (a topic I am not equipped to deal with in this presentation), it affirmed the following on October 9, 2003:
"Upon adoption of this resolution, the present Auxiliary Bishops of the Archdiocese shall become Diocesan Bishops and bear their given titles. The Diocesan Bishops will constitute under the Metropolitan the Local Synod of the Archdiocese which will be its governing authority. The Local Synod shall determine the number of dioceses and their boundaries."
The Arabic text, from which this translation originates, simply says that the asaqifa (bishops) shall receive their usqufiyyat (regions). This is an important point, because for them to become ‘diocesan bishops’ in the strict sense of ‘diocese’ (as the equivalent of an eparchy) then the Holy Synod would have had to elevate them to metropolitans, since all matarina (plural of mutran) in the Patriarchate are metropolitans! That is because an usquf cannot head an eparchy, but only a metropolitan/mutran can.
This declaration merely assigns them to their usqufiyyat (i.e. regions) and assigns them to take their canonical titles from those usqufiyyat/regions. Again, an usqufiyeh is not a ‘diocese,’ but a region or bishopric. What is expected of these regional bishops is addressed by Metropolitan Basil’s report.
Because of word ‘diocese’ was used to represent usqufiyeh/region, the English translation implies a sacramental change in the nature of the episcopacy of the bishops. However, the actual Arabic text is clear that the bishops are being assigned usqufiyyat/regions of the eparchy (the word ‘Archdiocese’ does not appear in the text, but rather abrashiyya/eparchy), a change that does not affect the statuses of each bishop as usquf musa`id (i.e. bishops who assist) auxiliaries.
What has changed is that the bishops are not considered asaqifa mu`awinun (i.e. assistant bishops) auxiliaries (that is, general auxiliaries with no particular regional duties), but asaqifa musa`idun auxiliaries with particular responsibilities of their usqufiyyat/regions as defined by the canons of the Church relating to the chorepiscopos. Again, what that means is discussed in Metropolitan Basil’s report to the Holy Synod, which is now widely available on the internet and strongly recommended for further study.
This thinking is further reinforced by the ‘Damascus Constitution,’ which the Patriarchate approved on October 15, 2004, which used the phrase usquf al-usqufiyeh to describe what the English translation called ‘Diocese Bishops’ (c.f. Article IV, Section 2). In the same document, a separate category of ‘Auxiliary Bishop’ (c.f. Article VI, Section 1) is established by the Holy Synod, referred to as an usquf mu`awin.
Therefore, within the constitution itself, we see most clearly the two categories of bishops who are not the mutran/’diocesan bishop.’ They are not the same, and are given very different rights and responsibilities. The question that really remains is whether the patriarchate will eventually codify the rights and responsibilities of the usquf al-usqufiyeh and settle the remaining details. It appears Metropolitan Basil’s report sets the groundwork for such action, but it remains to be seen whether the relations between the mutran/metropolitan and the asaqifa/bishops will continue to be subject to further development at the Archdiocesan level or whether the patriarchate will promulgate a universal standard.
The third point is that, canonically speaking, for any profound change in the actual jurisdiction of the ‘Archdiocese,’ Metropolitan Philip would have had to have received a new ‘praxis’ from the Holy Synod. For those not familiar with a ‘praxis,’ it is a letter which authorizes a priest or a bishop to minister in a given location. When a priest is assigned to a parish, his bishop gives him a praxis which specifies which parish he is to serve at and under what terms. In the case of a bishop, the Holy Synod issues a praxis to each new metropolitan assigning him to his eparchy.
Metropolitan Philip received no such praxis other than the one he had all along from his initial consecration. I’d like to thank one of our senior priests for pointing this out to me. It helps clarify the intentions of the Holy Synod.
Now, I’m sure some of you are wondering why an Antiochian metropolitan would not have ‘diocesan bishops’ under him the same way the OCA and ROCOR have here in America. Well, the fact of the matter is that, over time, titles have changed. In the Byzantine world, all the eparchial bishops were eventually called ‘metropolitans,’ just as the senior-most metropolitans were later called ‘archbishops’ and then finally ‘patriarchs.’ As titles have been added to the top, the old titles moved down. In the Greek and Antiochian Churches, beneath the title of a metropolitan is a ‘diocesan bishop.’ The Russians, however, preserved the title of bishop and continue to use the office of metropolitan as a hierarch over a local synod of bishops, much as the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has an archbishop presiding over their metropolitans, the latter of which constitute their ‘diocesan bishops.’
Another area of confusion has come from the various texts that use the word ‘Archbishop.’ For example, the most recent translation of the By-laws of the Patriarchate of Antioch does not mention ‘metropolitans,’ but rather ‘archbishops.’ Is there a difference? Yes and no is the simplest answer. The word does not appear in the Patriarchal Constitution or By-laws. Instead, the words usquf aseel have been translated as ‘archbishop.’ Yet, their literal meaning is different: usquf means ‘bishop,’ and aseel means ‘original’ or ‘originating.’
This appears to hearken back to the days before all eparchial bishops were metropolitans, and denotes the one eparchial bishop/usquf who presides over the regional bishops/asaqifa, whose ministries originate from his ministry as the eparchial bishop. Therefore, usquf aseel could be understood as ‘archbishop,’ but only in terms of ‘archbishop over the auxiliary bishops.’ After all, the regions of the bishops/asaqifa originate from the ministry of the eparchial bishop, first as an usquf and later as a metropolitan/mutran.
If usquf aseel were to be used above a metropolitan/mutran, it would imply that an eparchial bishop’s ministry flowed from his archbishop (as the meaning of ‘originating bishop’ would imply), which is not in keeping with Orthodox ecclesiology. (v)
This makes it less of an honorific title (as the Russians presently use it with senior diocesan bishops) or a super-eparchial title (as the Greeks use it to indicate a bishop set over metropolitans like in the GOA (vi)), but rather an alternative description for all metropolitans. After all, a metropolitan is naturally the ‘archbishop’ over any usquf within his eparchy/abrashiyeh.
So now we come to the end of this part of the discussion regarding the primary decisions of the Holy Synod, and are left with this question: what exactly is the Holy Synod trying to accomplish? I think the Holy Synod is trying to make sure the American flock is being effectively ministered, but without dividing the Archdiocese into new eparchies. The implementation of the usqufiyyat system here has been helpful in giving the bishops more authority to deal with local problems that would otherwise overwhelm a single eparchial bishop.
For us and the Holy Synod, this is something new, since the Holy Synod’s home territory in the Middle East is geographically much smaller than the US. Not only that, but we have a wider variety of cultures present in our eparchy than is found in the Middle Eastern eparchies. Therefore, our bishops are required to have flexibility in dealing with local problems that are often new to both us and the Holy Synod. The system implemented by the Holy Synod is something that is new for the Patriarchate, but signals their willingness to hear our concerns and attempt a new canonical arrangement.
While the Holy Synod has stated it has spoken definitively on the matter, I am sure there will be continued discussions on the interrelationship between Metropolitan Philip and the usqufiyyat bishops. I don’t think such discussions are harmful, so long as they are carried out in love and grounded in our Holy Traditions.
I think a great deal of our recent difficulties stem from mutual misunderstandings based on the difficulties all of us have with bridging the linguistic gap between Arabic and English. These problems have been as difficult for me to understand as they have for Arabic speakers to explain, partly because there are certain expectations that come with certain words that non-native speakers might not pick up on. Both English and Arabic are by no means easy languages, and when one uses ecclesiastical language borrowed from a different context (such as using words like ‘archdiocese and ‘diocese’), it is nearly impossible to divorce then from their previous meanings and given then new meanings without some residual subtleties hanging on. This is made all the more difficult when unfortunate word choices are made long-ago and thus enter into the consciences of many.
I am sure Metropolitan Philip and others have struggled greatly to adapt Arabic ecclesiastical language to the existing American vocabulary. It is no small job, and they are all to be commended for the efforts they have undertaken to facilitate our communication and understanding. I urge everyone to be patient and wait for the proper expressions to be developed. Words are important, but we must transcend them to seek meaning. Words are useless without meaning, and what we are seeking is the proper communication of meanings rather than holding to words that do not serve our purposes.
Whether or not we continue to use the terms ‘archdiocese’ and ‘diocese’ is not my decision. The decision to use this terminology was made long before most of us were even born, we must deal with the after-effects through better understanding and improved communication. I cannot criticize anyone involved in the translation process, mostly because I could not even attempt such difficult work. My only goal is to provide a bit on insight into this difficult situation, so that all of us can better appreciate our Antiochian traditions.
i For those of you who don’t know what an eparchy is, it is a Roman administrative district within a ‘diocese.’ A diocese is also a Roman administrative province, but the eparchy was a component within a diocese. Eparchies, in turn, were further divided into parishes. Today in North America, the Eastern Rite Roman Catholics refer to their ‘dioceses’ as Eparchies, following this model.
ii When I put the word diocese in quotes, I am denoting the erroneous usage of the word ‘diocese’ as commonly understood rather that the canonical usage in the Western sense.
iii The canons do not specify a proper name for the type of jurisdiction of a chorepiscopos the way that the Arabic uses usquf to form the term usqufiyeh, which can make the connection between the two to appear to some to be tenuous. However, the Holy Synod appears to at least be offering some type of canonical grounding for the usqufiyyat system, and Metropolitan Basil’s report implies that the full canonical measures of the chorepiscopal arrangement should be applied in the usqufyyat arrangement.
iv Mutran is a corrupted version of mitropulit/metropolitan, but it has a more expansive meaning, implying the office of the eparchial/diocesan bishop rather than simply the title of metropolitan. This is an important differentiation, since some metropolitans act as eparchial hierarchs whereas other supervise a metropolis or metropolitanate comprising a metropolitan district along with other eparchies.
v The topic of the episcopacy and ecclesiology would require a much longer treatment than this presentation can be expected to incorporate, and so the reader is encouraged to study on his own the topic of the episcopacy and Orthodox tradition.
vi The Greek Archdiocese of America is termed a single eparchial district, of which the metropolises apparently constitute their usqufiyyat.
( Fr. George Aquaro is an Antiochian Orthodox priest serving in the Los Angeles Diocese, but this paper was not reviewed, requested or authorized by the Patriarchate of Antioch, the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America or the Diocese of Los Angeles and the West. All assistance on this paper has been from knowledgeable associates with no official roles in the aforementioned institutions.)