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An Effective Resolution

It is no secret that the February 24, 2009 decision of the Holy Synod of Antioch to amend certain of its by-laws pertaining to bishops threw the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America into a maelstrom of confusion and controversy. Metropolitan PHILIP interpreted the amendments as changing the status of all non-Metropolitan bishops within the Antiochian Patriarchate to that of auxiliary bishops. The question immediately arose as to whether this decision applied to the North American diocesan bishops. Could these canonically consecrated and enthroned diocesan bishops be reduced to the status of auxiliaries to the Metropolitan? Some of the North American bishops answered with a resounding “yes,” while others responded with a firm “no.”

Correspondingly, at the Bright Friday meeting of the North American “Local Synod” of bishops, three of the North American bishops declined to sign a statement affirming acceptance of their status as auxiliary bishops, while three others did so. The division was apparent to the faithful across the Archdiocese. Soon thereafter, the chancellors of the Archdiocese issued a legal opinion stating that the February 24 amendments could not apply to North America. At the spring meeting of the Archdiocesan Board of Trustees, the Trustees declined to affirm the application of the February 24 to the bishops of North America. Division grew and controversy swirled between those who interpreted February 24 as applying to North America and those who held to the opposite.

All eyes in the Archdiocese looked to the spring meeting of the Holy Synod of Antioch for clarification. On June 17 the Holy Synod issued a statement containing three essential affirmations:

1) The episcopate is of one nature; that is, all bishops are bishops with one and the same episcopacy.

2) The bishops (of the Archdiocese of North America) are bishops who assist the Metropolitan in the governance of the Archdiocese.

3) No one but the Holy Synod can establish independent Archdioceses.

The statement addressed the North American situation obliquely and by implication. The following conclusions follow from the pronouncement:

1) No bishop is of an inherently “lesser” status than another. Therefore, no one bishop can have direct authority over another. Episcopal rank may differ honorifically, but all bishops are equal in office.

2) The bishops (of North America) do not operate independently, but are to govern in concert with the Metropolitan who is presiding hierarch of the one Archdiocese.

3) No bishop can create an independent archdiocese by divorcing his diocese from the Archdiocese of which it forms a part. Nor can he govern his diocese as if it was an independent entity.

On July 9, 2009, the Local Synod of Bishops of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America met by teleconference to finalize the practical implementation of the February 24 and June 17 decisions of the Holy Synod. That meeting produced yet another statement that appears to effectively resolve the disputed issue. In summary, the most important declarations of the statement establish that:

1) The bishops are indeed bishops of a specific city.

2) The Archdiocese is one, unified under one Metropolitan.

3) The bishops have the role of assistant to the Metropolitan in the administration of the unified Archdiocese.

4) The title of each bishop shall be “Bishop of (city) and Assistant to the Metropolitan.”

5) Both the Metropolitan and the bishop are to be commemorated in all divine services (within the bishop’s diocese) whether or not the bishop is physically present.

As with the June 17 statement of the Holy Synod of Antioch, one must draw out the implications of these affirmations. They are as follows:

1) The bishops are indeed diocesan bishops. A diocese is named by its see city, and therefore to be bishop of that city is to be head of that diocese.

2) There is but one Archdiocese, presided over by the Metropolitan, of which the individual dioceses are a part. As one archdiocese, the North American Archdiocese is on a par with all the other Archdioceses of the Patriarchate of Antioch.

3). The Metropolitan assigns specific archdiocesan-wide responsibilities to each bishop to assist him in various capacities. For example, the Metropolitan assigns bishops to oversee the various Archdiocesan organizations and departments, preside at certain Archdiocesan events, or represent the Archdiocese in his stead, as he sees fit.

4) Each bishop bears two titles reflecting his dual roles. One reflects his role as bishop of his see (affirming his responsibilities in a specific geographic diocese) and the other his role as Assistant to the Metropolitan (affirming his responsibilities in the one Archdiocese as delegated by the Metropolitan).

With regard to the former titles, i.e., “Wichita and Mid-America, Los Angeles and the West,” etc., it is important to note that in standard Orthodox usage the diocese is implied in the city. Thus the Bishop of Perm, or Metropolitan of Acre does not name the diocese of which they rule. Only Primates usually include geographic areas, e.g., Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Metropolitan of New York and All North America).   Thus Metropolitan Philip’s title reflects two roles, one corresponding to his responsibilities to a specific diocese (New York), the other to his responsibilities to the one Archdiocese.

5) The directive for liturgical commemoration also reflects this dual structure. The Metropolitan is commemorated (affirming that he is responsible for the oversight of the one Archdiocese) and the local bishop (affirming that he is responsible for the oversight of that particular geographic diocese). Auxiliary bishops are never commemorated in divine services if they are not present. Therefore it is clear that the North American bishops are not auxiliaries.  

One can see how the July 9 statement is an outworking of the intent of the June 17 Holy Synod decision, which maintains the equality of all bishops (there is no such thing as an “auxiliary bishop” or “assistant bishop”), and that there are dioceses for which each bishop is responsible. Yet at the same time there is but one Archdiocese in which they assist the Metropolitan.

One possible ecclesiological question remains. How can there be several dioceses shepherded by bishops within one Archdiocese? The answer is found in Church history. This very pattern was followed during the period of empire in what was known as the “metropolitan province” or “eparchy.” Canon IX of the Council of Antioch reflects its practices and gives guidelines for its governance:

“It behooves the bishops in every province to acknowledge the bishop who presides in the metropolis (Metropolitan), and who has to take thought for the whole province … Wherefore it is decreed that he have precedence in rank, and that the other bishops do nothing extraordinary without him, (according to the ancient canon which prevailed from [the times of] our Fathers) or such things only as pertain to their own particular parishes and the districts subject to them.  For each bishop has authority over his own parish, both to manage it with the piety which is incumbent on everyone, and to make provision for the whole district which is dependent on his city; to ordain presbyters and deacons; and to settle everything with judgment.  But let him undertake nothing further without the bishop of the metropolis; neither the latter without the consent of the others.”

As one commentator has pointed out, “This canon makes two things clear.  A bishop has authority over his own bishopric (diocese, district) to ‘manage it with piety,’ to make ‘provision for it,’ ‘to ordain presbyters and deacons,’ and to ‘settle everything with judgment.’  But he is ultimately not to do anything else extraordinary without the consent of the Metropolitan.  Likewise, the Metropolitan should not do anything without the consent of his synod of bishops.” *

Thus, the dual nature and interplay of authority between the Metropolitan and his diocesan bishops is canonically sanctioned. The July 9 Local Synod statement eminently reflects this precise and normative structure in the modern setting, as a wise and effective pastoral adaptation to the developing situation in North America. Our “Local Synod” is a modern version of the historic “Eparchial Synod” described in the canon.

We clergy and faithful of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America are thankful to God for this effective resolution to the controversy that has plagued us during this year of the Lord, 2009.

- V. Rev. Paul O’Callaghan, Dean,
St. George Orthodox Christian Cathedral, Wichita, KS


*A Hearty Thank You, by “A Clergyman Who Still Cares About Canon Law" here.


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