+Philip Re-ignites Debate Over Authority of Diocesan Bishops
• Orders Parish Councils to “Disregard” All Directives Not Bearing His Signature
• Labels +Mark’s Attempt to Implement Financial Controls “A Major Mistake”
• Says External Audits At This Time “Not Prudent”
After a four-month truce Metropolitan Philip dramatically re-opened the battle over the authority of the diocesan bishops in the Antiochian Archdiocese by issuing a two page directive instructing parish councils to “…disregard any directives regarding new policies or procedures for your parishes you may have received or may receive in the future unless they are issued from my office under my signature”. The new, unexpected directive took clear aim at Bishop Mark of Toledo, complaining about “a directive… sent out by His Grace, Bishop MARK implementing a new financial system of checks and balances for our parishes in the Diocese of Toledo.” (Bishop Mark ordered the new financial system throughout parishes in his Midwest Diocese in response to revelations of financial misconduct, most recently in an Ohio parish, where alleged embezzlement had gone undetected for six years.) “Without weighing in on the merits or short-comings of the system outlined in these directives,” the Metropolitan explained, “ a major mistake was made with regard to policies and procedures in trying to implement this, or any new protocols in our one, united Archdiocese.” Decrying the Bishop’s “unilateral action” the Metropolitan stated that “…before any new policies or procedures effecting the life of our God-protected Archdiocese are to be implemented or directed by anyone, whether with regard to spiritual or temporal aspects of parish life, they must first be approved by myself and the Archdiocesan Synod and, in some cases (especially those dealing with financial procedures), the Archdiocese Board of Trustees.” The Metropolitan then ordered parish councils throughout the Midwest, and indeed the entire Archdiocese, to ignore Bishop Mark’s instructions concerning audits, suggesting that if parishes need to do “something proactive”, internal reviews suffice. The Metropolitan concluded: “Given that external audits are expensive and many parishes in the Archdiocese, especially many of those in the Midwest, cannot even pay their Archdiocese assessment this year due to the economic situation, to impose such a system at this time is not prudent.”
The Metropolitan’s directive first appeared publicly as a Word document emailed from Bishop Thomas of Charleston to all his clergy. Although it has yet to be posted on the Archdiocesan website, OCANews.org has confirmed the document originated from Fr. Kevorkian, the Metropolitan’s assistant.
The Metropolitan’s directive reads in full:
“TO BE PUBLISHED IN THE CHURCH BULLETIN AND READ AT THE PARISH COUNCIL MEETING
December 3, 2009
Brother Hierarchs of the Archdiocesan Synod, Beloved Clergy, Esteemed Members of the Archdiocese Board of Trustees, Parish Councils and God-loving faithful of the Diocese of Toledo and the Midwest:
Greetings in the name of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. I pray you are all in good health as we continue our preparation for His Nativity in the Flesh.
Last month, a directive was sent out by His Grace, Bishop MARK implementing a new financial system of checks and balances for our parishes in the Diocese of Toledo. After this letter was issued, I spoke with His Grace and expressed my concerns about unilateral actions being taken in individual dioceses regarding such major issues. Unfortunately, following our conversation, a second, even stronger letter was issued to all of you. Without weighing in on the merits or short-comings of the system outlined in these directives, a major mistake was made with regard to policies and procedures in trying to implement this, or any new protocols in our one, united Archdiocese.
Let me remind both the members of the clergy and the laity, that before any new policies or procedures effecting the life of our God-protected Archdiocese are to be implemented or directed by anyone, whether with regard to spiritual or temporal aspects of parish life, they must first be approved by myself and the Archdiocesan Synod and, in some cases (especially those dealing with financial procedures), the Archdiocese Board of Trustees. We have one financial system in this Archdiocese and it will remain that way. When new ideas are put forth and/or new situations arise that require our attention, the Metropolitan, the Archdiocesan Synod and, where applicable, the Archdiocesan Board of Trustees will consider them and a decision will be made for the entire Archdiocese, rather than each diocese having its own set of policies. Therefore, please disregard any directives regarding new policies or procedures for your parishes you may have received or may receive in the future unless they are issued from my office under my signature.
Let me also remind you that our long-standing directive that each check issued by any organization of the parish must have two signatures, and that neither of those two signatures are to be affixed to blank checks, is still in effect. Additionally, all bank statements and accounts should be reviewed monthly by the pastor and the parish council chairman in addition to the treasurer. Finally, please know that at our Archdiocese Board meeting this past October in Houston, the Board approved an internal audit of the Archdiocese. We can also suggest this for parishes if you feel the need to do something proactive. Given that external audits are expensive and many parishes in the Archdiocese, especially many of those in the Midwest, cannot even pay their Archdiocese assessment this year due to the economic situation, to impose such a system at this time is not prudent.
Wishing you and your families a spiritually rewarding remainder of the Nativity Fast and, in anticipation, a most joyous Nativity, I remain,
Your Father in Christ,
Archbishop of New York and Metropolitan of all North America”
Latest Move In Year of Tumult
Metropolitan Philip’s directive is but the latest move in a series of controversies that have enveloped the Antiochian Archdiocese since last March. On March 3, 2009 the Metropolitan promulgated his translation of a February 24th decision of the Synod of Antioch that he interpreted as reducing the diocesan bishops of the Archdiocese to auxiliary status, and the dioceses to the de facto status of regions once again. (Read that story here.) The Metropolitan tried to downplay the reduction as a “narrow administrative decision” – although he ordered it read from every pulpit throughout the Archdiocese. Several of the diocesan Bishops complained, as did many priests and laity at this seemingly arbitrary, and if so, then uncanonical action. As OCANews.org reported at the time, the crisis +Philip provoked in March left him “…with the Orwellian task of explaining to his flock that the dioceses he fought for creating five years ago are not, in fact, dioceses; and that the diocesan bishops he advocated that the Synod enthrone to lead them are not, in fact, diocesan bishops.”
The episcopal crisis, in turn, led to opening a Pandora’s box of repressed questions concerning the Archdiocese, most notably questions concerning financial transparency and accountability, its Constitution, its governing Board of Trustees, and its sexual misconduct policy (especially as it relates to ministry of the retired Bishop Dmitiri (Khoury).
An April meeting of the local synod of the Bishops of the Archdiocese only exacerbated the crisis when three of the seven bishops refused to sign an Agreed Statement sought by the Metropolitan. (Read that story here.) The two Chancellors (the chief legal counsels of the Archdiocese,) joined the fray two weeks later, when in a Mary 17th decision, they rejected the Metropolitan’s arguments as “invalid”, “inapplicable” “inconsistent” & “ill-advised” on the basis of the Archdiocese’s existing Constitution. (Read that story here.)
At this point the Patriarchate took the unprecedented step of inviting the diocesan Bishops – sans +Philip – to Damascus to discuss the February 24th decision and the subsequent crises in the Archdiocese. Shortly before this highly anticipated meeting +Philip forced the resignation of one of the Chancellors at his own May 29th meeting of the Archdiocesan Board of Trustees. (Former Chancellor Robert Koory now attends a parish of the Orthodox Church in America. The other Chancellor, Mr. Charles Ajalat, also resigned, some two months later, following the General Convention in Palm Desert.)
The personal meetings in Damascus between the diocesan Bishops and the Patriarch were followed by a meeting of the full Synod of Antioch. If possible, things became even more confused following these meetings.
Multiple Texts Emerge
The official decision of the Synod was communicated by Bishop Mark in a June 19th email to his diocesan clergy. The Bishop wrote: “The Holy Synod upholds the Canonical understanding that the Episcopate is one and no bishop is the inferior of another, i.e., all Bishops are equal according to the Holy Canons. Bishops answer to Synods. As Bishops consecrated for specific Dioceses we were called to assist the Metropolitan Archbishop, but were not consecrated as assistant bishops, i.e., as auxiliary bishops, as such would be an anomaly to Orthodox ecclesiology.”
Metropolitan Philip, however, on the Archdiocesan website published a different document which stated just the opposite – that the other bishops in the Archdiocese were indeed “auxiliaries”. The appearance of two decisions – both allegedly signed by the Patriarch himself – was only partly resolved when the Patriarchate, quite unexpectedly, published an official text in English on its long-disused own website. The official Synodal text did not use the word ““auxiliaries” as did the text published by the Archdiocese. After several days Metropolitan Philip removed the discordant text, but stated he would accept no decision on the matter as authentic until the text was signed by the entire Synod. (Read that story here.)
The Convention Looms
With the appearance of multiple conflicting Synodal texts and how they came to be unexplained by Englewood, questions began to be raised about the participation of several delegation members, who were also members of the Board of Trustees, in the events in Damascus. This, in turn, led to revelations of past legal troubles including allegations of charity fraud, money laundering, etc. As the Board of Trustees oversees the finances of the Archdiocese, calls arose for a full financial audit of the Archdiocese for the first time, so as to clarify the nature and extent of Archdiocesan resources, as well as to reassure the faithful in light of the questions being raised.
In early July 2009, one of the honorary Archdiocesan Trustees about whom questions had been raised began to threaten Bishop Mark, among others in an out of the Archdiocese. The emails were so disturbing that the FBI was called in, and armed guards given to the Bishop during his diocese’s annual Parish Life Convention. Rather than continue to let events spiral out of control as the General Convention of the Archdiocese loomed, a meeting was arranged by a prominent layman of the Archdiocese to allow the contending sides to come to an “understanding”. In a telephone conference among the Metropolitan and the Bishops an “arrangement” was reached: things would return to the “status quo ante bellum”. Bishops were once again to be commemorated liturgically throughout their own dioceses and be referred to by the name of their See in their titles. In obedience to the authentic June 17th decision of the Patriarchate stating that all Bishops are “ to assist” their Metropolitan, the Bishops would also have “Assistant to the Metropolitan” appended to their titles.
OCANews.org reported “Philip Blinks”; but in fact it now appears he only “winked”.
A nervous convention could be held – one with but a few incidents. (Read that story here). It is what happened post-convention, however, that led to the current breakdown of the detente that had been achieved.
In late August the Treasurer of St. George’s parish in Troy MI raised serious questions concerning the finances of the parish, the operation of its social hall, and the parish ‘s HUD housing project, the St. George’s Tower. As one of the most prominent parishes in the Archdiocese – among the church’s former pastors was Metropolitan Philip himself – led by one of the Archdiocese’s most prominent priests (Fr. Joseph Antypas) – the questions concerning the governance of this parish and its lack of financial transparency and accountability seemed to many to be paradigmatic of the problems confronting the Archdiocese as a whole.
Bishop Mark, the diocesan Bishop, desired that the parish be allowed to resolve its troubles on its own. When that proved impossible, he intervened in late September 2009, suggesting to the parish that an audit was in order to clarify the legitimate and serious questions raised by the parish Treasurer. The Metropolitan then wrote his own letter about the matter in early October dismissing +Mark’s recommendations as “unncessary”, and offering a spirited defense of the parish priest.
And so the Trojan War continued – even as the Archdiocese confronted its own financial questions. In a controversial split decision the Archdiocesan Board of Trustees voted in early November not to allow an independent external audit of the Archdiocese, but to hold an internal audit, led by the Metropolitan’s right hand man, Bishop Antoun, and the Archdiocesan comptroller. (Read that story here.)
Then in late November Bishop Mark reported that serious financial misconduct had occurred in another parish in his Diocese. In a letter sent to his parish councils, the Bishop ordered new financial controls be immediately established throughout his diocese. The Bishop wrote: “At this point we need to tighten our financial practices as a Diocese. Why tempt even good people with sloppy procedures? Hopefully the problems are not too widespread, but good financial practices are preventative in essence. In order to begin the movement in the proper direction I want the procedures listed below implemented at once. A Financial Review Committee must be appointed annually at your General Assembly….”
The Bishop’s directive applied to St. George in Troy as well, providing a way out of the turmoil that has enveloped that parish. But all that has now been called into question by the Metropolitan’s latest directive, which for a second time, dismisses the Bishop’s attempts to resolve the issues that confront St. George and which threaten other parishes unaware they too may be at risk. And the issue of parish financial controls is not idle. Just today the Hartford Courant newspaper reported more than a million dollars appears to be missing from a Greek Orthodox Church in nearby Orange, CT. (Read that story here.)
As the Metropolitan once again claims complete control of both the “spiritual or temporal aspects of parish life” throughout the Archdiocese, it is unclear what roles, if any, the diocesan bishops now play in the Antiochian Archdiocese. Will the other Bishop’s remain silent – agreeing to +Philip’s derogation of Bishop Mark and thus, their own positions? Or will they meet as a Synod and approve Bishop Mark’s financial controls, in opposition to the Metropolitan? The implications of either course are profound.
What happens now is anyone’s guess….