The ‘Culture Clash’ within the Self-Ruled Antiochian Archdiocese

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By Kevin Allen

I just returned from the national convention of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Archdiocese in Palm Desert, California. Rather than being an oasis in the desert, I – along with many others I spoke with – found the Convention to be a real struggle – even a proverbial “desert” experience of authentic spiritual warfare. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, as we know that our struggle is not really with flesh and blood but with powers and principalities. The latter were in evidence in a way that was almost palpable to this observer.

I went to the convention filled with hope. The episcopal crisis appeared to be resolved in a manner acceptable to both sides in this country at least (who know where the Holy Synod really is in this?). Overall I felt the archdiocese seemed to be in pretty good shape. I do a pod cast for Ancient Faith Radio and receive lots of encouraging emails from inquirers who are interested in the Orthodox Church. From my rosy little seat, I figured everything was, well, pretty rosy. I left as deflated as a helium balloon at sundown at a child’s birthday party.

I won’t go over all the details of what went on during the convention. Some of these sordid details (the dissent, the pushing and shoving, the microphones turned off, the shout- downs of dissenters, the overt politics, the lack of real Christian humility) are recounted on the Orthodox Christians For Accountability, website which, by the way was held up to especial scorn and ridicule throughout the Convention. At various points, security were even looking for the site’s administrator, whom they thought was there “spying”. You can also hear the audio of the Convention on Ancient Faith Radio.

What was really shocking to me was the degree to which there is an apparent “cultural divide” in the Antiochian Archdiocese. Metropolitan Philip (Saliba), the Convention’s Master of Ceremonies made reference to it in racial and ethnic terms (although I believe it is culture not ethnic racism), when he said something about the archdiocese not being a place for anyone who tries to divide it along racial lines. I am not sure whether he was referencing the culturally “Arabic” contingent, or the ever-growing “American” contingent, which clearly seem to be at odds in terms of style and (in growing ways) substance. At one point – referring to the many anonymous posts on Orthodox Christians For Accountability – Metropolitan Philip even asked the “convert” clergy to stand and then asked them “en masse” and in public whether he was unfair or discriminating of them. The sound of silence was the reaction.

The culture divide or gap that I refer to manifested itself in a variety of ways. One contingent thought it appropriate to adulate the Master Of Ceremonies throughout the event and to shout down the varied voices of dissent that presented themselves at various points on matters of financial transparency and the morality of the episcopacy and Board of Trustees. The other contingent sat in stony silence, embarrassed by this display of adulation and the hierarch’s continual recounting of his many (and credible) achievements. One contingent thought (apparently) that calls for financial transparency in the form of an independent audit were tantamount to “distrust” of the chief hierarch. The other group thought (thinks) this was a sensible idea for a religious organization in the 21st century. Calls by one female delegate or observer for a motion to establish a rule whereby bishops who have been convicted of felonies or sexual malfeasance cannot be appointed were shouted down. I wanted to ask the decriers of this motion: “So, what, you think it is a good idea to appoint bishops who are guilty of felonies?” Given the tension of the convention one hardly knows what response such a question would elicit. One of our Bishops was even reported to have called a dissenting priest “the devil”. One lady heard herself and family cursed as she made a floor comment or motion.

My feeling is that our archdiocese is struggling to walk the fine line between “freedom” and “obedience”. If you cross over either line too far you are in trouble. Too far on the “freedom” side, you end up in the chaos (theologically and ecclesiastically) that many of us escaped. Too far, however, on the other side of the line (obedience) and you risk becoming cult-like (or a cult).
Is it wrong to question and challenge our leader(s)? Is disagreement tantamount to “disloyalty”, or is it “ungratefulness” to make any protest after being sent to seminary (as it was alleged), or after being “welcomed home” in 1987, as it was rhetorically asked by our Master Of Ceremonies?

These are the questions that our Archdiocese is struggling with as it begins this 21st century. The battle I fear has just begun. This skirmish was not a pretty sight to see.

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