Orthodox self-rule just start of vision
Syrian leader hopes for American unity
Sunday, July 18, 2004
By Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For years, when Metropolitan Philip, the Antiochian Orthodox archbishop of North America, arrived at an Orthodox choir festival, everyone knew what song he would request.
"It was "The Impossible Dream,'" said Kweilin Nassar, a Pittsburgher who does public relations for the church.
The Broadway song spoke to his dream of one, united American Orthodox Church. This week in Pittsburgh, a piece of that dream came true, as the Antiochians achieved self-rule, while retaining strong ties to the patriarchate in Syria. Other pieces of the dream were broken 10 years ago when the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople rejected the vision of a single, American church, but Philip believes they will be rebuilt.
In 1994, when all Orthodox bishops in the Western Hemisphere gathered at the Antiochian Village retreat center in Ligonier, "We had a clear vision at that time for the future of Orthodoxy. However, the ecumenical patriarch, and other patriarchs, felt insecure to see all these bishops from North America coming together to discuss the future of Orthodoxy in this hemisphere," Philip said.
"They thought we had some kind of conspiracy to separate from the mother churches. We had no such thing. We wanted to know each other."
The ecumenical patriarch clamped down on the union movement, forcing the Greek Orthodox archbishop to resign and fomenting turmoil in the Greek archdiocese. But Philip, 73, a native of Lebanon, has forged ahead. He hopes the other ethnic Orthodox jurisdictions will also insist on self-rule as a "gigantic step" toward one American church, he said..
"If you have a dream, you will follow your dream," he said.
"And I have a dream that Orthodoxy some day is going to be united. This is inevitable. It is an historical process which no one can stop."
Among the many programs held each year at the Ligonier retreat center is a gathering of young Orthodox laity from every ethnic jurisdiction.
"They don't ask each other, are you Greek? Are you Serbian? Are you Albanian? Are you Russian? They get together as American Orthodox," he said.
"The people are going to effect the change because Orthodox people are sick and tired of this situation. Many hierarchs were born in the Old Country, like myself. I was fortunate to come to the United States and go to school here, so I discovered America early in my life. But some of our hierarchs are still across the ocean, psychologically. They are not here," he said.
Both the ecumenical patriarch and others pressured Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch not to grant self-government to the American archdiocese. But Ignatius did what was right for the faithful, Philip said.
Any attempt to seize control back from Orthodox Americans "is doomed to failure," he said.
"You cannot write a constitution in Russia, or in any Orthodox country overseas, and impose it on Orthodoxy in America. This will not stand."
When Philip became metropolitan in 1966, North America had 65 parishes and a budget of $60,000. Philip was the only bishop for a territory spanning Florida through Canada to Alaska.
Constant travel "was killing me. That's why I had a heart attack in 1968 and open heart surgery in 1972," he said.
The archdiocese has grown to 240 parishes with a budget of nearly $5 million. A turning point came in the 1970s, when Philip received a group of former evangelical Protestants. They began teaching the Antiochians to tithe and evangelize.
Eventually Philip got auxiliary bishops to help him. But the archdiocese is about to be divided into nine dioceses. A bishop for Pennsylvania and West Virginia will be based at the retreat center in Ligonier, although Philip said his cathedral would be in Pittsburgh.
They haven't made a final decision about which city to put in that bishop's title. Philip rather likes the idea of calling him "the bishop of Ligonier" as a perpetual reminder of the now infamous meeting where the bishops called for unity.
The final choice of bishops will not be made until late this year, when representatives of the Patriarchate of Antioch join the American bishops to review the candidates nominated at this week's convention.
Of seven candidates, the top three vote-getters were American-born. Two were converts: a former Episcopalian and a former Old Testament professor from Oral Roberts University. While married men may be ordained as Orthodox priests, they may not become bishops. So the church was able to identify only seven qualified candidates, and some of the new dioceses will have to share a bishop.
"We are going to face a very serious problem in the future," Philip said. "Ninety-nine and-a-half percent of our seminarians, when they graduate from the seminary, they get married. I don't know where I'm going to get bishops in the future."
He may recruit from the Middle East, where more young seminarians are open to celibate commitment, he said.
"I have never pressured any of my seminarians to remain celibate," he said.
The Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America ia already the fastest-growing Orthodox archdiocese in the world, Philip said. And he expects the attention that these new bishops will give to their parishes to help that growth.
"I am looking forward to an era of spiritual rejuvenation, a spiritual renaissance," he said.
(Ann Rodgers can be reached at email@example.com