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What's going on in Antioch?

OutlookOne of the hardest things that journalists have to do, from time to time, is cover controversial stories when they can only get voices on one side of the fight to talk on the record. Normally, one camp is seeking coverage and the other is trying to avoid it. Now, the only thing harder than that is to cover a hot story when no one will speak on the record -- on either side. And that's what has been going on for weeks with a behind-the-scenes round of ecclesiastical wrestling in the American archdiocese of the Antiochian Orthodox Church. This happens to be my own church, so, as you would imagine, all kinds of people have been asking why I haven't written about the story here at GetReligion or in my own column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

Actually, I haven't done a column for a simple reason. Clearly something has been going on, but no one really knew what was happening. Most importantly, no one was speaking on the record about WHY the leader of the church since 1966, Metropolitan Philip Saliba, had turned his church's diocesan bishops back into auxiliary bishops, with little or no power over their own clergy.

There were very few documents describing what was happening. There were lots of people yelling at the top of their lungs online, mostly in anonymous posts. There were fascinating pieces of analysis, and even a compelling train wreck of a legal timeline of the fights. But the leaders on both sides of the divide were being quiet. That made it almost impossible for someone like me to write a column about the affair that anyone -- especially the non-Orthodox -- could understand.

Also, there was no mainstream coverage of all this. Zip. Nada.

That's why there wasn't much I could do here at GetReligion. Remember: This is not a religion-news site. It's a site digging into the MSM's struggle to cover religion news.

Now we have a pretty in-depth news story about this matter, which is of vital importance to anyone who cares about the future of Eastern Orthodoxy here in North America, care of Toledo Blade religion writer David Yonke. It opens with a grab-you lede that anyone can understand. How tense are things at the moment?

When Bishop Mark Maymon of Toledo attended a recent regional conference in Cincinnati for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, local police were on guard because of threats made by a member of the denomination's board of trustees.

The threats by e-mail from Walid Khalife of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., accused the bishop of being a "traitor," a "liar," and a "dictator," and said the bishop needed to be "taught a lesson."

Now the whole issue of the board of trustees and the role that some of its members are playing in this matter is highly complex. Trust me. But when you start talking about police and security guards being involved in church conferences -- because of the actions of people INSIDE the church -- you know you are in interesting territory. Which brings us to the summary paragraphs in this story:

The flurry of angry e-mails from Mr. Khalife, an archdiocese trustee, was one of the uglier manifestations of a controversy that has been causing turmoil, tension, and confusion in the venerable Christian denomination founded by Jesus' disciples Ss. Paul and Barnabas in Antioch in 42 A.D. The bitter dispute centers on the role and authority of bishops, which in turn affects the self-rule status of the North American Archdiocese, obtained in 2003 after years of negotiation with Patriarch Ignatius IV and the Holy Synod in Damascus. Although self-governing, the archdiocese still reports to Damascus on matters of theology.

Since February, the fabric of the North American Antiochian Orthodox church has been stretched at the seams over allegations of deception, power-mongering, and even forgery. A longtime chancellor has resigned in protest, and some insiders are predicting that the upcoming national convention in Palm Desert, Calif., will turn into "Palm Desert Storm."

PETERPAUL-ICON2-4INThere is little in this story I would challenge, so do read it all. I am not sure that an Orthodox metropolitan is "an archbishop and comparable to the rank of cardinal in the Roman Catholic hierarchy," but I am willing to be corrected.

The whole matter is quite complex. However, there is one crucial aspect of the story that is missing.

Readers really need to know more about Metropolitan Philip's decision, more than a decade ago, to welcome thousands of evangelical converts into his church and the tensions that have lurked behind the scenes ever since (click here for an essay of mine on this topic). Quite frankly, the church has handled the tensions quite well, up until now, and there have been few explosions. Converts have continued to stream in from evangelicalism, as well as the world of oldline Protestantism -- having a major impact, especially at the level of new mission parishes and seminarians seeking the priesthood.

It would really help to know that Bishop Mark of Toledo is, well, not your ordinary bishop (by all means click here). It's safe to say he is the church's only bishop who once taught theology at Oral Roberts University.

It would also help to know that this bishop's fiercest critics -- other than the trustee sending those strange emails -- are Palestinian or Lebanese clergy in the Detroit area who are speaking out because they believe they are being treated differently by a convert bishop than they would have been by Metropolitan Philip in the past.

These Detroit priests have produced some of the only public documents (click here for a look at some of that) hinting at the WHY element in what appears to be a collision between the new world and the old. But, please, don't jump to conclusions. There are ethnic clergy who are in solidarity with the converts and their -- OK, our -- highly intense and traditional approach to the faith on issues of worship and parish life. There are Arab and Lebanese clergy -- often called "reverts" -- who are not anxious to modernize on issues of liturgy and practice, while continuing to stress the Arabic language and many old-world customs. There are converts whose approaches to the faith defy quick, easy labels too. However, I will say that no one is seeking some kind of zippy "evangelical lite" approach to this ancient faith.

I hope that other mainstream reporters will start jumping on this story with their eyes wide open, ready to carefully listen to the wide diversity of voices on both sides. Tell us who is who. Tell us who is saying and writing what. Be careful out there, but there is a story here worth telling and it, probably, is just getting started.

Images: Some of the American bishops, in Damascus with Patriarch Ignatius (center, with his bishop's staff). Icon of St. Peter and St. Paul meeting in Antioch.

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