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EDITOR'S NOTE: This version corrects the name of the Cleveland church where Metropolitan Philip had served as pastor.
The Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church is thriving everywhere in North America except the Midwest, according to the archdiocese's longtime leader, Metropolitan Philip Saliba.
And that was the sole reason for a controversial decision, announced last month, to transfer Bishop Mark Maymon, bishop of Toledo and the Midwest, to the Pacific Northwest.
Bishop Mark refused the move and instead is joining the Orthodox Church in America.
"I told our local synod when we met Oct. 22 in Jacksonville, Fla., that perhaps we put the wrong man in the wrong place," Metropolitan Philip said Monday in an interview from his Englewood, N.J., headquarters. "And I wanted to transfer His Grace, Bishop Mark, to the Northwest, where he can do a much, much better job."
Unlike many religious groups, transferring bishops is virtually unheard of in the Antiochian Orthodox Church. Some clergy and longtime members said they believe the announced transfer of Bishop Mark was unprecedented. It also is exceedingly rare for an Orthodox bishop to leave one jurisdiction for another.
But months before Bishop Mark's transfer, the global church's ruling body - the Holy Synod of Antioch - announced that all North American bishops were not bishops, but auxiliary bishops - "subordinate to their spiritual point of reference, the metropolitan."
The combination of a demotion followed by a cross-country transfer led to the abrupt departure of Bishop Mark, who was not available for comment.
Metropolitan Philip said the Holy Synod initiated its review of the status of bishops because there was "confusion" over the issue - "and I don't like confusion."
He added that "there have always been" auxiliary bishops in the church, and some biblical scholars view Timothy and Titus in the Bible as auxiliary bishops to St. Paul.
The metropolitan said he was sorry to see Bishop Mark go.
"I am very sad because Bishop Mark is a very good bishop. He was educated at St. Vladimir's Seminary and I remember him as a seminarian. I remember him as a deacon and as a priest, and he's very good, very good. I have nothing wrong against him."
But he said he felt compelled to act because of the "deteriorating situation" in the Midwest, evident by declining attendance at annual Parish Life Conferences.
"We have 50 parishes in the Midwest and I lived in the Midwest. I lived in Detroit, I went to school in Detroit, and then I was a pastor of St. George, Cleveland. And I remember when we used to have our convention, we used to have a minimum of 1,000 people at the Parish Life Conference. And in Livonia, [Mich.,] one time we had 1,500 people. And last year in Cincinnati we had about 250 people, and this year in Toledo we had less than 400 people. And Toledo is in the heart of the Midwest."
The struggling economy could not be blamed, he said, because Toledo is within driving distance from throughout the diocese, which cuts convention expenses. Rather, he said, the poor attendance shows "a lack of participation, a lack of interest, a lack of inspiration."
Metropolitan Philip personally will preside at the next Parish Life Conference in the diocese, set for June 15-19, 2011, in Cleveland. "You will see a tremendous crowd there, contrary to last year and this year," he vowed.
He said the diocese's "deteriorating situation" had nothing to do with recent church thefts. In Toledo, a police report filed in March alleged that the treasurer of St. George Cathedral embezzled $145,000, and another theft was reported last year at a Troy, Mich., parish.
"No, no. Those parishes are handling the situation and they have been in touch with me. I have been advising them, you know, to solve everything peacefully, not to go to courts," the metropolitan said.
He did fault, at least in part, Bishop Mark and St. George's priest, the Rev. Basil Koory, for not keeping a close enough watch on church funds.
Metropolitan Philip said he overruled Bishop Mark's plan for external audits at all parishes in the Midwest because it would have been too expensive, and that he is confident church-appointed committees can do a good job with internal audits.
"Being the archbishop of this archdiocese for 44 years, I never felt that there was anything wrong with our finances. … I am very, very convinced that everything in this archdiocese is like an open book," he said.
A native of Abou Mizan, Lebanon, Metropolitan Philip studied in Lebanon, Syria, and London before coming to the United States in 1956.
The Antiochian Orthodox Church has grown exponentially during his tenure, both through Arab church members immigrating to the United States as well as American Christians converting to the church.
Bishop Mark is one such convert. A native of Indiana, he grew up in a Roman Catholic family, became an evangelical Protestant, and taught Bible classes at Oral Roberts University before converting to the Orthodox faith.
Metropolitan Philip said he sees no evidence of reports surfacing within the church of tension between immigrants and converts, or that such tensions were partly to blame for Bishop Mark's downfall.
"I am the only Orthodox bishop in America that has welcomed converts with open arms. You know that," he said. "And converts have contributed so much spirituality to our church in this country, and so much discipline. I love converts because they are so pious. And they never gave me any problems."
Noting that he will turn 80 in June, the metropolitan said he wants to retire but the Holy Synod of Antioch rejected the request.
"The Patriarch [Ignatius IV] said to me, 'Look at me, I am 90 years old and I am still working.'
"Another bishop said, 'I am 88 years old and I am still working.' Another bishop said, 'I am 86 years old and I am still working.' And another bishop said, 'I am 84 years old and I am still working.' They embarrassed me! And they said, 'We're not going to accept your retirement at all.'"
In other archdiocesan news, the unofficial Orthodox Web site ocanews.org reported Friday that Metropolitan Philip is removing a priest in Terre Haute, Ind., for "disobedience" and replacing him with the Rev. Paul Albert, longtime pastor of St. Elias in Sylvania.
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