The Process of Choosing a Bishop

While the Orthodox Church is clearly hierarchical, and the bishop is essential to the life of the Church through the diocese, it is amazing how little thought or time is put into selecting, nurturing and training candidates for the Episcopal office in the modern Church.  This is not because we do not have a clear idea about what a bishop is or what he does.  The Tradition contains clear lists which describe the role and character of the bishop.

In the New Testament, St. Paul lists quite a number of prerequisites  and  requirements for a man to be considered for the office of bishop in 1 Timothy 3:1-7   and Titus 1:7-9.  Among them are :     husband of one wife, a good manager of his household, above reproach, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher able to refute those who contradict sound doctrine, a lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy, and self-controlled, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not arrogant or quick tempered and not greedy or a lover of money, moreover he must be well thought of by outsiders.  St. Paul had high expectations for those who became bishops in the Church.  Obviously some of these have to do with the personality of the man and are not traits which are teachable/learnable.   This of course raises the questions as to whether the process of choosing a new bishop is more about the church membership discerning which of our Orthodox men are “gifted” toward being bishops (or perhaps discerning which live a genuinely Gospel life) or is it more about selecting men based on their well known personality/characteristics and then helping to train them (give them skills) to handle the duties of the bishop’s office?  Most likely both are true; the real question being whether we will use both/either in selecting the next generation of bishops in the OCA or will we limit ourselves to using a man’s not being married as our only criterion for selecting a bishop?

The canonical tradition lists certain requirements for a man to become a bishop including age,  the fact that he is not a recent convert but rather a long time Christian so that his “faith, reputable life, his steadfastness of character and considerateness of demeanor may be well known” (Canon 10, Sardica, 343AD).  He also was to know the Psalter by heart, be a frequent reader of the Scriptures and Canons, and to live according to God’s commandments (Canon 2, of Nicea 2, 787AD).  In these lists we do get a sense that these are not skills one is taught after being selected as a candidate for the office of bishop, but rather these are the lifelong skills that one demonstrates which causes one to be considered for the office.  It is only because of the way that a man conducts his life – a way that is readily observable to the rest of the Church – that he becomes a potential candidate for the episcopacy.

The Statutes of the OCA list numerous duties of the bishop, among which are expounding the faith and morals of Orthodoxy, guidance in all spiritual matters of the diocese, various administrative duties, discipline of the clergy and laity, president of the diocesan assembly, making canonical visits to all diocesan parishes.  One would think that since some of the duties of the bishop are skills which are teachable/learnable, so our real step is to discern which man we want to do these tasks in the Diocese, and then to make sure he is given the training which will help him fulfill the duties of the office. 

The Pauline list is probably closer to the expectations of most diocesan members for their bishop than is the OCA’s Statutes.  But it is also probably true that rarely are any of these characteristics brought up when actually considering specific candidates for the Episcopal office.   In fact the Synod of Bishops seems to discourage any open discussion of the qualities of any man for the office of bishop or metropolitan, fearing some form of campaigning or politicking will enter the process which is deemed to be spiritual rather than political matter.  When electing the metropolitan even basic facts about potential candidates such as their age and educational background are not disseminated.  Voting is done virtually cold – votes are cast with no slate of candidates listed just to see if someone has overwhelming popular support; this is then thought to somehow be the will of God.

When it comes to electing a diocesan bishop, the members of the Synod of Bishops through the Metropolitan often talk about “acceptable” candidates, even though they never define the criteria for acceptability.  At times, “Syosset” indicated the existence of a “list” of acceptable candidates for the office of bishop.  But again we have never been told, “Acceptable to whom?” or “Acceptable based on what criteria?”  And certainly we don’t know who was automatically excluded or included regardless of any criteria.   And the list of names itself, even when its existence is mentioned, never is made public.   One wonders why the secrecy?

One aspect of the canonical criteria for selecting a bishop which is specifically mentioned in the OCA statutes but is not part of the Pauline list nor even part of the early history of the church can be stated in this way:  the bishop cannot be in a heterosexual union nor can he desire to be in one, which in 21st Century America means the gene pool is very small, and is a group of which gay men are a large part.  St. Paul in 1 Timothy specifically listed his notion about who is the right man to be a bishop:  husband of one wife, and MANAGES his household well.  The received tradition basically abrogates the biblical spirit and intent.  What St. Paul saw as the very condition for choosing a bishop:  husband of one wife and a good manager of his married household (which is where he would get managerial experience),  becomes in the canonical tradition precisely the man whom we may not choose to be a bishop.

So how did we get to the point where the very criteria which St. Paul and the New Testament established for a man to hold the office of the bishop becomes reason to reject a man from being considered for that office? 

It has to do with the changing realities of life in the Byzantine Empire, a changing sense of piety, and public opinion.  

In 692AD, the Quinisext  Council of the Church, adopted Canon 12 which forbids bishops from remaining married after their consecration.  The Canon notes that at that time the bishops in Africa and Libya are still living with their wives, according to the more ancient practice which allowed such a thing.  The Canon says it is neither abolishing or overthrowing the Apostolic authority which allowed married bishops but “as caring for the health of the people and their advance to better things” and in order not to give offense to anyone (specifically those who objected to married bishops) it was then decided that from that point on bishops could no longer live with their wives.   The Canon basically acknowledges that piety and public opinion have changed and that it is no longer acceptable for bishops to live with their wives.   The Canon does not in any way fault the more ancient and apostolic practice, nor does it pretend that it is offering a continuation of ancient tradition.  It simply says times and piety have changed and so a new rule is needed to support the new popular piety.   John Zonaras, commenting on this Canon in the early 12th Century, wrote in defense of this new piety for bishops, “When the faith first was born and came forth into the world, the Apostles treated with greater softness and indulgence those who embraced the truth, which as yet was not scattered far and wide, nor did they exact from them perfection in all respects, but made great allowances for their weakness and for the inveterate force of the customs with which they were surrounded, both among the heathen and among the Jews. ”   Zonaras says it was because at the beginning of Christianity we were not ready for a higher morality that bishops were allowed to marry.   But now Zonaras  argues that since the Empire has become Christian and Christians are no longer surrounded by heathens and Jews but are the overwhelming majority in the Empire, a new set of “higher standards” for clergy can be expected.  One such standard is that not only may the bishop no longer co-habit with his wife, but also no women may live in a household with him.    Basically his explanation for this change in practice is that the changing historical realities of the world including that there is now a Christian Empire means “higher” standards can be set for the clergy.  What he and the Byzantines never expected of course was that God might allow their Empire to be swept away into the dustbin of history.  So if we no longer live in a particularly Christian Empire and we Orthodox are a minority religion, would not Zonaras’ logic say it is time to change our practices regarding married bishops again?   Zonaras seems to be arguing that the very thing canonical tradition allows is for the Church to adapt to its changing historical realities.

Quinisext did not forbid electing a married man to the episcopal office; it only said that the bishop can no longer remain living with his wife.   Canon 48 of Quinisext allows for a married man to be elected as bishop as long as he and his wife mutually agree to live separate, celibate lives.   The wife would enter a monastery, the husband would provide for her out of his episcopal provisions.   If the now ex-wife was deemed worthy she was to be ordained as a deaconess but was not to serve with her ex-husband.

By the time of the 7th Ecumenical Council, 2 Nicea (787AD), further changes in piety and standards had occurred.  Canon 18 forbids there to be any woman in any home or property which the Bishop happens to live in or visit.  Even female slaves were required to leave the property when a bishop was present, and the Canon as it literally reads forbids even the bishop’s mother, sisters or daughters to be in the same house with him.   This is probably the case because by the end of the 8th Century bishops were being drawn not from married men who agree with their spouses to live celibate lives, but from monastics who should not have any reason to have women around them – and also it is obvious that there is an increasingly negative assessment of women at this time.   However, if we think that rule seems extreme, we might take note that a rule in adopted in Rome in 595AD forbade any lay persons from being in the Pope’s personal employment – all those working for the Pope had to be clergy or monks – so even the lay man was not permitted in the Pope’s presence.  {On the other side of this exclusion of all lay men and women from the presence of bishops, St. John Cassian (d. 435AD) warned monks to avoid not only all women but also at all costs to avoid all bishops too!}

We have moved along way from St. Paul’s listed requirements for a bishop in his epistles  to Timothy and Titus.   Moreover,  the world which adopted these canons no longer exists.  One would think that so-called “traditionalist” Orthodox who so often are completely hostile to modern American ways and see our current world as “unchristian” would have to admit that the world which existed when the canons were adopted is long gone.  Using the very rationale for adopting the canons in the first place, and in order for us to be most faithful to the Gospel and for us to present the Gospel to modern man, we need to take into account again some of the more ancient ways of thinking about bishops, including the Apostolic tradition recorded by St. Paul the Apostle to the Nations.     

 St. Paul clearly saw the episcopal process of being one in which we choose/discern the right man for the office.   We would do well in the OCA to clarify our criteria for episcopal candidates so that we know what kinds of men we should be considering for the office of bishop.  We could help the process by simply talking about the traits and characteristics of a good bishop instead of focusing on their lack of marriagability which obviously is no particular virtue. 

The Church’s canonical tradition did not foresee in 21st Century N. America that eliminating the married heterosexual from the pool of candidates would so limit the field of candidates as to leave the church virtually void of any skilled managers, or any servant leaders when it comes to selecting a bishop.

Certainly no bishop in recent memory has been chosen because he best fit St. Paul’s list of requirements for the episcopal office.  In fact our bishops lacking any managerial experience often appear to rely on their willingness to despotically tyrannize as a substitute for real leadership.  Or hoping to be liked by others, they avoid having to deal with problems lest they do something wrong (and being wrong is forbidden by “Orthodox” tradition that says they must be always right/correct, that in fact they can never be wrong).  

Years ago when the Midwest Diocese was struggling to find a new bishop, there were several bishop-wannabees who made themselves known to the diocesan chancellor.   He once observed that the one common trait of all of the bishop- wannabees was that they were particularly inept at doing anything practical even for themselves but were quite good at letting others serve them.  Hardly traits we would hope for in our bishops!

Whether our current bishops like the terminology or not, St. Paul saw management skills as essential to the Christian bishop.   One has to wonder with our bishops today whether any of them ever even held a job, let alone managed anything.  And managing as bishop today includes dealing with the changes in communication which the Internet has caused.  No longer are the actions and decisions of a bishop or the Synod unknown to their dioceses or to the world at large.  Instant communications is a real part of the world, and part of the work which a bishop must manage.

Rather than some secret list of “approved” candidates for the episcopacy, perhaps what the OCA really should invest in is running through the seminaries a special 1 semester seminar (residency required) in which men who have been nominated as potential bishops (self nomination not acceptable) must attend.  The course work might include a study ST. Paul’s list of character traits,  a study the New Testament’s ideas of leadership, discussions on the OCA Statutory duties of a bishop and learning the skills to accomplish these duties, discussions with currently ruling bishops (even non-OCA ones), a study of canonical tradition, and learning some managerial skills, as well as studying current law relating to issues such as sex abuse, drug abuse, malpractice and also current professional research on the treatment of such problems.  To get into this seminar, all candidates would have to submit to a psychological examination.  No one could be chosen as a bishop who had not completed this education, and the list of possible candidates for vacant dioceses would include those who have successfully completed the course.

Recent events in the OCA have shown that bishops really are supposed to be overseers and managers of diocesan affairs including financial affairs and the work of chancery personnel.   Bishops are not just liturgical symbols who get dressed in Byzantine imperial vestments to impress, or worse oppress, the uneducated masses.  If the OCA is truly going to be the Orthodox Church in America, it needs men who are trained and qualified to take on all the responsibilities of the bishop’s office which are listed in the OCA statutes and which are dictated by the complexities of modern concerns and issues.   We do need men who are well versed in the Holy Scriptures, and whose lives, thoughts, and habits are well known, so that they can both address the issues facing their 21st Century flocks and model a Christian way of life to the membership which has to deal with all of that 21st Century living presents to us.

One thought on “The Process of Choosing a Bishop

  1. Joe

    That’s a lot of ink spilled to cover up the fact that the OCA is weak in monasticism and therefore weak in spiritual leadership and therefore weak in candidates for Bishops. No need to blame the “Church.” The Orthodox Church outside of the OCA is doing just fine without psychologically vetted, SVS-trained and MBA toting married Bishops. The Orthodox Church will continue to revive and thrive in this 21st Century. Too bad the same cannot be said about the OCA.

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