In coming to terms with the leadership scandal and failure in the OCA, some have suggested it is a matter of ecclesiology – a wrong understanding of the nature and role of the bishop. This is probably true, but to some extent makes it sound like it’s just a wrong idea which has hurt the OCA, when in fact it has been more the practice – how things are done – than simply the ideas governing behavior which have so hurt the church. It is rooted in the long history of Christianity in which the bishop as shepherd, rule of faith, and overseer of his flock became more the hierarch, the despotin, the primate, and ruler over his diocese.
In their book, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, authors Brafman and Beckstrom offer thoughts and some history lessons about how having power diversely spread through an organization allows institutions to survive and even thrive through times in which leadership breaks down or is forcefully eliminated. This is like a starfish which when its arms are cut off from its head regenerate and form new starfish. Though they don’t use it as one of their examples, certainly the early Christian Church fits their starfish model. Despite persecutions, despite the imprisonment and executions of the bishops, the Church continued to grow and thrive because its power – the faith of each Christian – was distributed throughout the organization. Cutting off the head – martyring the bishop – did not change the faith of the membership. New bishops kept arising because the people believed in their God and in their Gospel.
When the persecutions came to an end, the Church changed with the times and moved into a more structured institutional mode in which all the “power” rested with the bishop. And there developed a system which fed on itself – the powers that be thought that they alone were actualizing and protecting true Christianity, not only from hostile external forces, but also from the laity who would otherwise dilute the fervor of the faith. So, the hierarchy became increasingly detached from the laity – and the development of ideas such as “the first among equals” emerges; an idea which sees the church only as hierarchs and makes no reference to the laity at all. It was bad ecclesiology. “Power” in the Church was then conceived of as something which the hierarchs alone possessed and it put them over the rest of the church.
The Russian Bolshevik revolution in the early part of the 20th Century saw the Church as totally a “spider” organization in Brafman and Beckstrom’s terms, and they attempted to decapitate the church in order to kill it – first imprisoning and executing bishops and priests, and then later trying to infiltrate the hierarchy in order to undermine its authority in the eyes of the faithful. But the unexpected happened. The Orthodox Church which had functioned as a spider since the time of Constantine reverted back to being the starfish. Though the “head” of the church – its hierarchy – was attacked, murdered, imprisoned and compromised – the starfish didn’t die, but the believing Christians regenerated the Faith by functioning without the head. The power of Christianity was once again in the faith of the believers, not in the imperial and despotic rule of crowned princes and bishops.
So for the OCA today, yes we need an ecclesiology which recognizes the power of the faithful, but we also must be willing to live with our bishops and not lose our faith. The resurgence of the OCA is not merely or mostly in the hands of the hierarchs, who after all constitute a tiny minority within the Body of Christ. It resides in all the faithful living according to the power bestowed in them through Baptism, Chrismation, confession and the Eucharist. The Church is the Body of Christ, made up of all its members and it is alive in all of its members at all times, not just in the bishops. As the persecutions of the Church in the Roman Empire and in Soviet Russia proved, the faith is kept alive in its believing members more than in any institutional leadership.