Selecting A Bishop: It’s Not Just About Him

The OCA Synod of Bishops announced that at the November 2008 All North American Council there would be an election of a new metropolitan for the OCA as a first order of business. 

Though the election of a metropolitan is a critically important event at this fragile juncture in the history of the OCA, I want to make but one comment about the role of the bishop in the life of the church which is related to but not the primary issue in electing a metropolitan.

The bishop in each diocese is the man responsible for ordaining candidates to the diaconate and priesthood, and for assigning priests to parishes.  This means that one of the prime responsibilities of the bishop is shaping not only the present reality of the diocese but the future of the dioceses and the parishes as well.

The bishop will answer to God for how well he fulfilled this function.  He cannot avoid that judgment by refusing to ordain or assign priests – for the parishes and thus the diocese would not survive without priests to enable the sacramental life of the parish to exist.  Certainly parishes could exist as places of learning (like synagogues), or places of socializing or socialism.  But central to the existence of the parish are the sacraments – the uniquely defining moments and movement of Orthodox parishes – because that is something uniquely Christian that cannot be gotten elsewhere.   And though the priest and the parish’s role cannot be limited to the sacraments, the sacraments and the liturgical life nurture and feed all the members of the parish and all that the parish community does.

A major question to ask in selecting a man to become bishop therefore centers not on his liturgical perfection or preferences, nor on his ability to quote canons or remember rubrics.   Foremost among a bishop’s gifts must be an ability to discern, choose, nurture, teach, work with, help improve the men who serve the diocesan parishes.  The bishop must be an excellent father (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1).  Of course our image of the good father has changed over time, and is not quite the same as what St. Paul describes, but taking that into account, the image of the bishop as a good father – one who manages his household well – is still applicable today.   The bishop oversees a number of parish families, but his job is to help insure that each parish family embraces the ideals of Christianity.  The bishop is not lord over the parish, but perhaps its grandfather.  His role is more pastoral than hierarchical in each parish. 

As we choose our new bishops, we should ask the candidates about their understanding of their role in choosing, training, selecting and nurturing parish priests and deacons.  How do they see their role in helping priests to be good shepherds, and how do they see their role in dealing with the problems that can arise in a priest’s life and ministry.  For certainly the bishop’s attitude in these things is going to greatly shape the present and future of each diocese.  The issue is not just how the episcopal candidate sees his role as bishop, but what kind of men is he going to choose to pastor the diocesan parishes.  This should be a concern of every parish.   The election of a bishop has everything to do with the selection of parish priests.  And though the bishop may be far away from the life of the parish, the priest is “in our midst.”

The Universal Temptations of Christian Leaders

At left a batik icon done by a Kenyan Orthodox friend during my missionary visit to his country. 

Reading my journal for 14 September 1978, The Universal Elevation of the Cross,  Kunjeru, Kenya:   “We had no liturgy for the feat today…   I like this feast very much, especially the words of Christ, “when I am lifted up I will gather all men to myself.”  Whenever I see a crucifix I feel that I am drawn to Christ and that his arms are outstretched to gather me in, but not only me, but the millions who recognize Him as the Savior of the world.  The amazing thing is the Son of God’s love for us.  He knew we had brought death into the world through sin and yet He becomes like us in order to die for us and give us the possibility of eternal life.  It was necessary for Him to die, because without His death, humanity would be under continual bondage to death.”

Sadly, my journal notes the problems the Orthodox mission in Kenya faced.  The Greek Metropolitan from Alexandria, Frumentios, and the Kenyan Bishop George Gathuna, exhibited total animosity toward each other, threatening to bodily hurt one another.   Their fight had split the Church in Kenya and drug it down into a hostile scandal.  I wrote:  “These 2 guys are playing with Christ’s Church.  Neither of them is worried about the Church and teaching the Gospel, but both are worried about their personal powers being transgressed or ignored.  It is totally a personality fight and unless God intervenes I’m sure the Patriarch of Alexandria will enter the fray at the same level.  No one cares that the Orthodox Church in Kenya may disappear; all they care is that their dignity is kept intact.  … We have lost our call to preach the Truth and are only concerned about age old Patriarchates and episcopal dignity.  God forgive us and have mercy on us.”

How much that sounds like what has transpired recently in the OCA between a former metropolitan and a former chancellor.  How easy it is for the church to get diverted from its mission and to become involved in personal power feuds, and in defending entitlements rather than in exhibiting merits.  A continual temptation for church leaders is to become so wrapped up in defending their prestige and entitlements and popularity as to forget that the greater love they were called to was to lay down their lives for the church (John 15:13).  We are to elevate and exalt the Cross of Christ, not ourselves or hierarchs.  For the one who would be great among us is not to seek praise and power, but to serve (Matthew 20:26).  We bow our heads not to a king of flesh and blood, but to the awesome God, and we put not our trust in princes among men (Psalm 146:3).  That is a lesson to be learned in the church at all times and in every nation.

The Feast of the Universal Elevation of the Cross teaches us about the Universal temptation of Christian leaders to exalt themselves rather than the Cross of Christ.