On Hierarchy and Conciliarity in the OCA

In this blog I want to offer a few of my own observations on Metropolitan Jonah’s   The Conciliar Structures of the Orthodox Church in America, which he published before Pascha.   I am not intending to comment on everything he wrote, but want to focus on a few points as well as his choice of words.  This may in turn not fairly or fully reflect his overall points, but it is my entry point into the discussion which he has thankfully put on the OCA family table.    I will comment on things I think we as church need to discuss.

I do believe that Orthodoxy in America is in a unique position in world Orthodoxy to review our understanding of the Church.  Through history Orthodoxy has placed emphasis on certain teachings of Christ while de-emphasizing others.  While this has happened due to historical events which demanded a pastoral response under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we are given opportunity now to think again about all of the teachings of Christ and to perhaps re-emphasize certain Gospel teachings that have not held prominence in Orthodox thinking for a number of reasons and centuries.  We need to think in Gospel terms in order to carry out the mission and ministries which Christ has put before us in the new world.

At several points in the document Metropolitan Jonah speaks about the members having “responsibility for the Body” or a bishop having “complete responsibility for every aspect of the life of the community under his care.”   In this sense every Christian is to be a care giver in the Church.   Christianity is not a spectator sport; we must come to our Christian assemblies prepared to give of ourselves to others and for the up building (edification) of all others.    While I think this is good and right imagery, I would want to raise the issue that members and bishops are not only responsible FOR the Body, they are also responsible TO the Body.  That small preposition packs a lot of meaning because it clearly implies that we are accountable to one another.   That interdependency fully reflects Christ’s own teaching about the unity of all Christians.   There has been, in my eyes, way too much emphasis on hierarchy in the church and not enough on unity.  In St. Paul’s notion of the Body of Christ it is Christ alone who is the head of the Church, not the bishops – the bishops remain part of the body like all Christians and in fact grow out of Christ the sole head (Ephesians 4:16).   Bishops also shoulder a responsibility to model, maintain and be a symbol of the unity of all believers not just to ensure hierarchical power over the rest of the believers. 

“And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ.  He who is greatest among you shall be your servant;  whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted”  (Matthew 23:9-12, RSV).

Veselin Kesich points out in FORMATION AND STRUGGLES: THE BIRTH OF THE CHURCH AD 33-200 that only in Jude 4 is the word “despotes” used to identify Christ.  I do not know when “despot” was first applied to a bishop.”   The New Testament refers to “episcopos” but along the way in Orthodox development secular/Gentile ideas of leadership completely dominated the Church.   Kesich points out that “hierus” is never used in the New Testament for church leadership.  Elsewhere in the New Testament only Christ is the “archierea” (Hebrew 3:1) and the entire people of God in 1 Peter 2:9 are called the “royal priesthood” but not any one leader.   Historians say the word “hierus” was applied to a church leader only at the end of the Second Century.   St. Paul never even calls his followers “disciples” signaling he understood Jesus to be the only master.

MJ:   “In a diocese, the priests are in a relationship of obedience to the bishop, similar to the monks to the abbot in a monastery.  The bishops are in a relationship of obedience, through slightly different to the Metropolitan.  This relationship is the primacy of leadership.”  

The emphasis on order, hierarchy and obedience remains striking to me.   In Acts 2:42 the Christians devote themselves to koinonia, fellowship with one another, not to obedience to a hierarchy.  It is a commitment to unity where the community has primacy and the Eucharist is the sign of this koinonia.  It is in the Eucharist  and Eucharistic Assembly that the Church embodies Christ and makes Christ visible.   Through history the Church loses this sense of the primacy of the community replacing it with the primacy of the hierarch over the Eucharistic community.   It is important to remember the Fathers of the church saw as the great image of the Church the Old Testament’s Song of Songs – a love story, not a story about master and slaves.   It also has to be said that the Church itself existed before there was any hierarchy.   The New Testament in fact emphasizes gifts and ministries but makes no mention of hierarchy in the Christian community.   There is leadership to be sure in the early church and St. Paul does set for the bishop the condition that he be an exemplary head of household and a good manager (1 Timothy 3).  Did the prohibition by the Lord Jesus of leaders lording over others ever have effect in the early church communities?    Certainly in  history bishops clamored to be Peter the head apostle rather than John the beloved disciple as they embraced the Byzantine ideas of hierarchy!   To me it seems that Orthodoxy has opportunity in America to embody again the imagery of the early church which was changed through centuries of hierarchical accretions which may have served a pastoral purpose in certain cultures and times but may not be the means of leadership which God needs for His church to continue on in history.   Remember the Church existed before hierarchy – the development was first Christ the high priest from whom (second) all believers receive their priesthood, and then thirdly and much later did hierarchy emerge.   Hierarchy was not the source of priesthood in the church – it flowed from the universal priesthood of all believers.  As Sergius Bulgakov notes in THE BRIDE OF THE LAMB  priesthood in the New Testament is given to the church by Christ and it is a holiness bestowed on all the people of God.  It is from the fullness of holiness which Christ has given to the church that hierarch emanates, it is not hierarchy which gives holiness or fullness to the church.  Bulgakov says the essential character of the church is koinonic and eucharistic not hierarchic wherein lives the sobornost/conciliarity of the church.  He says that hierarchy over time has obscured the koinonic nature of the church.    Has an opportunity presented itself for the Church in America to recover our koinonic nature?

“The Metropolitan is the one leader of the Church, elected both as president of the Synod by the Synod, but also by the whole Church in Council. While not above other bishops, he is elected to be accountable to the rest of the Church for the other bishops as Synod and the life of the whole.”

This is one of the places where Metropolitan Jonah does address the issue of those in the church and those in leadership in the church being accountable TO the Church.  It is only when this relationship within the Church is emphasized that Koinonia can result – where the primacy of the community is exhibited as properly primordial to the Body of Christ as seen in the Acts of the Apostles.   Yet it is hard to see how this has been actualized in the life of the church.   It should not be mere ideal – the church must find the way to incarnate this.

“Primacy means leadership, but also the responsibility of accountability. … If a bishop loses the ability to lead through age or illness, or abuses his authority, or is credibly accused or falls into a state of immorality demanding canonical action, or is derelict in his duties, it is the Metropolitan’s responsibility to investigate the situation on behalf of the Synod, and to call that bishop to accountability. If the bishop in question is the metropolitan himself, then the next senior bishop of the Synod bears that responsibility. The canons are clear: bishops alone judge bishops.”

This is an area of church life that needs to be carefully considered.  In a very hierarchically structured society such as Roman Byzantium, social caste was carefully observed and to cross such social boundaries certainly represented a threat to the social order.   However, in a more egalitarian society which has mostly abolished social class distinctions and in which meritocracy not entitlement is the norm, we can ask whether the strict social caste structure being enforced by the canons in fact can allow the Church to be Church – to be koinonia, to attain unity.  Does the Church reflect only the caste culture of the Byzantine Empire, or does it reflect the values taught by Christ in the Gospel? 

“But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave;  even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many'”  (Matthew 20:25-28, RSV, paralleled in Mark 10:42-45)

While Orthodoxy advocates the apostolic succession, it often appears to ignore the apostolic lesson regarding greatness and primacy – leadership is there to serve not rule over as it is among the Gentiles.  Jesus rebuked the disciples for arguing about who was greatest and when two wanted to be his right and left hand men so they could lord it over their fellow believers (see also my blog Kingdom People).  In the Canon for Matins of Holy Monday in fact Christians attempting to lead by lording over others is called “self appointed tyranny” (see my blog Hierarchical Power: “Self Appointed Tyranny”?)

“We have to embrace diversity of ministries and needs, and move beyond the idea of homogeneity of practice and form.”

This is essential and I have written about this recently in my blog Multiplying Ministries Enables Church Growth.   Orthodoxy must bring back into our vocabulary speaking about gifts of the Spirit, the diversity of the gifts, the Body as made up of many diverse members, and of seeing all members as co-ministers of the Gospel, not just the clergy.  We need to help discern the spiritual gifts given to each parish member.  We need to figure out how to train and equip people for ministry and to stop making our people passive recipients of what the clergy do.   Notice in Acts 6 when there is complaint about the apostolic ministry, the Apostles envision a new form of ministry but do not themselves pick the new leadership in the church. Rather,  they tell the people to select the servant-minsters.  All the apostles do is bless the selection of the people – the church is not being controlled from the top, but rather ministry is expanded from the base and by the base.  

“Hierarchy is primarily about a distribution of responsibility, and is a structure of accountability. The Orthodox Church is a hierarchical church par excellence! It has nothing to do withdominance and subjection; but rather, with shared responsibility in a structure of accountability. The bishop is within the Church, not over it. Hierarchy is about the facilitation of conciliarity.”

I have no problem with what His Beatitude has stated here, but it seems to me we are unnaturally forcing everything in the church to be seen through the lens of hierarchy.   In the Nicene Creed, we profess a belief in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”   We do not profess a belief in or hope in a hierarchical church or in hierarchy.  Certainly if in the great Christological debates of the 4th Century they had seen hierarchy as essential to protecting the Church they would have put such a statement in the Creed.  Perhaps the Creed reflects the “pre-Constantinian” thinking in which the unity of the church was understood as essential while hierarchy still was seen as belonging to the secular world of the empire.  We do profess a belief in the apostolic nature of the church and some might say that indicates hierarchy, but I think it refers much more to authenticity/historicity.  And Christ did command the apostles not to embrace the leadership methods of the secular Gentiles.

“Historically, the presbyters constituted a council around the bishop, a parish or diocesan council. Contemporary Diocesan Councils, with Diocesan Assemblies, are the means whereby the presbyters and lay leaders make the needs within the community known, and where the bishop works to build consensus and empower lay leaders to serve those needs. While the means is partly financial administration, the diocesan councils are the real organ of conciliarity within each local church. The bishop leads and proposes, the Council discusses and comes to consensus, and then cooperates to fulfill the needs of the church. When it works, there is wonderful synergy, and the Church’s needs are fulfilled; when it doesn’t, the whole diocese grinds to a halt. It takes as much work from the bishop as from everyone else to come together, discern God’s will, and implement it through consensus and cooperation.”

What really stood out in my mind in this section is the imaging of the bishop as the initiator of all action while the rest of the church is the passive recipient of the bishop’s action.   The bishop works, empowers, leads, and proposes.  The diocesan council and assembly’s duty is to discuss, come to consensus and co-operate.   It does appear to me that the bottom line is their job is to obey.   It is not a dynamic image of the Church in which all are empowered by the Holy Spirit.  Rather the bishop is the head and leads and the rest are to obey.  This is not a good image for the multiplication of ministries, and it does completely curtail the Holy Spirit.  The membership is not empowered and gifted by God but rather passively waits for the bishop to tell them what to think and do.   This in fact may be the way Orthodoxy has been operating for some time, but then it is no wonder that the Church lacks dynamism for a benevolent bishop might enable a passive people to be happy, but if the bishop is himself the gatekeeper of the Holy Spirit then he becomes the bottleneck which inhibits the people of God from fulfilling Christ’s command to go into all the world and make disciples and to use the gifts which God’s Spirit has given to the Church not just to clergy.