Last week the Orthodox churches throughout the world gathered at the Holy and Great Council in Crete, or were at least aware of the gathering and had participated in the preparation for the Council. The Council had been discussed among Orthodox hierarchs for at least half a century. Being a hierarchical church, bishops in Orthodoxy have a responsibility for making such councils happen and succeed. Bishop alone however do not constitute the Church, even though sometimes one gets the impression that even conciliarity in the Church is the prerogative of bishops and doesn’t necessarily extend to other clergy let alone the laity which constitutes the vast majority of Church membership. Fr. Nicholas Afanasiev writes about the essential interdependency of laity and bishops in the church – without which the Body of Christ is dead. The Holy Spirit differently gifts laity and hierarchy in the Church.
“Not having the gift of administration, the ‘people of the Lord’ have a gift of discernment and examination which is a special kind of ministry not entrusted to particular members of the Church but rather to all the people of God, i.e., to all the members of the Church in their common action. ‘Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others discern what is said’ (1 Cor. 14:29). ‘Test everything; hold fast what is good’ (1 Thess. 5:21). The people have discernment and examination concerning everything being done in the Church. The bishop together with presbyters does not govern the people of God in his own name. Neither does he govern them on the basis of law as the one who received his power from the people or through the people. Rather he governs the people in God’s name, as the one ordained by God for the ministry of governance.
Having the charism of discernment and examination the people witness that everything done in the Church under the guidance of the pastors is done in accordance with the will of God revealed by the Holy Spirit. In the early church all ecclesial acts, such as the celebration of the mysteries, the reception of the catechumens and penitents into the Church, excommunication, and so forth, involved the people’s participation. In the early church the people’s testimony concerning the the revelation of God’s will had the character of ‘consensus’ with what was about to happen in the Church and their reception of what was accomplished as corresponding to God’s will. It would be a mistake to suppose that the people gave their consent as a result of a vote, just as it is custom in the popular assemblies of the Greek cities or in the representative institutions nowadays. The consent and reception by the people did not mean that the people expressed their own private opinion or wish concerning one or another ecclesial act. The ecclesial authority in the person of the bishops were not bound by the will of the laics, just as the people were not bound by the will of their presiders. Neither the will of laics nor the will of bishops is per se sufficient for the action in the Church. The Church lives and acts not by the will of man, but by the will of God. Consent and reception were the witness of the Church through the witness of the people that the presiders act and govern in agreement with the will of God.” (Nicholas Afanasiev, The Church of the Holy Spirit, pp 60-61)