Saturday, April 19, 2008

Authority, Part II

Of popes, patriarchs, pastors and priests

In Part I, I discussed how, for the Orthodox, the ultimate Authority is the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church. Before we go further, it will be well to mention a few things that are and are not meant by the Orthodox when we speak of our Life in Christ. Here is an excerpt from a larger essay I once wrote on the subject.

This new and immortal Life in Christ is not merely a definition about which we read in Scripture and then feel happy to apply to ourselves. It isn’t that we come across verses of Scripture that tell us we are a new creation [II Cor. 5:17], having been passed from death into life [I John 3:14], and then say to ourselves, Oh, isn’t that great! I’m a new creation; I must be, because the Bible says so. Far more than an abstract doctrine, it is concrete experience at the core of our being, which the Bible here articulates, confirms, and illumines for us. For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. [Philippians 1:21]

Nor is the new creation, our Life in Christ, a forensic theory … whose purpose is to get us off the hook with respect to sin. It is not as though God were saying, “Now, since you have repented and called upon Me, I am willing to consider you and your sins dead. From now on, lets say you are living a new life.” Instead, with wonder and awe, with tears and trembling, we actually know ourselves as truly "His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus”. [Eph. 2:10] The new life in Christ is a reality quite perceptible to faith. When we read in Ezekiel, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” [Ez. 36:26], we recognize a description of what Christ is doing in us day by day. The New Life is not de jure, but de facto.

By new life or transformation in Christ, we do not refer merely to a change of lifestyle, the taking on of new attitudes, or the embracing of a new belief system. It includes all that, yet the new life is not simply an overhaul of the old. It exists and is lived upon an altogether different plane. It is not life such as any son of Adam might lead, except transformed by means of having acquired a Christian slant. That is still the life born of flesh. Instead, Life in Christ is an entirely new creation, born of spirit. [John 3:3] Hence, the Apostle Paul can say, ”I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” [Gal. 2:20]

It is a supernatural life, for nature is not capable of producing it.

That life, then, is the matrix of doctrine, the way an oyster is the matrix of a pearl. Doctrine is a description of lived Truth. (“I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.” John 14:6) Christ is the Truth, and the Church is His Body, in which His Life, His Holy Spirit, continues to this day.

Somewhere recently (if it was in your blog, please tell me and accept my apologies for my forgetfulness) I read a wonderful line to the effect that the Church is not an authority; she is simply Truth.

The Church has no means, method, structure, or desire to “bind people’s conscience” to anything, to dictate doctrine. She does have, or at least has had, Ecumenical Councils, to mark out the boundaries of the Christian faith as over against various heresies that have challenged those. These councils dealt with the theology of Christ, of the Holy Spirit, and of the Holy Trinity. Their decrees are at least nominally accepted (if not much studied or understood) by most serious denominations. We Orthodox regard these conciliar decrees as true, period.

A major function of a bishop is to teach these truths. But the Orthodox do not understand the teaching office of a bishop (or even a Council) the same way Roman Catholics do. For us, it is not that God reveals truth more or less exclusively to these men, and the rest of us only receive it through them. Instead, our bishops are teaching us (often in more detail) the same Truth (Christ) which already enlightens Christian hearts because of the same Holy Spirit dwelling there. And the same Truth, we should add, to which the Holy Scriptures also bear witness. It is not the job of an Orthodox bishop to dictate to anybody what he must believe. Rather, he articulates, for us and for the whole world, the faith already in our hearts. He explains it, defends, nourishes, and promotes it. He is never its source, never its arbiter, never “the one” in whom Truth mostly resides. A bishop is supposed to be a living icon of Christ, but never His “Vicar” or viceroy or regent.

A bishop, as under shepherd in the service of the Shepherd, also has spiritual oversight of his diocese, just as a priest has spiritual oversight of his parish. Spiritual oversight means, it is his charge to promote and maintain the spiritual life (life in the Holy Spirit) of his flock.

A bishop can tell a priest, for example, to wear proper vestments for services, not omitting cuffs or stole.

I shall never forget the dismayed look on the face of our former bishop, Silas, or the look on our former priest’s face, when, right after the Bishop had mounted the pulpit to preach, two altar boys appeared pushing a rolling cart with a cake atop it, blazing with candles! I forget if it was the Bishop’s birthday or an anniversary of his enthronement, but I remember very clearly his shrinking back and shouting, “No, no, no!” as the cake came rolling across the solea (chancel).

“But, Your Grace, the Sunday School children…” spluttered the priest.

“No, no, I do not want it! Get it out of the sanctuary! OUT!” the Bishop thundered, pointing toward the exit. And you could almost hear the shocked congregation cheering for their bishop as the cake disappeared.

That’s the sort of authority a bishop rightly exercises, for the sanctuary is, of course, consecrated to God, sacred to Him, and is therefore to be used only for worship, and not for birthday or anniversary celebrations, nor for speech-making on Mothers Day, nor for secular concerts, nor for any other thing than prayer. (For every rule there is a valid exception, but they remain exceptional, and few.)

A priest can, for example, make and enforce a rule that there shall be no other activities in the church premises during Divine Liturgy (no cooking, for example, or committee meetings). That is for the good of the parish’s spiritual life. But he cannot dictate how large the new kitchen shall be in the parish hall; that, not being a spiritual matter, is up to the whole congregation and especially to the parish council. A priest can enforce a “no talking in the sanctuary” rule. He cannot tell the youth group(s) when to hold meetings. A priest can tell you what is appropriate to wear to church. He cannot necessarily decide how often the church grounds need mowing. Mind you, he can indeed make all of these decisions if his parish is willing, but normally it is thought best to relieve the pastor of secular concerns such as these. Further, provided he is a good and humble priest, his opinion will almost always be solicited and respected, whether or not it prevails. If he is a worldly man, or a frivolous sort, or not devout, his opinion will never be sought and nothing he says will be given any weight.

Which leads me to the next point: priesthood does not necessarily involve leadership! Orthodox Christians follow whoever most nearly resembles their Lord, whoever speaks in His Voice. If a clergyman fails in this respect, he will not be followed by most of us, even if he is a patriarch. This means leadership, as distinct from priesthood, is for the most holy among us, including laity, including women. Priests are leaders, like anyone else, only insofar as they are conformed to the Image of the Son.

We also do not have the Roman Catholic idea, perpetuated by certain children of the Reformation, that our clergy stand “in Persona Christi Capitis,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, in the person of Christ the Head. A priest or bishop does not stand in Christ’s place for the simple reason that it is not vacant! Christ Himself is occupying His place. Furthermore, even supposing Christ’s place were vacant, no one else could ever occupy it!

Catholics and inheritors of their idea do not suppose Christ is absent from their worship. But the difference is, the Orthodox do not believe He is present only in and through the clergy! He is present directly, in Person; we encounter Him firsthand. The priest or bishop does not stand in Christ’s place or serve in His stead. Rather, Christ serves in His own place, and the priest or bishop serves alongside Him. Christ invisibly performs the “real” things, while the priest performs their visible counterparts. The priest blesses the bread and wine and prays over them, but only Christ – not the priest! – can transform them into His Body and Blood. The priest makes the sign over the baptismal waters, but only Christ sends His Holy Spirit to sanctify them, so that they are efficacious for washing more than our bodies. The priest prays for our forgiveness, or in some jurisdictions, pronounces it, but Christ Himself does the actual forgiving. Christ and His priests, then, work together, co-ministering to us, the Great High Priest and the little priests, the True Shepherd and the under shepherds. In summary, our access to Christ is not only through the clergy! We also have direct access to Him, nobody between Him and us.

Finally, there is the question of obedience. And the first thing to note here is that every Christian is supposed to submit to every other Christian! But beyond that, we have St. Paul’s reason for obeying the clergy, namely, that it is good for us. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that [is] unprofitable for you.” (Hebrews 13:17. The Orthodox believe St. Paul authored this Epistle.) For they watch for your souls. We do not have to obey anybody who has some other agenda, who is not watching out for our souls. Obedience to our clergy is never absolute. Christian freedom, provided it is used in a Christian manner, is. We enjoy the “glorious liberty of the children of God." (Romans 8:21)

P.S. From the above, it is probably obvious, but should still be pointed out, that priesthood is not, for us, a status thing. It is a function within the Church rather than a status. And, as a deacon once mentioned to me, it isn't even the highest function. During Divine Liturgy, the highest, most important, function is to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord.