The Orthodox Leader

Conciliarity is Obedience

“And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” -Philippians 2:8

A post from a few days ago included some excerpts from then-Bishop Jonah’s address at the last All-American Council. It is no overstatement to say that this address was the primary cause of the council delegates’ sending his name to the Holy Synod. In repudiating the corruption, the secrecy, the autocracy, and the paralysis that had come before, it proposed returning to an ancient image for leadership, in both style and substance, within the Orthodox Church in America.

Within that address, the line that garnered the greatest applause was the monumental declaration, “Authority is responsibility. Authority is accountability, it is not power.” However, another equivalency can be derived from +Jonah’s address: “Conciliarity is obedience.”

Consider then-Bishop Jonah’s words:

But the leadership that is within the Church, the leadership of bishops and the dioceses of the Metropolitan among the Synod–because what it the Metropolitan? He is the chairman of the Synod. The leadership of a parish priest in his parish: If you sit there and you lord it over your parishioners that ‘I am the priest and I can do whatever I want and I can spend the money however I want without accountability and without…’ you are not going to go very far. In fact you are likely to get thrown out because you will get into all sorts of problems.

“[Our leadership] has to be a voluntary cooperation. And obedience, within that context, is not some kind of, some guy, who can lord it over you and make you do what he wants you to and you are going to get in trouble one way or another. Obedience is cooperation out of love and respect.”

Using these statements as a basis, one can then say that proper Christian leadership is ascetic, inasmuch as it is a denial of self and the setting aside of personal desires in exchange for the edification (in Christ!), harmony, and cooperation (synergy) of the whole. This does not lead to democracy, for it does not represent a transfer of authority from one individual to many. Instead, it is an authority that finds its force in persuasion and meekness rather than in personal fiat or coercion, an authority working to achieve unity and harmony rather than discord and resentment. (For the record, meekness is not the quality of weakness, but rather the strength of bearing insult and injury without resentment and violence.)

It is in this spirit that our diocesan bishops, even the primate, promise to live in obedience to the Holy Synod. It is in this spirit that the OCA Statute describes the relationship between the parish priest and flock: “No activities in the parish can be initiated without his knowledge, approval, and blessing; neither should he do anything pertaining to the parish without the knowledge of his parishioners and parish organs elected by them, so that always and everywhere there may be unity, mutual trust, cooperation, and love.” (OCA Statute X.4) And if this applies to the priests, how much more should it apply to the bishops of the Church.

Of course, many of us already know of St. Ignatius’s exhortations that the faithful be obedient to the bishop and presbyters (priests), as demonstrated by his epistle to the Trallians (in but one instance among many):

…Let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles. –Ep. Trallians III

Not only is there the simple comparison of the bishop with Christ and the presbyters as the apostles, but there is also the depiction of the presbyters as the “Sanhedrin” of God(*), which is to say they form a consultative body established by the Holy Spirit, arrayed around the master. While the reading of St. Ignatius is complicated slightly by the difficulty of understanding the precise historical relationship between the offices of bishop and presbyter(**), the imagery is absolutely clear.

Further, in the same chapter, Ignatius emphasizes that the bishop’s authority is not wielded as a club (italics added):

For I have received the manifestation of your love, and still have it with me, in your bishop, whose very appearance is highly instructive, and his meekness of itself a power; whom I imagine even the ungodly must reverence.

Indeed, the life in imitation of Christ’s meekness is not the property of a single bishop, but is instead shared abroad among all those who hold the office. This life is led in a spirit of service that is willing not only to give spiritual admonishment but also to receive it from the lives and words of others (italics added):

I do not issue orders to you, as if I were some great person. For though I am bound for His name, I am not yet perfect in Jesus Christ. For now I begin to be a disciple, and I speak to you as my fellow-servants. For it was needful for me to have been admonished by you in faith, exhortation, patience, and long-suffering. But inasmuch as love suffers me not to be silent in regard to you, I have therefore taken upon me first to exhort you that ye would run together in accordance with the will of God. –Ep. Ephesians III

Conciliarity is obedience, according to both Metropolitan Jonah and St. Ignatius. For a bishop, this kind of conciliarity is maintained particularly by communion, reciprocity, and mutual consideration – “voluntary cooperation” in the Metropolitan’s words – with his brother bishops, and secondarily in the shared prayerful deliberation with his flock. If the parish priest is exhorted not to say, “I am the priest and I can do whatever I want and I can spend the money however I want without accountability and without…,” what exhortation is to be given to our hierarchs?

As for the applicability of this understanding in our current situation in the Orthodox Church in America, more on that soon.

(*)The Sanhedrin functioned as the supreme court of Jewish life.

(**) St. Ignatius maintains a greater distinction between the offices of bishop and presbyter than the New Testament and patristic writers before him, but the presence of at least one bishop in each city leads to a natural conclusion that an individual bishop’s authority had a narrower geographical scope in the post-apostolic period than now.

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Written by Fr Basil Biberdorf

March 28th, 2011 at 11:01 pm

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