The following is my translation of an article by metropolitan Georges Khodr of Mount Lebanon that was printed in the Lebanese newspaper an-Nahar on Saturday, October 3. Although its immediate context was anticipation of the election of a new bishop for Tripoli, it is worth reading in order to undertstand how the role of the bishop is understood among many in the Antiochian Church. The Arabic original may be found here.
The Conciliar System in the Eastern Church
The system of administration in the Orthodox Church is the embodiment of a theological teaching. For us, the people as a whole preserve the teaching of the Church. That is, the vision of the entire life of the Church is the vision of the whole of the faithful, the bishops among them. In keeping with the importance of the place in which the bishop sits, he listens to what the Spirit says to the whole of his flock. This does not mean that he relies upon the mass of his flock, but rather upon the pious and the actively practicing among his flock. They are the ones who are truly the Body of Christ insofar as they constitute Christ on earth.
However, the bishop is not only connected to the whole of the flock with which he is entrusted. He his connected as a member to the other metropolitans who govern the church that we call ‘local’ or ‘regional’ just as he is united to the right-believing bishops of all the world. However, current, day-to-day events determine the actions of the local church, like the Church of Antioch.
This Church is governed by the Holy Synod, comprising all the bishops of regions and is presided over by the patriarch who is the first among equals. The single mystery of priesthood makes them a single gathering, and it is hoped that they are of one mind, which is assumed to be the mind of Christ. This is the togetherness that they constitute, and which we hope the Holy Spirit breathes out and extends, so that it will serve with one spirituality all the faithful by way of the spiritual units that we call dioceses. Because of the unity of its members, a single synod, like the Holy Synod of Antioch, oversees all the regions because we assume that the bishops are joined to the mind of Christ and that they do not speak according to whim, and that they are striving for Christ, with the Gospel as their point of departure. For this reason they place the Gospel book in the hall where they gather in order to remind them that they are speaking His words and that they have no say apart from Him when they make a decision or put together a plan of action or clarify the faith or elect a new bishop or judge a bishop to have transgressed the canons of the Church.
For us, the patriarch is the guarantor of unity because he has achieved dispassion. By virtue of this purification they regard him as the first among them and they remain eager to honor his place, just as he is eager to build up their place. For this reason they do not gather without him and if God calls him to Himself, they do not gather except to choose his successor. There is no synod in the absence of the patriarch and no patriarch without a synod. In the event of schism, those who depart from the synod do not constitute a synod, no matter what their numbers may be- a minority, in a time of schism, which is presided over by the patriarch, is the synod.
Naturally, this system has no analogue in any worldly institution, be it a parliament or anything else. Thus, it is not true to say that Orthodoxy is a democracy. It is the concord or the harmony of the Holy Spirit. Just as you obey your bishop because God raised him up through the laying on of hands (that is, his consecration), so too you obey the Holy Synod not because it is an authority set up over you in a legalistic manner, but rather because hands were laid upon the head of each bishop on the day of his consecration. “The bishop is an icon of Christ,” as St. Ignatius of Antioch said. In obeying him, you obey Christ.
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However, bishops are humans and errors can creep up on them. If an error comes that damages the teaching of the Church, it is your responsibility to not obey, and here the synod makes a complaint to the other Orthodox synods. If your local bishop sins against the teaching of the Church and teaches an innovation then you must cut off his prayers and take up the matter with his colleagues, especially the patriarch. However, this occurs extremely rarely and in the past hundred years we haven’t seen such a matter, because the definition of the teaching of the Church is particular to ecumenical councils, not to the local synod.
The synod may not be wise in a pastoral or administrative matter. This is discussed in a session related to a complaint or to a justifiable objection and matters are settled locally.
Here pious priest, well-versed in the tradition of the church and wise and faithful laymen play a large role. The customary spirit of fatherhood sets matters right, especially because the teaching of the Church is that the clergy and the faithful are one body who deal with each other as its members in the Word of salvation which is defended with good intention and an upright heart.
There is no value in the Church for numbers. You do not obey the Synod for this reason. You accept it because it is an expression of the Church that is engaged in purification, that is, the entirety of those who pray. In the first centuries, the Church rejected synods made up of more than four hundred bishops and called them robber’s synods, though they only decided what they considered to be inspired by the Spirit of God. The synod is not its own master on account of its merely gathering but because we are sure that it is tied to the Lord. When God governs the synod by grace, it is a godly synod and you are only bound by that which is godly. Bishops are those to whom the divine mysteries are entrusted, as Paul says. If they act against that trust then they become nothing, since there is no ruler in the Church save God. In the Church of the seven ecumenical councils, a later council confirmed the truth of the council previous to it and in this way we draw close to certain truth. Certain truth is confirmed by the acceptance of the whole faithful when the bishops bring it forth when they gather. The great councils were not known just for their wisdom and for great theology, and for this reason we commemorate the holy fathers who gathered in Nicaea or in Constantinople. The holiness of those gathered constitutes the truth of their belief because there is no separation between belief and purity of life.
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Those upon whose purity we rely are called to an election when one of the dioceses is vacant on account of a death. In some churches, like in Russia for example, the clergy and the laity participate in the election directly. In other churches, there are nominating committees composed of priests and laymen who undertake nominations, that is, they present to the Holy Synod a list of names, one of which the synod will choose. In our country, the nominating committee is the diocesan assembly. If it does not meet, then the synod itself begins by putting forth nominations then performs the election in accordance with the nominations. Naturally, there are conditions that a nominee must fulfull, the most important of them are his spiritual life and his morals, then his attainment of an degree in theology, then the age requirement and his progress in service.
However, if all of these conditions are fulfilled, they are an approximation of an ideal and not a guarantee. You may choose, for example, a person who appears to you to be chaste and humble and the experience of power may corrupt him and make him oppressive to you. If you look at his academic theological achievement you may think that he is knowledgeable, but it becomes clear to you afterword that he is weak in his application of theological acumen. The good qualities that abound in a priest may not be enough to determine his suitability for the episcopate. New virtues may appear in him on account of his new vocation, so it is inevitable that members of the synod will differ in their choice. One may focus on the theological acumen of a candidate and another on his pastoral gifts, if such is known. Another may emphasize his administrative skill. But what is administrative skill?
We must not be surprised when our leaders differ in their criteria. One may be attracted by the intelligence and knowledge of a candidate. Another may be interested in his experience. Because the matter depends on the assessments of individuals, the unanimity that is in principle sought may be difficult. However, what will set you free form uncertainty is to seek in the one that you call to the episcopate a deep and firm love of the Lord. Learning should be added to this because what is sought in a man is precise knowledge of the matters of faith in order for him to preach and teach. As for what we call management of the Church’s property and income and wealth, the early Church saw fit for the elected bishop to name an administrator to oversee these matters, since a person who is steeped in theological knowledge does not necessarily have experience with things of this world. As for one who does especially have experience with them and does not have knowledge of God and his Word, he is unable to improvise the Word at all. Thus, good intentions and insightful opinions can center on the choice of a man who is full of the wisdom of God and he will additionally be given other kinds of wisdom in which the people and the times are well informed as long as he relies upon the wise and the pious among his flock.
The great problem is that the Gospel of Christ was given to people surrounded by the weakness because of their human nature and those of great spiritual stature are very few. The Church in this world has not reached the kingdom and we know, as Paul said, “We have this treasure in jars of clay.” In order to keep safe what is entrusted to you until the coming of the Lord, you must keep long vigil and bear hardships with the consolation that comes down to you from above.