What Can We Do?
Fr. Thomas Hopko
I believe that the problems and disagreements we have in the Church today, not only concerning finances in the Orthodox Church in America, but about virtually everything in Orthodoxy (authority, community, responsibility, structure, organization, leadership, decision-making, education, mission, monastic life, liturgical worship etc.) are not simply because we are sinful and incompetent people. They also exist because we are compelled to deal in a complex, secularized world with a two-thousand year history that we don't know how to understand and handle in relation to our present times and conditions. In our ideas and actions we inevitably mix together elements from:
- The Early Church -- in which, for example, we hear of a "monarchical" episcopate, with the bishop being an "image of God" and an "other Christ" in his local church community of presbyters, deacons, widows, virgins and faithful people that was more like an extended contemporary "parish" than it was a contemporary diocese.
- The Patristic Period -- in which, for example, we see the Church organized into geographical regions with dioceses and parishes, and primacies, patriarchs and metropolitans, following imperial governmental divisions, with the bishops (all being celibate by 6th century law) becoming major players in public life, though they were still pastors of local communities.
- The Byzantine Period -- in which, for example, we find church order being explained in "hierarchal" and "mystagogical" ways (often misunderstood by us), with the bishops, presbyters, deacons and laypeople understood in a descending order of power and authority, with superiors ruling over their inferiors in church and state, in imperial conditions involving massive political struggles, social conflicts, military engagements, missionary activities (mostly in Slavic territories), schisms with the Christian West and monastic developments that played major roles in public life both in Byzantium and in the Slavic lands.
- The Ottoman Period -- in which, for example, we see the bishops (and clergy generally) being installed by the Turks for almost 500 years as "ethnarchs" with secular authority over the Christians of the Turkish empire, and adopting the secular insignia of the former Byzantine empire (the long hair, mitre, sakkos, staff, eagle rug, and throne on the side of the church building) and also the formal uniform of Turkish rule (the riasson and cylindrical hat of the Turkish judge), with no schools, a devoted but mostly unenlightened clergy, and a celibate episcopate whose members rarely possessed serious theological education and genuine monastic training and testing, while the church in the Russian lands was to undergo major inner turmoil and schism in its imitation of Greek practices.
- The Western Latin Influence -- like, for example, Holy Orders being understood and explained in Orthodoxy as "one of the seven sacraments" allegedly "instituted by Jesus and found in the Scriptures," with the bishop possessing the "fullness of the priesthood" understood as a "priesthood" substantially different from the "priesthood of all believers", with the clergy exercising power and authority over subordinates and inferiors whom they try (often unsuccessfully) to rule over as their subjects; and, of course, with thousands of Orthodox Christians without their own countries and governments being ecclesiastically united with Rome as Eastern-Rite Catholics.
- The Western Protestant Influence -- like, for example, the suppression of the Patriarchate in Russia by Peter the Great, and the establishment of an ecclesiastical structure patterned after the Dutch Reformed Church that ruled the Russian Church for over 200 years headed by a government office, with bishops governing dioceses of hundreds of thousands of people and the clergy (who came to exist as a feudal "caste") being narrowly and poorly educated (except for the academy graduates) and totally controlled by the state, and almost totally at the mercy of the people upon whom they and their families depended for their daily subsistence and well-being.
- The Period of National Churches -- in which, for example, the still mostly untrained clergy (who often led rebellions against Turkish domination) continued to serve as "ethnarchs" to defend and support national interests under the direction and appointment of imported Western European monarchs and aristocrats .
- The Period of Marxism -- in which, for example, thousands and even millions of committed clergy and lay people were imprisoned and murdered, and church leadership was totally subjugated to atheistic governmental control, with the clergy either being very clever in their devotion to God and their people, or plainly "sold out" to the communists, or surviving and serving with some strange mixture of the two in their thoughts, words and deeds.
- The Post-Marxist Period -- in which, for example, churches led by clergy placed in power under communism and decimated by persecution and oppression are compelled to deal with masses of people demanding baptism, institutions demanding reorganization, and structures demanding reconstruction, in so-called "democratic" and "capitalistic" societies controlled by oligarchies of former communists in league with western capitalists.
- The Period of Middle Eastern Strife -- in which, for example, the majority of educated Orthodox Christians in territories from Turkey to Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Israel and Egypt have fled to the West, leaving behind a suffering minority of believers growing smaller every day.
- The Period of the So-called "Diaspora" -- in which, for example, the churches came to serve as the organizational centers of ethnic communities outside their original homelands, with the priests becoming "hired chaplains" caught between their community's lay leaders and their diocesan bishops, all of whom were influenced, in one way or another, not only by the past histories of their old homelands, but also by the political, economic and religious ideologies and experiences of life in their new countries.
All of these periods, with the understandings and experiences of Orthodoxy that they provide, real and fantasized, are all mixed together today in the minds and memories of our bishops, priests and people. Chaos and confusion reign among us because of it. Add our personal and corporate weakness, ignorance, incompetence and sin to the story, and we have the conditions in which we live and work today.
What can we possibly do in these conditions? How can we possibly survive, not to speak of healthily growing and thriving? We already know that if it were not for those born abroad and converts to the Church, our churches would be in even worse condition than they now are, in both quantity and quality of members.
I believe that we can begin by doing seven things.
- We can realize the tremendous complexity of our present situation, and work together patiently and charitably to disentangle its various elements, to understand them accurately, and to deal with them appropriately in our church life today, according to our abilities to do so, whether or not our hierarchs, here in America or abroad, choose to lead us and participate with us in these obligatory efforts.
- We can make our views known, and offer our suggestions about proper action, forcefully and firmly, without demonizing or ridiculing those who disagree with us, while cooperating courageously with those who do.
- We can always remember that those who disagree with us are as strongly committed to their understanding of things as we are.
- We can meet regularly with those whom we believe are building up the Church and fostering its God-given mission, even if these people are few and are not always supported by the ecclesiastical hierarchy.
- We can obey our leaders who disagree with us, and refuse to meet with us and speak with us, to the extent that they do not lead us into heresy or immorality, whatever they are doing, or not doing, in their personal lives and pastoral actions.
- We can give our money, time and energy to the churches, institutions, organizations and activities in the Church that we believe in, and give only what we are obligated to give by statute to other ecclesiastical offices and institutions.
- We can work on ourselves to be faithful Orthodox Christians in word and deed through liturgical worship, sacramental communion, reading Holy Scripture, and following the Saints in prayer, fasting, silence, repentance, confession of sins and acts of mercy to others, whoever they are, that are in need of spiritual and material assistance, guidance and support.
If we do these things, we will be using our time, energy and money to inspire, encourage and educate new church leaders, who, humanly speaking, are the Church's only hope for survival and growth. We cannot keep trying to "put new wine into old wine skins." We cannot keep trying to force or cajole or shame our leaders and our people into doing things that they don't want to do. We can only love them and leave them to do what they think best while we give ourselves fully to finding and fostering a new generation of Orthodox Christian leaders who believe in the Gospel and struggle to interpret the complex history of Orthodoxy in the eternal light of Christ, while applying their evangelical, theological and historical visions to the conditions of the real life of the real world in which they are really living.
We have everything in the Orthodox Church that we need for divine life in this world, whoever our bishops, priests and people are, and whatever their behavior may be. We have God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, His Only Son, and the Holy Spirit. We have the Scriptures, the Sacraments, the Liturgical Services, and the lives, teachings and prayers of the Saints. And we have each other. We don't need anything else. We don't even need formal church unity, especially if it will be a unity in our present chaos and confusion that may actually make matters worse. Indeed, we are perhaps even better off, at least for the time being, without such unity.
Let us all start by doing what we can as individual believers, families, monasteries and local communities. Let's leave all the rest for now. And let's let those responsible for those aspects of church life, for whom we pray and whom we obey and support to the extent that we can, do what they think best, remembering that we will all answer on the Day of the Lord for what we have said and done. May the Lord have mercy on us all.
Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko
Fr. Thomas Hopko is Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, NY.
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