Bishops are regularly in the news for exercising their authority and then either coming under fire or being praised for doing so. Over the last couple months we’ve seen volcanic reactions for and against Archbishop Elpidophoros presiding at the baptism of a gay couple’s children in Greece. When the bishops of the Orthodox Church in America delivered an uncompromising statement on same-sex relationships and sexual identity to the 1000 or so clergy and lay delegates of the “All-American Council” the gathering spontaneously gave the bishops a standing ovation. Others were deeply troubled by the bishops quashing discussion, debate, and dissent. These opposite public reactions to what bishops say and do vividly illustrate the polarization of church life. But they also illustrate a healthy (even if messy) tension between the institutional and the charismatic which has always been present in the Orthodox Church And this tension needs to be allowed and even encouraged, not stamped out.
“Bishops and Pentecost” is a short-hand way of saying that the Orthodox Church affirms both the institutional and the charismatic. The Holy Spirit courses through the Church’s history, scriptures, liturgy, sacraments, icons, and what could be called its structures of discernment, meaning especially its bishops acting in council. At the same time, faithfulness to the experience of the Spirit speaking in the past is balanced by discernment of the Holy Spirit’s voice speaking in the present. And here too, the bishops play the key role. To use a playground image, consider a seesaw, with Tradition on one side and contemporary experience on the other. The bishops are at the center, as the fulcrum, discerning the direction of the Spirit to bring these two dimensions into balance. To be sure, the rest of the church—clergy, laity, monastics, and even scholars—are there to inspire, aid, and challenge the bishops in this process, but it is the bishops’ specific vocation to maintain balance between faithfulness to Tradition and discernment of the Spirit today. Anyone who wants to understand the invisible heart of Orthodox Christian self-understanding must take seriously the central place given to bishops all over the Orthodox world—regardless of geography, ethnicity, nationality, culture, history, or any other secondary factors. But none of this should be romanticized. It’s a chaotic process that takes place over time through the ragged jostling of fallible human beings—including bishops—who all in their own way are “looking through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12).
How this institutional and charismatic model (“bishops and Pentecost”) is applicable in contemporary Orthodox practice can be illustrated by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s response to the 2008 Anglican Lambeth Conference, where he was invited to represent the Patriarchate of Constantinople as an observer. During the conference he was asked about the big issues of the day: the ordination of women and practicing homosexuals, and the blessing of same-sex marriages. Metropolitan Kallistos replied that when facing decisions on any new issue the Church must be attentive to keeping a balance between “catholic consensus” and “prophetic action.” The Anglicans, he argued, had focused more on the latter than on the former. The Orthodox, on the other hand, while they have historically stressed fidelity to past consensus, must nevertheless remain open to the possibility of Spirit-inspired change coming from the most unexpected places.
But then we might also say, should there not also be the possibility for a prophetic action? Will you ever have change unless some people are willing to stand up and say, this is what we ought to be doing? And even if their testimony is highly controversial, who will nonetheless stand by their position. It could be argued that perhaps the Anglican Communion was guided by the Holy Spirit to lead other Christians into new paths. Now I can see that as a valid argument, and I want to balance that against the point that we need to act with catholic consensus… Christ did not tell us that nothing should ever be done for the first time. The whole witness of the early Church points in a different direction.(Fr. George Westhaver, ‘LAMBETH: Interview with the Most Rev. Kallistos Ware, Archbishop of Gt. Britain for the Ecumenical Patriarchate,’ [sic])
Let me be clear. Metropolitan Kallistos was not advocating for the Anglican position. But he was endorsing as a valid argument the possibility that the Anglicans might be part of God’s plan to lead other Christians—even Orthodox—in new directions. That is part of the discernment process that in the first instance belongs to the bishops, and then ultimately to the Church as a whole.
No matter how inspired a dialogue might be, for the Orthodox to go beyond dialogue into the realm of making actual theological and moral decisions requires action by the bishops of the church. While their decisions need to be received by the whole body of the faithful, it belongs to them to discern at any given time what the balance point is between catholic consensus and prophetic action. The turbulent history of Church councils shows that this decision-making by the bishops and reception by the faithful is rarely a straightforward process, and there are long periods when it is simply unclear what the final result will be as debates continue (and continue they will, whether authorized by the bishops or not).
Despite differences, Orthodox of all stripes have in common their conviction that the Holy Spirit has spoken through the history of the church no less than through the Scriptures; that He continues to be present and teach today; that it is the bishops who are the principal means for maintaining the unity of the church between its members today, and between its members past, present and future; and that it is the bishops who are ultimately responsible for discerning “what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6,13, 22).
This claim is troubling given the dark machinations and sins of bishops in church history and into the present day. But as God’s Spirit could not be prevented from operating throughout the vagaries of biblical history, so too, He operates through the messy history of the institutional Church. And it should not be forgotten that the history of the church is also the history of martyrs, saints, and contested church councils whose truth is ultimately discerned, attested, confirmed, and received only in hindsight by subsequent generations.
The authority given to the bishops points to the high value that the Orthodox Church places on human synergy with God, its “high anthropology.” For better or for worse mere humans have a substantive role in preserving and developing the church at any given time and place. Hence the seriousness of the bishops’ vocation as stewards of the faith. But they are not alone. Orthodoxy’s high anthropology applies as well to the role of the clergy and laity not only in supporting the bishops, but in holding them accountable in the paradoxical vocation of being faithful to the consensus of past Tradition while also facing new pastoral needs, processing new experiences and new knowledge, and taking prophetic action in faithfulness to Christ, who is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8).
Very Rev Dr John A. Jillions is the former Chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America. He is a Visiting Professor of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, England. This essay is based on a paper for an academic dialogue between Orthodox and Pentecostal scholars. See Bishops and Pentecost: Authority and Charisms in the Orthodox Church (Journal of Pentecostal Theology 31 (2022) 171–183).
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.