One of the keystone prerogatives claimed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate is its jurisdiction over the so-called “diaspora”—regions not included within the geographic boundaries of the other Autocephalous Churches. She insists that this exclusive extraterritorial jurisdiction is rooted in Canon 28 of Chalcedon which states:
[O]nly the metropolitans of the Pontian, Asian, and Thracian dioceses, as well as the bishops of the aforementioned dioceses among barbarians are ordained by the aforementioned most holy throne of the most Holy Church of Constantinople.
But that’s not what the canon explicitly says; it’s an interpretation. On its face, the canon seems to refer only to bishops who belong to the dioceses of Pontus, Asia, and Thrace, who are ministering among certain barbarians. The standard canonical commentators—Zonaras, Balsamon, Aristenos—all interpret the phrase literally, referring to specific barbarian groups who were adjacent to Pontus, Asia, and Thrace. At the turn of the 19th century, St Nikodemos repeats this interpretation in the Pedalion. The modern theory is nowhere to be found.
We Orthodox need to ask ourselves some hard questions about the episcopal ethos that has come down to us from Byzantium and was then magnified in the Russian tradition. This was an aspect of Orthodoxy that for his entire life troubled Fr. Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944), one of the most prolific Orthodox thinkers of the 20th century. He came from a long line of priests in Russia but gave up on Christianity at age 14 because he despised the servility of the clerical world.
My revolt against my surroundings was morally right in so far as it was inspired by love of freedom and disgust at the servility which then reigned in the clerical world (and at that time it was the only world I knew). I did not want to be reconciled to it, indeed I could not be, and it would not have been right. I fled from it to save my spiritual integrity, and to this day I consider my flight justified.
Bulgakov eventually returned to the Church and became a devoted priest, Professor of Dogmatics, and then Dean of St. Sergius Institute in Paris (we get a remarkable glimpse of his inner life in his Spiritual Diary, recently translated by Mark Roosien and Roberto J. De La Noval). He was devoted to the memory of Patriarch Tikhon (Bellavin, 1865-1925) who blessed him to be a priest, and he was grateful to Metropolitan Evlogii (Georgievskiy,1868-1946) for his active support in Paris, especially in times of theological controversy. And theologically he understood the bishop’s authority “as a mystical reality as evident as daylight.” But he remained deeply frustrated by his personal experience of episcopacy and believed that the Orthodox Church could do better.
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).
Speaking about human rights in Orthodoxy, we must clearly understand why we need this discourse and how it will influence theology and religious consciousness. In my opinion, it has two primary purposes: protection of the weak and inclusion. Today, the debate about human rights increasingly affects Orthodox political theology and anthropology but does not affect ecclesiology. Clerical power structures colonized the Orthodox ecclesiological consciousness and control the vision of the church norm, church structure, and the church’s boundaries. Incorporation into the church rests in the hands of a privileged group and depends on that group’s arbitrary power, which impedes the development of inclusion.
Clericocentricity is a distinctive feature of most ecclesiologies. Through them, the rest of the church views clerics as a chosen part of the church people, whose priesthood gives them advantages not only of a practical nature but also, in some interpretations, of an ontological nature (ordination changes the nature of a person). Ecclesiologies describe the church so that clerical structures inevitably become their focal points and replace the church’s image. When we talk about the church in everyday life, we immediately imagine a clergyman, worship, or church building. These ecclesiologies contain the message that if a person belongs to the right jurisdiction, participates rightly in the right style of worship and sacraments, follows the right practices, and correlates his faith with Orthodoxy—the content of which is also controlled by the clerics—then he will be saved. Such ecclesiological concepts as schism, heresy, Eucharistic communion, etc., become instruments of power control. Even the place of women in the church is discussed mainly in a clerical manner as the topic of female priesthood.