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).Continue reading