Saturday, July 05, 2008

Leadership in the Church

Rod Dreher at Crunchy Con has an interesting post about leadership in the Orthodox Church. His post is based on a talk that Abbot Jonah of St. John of San Francisco Orthodox Monastery in California. Dreher publishes comments Fr Jonah, gave recently at St. Vladimir's Seminary, on the subject of the right role of bishops. In the talk Father begins "by quoting an Orthodox theologian who said recently that bishops have become 'useless'—a judgment Jonah does not dispute." Let me re-post some of Fr Jonah's comments and offer my own thoughts (I apologize in advance for the length).

After tracing out the way in which the episcopate has become modeled after secular (imperial) authority. And so "the patriarch is made analogous to an emperor, a bishop to a prince of the church, etc. They even dress up in church like Byzantine civil officials." As a result, the "real nature of ministry, of archpastorship, and of Christian leadership, is lost." Fr Jonah then asks rhetorically "What is the structure of leadership within the Church?"

On all levels, it is a structure of obedience. The presbyters are in a relationship of obedience to their bishop. The bishops are in a relationship of obedience to their primate. The primate is in the relationship of spiritual father to his bishops. Jurisdiction is about a relationship of obedience, which is precisely responsibility and accountability.

"Spiritual obedience" as Fr Jonah understands the term is a structure of mutual care. As he says, it "is not subjection and compliance. Rather, it is a hierarchy of love and shared responsibility, a hierarchy of discipleship." Such a relationship is characterized by accountability in a spirit of trust and cooperation, in mutual love and respect."As such it is necessarily, "a complex of very personal relationships." But none of this is possible when "these relationships become simply institutional and the personal becomes relativized." This has significant ecclesiological and soteriological implications since. The reduction of the life of the Church to the merely institutional, or I would say bureaucratic means that "the very nature of the church, which in its very essence is about the actualization of authentic personhood, is distorted."

This is all rooted in the "breakdown" in the "Church's structure" in "the centuries of imperial subjugation, by the corruption of authority into power, by the reduction of church leadership to an institutional model, and the reduction of membership in the church to civic duty." We find ourselves now in a situation in which suffer a distortion in how we live the Gospel.

The Faith itself was degraded from a personal commitment to Christ to a socio-political ideology. Nominal church membership and nominal orthodox identity are the foundations of secularization. This kind of corruption began in the fourth century. When the church was subjected to the Roman, then Ottoman, and then Russian Empires, then to the status of state church, it was effectively reduced to a department of state. The bishops and administration of the church assumed imperial roles, insignia, and rituals; and with them, the Christian vision of the leader as servant became a hypocritical parody. Of course, there have been notable exceptions.

Viewed theologically, this socio-historical situation has fostered a "separation of charismatic and institutional authority within the Church." In a manner that should give the anti-Catholic polemicists in the Orthodox Church pause, we find ourselves now facing a ecclesial environment in which we suffer from "the bureaucratization of church leadership: the reduction of the episcopacy to institutional administration, and the virtual elimination of its pastoral role."

If historically, "Charismatic authority within the church was tolerated among monastic elders,"
such authority and witness "had little . . . influence in the life of the Church from the late Byzantine period through the Turkokratia and the suppressions of monasticism in the Russian Empire."

All this bring us to our current circumstances in which we see "the suppression of creativity and initiative, theologically and organizationally, for fear of being disciplined and rejected." It is without a certain irony that this spirit suppression has now infected not only the Church generally, but even the very monastic witness that in an earlier age preserved the charismatic freedom that Fr Jonah highlights. In many areas of the Church's life, including I am afraid even monastic life "personal ambition and competition for position [have] became dominant." And what has happened to "charismatic leadership arising from spiritual vision, the fruit of asceticism?" Sadly, it seem to have little context to express itself, even being regarded as dangerous" not only "in the state-controlled institution of the Church," but even (I would argue) in our parishes and

This has lead us to a point where the bishops have come

to wield power over the lives of their clergy, and instead of being chief pastors, they became distant administrators feared by their clergy. Obedience became confused with compliance and submission. Authority came to be identified with power, humility with subjection, and respect with adulation and sycophancy.

We have lost the sense that accountability is mutual, that obedience means not simply my obedience to the authority above me, but the obedience of that authority to my good. This mutuality of obedience is impossible if we imagine that we are obedient to anything other than the will of Christ. Having lost the living sense of the charismatic nature of the Church in which each of us has access to the will of God and the responsibility to bear witness to that will, we instead re-enact the dysfunctional vision of an earlier age in which

Accountability was always referred "upwards:" the bishops to the patriarch and emperor or sultan; the priests to the bishops; while the people simply ignored the hierarchy. Even the monasteries, where the ancient vision of the apostolic church was most clearly maintained, were subjected to this secularization of power and office.

All of this is, Fr Jonah says, the "corrupting fruit of secularization is fear and the lack of trust." The consequence of this is "isolation, autonomy, self-will and the breakdown of the real authority of the episcopacy. . . [that] destroys souls and the institution of the Church." Why? Because "Secularization reduces the Body of Christ to a religious organization; it is the form of religion, deprived of its power."

While I am in fundamentally agreement with Fr Jonah's conclusion I think we need to keep in mind that, even given the historical circumstances he outlines, it is still concrete human beings by their lack of resistance, succumb to the "corrupting fruit of secularization."

The situation Fr Jonah outlines is not uncommon even in parishes composed exclusively of Americans who as adults joined Orthodox Church. While I don't dispute his analysis in any way, I would add to it the almost universal indifference, and at times active hostility, among Orthodox Christian for what in the Catholic Church is called "human formation." In my next post, I will explain more fully what I mean by human formation.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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