Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What Doesn’t Work

Fidelity to the personal and communal vocation of the human person requires from those in authority that they are restrained in the exercise of power even as God's is Himself restrained in His relationship with His creation. (While I think this restraint must certainly be personal, i.e., ascetical, reflecting on my own experience as an American, I also think the restraint must also be systemic, i.e., by wise laws and procedures overseen by wise and ascetically self-limiting leaders. But a fuller explication must, alas, wait for another day.) Though not without significant differences, reflecting as they do the relationship of Persons in the Triune God, parish leaders (or really, any human leaders) must as we've seen be characterized by trust. As God trust His creatures so the human leader must trust those he leads.

Practically, this means that as a pastor, my relationship with the parish should largely be "hands off." Just as I ask deference (that is to say, trust) for decisions I make, I should also defer to lay people as they go about their own personal and family lives. While this is relatively simple in personal, one-on-one, relationships, trust becomes more difficult when we speak about the day to day, week to week, year and year out, governance of the parish.

The model that largely structured the life of the parish throughout most of the 20th century is some form of lay trusteeship. Occasionally this model made possible a collaborative and cooperative working relationship between priest and parish. In the main, however, it has taken the form of the priest being responsible for "upstairs" (i.e., the liturgical and sacramental life of the parish) and the laity for "down stairs" (i.e., everything else).

Under this lay trustee model it was not (and in some places still is not) uncommon for the priest to use the sacramental lives of the Church as a means of exercising control over what he saw as a rebellious the laity. And the laity, for their part, were not shy (and still at times, are still not shy) about using the power of the purse to force compliance of what they say to be a stubborn priest. (In both cases, I should add, there was often some justice for the complaints. But just as frequently the matter was (is) simply a desire for power.)

While this approach has the virtue of simplicity, it in fact is grounded in a system of dysfunctional relationships that do not embody or reflect a respectful openness to the uniqueness of others. Much less is it grounded in an imitation of the relationship of Persons in the Holy Trinity. Rather it is a model in which priest and laity seeing each other as competitors who must zealously guard their respective areas of authority from encroachment by the other. Worse, still are those situations where priest and lay leaders collude with each other to maintain a monopoly on power in the parish.

Whether the life of the parish is marked by power struggles (the competitive mode of leadership) or the tight fisted control of the many by the few (i.e., collusion) the life of the Spirit is quenched and the parish dies a slow spiritual death that often takes root years before its numerical death.

In the Tradition of the Orthodox Church the principle of subsidiarity finds its counterpart in terms such as synergia, (i.e., the working together of wills human and divine) syndiakonia (i.e., a co-service of clergy and laity) and symphonia (the working together of Church and State). All of these, I would stress, are grounded in the mutual obedience of all parties involved to the will of God as manifested not only in Holy Scripture and the writings of the Fathers, but also natural law.

While synergia, syndiakonia,
symphonia are all rich terms, where I think Orthodox thought would profit most from Catholic Social Teaching is in the grounding of our understanding subsidiarity not simply Holy Tradition but also natural law. I will in my next post try and offer a bit of an apology for natural law as a useful adjunct to Orthodox theological reflection on Church leadership.

Until then, and as always, your comments, questions and criticism are not only welcome but actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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