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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part II: Faith and Worship
    • The Church of God
      • Bishops, Laity, Councils
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Bishops, Laity, Councils

The Orthodox Church is a hierarchical Church. An essential element in its structure is the

Apostolic Succession of bishops. ‘The dignity of the bishop is so necessary in the Church,’ wrote

Dositheus, ‘that without him neither the Church nor the name Christian could exist or be spoken

of at all ... He is a living image of God upon earth ... and a fountain of all the sacraments of the

Catholic Church, through which we obtain salvation’ (Confession, Decree 10). ‘If any are not with

the bishop,’ said Cyprian, ‘they are not in the Church’ (Letter 66, 8).

At his election and consecration an Orthodox bishop is endowed with the threefold power of

1) ruling, 2) teaching, and 3) celebrating the sacraments.

1. A bishop is appointed by God to guide and to rule the flock committed to his charge; he is a

monarch’ in his own diocese.

2. At his consecration a bishop receives a special gift or charisma from the Holy Spirit, in virtue

of which he acts as a teacher of the faith. This ministry of teaching the bishop performs above all

at the Eucharist, when he preaches the sermon to the people; when other members of the Church

priests or laymenpreach sermons, strictly speaking they act as the bishop’s delegates. But

although the bishop has a special charisma, it is always possible that he may fall into error and

give false teaching: here as elsewhere the principle of synergy applies, and the divine element

does not expel the human. The bishop remains a man, and as such he may make mistakes. The

Church is infallible, but there is no such thing as personal infallibility.

3. The bishop, as Dositheus put it, is ‘the fountain of all the sacraments.’ In the primitive Church

the celebrant at the Eucharist was normally the bishop, and even today a priest, when he celebrates

Mass, is really acting as the bishop’s deputy.

But the Church is not only hierarchical, it is charismatic and Pentecostal. “Quench not the

Spirit. Despise not prophesyings(1 Thes. 5:19-20). The Holy Spirit is poured out upon all

God’s people. There is a special ordained ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons; yet at the

same time the whole people of God are prophets and priests. In the Apostolic Church, besides the

institutional ministry conferred by the laying on of hands, there were other charismata or gifts

conferred directly by the Spirit: Paul mentionsgifts of healing,’ the working of miracles,

speaking with tongues,” and the like (1 Cor. 12:28-30). In the Church of later days, these charismatic

ministries have been less in evidence, but they have never been wholly extinguished. One

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thinks, for example, of the ministry of ‘eldership,’ so prominent in nineteenth-century Russia;

this is not imparted by a special act of ordination, but can be exercised by the layman as well as

by priest or bishop. Seraphim of Sarov and the startsi of Optino exercised an influence far

greater than any hierarch.

This ‘spiritual,’ non-institutional aspect of the Church’s life has been particularly emphasized

by certain recent theologians in the Russian emigration; but it is also stressed by Byzantine

writers, most notably Symeon the New Theologian. More than once in Orthodox history the

charismatics’ have come into conflict with the hierarchy, but in the end there is no contradiction

between the two elements in the Church’s life: it is the same Spirit who is active in both.

We have called the bishop a ruler and monarch, but these terms are not to be understood in a

harsh and impersonal sense; for in exercising his powers the bishop is guided by the Christian

law of love. He is not a tyrant but a father to his flock. The Orthodox attitude to the episcopal

office is well expressed in the prayer used at a consecration: ‘Grant, O Christ, that this man, who

has been appointed a steward of the Episcopal grace, may become an imitator of thee, the True

Shepherd, by laying down his life for thy sheep. Make him a guide to the blind, a light to those in

darkness, a teacher to the unreasonable, an instructor to the foolish, a flaming torch in the world;

so that having brought to perfection the souls entrusted to him in this present life, he may stand

without confusion before thy judgment seat, and receive the great reward which thou hast prepared

for those who have suffered for the preaching of thy Gospel.’

The authority of the bishop is fundamentally the authority of the Church. However great the

prerogatives of the bishop may be, he is not someone set up over the Church, but the holder of an

office in the Church. Bishop and people are joined in an organic unity, and neither can properly

be thought of apart from the other. Without bishops there can be no Orthodox people, but without

Orthodox people there can be no true bishop. ‘The Church,’ said Cyprian, ‘is the people

united to the bishop, the flock clinging to its shepherd. The bishop is in the Church and the

Church in the bishop’ (Letter 66, 8).

The relation between the bishop and his flock is a mutual one. The bishop is the divinely

appointed teacher of the faith, but the guardian of the faith is not the episcopate alone, but the

whole people of God, bishops, clergy, and laity together. The proclamation of the truth is not the

same as the possession of the truth: all the people possess the truth, but it is the bishop’s particular

office to proclaim it. Infallibility belongs to the whole Church, not just to the episcopate in

isolation. As the Orthodox Patriarchs said in their Letter of 1848 to Pope Pius the Ninth: ‘Among

us, neither Patriarchs nor Councils could ever introduce new teaching, for the guardian of religion

is the very body of the Church, that is, the people (laos) itself.’

Commenting on this statement, Khomiakov wrote: ‘The Pope is greatly mistaken in supposing

that we consider the ecclesiastical hierarchy to be the guardian of dogma. The case is quite

different. The unvarying constancy and the unerring truth of Christian dogma does not depend

upon any hierarchical order; it is guarded by the totality, by the whole people of the Church,

which is the Body of Christ’ (Letter in W. J. Birkbeck, Russia and the English Church, p. 94).

This conception of the laity and their place in the Church must be kept in mind when considering

the nature of an Ecumenical Council. The laity are guardians and not teachers; therefore,

although they may attend a council and take an active part in the proceedings (as Constantine and

other Byzantine Emperors did), yet when the moment comes for the council to make a formal

proclamation of the faith, it is the bishops alone who, in virtue of their teaching charisma, take

the final decision.

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But councils of bishops can err and be deceived. How then can one be certain that a particular

gathering is truly an Ecumenical Council and therefore that its decrees are infallible? Many

councils have considered themselves ecumenical and have claimed to speak in the name of the

whole Church, and yet the Church has rejected them as heretical: Ephesus in 449, for example,

or the Iconoclast Council of Hieria in 754, or Florence in 1438-9. Yet these councils seem in no

way different in outward appearance from the Ecumenical Councils. What, then, is the criterion

for determining whether a council is ecumenical?

This is a more difficult question to answer than might at first appear, and though it has been

much discussed by Orthodox during the past hundred years, it cannot be said that the solutions

suggested are entirely satisfactory. All Orthodox know which are the seven Councils that their

Church accepts as ecumenical, but precisely what it is that makes a council ecumenical is not so

clear. There are, so it must be admitted, certain points in the Orthodox theology of Councils

which remain obscure and which call for further thinking on the part of theologians. With this

caution in mind, let us briefly consider the present trend of Orthodox thought on this subject.

To the question how one can know whether a council is ecumenical, Khomiakov and his

school gave an answer which at first sight appears clear and straightforward: a council cannot be

considered ecumenical unless its decrees are accepted by the whole Church. Florence, Hieria,

and the rest, while ecumenical in outward appearance, are not truly so, precisely because they

failed to secure this acceptance by the Church at large. (One might object: What about Chalcedon?

It was rejected by Syria and Egypt — can we say, then, that it was ‘accepted by the

Church at large’?) The bishops, so Khomiakov argued, because they are the teachers of the faith,

define and proclaim the truth in council; but these definitions must then be acclaimed by the

whole people of God, including the laity, because it is the whole people of God that constitutes

the guardian of Tradition. This emphasis on the need for councils to be received by the Church at

large has been viewed with suspicion by some Orthodox theologians, both Greek and Russian,

who fear that Khomiakov and his followers have endangered the prerogatives of the episcopate

and ‘democratized’ the idea of the Church. But in a qualified and carefully guarded form, Khomiakov’s

view is now fairly widely accepted in contemporary Orthodox thought.

This act of acceptance, this reception of councils by the Church as a whole, must not be understood

in a juridical sense: ‘It does not mean that the decisions of the councils should be confirmed

by a general plebiscite and that without such a plebiscite they have no force. There is no

such plebiscite. But from historical experience it clearly appears that the voice of a given council

has truly been the voice of the Church or that it has not: that is all’ (S. Bulgakov, The Orthodox

Church, p. 89).

At a true Ecumenical Council the bishops recognize what the truth is and proclaim it; this

proclamation is then verified by the assent of the whole Christian people, an assent which is not,

a rule, expressed formally and explicitly, but lived.

It is not merely the numbers or the distribution of its members which determines the ecumenicity

of a council: ‘An ‘EcumenicalCouncil is such, not because accredited representatives of

all the Autocephalous Churches have taken part in it, but because it has borne witness to the faith

of the Ecumenical Church’ (Metropolitan Seraphim, LÉglise orthodoxe, p. 51).

The ecumenicity of a council cannot be decided by outward criteria alone: ‘Truth can have

no external criterion, for it is manifest of itself and made inwardly plain’ (V. Lossky, The Mystical

Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 188). The infallibility of the Church must not be ‘exteriorized,’ nor

understood in too ‘material’ a sense: ‘It is not the ‘ecumenicity’ but the truth of the councils

which makes their decisions obligatory for us. We touch here upon the fundamental mystery of

the Orthodox doctrine of the Church: the Church is the miracle of the presence of God among

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men, beyond all formalcriteria,’ all formalinfallibility.’ It is not enough to summon an ‘Ecumenical

Council’ ... it is also necessary that in the midst of those so assembled there should be

present He who said: “I am the Way, the Truth, the Life.” Without this presence, however numerous

and representative the assembly may be, it will not be in the truth. Protestants and Catholics

usually fail to understand this fundamental truth of Orthodoxy: both materialize the presence

of God in the Church — the one party in the letter of Scripture, the other in the person of the

Pope — though they do not thereby avoid the miracle, but clothe it in a concrete form. For Orthodoxy,

the solecriterion of truthremains God Himself, living mysteriously in the Church,

leading it in the way of the Truth’ (J. Meyendorff, quoted by M. J. le Guillou, Missio et Unité, Paris, 1960,

vol. 2, p. 313).




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