Reflections On The Scandal
Q&A on Authority in the Church
by Fr. Vladimir Borichevsky (+1990)
Question: The present confusion in the church is what really troubles me.....Someone wrote “we are now in a crisis of authority.” I think it is more accurately described as a crisis of credibility of those in authority. We can no longer rely on those in authority to speak directly with us. They insist on talking down to us as though we were not capable of understanding real problems and real issues. In the old days, we were told that we were to pray and pay. But, that is exactly what our parents rejected when they returned to Orthodoxy. Now we find many of those in authority insisting that our duty as laymen is to do whatever we are told and never to rock the boat. I can’t be specific, but I want you to discuss the principals of Orthodox Catholicity or sobornost in which the whole church is supposed to act in harmony, in unity, and love. The present authorities seem to call for obedience and compliance to whatever they propose. Don’t we have a say, can’t we object and question our leadership?
Fr. Vladimir: In response to your question, “Don’t we have a say?” The answer is yes. And you have certainly a right and a duty to question those in authority in the church whether they be bishops, or clergy or laity. They are all subject to the authority of Christ and of his church. In this mutuality is our real strength. We all acknowledge one ultimate authority, our Lord Jesus Christ. And we submit to all those in authority in the church only as long as they themselves are also obedient to Christ. We are a unity in Christ and without him we are as nothing. Therefore, as long as we acknowledge him, we are a fellowship of true unity and love in Christ.
Question: But is this unity of love in Christ a realized reality or is it just an ideal; easier to state than to put into practice?
Fr. Vladimir: It is both. It is an ideal but it is not beyond our power to try to live by it and to attain it from time-to-time. The church continually challenges us to love one another so that we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided. Loving one another is not easy to do. It requires the exercise of all our spiritual powers and faculties. It requires great patience and forbearance and as long as we strive towards that goal of unity and love in Christ, in a sense, it is attainable. The moment we cease striving to love one another in Christ, we cease to attain the goal of unity in Christ.
Question: Does that mean we must always obey those in authority?
Fr. Vladimir: Yes, but only as long as they too are striving to attain the unity of love in Christ. If a person in authority becomes primarily concerned with his own personal position, the power it gives him, and forgets the great duty and the greater obligation it imposes on him, then he comes under the censure of the church. That is the whole church.
Question: How does this work in an actual situation?
Fr. Vladimir: There are many cases in our own time when a priest or a bishop in the highest authority was reminded by one in the lesser authority that he had failed to act as a bishop or as a priest and instead of taking offense, that person acknowledged his failure and promised to correct the situation. There are also cases probably more when a bishop or priest failed to accept the correction made and instead of acting in humility, acted instead arrogantly and out of pride. This leads to even greater difficulties and more confrontations. The situation deteriorates until those involved rediscover their sense of fellowship in Christ. Healing can then only take place by returning to Christ and drawing on the power that he bestows on all who call on him.
Question: You do not see any solution by returning to sobriety, a sanity of the whole person?
Fr. Vladimir: Of course, part of the whole solution is for the individual believer to become sober, to find himself, but this does not occur without real effort. To become sober is not to allow one's self to fall into the trap of the Devil by becoming only concerned for the needs of this world. Authority and power are of this world and the saints always avoided them. When it was bestowed on them they suffered under the burden. Therefore, they respond positively to criticism that was given in love.
Question: That seems to be a definitive phrase in this discussion. Everything is possible as long as one lives in the fellowship of the church and acts as a Christian in a loving way?
Fr. Vladimir: Yes, but we must also warn you that this is most difficult – it is far easier to fall back on righteous indignation, anger, condemnation, judgment as the attitude or stature one takes when questioning those in authority.
Question: In other words, we should always give the benefit of the doubt?
Fr. Vladimir: Anticipate only positive results, but always be ready to be rejected. If we are in the right, then there is no need to fear. Christ promised to be with us always, but especially with those who work for him. In their time of need he promised he would give the words that would be necessary. We describe this as inspiration or being filled with the spirit.
Question: Is it this simple? Does not this call for better and more informed church members who know what church membership calls for?
Fr. Vladimir: Of course we are to prepare ourselves as best we can, but in the final analysis, it is the Holy Spirit who will be our guide in times of difficulty especially. Yes we can depend on God for it is his church that he has entrusted to us, to all who confess his name. If we all recognized this as a mutual responsibility and calling, then we will have no reason to fear that somehow it all depends on us and if we fail, everything goes down the drain. It is the same whether we are laymen or clergy or bishops. The power of Sobornost is the sense of the power of the whole, so that the least of us becomes capable of doing great things and all benefit from it.
Question: The credibility then is not dependent on us as individuals, but is inherent in the church which is God’s creation, not ours?
Fr. Vladimir: That is precisely the point. Individually we are called upon to be aware of our responsibility as members of the church, but our strength as individuals in the church is totally related to the church. And so if we are in harmony with the church, the credibility of the church is manifested through us, even though we know ourselves as only one of the least.
(A fomer dean of St.Tikhon Seminary, Fr. Vladimir Borichevsky fell asleep in the Lord in September 1990. During his tenure at St. Tikhon's he produced radio programs called "The Hour of Orthodoxy. These programs can be heard today on the web at www.stlukeorthodox.com., the website of St. Luke's Orthodox Church in Palos Hills, IL, whose pastor, Fr. Andrew Harrison forwarded the above. The transcript is from a program which aired in Scranton on 1/30/83.)