A New Kind of Authority
by Archpriest Lawrence R. Farley,
The most recent news about the re-arrangement of the Antiochian Archdiocese and the renewed grip on power on the part of its Metropolitan leads me to meditate and muse on the use of authority in the Christian Church. In particular it reminds me of a quote from C.S. Lewis in his "Surprised by Joy", about one who "lived in a solitude of power, like a sea-captain in the days of sail". The Antiochian Metropolitan is not the only one to live in such a solitude, as readers of this site will only too well remember. Indeed, the temptation to such a use of power can be seen throughout much of the history of the episcopal office, and seems almost to be inherent in the office itself. Often it provides a vivid illustration of the old aphorism "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Not - I hasten to add - that I am suggesting that the Antiochian Metropolitan is corrupt. But I am suggesting (if I may) that it appears he has succumbed to the temptation to use the power of his office in an inappropriately unilateral way. As one of our own good bishops wonderfully said at the recent All-American Council (and I paraphrase): "You dress us up as Emperors and tell us to live forever - what do you expect?"
But it was not always thus, and before the Emperor became a Christian, the Christian bishops acted less like Emperors. That is, before Constantine escorted the Christians out of the catacombs and gave them and their leaders a privileged place in the sun, the bishops did not live in solitudes of power. Rather, (as we can see demonstrated, for example, in the life and letters of St. Cyprian of Carthage), they shared their power with their "presbyterium", their council of presbyters. The bishops were the ones who led the churches (expressed liturgically in their presiding at the Eucharist), standing in the midst of their presbyters, accompanied by the deacons, surrounded by the entire People of God. But pastoral decisions were made jointly by the "presbyterium", of which the bishop formed the head. The temptation to abuse power was thus greatly lessened, since the bishop was part of a pastoral team. No doubt it was his wisdom which commended itself to the team and it was his counsel which most of the time carried the day. But he was not alone in a solitude. Bluntly put, he could not boss the presbyters around or unilaterally dismiss them. He was supported by their wisdom and counsel and, ideally, by their love.
I would suggest that this arrangement is no accident, but represents the outworking of Christ's will for His Church. Power in the world functioned differently: "rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their great men exercise authority over them. But, (the Lord said), 'it shall not be so among you" (Mt. 20:25-26). Rather, "whoever would be great among you must be your servant and whoever would be first among you must be your slave". In other words, Christ established a new kind of authority, one set within the context of love and community, motivated only by the desire to serve. The temptation to dominate and to force one's will was thus excluded. The servanthood of the bishops was thus expressed by their being part of a team, and it was not the bishop's individual will that mattered but the consensus reached by the entire "presbyterium" of which he was the head.
Under the Imperial arrangements of Constantine and his successors for the next thousand years, this arrangement was more or less quietly set aside. The Emperor (who ruled by law and Imperial force - ask the Copts) needed a single authority within each church community, an official liaison, to carry out the Imperial will. The bishop, as the spiritual and liturgical head of each community, was the obvious choice. But, I would suggest, this involved a subtle change in the way that episcopal authority functioned. Nothing had changed in theory, nor had anything changed canonically. The bishop still presided at the Eucharist as formerly and he still had his presbyters. But the ability to appeal to the Emperor to back up episcopal decisions and shore up episcopal authority changed the inner dynamics of community.
Who needs presbyters when you have the Emperor?
There are some who will interpret this appeal to the Church's pre-Constantinian life (to say nothing of the appeal to the Scriptures) as an attack of the hierarchical nature of the Church. This I emphatically deny: the bishops are our God-given leaders, and one should never attack that position. But I do take issue with the way their authority sometimes is expressed. The Church's bishops are meant to rule and lead as servants and slaves in their local communities (if these words seem too extreme, read Mt. 20:26 again), not as sea-captains in a solitude of power. Recent events in many jurisdictions reveal to us all the dangers inherent in the "old" way of exercising episcopal authority, as well as wisdom of the new way opened up for us by our Lord Christ.