Reflections On The Scandal
The Rule of Love:
Re-imagining, Renewing the Church
by Fr. Michael Plekon
In September, 2007 the UND Press will publish the first English translation of Fr. Nicolas Afanasiev's groundbreaking ecclesiological study, The
Church of the Holy Spirit. The teacher of Frs Schmemann and Meyendorff, Fr. Nicolas devoted his life as a scholar to returning to the life, faith and worship of the early church. Of the many insights he offered I want to note this one: that it is precisely the reciprocal relationship between clergy and the people and the communal/conciliar life together that is the context for so many sayings of the fathers and lines from council decrees on the authority of the bishops.
I once heard a passage from a council, quoted publicly at a diocesan assembly, to the end that since the bishop "owned everything"-- "olive trees, domestic animals, houses, property” --- the now-retired hierarch of said diocese of the OCA, Archbishop Peter could refuse any and all audits of the finances, and could disallow discussion and questions at that assembly. Further, the same hierarch, when asked how he could refuse a candidate for the diocesan council, replied he had no need of that council or for that matter of the diocesan assembly at all. HE, as bishop was the sole & absolute authority.
In resolving the financial and pastoral problems of that former diocese, the Primate, Metropolitan Herman, reiterated this ecclesiology by rejecting audits, questions and informing the assembly that they would never learn where missing funds went and that they needed to get back to their tasks “for the good of the church.”
One also could hear this ecclesiology echoed by a now retired bishop in many postings online, see it reflected in the conduct of recent All American Councils in which only the synod had “competence” to act, as well as in the passive behavior of the metropolitan council. It was not a local aberration, this reduction of the church to the person and power of the bishop, but one which spread throughout the OCA in direct contradiction of its Statute. Justifications for it were drawn from isolated passages in Ignatius of Antioch, other fathers and councils but without citation of Cyprian of Carthage (and many other texts) which make it clear the bishop never proceeds without the consultation and the approval of the church, meaning the clergy and the laity.
There was also the "Brum doctrine" both of the powers of the national church chancellor as well as of the total impotency and irrelevance of any body in the church except the synod, it is thus crucial for us to recognize just how distorted the ecclesiology being passed off in the last decades is, how destructive it has been of the
OCA, despite the very Statute, itself the product of the reforming Moscow Council of 1917-18 and of the influence of St. Tikon (Bellavin) of N. America & Moscow. (Hyacinthe Destivelle has presented a powerful description and analysis of the reforming work of the Moscow council: Le concile de Moscou 1917-1918, Paris: Cerf, 2006)
The reciprocity of relationships, Afanasiev notes, was rooted in the common identity of all Christians as priests, kings and prophets through baptism. The common identity was reaffirmed and made visible at the celebration of the Eucharist each Sunday, hence his characterization of the church as eucharistic and the Eucharist as ecclesial. The most vivid image of the church is the eucharistic gathering. In the liturgy those who were called to preside could only do so because they were first members of the community. And their calling to preside, to preach, to counsel and lead was totally for the service of the community. Without the community, bishops, presbyters and deacons have no reason to exist. There simply was no clerical caste, no ruling elite in the early church. It was neither ordination nor law that ruled the church but Christ, who gave the “new commandment” at the last supper, acted out in his taking off his cloak, and assuming the work of a slave in washing their feet. Christ there gave only the “rule of love” that in the gospel of John represents the Eucharist. In that same gospel how many times does Christ feed the hungry ones around him-the thousands who came to hear him preach, the disciples at the last supper and on the lakeshore, after his resurrection.
But now appeal to canons and law and to clerical power plague the churches. Where chief hierarchs clung to the conciliar mode, they served their communities as remarkable pastors. They witnessed to the rule of love as the life of the church—St. Tikhon of North American and Moscow, metropolitans Leonty also here, metropolitan Evlogy in Paris, archbishop Paul in Finland, metropolitan Anthony in the UK, Anastasios of Tirana, among others.
In short, the ecclesiastical trial of the former chancellor, the administrative reorganization of the central administration, the search for and hiring of new chancery staff and redefinition of job titles, the redirection of organizational reporting—all of this necessary reform will not renew the OCA unless the far more important and deeper problems are addressed. The financial improprieties, even likely criminal misappropriation of funds in a not-for-profit organization notwithstanding, the crisis is far deeper and far more in need of remedy. It is the very meaning and life of the church. In the letters of John we read that “perfect love drives out fear.” Power and order cannot replace for love, neither is silence right when truth should prevail.
In recent years the culture of the OCA has been marked by threat and fear, denial and silence, defiance and demonizing the other who questions or disagrees. Perhaps we are seeing signs of a real return to the authentic ecclesiology, the life of the church that is enshrined in the OCA Statute, as well as in the New Testament, early Christian text, the fathers and the councils. When in anyone’s memory, has there been such discussion and debate, such thoughtful reflection and truly conciliar actions as we have seen in the last year and a half? Senior clergy have spoken and put their signatures to their statement. Archbishop Job has acted with courage, as has the metropolitan council. Many other clergy and laity also have offered comments.
Sadly, those who should have spoken and revealed what happened have not. Only time will tell if the subsequent gatherings of the church at all levels—national and local—will be steps toward ecclesial healing. There cannot be healing or return to business as usual by fiat, from the top. There cannot be renewal without reference to Christ who showed what the church looks like in his feeding of the crowd and his washing of the disciples’ feet.
(Fr. Michael Plekon teaches at the City University of New York and is assigned to St. Gregory The Theologian parish in Wappinger Falls, NY. )