Reflections On The Scandal
Fr. Ted Wojick
Dean, Minneapolis Deanery
It’s in the buttons.
One part of our current financial dilemma revolves around the issue of what is being called the "hierarchical principle" as opposed to a more "democratic" form of Church governance. It seems to me that this really is a meaningless debate and a smoke screen that hides deeper issues. When the Church is reduced to debates about "rights" or "principles" then we have stepped outside the sheep pasture.
Oddly, it seems to me that how we govern ourselves is revealed by the buttons on our bishop’s vestments.
Three weeks ago, I had the great blessing to participate in the centennial celebration of the tiny St. John the Baptist Church in rural Huron, Wisconsin. While we had outstanding attendance, our small parishes don’t have people schooled in all the liturgical skills so I helped our diocesan Archbishop get vested. Our bishops are the center of the community. They are surrounded by the priests, deacons, and laity. The symbol of their episcopal office is a vestment called an omaphor. Now the omaphor doesn’t stay on unless it is buttoned onto the outer garment, the sakkos. Unless the bishop has rubber arms it is impossible to button the omaphor onto the sakkos without help from someone else.
It is those little buttons that solve the argument of the hierarchical principal as opposed to democratic governance. Why? Because a bishop can’t truly be the bishop unless he has others to help him wear his official garments. The solution to the problem of church governance lies in the buttons. Bishops can’t be at the center of things unless they have others to help them fit into their role and vocation.
I have been ordained for over 39 years and have met all kinds of bishops. Most are kind, but a few are down right mean and arrogant and if they weren’t necessary to church life priests and laity would leave their buttons unattached. I have seen bishops who transferred priests from viable ministries just to teach the priest some perverse lesson. I have seen bishops throw books at priests during liturgies and I saw a bishop so angered during a liturgy that he ripped the lamb apart because it wasn’t perfectly symmetrical. I knew a bishop who transfered a layman to one parish and his wife to another parish. There are bishops who terrorize their clergy and others who have a talent for embarrassing themselves. Then again, some bishops have few talents.
On the other hand, I know of a bishop who could levitate and another who could bi-locate. I will never forget the bishop who visited me when I was hospitalized in the burn unit of a major metropolitan medical center fighting for my life. The bishop flew a thousand miles to pray for me and he held my hand and told me that God loved me, and he said that the words “Thy Kingdom come” were not just words, but life itself; God’s life, my life, my wife’s lives, our sons’ lives. That bishop had his buttons on straight that day. My own diocesan bishop is a good man. He listens to others and he has a talent for accepting the ideas of others when those ideas are better than his ideas. I gladly attach the buttons to his vestments.
What I am trying to say, is that bishops are just like the rest of us. They had a mother and at the proper age they learned how to tie their own shoe laces. Each day when they get dressed they put their trousers on one leg at a time just like I do. Some bishops are good and some are less good, just like the rest of us.
Over the centuries many Orthodox Christians have accepted martyrdom rather than deny Christ or the Trinity, but I don’t recall anyone accepting martyrdom because they were asked to deny the hierarchical principle. I pray I never have to make the choice, but if I ever find myself in such a situation I think I could say with a clear conscience, “to hell with the hierarchical principle.” My salvation is in Christ, not some academic construct. And for that matter, my salvation is not in democracy even though democracy makes it easier for me to practice my faith.
Herein lays the smoke screen. We sidetrack ourselves when we get bogged down in arguing over principles and rights. Jesus did not die so we could debate a dusty principle. Our energies need to be focused on the Trinity and the Incarnation. Only then can we pursue truth and righteousness. The current problem is a problem because it is the antithesis of the icons of The Trinity and The Christ. The icon that we long to see is truth and harmony and beauty and glory. And if forgiveness is needed and sought then the icon has more than enough room to include forgiveness. After all, everyone has buttons that we can’t reach without help from the people of God.