Reflections On The Scandal
or Stewards of Episcopal Grace?
By Mark Harrison
When I first saw the names of John Garvey and Commonweal I knew exactly what I was going to find, and I was not left disappointed. Fr. John and I were classmates at SVS, and I have always known him to speak from the heart and from a perspective of realism. He makes a very key point, that the sex scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church have not been the only, and I'd add not even the deepest, crisis. The deeper crisis there, as in our own OCA today has been the arrogant attitude among some hierarchs that might remind some of the haughty, taciturn prince archbishop of Salzburg in the film Amadeus. Such arrogance places image above reality to the point of ignoring Lazarus sitting outside the gate.
Perhaps that image will not be as poignant to some, but I hope it will hit home for most. We have spiritually hungry children of all ages, who are begging for the Bread of Life. If any one of us, from simple lay people to great metropolitans and patriarchs, offers instead poisoned meats like Julian the Apostate, treating them as though we were everything and they were nothing, we belie, we make empty the Gospel of Christ which tells us that those would be first must be the last, that the Kingdom is offered to the very least of His brethren.
Those hierarchs (and anyone else) whose focus is image, be it of the episcopacy or the Church, do far more to shatter that same image than to preserve it. The truth does come out sooner or later. The longer it takes, the uglier it gets. I, for one, do not wish to stand before the Dread Judgement Seat of Christ and have Him show me a child who couldn't accept the Truth because it was spoken among what proved to be sick, spiritually injurious lies, and ask me to account for that child. Trying to preserve the image of the Church or that of any of her divinely-established institutions by covering up human sin will only serve to lead people to believe that God really has nothing to do with any of it at all, that He is elsewhere at this time of year.
Like Fr John Jillions, I remember studying Pseudo-Dionysios with Fr. John Meyendorff. I remember sitting in class and really wondering how those writings came to have such a profound influence on the Church, both in the East and in the West. In much of it, it was very difficult to detect any preaching of Christ. Taken out of context, it sounded like New Age heresy. God, in His Wisdom, has allowed those writings to influence the Church, but I do believe that he calls upon us to read with discernment and sort out the wheat from the chaff. I cannot assert with certainty that the writings of Pseudo-Dionysios contributed to the autocratic view of the episcopacy to which Ken Tobin refers, but I strongly suspect it did, followed closely by the bestowal of the Byzantine imperial symbols of office upon the Patriarch of Constantinople after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks.
Still, throughout the centuries, the All-Bountiful Trinity has blessed us with true episkopoi - Shepherds of the Flock of Christ. Several of them rank among the saints who have shone forth in North America. My personal favourite is St. Tikhon.
Fr. Thomas Hopko likes to tell two particular stories about St. Tikhon that come to mind: Once, while he was in Russia, he visited a parish in his diocese, and the priest later wrote, "it was the first time that I ever saw a bishop who was a man (human)." What should amaze us, and sicken us is that the Saint stood out just for being human! What does that say about the majority of bishops of his day?
Fr. Tom also tells the story that Tikhon was elected Patriarch of Moscow, one of his contenders had been reputed to be the most learned, and another the most strict, but God chose Tikhon the most "good" (not "the best"). One book I have read about him recounted that at his funeral, the sun had been hidden behind the clouds, but when the service concluded (after "Memory Eternal”?) the sun broke through the clouds and shone down on the Saint's body, and the deacon intoned "Thus shone your light before men, and we all beheld your good works, and we glorify our father who is in heaven."
Why did the deacon intone those words? Was it just part of the liturgy? Why did the parish priest write what he wrote? Why was St. Tikhon reputed as being the "most good"? Was it because he ruled by fear? Was it because he was renowned for his strictness and intolerance of less-than-perfect liturgics? Was it because he bestowed jewelled crosses or mitres to his priests, both of which he no doubt did do? Was it because he made sure everybody kept the fasts? No doubt he did expect the fast to be kept at church gathering on fasting days. Was it because of the beauty of his cathedrals or the singing of the choirs therein; or because he wore the green mandya and stood on the nicest orletz?
No, St. Tikhon was not glorified in heaven or on earth for any of the above. He was glorified because of his pastoral spirit reflected in his first and last homilies on this continent. He was glorified because he was true to his name, which means ‘serene.”. He was glorified because when the hour of trial came, he did not waver. It was not the green mandya or the orletzi that ennobled him, rather it was his genuine sanctity that ennobled them. It wasn’t splendid choirs or perfect sub-deacons that proved him in his hierarchical celebrations, rather the genuine love for God that he inspired in those who laboured and those who sang that proved them to be more than “noisy gongs” or “clanging cymbals.” It was his genuine conviction, when he prayed, “Look down from heaven, O God, and behold this vine which Thou hast planted with Thy right hand, and perfect it” that led others to follow him in filial devotion as to their father in God, even to the shedding of their own blood. The great patriarch of Moscow was glorified because his light, or rather the Light of Christ shining through him, did truly shine forth, and we all beheld, and still behold his good works, and in him we glorify our Father who is in heaven.
Please do correct me, anybody, if you find evidence to the contrary, but I am quite certain that not a single bishop in the 2,000 year history of the Church was ever glorified on earth or in heaven because of the splendour of the Liturgies in their cathedrals, splendid and uplifting though the services might have been, or canonical exactitude, or for seeking – however sincerely – to preserve the image of the Church or the episcopacy in the face of scandal; not a single one.
Have any Orthodox rulers been glorified for being autocratic? No, they were glorified for showing divine mercy and humility. Kings and queens though they were, they showed the way of the King of Heaven, Who, because of His Love for mankind appeared on earth and dwelt with men. If any doubt remains, we need only remind ourselves that it is the troparion to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker that serves as the general troparion for bishop-saints: “You appeared before your flock as a rule of faith, as an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence. Because of your lowliness heaven was opened to you, because of your poverty riches were granted to you.…” This is the model of episcopacy that is exalted in the Church.
In the prayers at the consecration of a bishop, we pray that the one being consecrated will be made a “steward of the episcopal grace.” I am reminded –forcefully – of Lord Denethor of Minas Tirith in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Denethor’s title was ‘Steward of Gondor” yet he had, in his foolish pride, forgotten that he was but a steward and by his actions, if not his words, arrogated to himself pretension to the kingship. Stewards do not exercise authority in their own right; they have no right of their own by which to wield authority. They act in the stead of another. One might liken them to St. John the Baptist who did not preach himself, but the One Who was still to come.
So it is with Orthodox bishops – episkopoi. They are charged with “watching over” the flock of Christ. Like the Holy Apostle Peter, they are called to ‘feed [Christ’s] sheep.” They are guardians of the flock and as such they exercise authority as stewards, accountable to the only King of Peace and Saviour of our souls. Indeed, we all do well to remember the scriptural injunction: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17).
Likewise, the stewards will remember always the words of the Holy Apostle Paul to the Philippians:
"Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. "
(Mark Harrison has contributed to these pages in the past as "Sine Nomine". He is a graduate of St. Vladimir's Seminary and currently lives in Alaska.)