The Reception of the Faithful
by an Anonymous Churchman
When a decision of the Holy Synod of Antioch appears to go a certain way our Metropolitan is fond of saying, “The Holy Synod is the highest authority in our Church.” When, on the other hand, the suggestions or decisions of the Holy Synod lean in other directions, he is quick to say that the people of the archdiocese will not accept what they are proposing. I would like to suggest that in expressing these thoughts our Metropolitan touches on an often overlooked aspect of Orthodox Christian ecclesiology.
The episcopate is charged with the tasks of defending the Faith “once for all delivered to the saints” and of teaching and administering this Faith to the people of the God. They do not decide what the Faith is and deliver it to the clergy and laity with a demand of obedience. They defend, articulate, and administer the Faith once for all delivered to the Church for the saving benefit of all. For this reason the decisions of synods have never been what we might call ‘binding’ until they are received by the entire Body of the faithful which recognizes in their decisions the voice of Christ through the Holy Spirit who dwells in the Church, a voice that resonates within us, a voice we know and have always known as that of our Good Shepherd.
“And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”
-Our Lord Jesus Christ
When synods make decisions that are not in accordance with the Faith once delivered to the saints, the Ecclesia does not recognize the voice of their True Shepherd and does not receive them; for authority in the Church ultimately lies not in the decisions of synods but in the Truth who is Christ, the Head of the Body. On the contrary, the faithful will flee from the voice of a stranger. This has occurred numerous times throughout the history of the Church. Many of the Saints we venerate and praise in our hymns are defenders of the Faith who stood firmly against the voice of a stranger expressed through decisions of synods comprised of canonically consecrated bishops. Many were reviled, persecuted, exiled, and even martyred for defending the Faith of Christ and His Church in the face of otherwise ‘duly constituted’ Church authority.
It is the Body of the Church that is “the pillar and ground of truth,” not bishops in isolation from the Body nor the other clergy or laity of the Body in isolation from her bishops. The Church has always strongly affirmed the authority vested in her hierarchs while steadfastly refusing to exalt them above the measure of Christ. When synods articulate the Faith or decide matters of practical dispute in accordance with the Truth of Christ the Body of the Church recognizes the voice of her Savior, and she rejoices that He has spoken through them with a clear voice. Such decisions bring unity, health, righteousness, and peace to the Body. But when synods distort the Truth of Christ and attempt to implement decisions that do not accord with the Truth of our Savior, the Body treats them as poison that must not be received. There are also painful periods of ignorance or laxity when the Church receives poisonous errors, yet even these are eventually cleansed from the Body - albeit through much tribulation.
In no way does this imply that those who speak with the voice of a stranger are always evil. It was Peter, the chief of the Apostles, to whom Jesus once said, “Get thee behind me Satan.” It was also this chief of the Apostles who, along with Barnabas and other Jewish Christians, was publically rebuked by the Apostle Paul (in Antioch of all places). It is worthy of notice that they were not rebuked for expressly teaching heresy, but for not behaving in a manner that was “straightforward about the truth of the Gospel.” This correction was necessary lest the truth of Christ be distorted by the acceptance of a dissonant praxis in His Church. Even men of otherwise laudable holiness and reputation occasionally stumble into speaking or acting in ways that are estranged from the Truth of Christ. Neither bishop nor priest nor monk nor lay person is above being subject to error and the need for correction.
This brings us to the Synodal Resolution of August 19, 2010.
The question of what the Holy Synod of Antioch intended by enthroning our bishops – whether as ‘auxiliaries’ of the Metropolitan or ‘diocesan’ bishops (in the common American understanding of the word) - is a matter of much debate. It is not my intention here to enter into the debate over what the synod intended, for what they intended is not pertinent to the question at hand. The question to which our attention ought to be drawn is whether the various decisions of the Synod accord with the Truth of Christ and whether they are received by the faithful as being the voice of the True Shepherd. It is beyond dispute that the entire archdiocese in North America from the Metropolitan himself to all our bishops, clergy, and laity rejoiced at the decision of the Holy Synod of Antioch to consecrate and enthrone diocesan bishops in defined territories of North America. Regardless of what the Synod may have originally intended by these enthronements, the Body of the faithful universally understood and received them as being true enthronements of diocesan bishops who comprised a fully functioning local synod over which the Metropolitan was to preside in accordance with the Holy Canons of the Orthodox Catholic Church.
Nevertheless, for reasons much discussed yet known only to the Metropolitan and the other members of the Holy Synod of Antioch, the decision that was made, received by the Body of the faithful and then later affirmed by the Holy Synod in the midst of much controversy, was reversed – if not in the eyes of the Holy Synod, then certainly in the eyes of the faithful who had received the initial decision and its affirmation as the voice of their True Shepherd.
From here we proceed to the Implementation of the Synodal Resolution of August 19, 2010 that was presented to our bishops by His Eminence on October 23, 2010 and mailed soon afterward to every member of the clergy of the archdiocese. For those unfamiliar with its content, the official version may be downloaded here:
(Archpastoral Directive Concerning the Implementation of the Resolution of The Holy Synod of Antioch Dated August 19, 2010)
Aside from the question of whether these directives actually express the will of the Holy Synod of Antioch, it is clear that:
These directives were imposed upon our local synod (if indeed it can be said that a true local synod now even exists) by our Metropolitan. They are not the product of our local bishops meeting in synod.
One is hard-pressed to discern any pressing pastoral reason for directives that disregard the Canons of the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church – Canons which, although not ‘laws’ in a legal sense, express the unity, will, and catholicity of the Orthodox Church both in Heaven and on earth.
The ersatz premise of unity expressed in these directives is authoritarianism rather than the conciliatory freedom of brethren “preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, it ultimately matters not whether these directives were intended by the Holy Synod of Antioch. It matters not what the motives of our Metropolitan may or may not be. It matters not from whose earthly authority they may have come or whether those who agree or disagree appear to have more power or influence. In faithfulness to Christ and the eternal Truth of His Church, our hearts and minds should be focused on following in the way of our holy Fathers and Confessors who occupied themselves with the questions of primary import:
Is this the voice of our True Shepherd?
Does this voice resonate within our heart as the people of God?
Is this the voice of the Holy Spirit, ever in harmony with the Tradition we have received in the Church, calling us to unity in the love of Jesus Christ?
Brethren, if we hear the voice of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ in these directives let us humbly submit to Him – not merely to an earthly hierarch or synod, but to our Lord.
Is this the voice of a stranger?
If in these words we hear the voice of a stranger, then for the sake of Christ and the entire Body of His Church, including her hierarchy, let us humbly but firmly speak and act in a manner which clearly communicates that we as the faithful in Christ do not receive this voice; for we neither know it nor can we by any means follow it.
Laying aside our individual loyalties as well as our petty quarrels and narrow agendas, let us answer these questions soberly and honestly, our ecclesial conscience being shaped by the Holy Spirit of Truth who is Himself the seal of the Faith and Tradition we have received in the Church. For faithfulness in the Church always has been - and always will be - defined by obedience to the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ to whom all authority is given both in Heaven and on earth.
All other questions are of secondary significance.
“But you [plural] have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things. I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth.”
-St. John the Apostle and Theologian
“But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
-St. James the Less, Apostle and first Bishop of Jerusalem
It should be noted that this is in accordance with the Canons to the degree possible in the context of the present jurisdictional morass in the Americas.