St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Communion In and With The Bishop

There have been three interlocking aspects to ecclesiastical communion down through the ages, in fact since the time of the later New Testament books like the Pastoral Epistles and into the writings of Justin Martyr and Ignatius of Antioch in the early 2nd century, up through Cyprian in the 3rd Century and the Council of Arles in 314.  These three are unity in the faith, unity in the Eucharist, and ecclesial unity or unity in/through the bishop.

Since the days of Ignatius, the Orthodox Church has held that each congregation of Christians gathered around Word and Sacrament is unique and at the same time lacks nothing in charismatic gifts or completeness in the faith.  The local church, gathered as a fellowship of the baptized around the Eucharist and united in faith under a bishop, is the whole church in each locale.

The bishop has been, since the early days, the sign of unity in the faith.  Of course, when Ignatius wrote, the bishop was still the chief pastor of the local church and has not yet removed to a post of oversight covering several or many congregations.  As time went by, the bishop moved into a position of administration or oversight and presbyters (priests) under the omophore of the bishop served the local churches.  One more step and you have the development of overarching Episcopal sees under an Archbishop or Metropolitan.  Originally there were five main centers of the church: Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Byzantium (Constantinople). Today Rome is separate from the other four, who continue to work in a conciliar, or collegial, manner.

The Bishop is the guarantor of unity in the faith and the mysteries.  The bishop’s cathedra is neither the chair of a political president nor the throne of a king; it is the chair of the one who presides at the Eucharist, who is the chief Pastor of the church, and as such even the bishop is not the one who “confects” the Eucharist – a term used in the western church – but the one who invokes the Holy Spirit to come upon both the people and the gifts and transform them into the Body of Christ.  This is recognition that it is ultimately the Holy Spirit who creates the ecclesial communion, not the human “agent.”  It also suggests the context for the bishop’s proclamations: they are the words of one who speaks within the Eucharistic community.

Every local priest serves as the representative of his bishop, and cannot serve apart from his authorization.  This is a part of what it means to be “canonical.” The sign of this authorization is the antimins (the cloth upon which the elements for the Eucharist are placed, a cloth that is signed by the metropolitan and that contains a relic) given to the local church and without which the local priest cannot celebrate the sacraments.

Over the course of time, there have been heterodox bishops whom their constituents tossed out of office.  Needless to say, there have also been priests who were tossed out by their bishops.  It’s a system of checks and balances.  It’s also fragile and all too human, thus liable to error.  But it was never intended and never treated as a top-down sort of arrangement in the early centuries, as if the bishop were to be seen as independent of the churches he served and could lord it over them.  In fact, this was one of the principal objections to the claims and machinations of supremacy on behalf of the papacy from the time of Gregory the Great (ca. 600) on.

When it comes to pronouncements, then, we make a distinction between those proclaimed ex cathedra, “from the chair” of the presider (proestos) on one hand, and offhand statements that do not carry the weight of the judgment involved in deciding matters of doctrine.  Bishops say many things that fall under the heading of what’s called theolegoumena – “theological opinion.”  These carry no weight as doctrine and, although they may either please or anger us, they don’t have to be followed or accepted.  We might wish that they hadn’t said them.  They are neither communion-breaking nor communion-founding statements.  That is to say, my non-acceptance does not break the essential bond of ecclesial union because no doctrinal issue is involved; conversely my acceptance of a theological opinion only means that I agree with the bishop on one non-essential matter.

Of course if individual members of an Orthodox Church want to take umbrage at some statement by a bishop, or even the Patriarch, be he the Ecumenical or the Moscow Patriarch, you are not only free to do so, but you can also use it as a reason to leave.  The burden is on your shoulders, since you also have free will and the option to shrug it off as an offense but one that won’t break your communion with the church.  This essay is an brief attempt to demonstrate how communion in and with the bishop “works’ in Orthodoxy.

The outstanding example of a group that disagreed with decisions of a Patriarch is the Old Believers (now often called Old Ritualists), who broke from the church of Russia after the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in the 17th Century, who sought to bring the Russian Church more in line with Greek usage. The Old Believers are in various states of reunion with the rest of Orthodoxy in our time. The Church of the Nativity in Erie PA is an old ritualist parish now in communion with ROCOR; see their web site at