Nearly 50 years ago Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote an essay with the title “The Church is Hierarchal.” The text speaks for itself. It should be read by every person who is concerned about the current condition of the Orthodox Church in America and who is thinking about the vision and mission of our Church. The purpose of this brief introduction is to identify the context of Fr. Alexander’s impassioned plea for the proper understanding of the nature of the Church.
The history of the Orthodox Church in America (formerly the Russian Orthodox Church in North America, or the Metropolia) contains vivid and persistent debates about “who is in charge,” the laity or the clergy. Fr. Alexander’s constant concern was to affirm the integrity of the Church’s life as the Body of Christ. To this end, he eloquently resisted false dichotomies – clergy versus laity, spiritual versus material. The essay “The Church is Hierarchal” needs to be read as an antidote to these false dichotomies and as the affirmation of the Church as an organism founded by God and not by human initiative. Thus, for Fr. Alexander, hierarchy and conciliarity (sobornost) are not opposed to one another, but rather complement and complete one another. In other words, hierarchy is needed for conciliarity, and conciliarity is needed for hierarchy.
Today’s efforts to articulate a clear vision of the mission of our Church need to have as their starting point a clear understanding of the nature of the Church. Through his writings Fr. Alexander helps us to gain the vision “without which the people perish.”
The Church is Hierarchal
An Answer to Ralph Montgomery Arkush, Esq.
— Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann,
St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 4, Fall 1959, pp. 36-41
As a follow up of the storm he raised at the Tenth All American Sober of the Russian Church by declaring that our Church is not hierarchal, Mr. Ralph M. Arkush has issued now a mimeographed pamphlet entitled Is Our Church Hierarchal? “This question, – he says in conclusion, – must be answered in the negative. The form of our Church is sobornal”. This conclusion is based on: a) Webster’s definition of the term “hierarchal” (pp. 1-2); b) a brief analysts of the various forms of church government since the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem (pp. 2-3); c) references to the Moscow Council of 1917-18 and the Detroit Sobor of 1924.
Were the conclusion of Mr. Arkush a mere ‘private opinion’, or rather his own peculiar interpretation of Church history, ecclesiology and canon law, we could, in spite of our total disagreement with him, pay no attention to his pamphlet. But Mr. Arkush has been for a number of years a leading layman in our Church, the official Jurisconsult of the Metropolia, the Orthodox delegate to the National Council of Churches, a lawyer, who by the very nature of his profession is constantly confronted with the meaning of Orthodox tradition. All this makes his case a very serious one. And since his views are shared by many of our lay people, those especially who play an active part in the life of the Church, we seem to face a really unprecedented situation: a segment of the Church simply refuses to accept and confess a doctrine that has never been questioned. One thing is made clear by this pamphlet: the time has come for an unambiguous clarification of the whole issue.
Before we come to the pamphlet, one preliminary remark of basic importance must be made. When in the “clergy-laity controversy” the terms “government”, “administration”, “controlling authority” are used, are all those who use them aware that when applied to the Church, they must of necessity mean something different from what they mean in a purely secular context. The Church is not a secular society and, therefore, all definitions and descriptions of its life and functioning to be adequate must necessarily be transposed and adjusted to its nature. Any type of government must be adequate to the nature and the purpose of what it governs. We live in a Democracy which is a high and noble doctrine of government. But we know that the principle of Democracy (“government of the people, by the people, for the people”) is not applicable everywhere even in the secular society. It is not applicable to the Armed forces, to the school, to the family. Is it difficult to understand the simple and trivial truth, that for much more serious reasons it is not applicable to the Church? The Church is not and has never been a democracy because the Church is not a human institution with human goals and purposes. The Church is a Divine Institution, founded not by men, but by Christ, receiving her life from God and having one specific goal: to save people by introducing them into the life of grace, forgiveness, love and truth, by uniting them to the life of Christ Himself. To be sure, the Church has a human aspect, a human dimension of her life – yet this “humanity” of the Church is not independent from her spiritual essence, from her Divine root, but embodies it, expresses it, is totally and absolutely subordinated to it. To speak of two spheres in the Church – one spiritual and the other material – as being independent from one another is to completely misunderstand the real nature of the Church, whose “Pattern” is Christ Himself, God made Man, in whom the human nature was entirely accorded to the Divine, totally expressive of the Divinity. The whole Church, in all her aspects and activities, in the totality of her life is governed primarily by Christ, who is the Head of the Church, and this is why we must emphatically reject the very idea of a “democratic Church”, however highly we value the democratic ideal for a secular society. But, for the same reason, the idea of an “autocratic” Church is equally wrong. If in the secular context “autocratic” is the only alternative to “democratic, this alternative simple does not apply to the Church – yet, this is precisely what Mr. Arkush and those who agree with him, are apparently unable to understand. The Church is hierarchal – which means, that power and authority in the Church are always related to, and proceed from, the ultimate source of its Iife – Christ Himself. Those who, by Divine appointment and consecration (Sacrament of Order) exercise this authority are not “autocrats” because they themselves must be totally and unconditionally subordinated to Christ and to His Church, to her Tradition, canons, to the whole of her Truth and Spirit. And the unique goal of their government is to keep the Church within this Truth and to assure her growth into the “full stature of Christ”. They “govern” the Church not by people’s consent, but by Divine appointment and the Church believes that in the Sacrament of Order they are granted necessary “charisms” or gifts for this government.
It is impossible to exclude anything in the Church from the sphere of this government, to say, for example, that the hierarchy is responsible for the “spiritual”, and the laity for the “material”, aspects of the Church life. As said above the Church has no other goal but salvation and spiritual edification of her members. All her activities, from the most spiritual to the most practical and material, are therefore internally shaped by this goal and ordered towards it. A “parish activity” that would not be in some degree related to the spiritual task of the Church would ipso facto be alien to the Church and to the parish, would contradict the very principle of the Church. Let us take, for example, the whole aspect of fund-raising and financial welfare of the parish, an area where the controversy on the “rights” and “responsibilities” is especially heated. Is it possible to say, as it is said so often, that this is a “material” problem and must be handled by the laity without the interference of the clergy? The very fact that money is being raised by the Church and for the Church makes this activity spiritual, for this money must be spent in accordance with the spiritual goal of the Church. But “it is our money” and “we don’t want any one to have control of it” is the usual answer. Another tragical misunderstanding, showing how radical is our misconception of our Church. The money that we gave to the Church has ceased to be our money and has become God’s money. It is neither ours, nor priest’s – it belongs to the Church and the Church does not belong to us, for we belong to the Church. The possibility of giving to the Church is not our merit, it is the greatest privilege, it makes us coworkers in Christ’s work of salvation, ministers of His purpose. Therefore the Priest who by definition is the keeper and the guide of the religious life of the Parish must necessary give the sanction to every decision concerning the use of the Church’s funds. The fear that he will use “our” money for “his” interests reveals the moral level of Orthodoxy in this country and is a shameful one. One of two things: either the Priest is the Priest, knowing who he is, trained to fulfill his ministry, sincere, enlightened and “pastoral” – the fear in this case is superfluous and must be replaced by trust. Or he is a bad Priest (and there have always been bad priests in the Church!) using his position to enrich himself, stealing the parish’s funds, lazy, ignorant, selfish. Then he betrays his function, and the Church has all possible means to depose such a Priest and to deprive him of the function which he has betrayed and falsified. But to erect the distrust into a legal system, to establish the whole life of the Church, as if it had to be “defended” against the Priests is to make the Church a mockery and to disregard her real nature… There can be no doubt that the “controlling authority” in the Orthodox Church belongs to the hierarchy. And it should be the common goal and task of all Orthodox to assure its clergy such training and spiritual preparation that would make them capable of exercising their authority with the wisdom, the experience and the spiritual insight which are the characteristics of a good Pastor.
It is this misunderstanding of the spiritual nature of the Church (spiritual which is not opposed to, but includes, the material) that constitutes the root of the monumental distortions in Mr. Arkush’s pamphlet. It is too bad Mr. Arkush does not see them. It is too bad that he is blind to the fact that his secular terminology, when applied to the Church is entirely “out of key”, false, inadequate. It is the terminology and the language of someone who can see all the “legal points”, and yet fails completely to see the religious essence of the Church.
The first of these errors is the opposition between “hierarchal” and “sobornal.” Mr. Arkush presents these terms as mutually exclusive. “Hierarchal” means “government administered in the Church by patriarchs, archbishops, bishops etc . . .” (Webster) and since in our Church “the supreme legislative, administrative and judicial authority within the Church is the Sobor” with the participation of the laity – our Church is not “hierarchal” – so runs Mr. Arkush’s argument. But it is based on a purely legal concept of the Sobor, a concept which is simply incompatible with the concept of the Church. The Sobor being the expression of the Church is itself a hierarchal organ, i. e. reflects and expresses the structure of the Church. All members of the Sobor take part in it according to their order and status in the Church: Bishops as Bishops, Priests as Priests and Laymen as Laymen. It would be absurd to think that from the moment the Sobor is convened, all its members loose their “status” in the Church and become equal “units” of an abstract government, with the majority rule as the only principle of decision.
It is obvious that the participation of the laity in the Sobor is given a false interpretation based on a false application of the “democratic” principles to the Church. Their participation means primarily the privilege given then to express their concern for the Church, to discuss together the needs of the Church, to devise better solutions for her actual problems and to take decisions Insofar as they are in agreement with the Tradition and the Faith of the Church. This privilege is based on the Orthodox belief that no one in the Church is deprived of the Holy Spirit, and that to every one is given the spirit of responsibility and concern for the Church, the spirit of active membership. It is not based, however, on any juridical right that would make laity “co-governors” and “co-administrators” of the Church. The authority to decide whether this or that decision of the Sobor is in agreement with Tradition remains with the Hierarchy and it is in this sense that the Sobor is hierarchal.
The Sobor is thus the expression of the common concern for the Church of all her members and the expression also of her hierarchal structure, and this is what “sobornost” and “sobornal” mean in Orthodoxy. It is a cooperation, in which each member of the Church is given full possibility to express his views, to enrich other with his experience, to teach and to be taught, to give and to receive. The hierarchy can profit immensely from this cooperation with the laity, just as the laity can be enlightened on the various dimensions of the Church life. But all this does not mean “egalitarianism”, a transformation of hierarchy into laity and vice-versa. It is a sad fact, a tragedy indeed, that under the influence of secularism and legalism, the whole emphasis in our understanding of the Sobor activities has shifted to “decisions” and “motions” which are being considered as the main task of the Sober, whereas its real value is in the wonderful opportunity to clarify the mind of the Church by a common discussion, by sharing the concern for the Church, by deepening the unity of all members of the Church. It is a sad fact, that instead of pervading our “secular” life with the spirit of the Church, we can think of nothing better than to transform the Church into a secular corporation with “balance of powers”, “fight for rights” and pseudo-democratic “egalitarianism.” Once more, the Sober is an hierarchal organ of the Church, submitted as such to the basic structure of the Church and valid inasmuch only as it is hierarchal.
Equally wrong is Mr. Arkush’s analysis of the lay participation in the Sobors of the past. In his opinion, the Church of the Ecumenical Councils not only changed the practice of the early Church (which was that of accepting the laity into the “synod”) but legislated in exactly the opposite direction: laity was canonically excluded from the election of Bishops and participation in Church Councils. The “early” practice was restored by the Moscow Sobor of 1917-18, and constitutes the basis for the Church in America. First, on the election of bishops: It is true that the bishops were elected by the local church. The consecration, however, which alone made them bishops was performed by the bishops – and this order expresses the ontological order of the Church. Election, i.e. suggestion, proposal, etc., comes from the people of the Church, the Sanction comes from the hierarchy, and this principle is to be applied to the whole life of the Church, in which, according to St. Ignatius of Antioch, “nothing can be done without the bishop” (i.e. without the hierarchal sanction). No canon ever condemned or forbade the election of the bishop by the people and if this was not done for a long time, the reason is purely historical and accidental, not “canonical.” It is highly desirable to restore it wherever and whenever possible, but let it be clear, that election as such is not the condition of validity for a bishop. The Apostles were not “elected” by anyone, and it is at least doubtful that St. Paul when appointing Timothy or Titus was basing his choice on a popular election. It is true that many forms and the very spirit of secular government pervaded the Church after her alliance with the Roman Empire, transforming the bishops into high officials (hence the uncanonical transfers of bishops, the idea of a “cursus honorum”, the weakening of the ties between the bishop and his church etc.), but it is also true that the best bishops and the real canonical tradition were always fighting this transformation as a distortion and called for the restoration of a true Orthodox ecclesiology.
“The canons of the Ecumenical Councils, – writes Mr. Arkush, – make no mention of the laity as sharing in Church government. On the contrary they indicate that the Bishop solely governed the Church”. I am glad that Mr. Arkush makes this clear statement and, although he tries immediately to question its relevance for us and our time, there remains the fact that our Church knows of no other canonical tradition but precisely that of the Ecumenical Councils period. The Church was governed by the Bishops because the Bishops are the ministers of Church government, and to ask whether this principle or “canon” is still binding is to ask whether the Church is still the Church. What Mr. Arkush overlooks, however, is the fact that the lay participation in shaping the life and the activities of the Church, its voice – was fully recognized, even though they took no official part in the Church councils. The great monastic movement was at its beginning a lay movement, yet it had a great impact on the whole life of the Church. Eusebius of Dorylea was a simple layman when he protested against the heretical teaching of his bishop Nestrorius. Theologians were not necessarily bishops and the tradition of “lay theology” has remained a living one even today. Participation, activity, concern for the Church, thinking, discussion – all this was never denied to the laity, on the contrary, belongs to it as its right and duty.
It was indeed a wonderful achievement of the Moscow Sobor of 1917-18 that it restored this lay participation to its full capacity and gave the laity new possibilities of cooperation with the hierarchy and creative activity in the Church, and this at a moment when the common defense of the Church became an urgent need. It brought to an end a false “clericalism”, a situation in which clergy alone constitute the active element in the Church. It clearly proclaimed the principle that all Christians are living and active members of the Church. But the Moscow Sobor did not and could not change the basic structure of the Church, as Mr. Arkush seems to interpret its decisions. By introducing the laity into the Sobor – “the supreme authority of the Church”, it did not change the status of the laity in the Church, it did not give them “rights of government”. The final sanction within the Sobor belongs to the Bishops, and this principle according to Prof. Kartashoff was the “corner stone of the whole activity of the Sohor” (A. Kartashoff, The Revolution and the Sobor of 1917-18, in “The Theological Thought”, Paris, 1942, pp. 88) – “All decisions of the plenary sessions, – writes Prof. Kartashoff, – were revised at special sessions of the Bishop’s Council; if rejected by three-fourths of the Episcopate, they were sent back to the plenary session. If not accepted by the Bishops after revisions by the Sobor, they were not to become official acts of the Sobor”. Thus, at this point Mr. Arkush’s interpretation is false. The Sobor created two organs of the Church government: the Synod of Bishops and the Supreme Church Council, and it was clearly stated that to the competence of the Synod of Bishops belong the questions concerning Doctrine, Worship, Theological Education, Ecclesiastical Government and Discipline (Decision of December 8, 1917). Finally, in the Parish statute (April 20, 1918) the government of the parish is defined as follows: “It is the duty of the Rector to have a concern for all the activities of the Parish” (Ch. V. 29). To oppose the Moscow Sobor to the earlier tradition of the Church, to see in it the beginning of a “sobornal as opposed to the hierarchal Church” is therefore a pure distortion.
Mr. Arkush’s pamphlet has one notorious merit: it crystallizes the issue of our present ecclesiastical trouble. He formulates the question and answers it in the negative. It is our absolute conviction that the Orthodox faith and the Orthodox tradition put us under obligation to answer it in the positive. The Church is hierarchal. To let these two mutually exclusive answers coexist any longer would endanger the very foundation of Orthodoxy in this country. All men, who put the Church, her Life and her Truth, above their own private and individual options, likes and dislikes, must understand the ultimate scope of this controversy, make their choice and act accordingly.