Monday, February 20, 2017

The Priest and the Parish Council

Parish Councils are like personal computers in a number of ways.  The initials for both are P.C.; neither existed before very modern times, and we can scarcely imagine life in the church here in the West without them.
            It is sobering and somewhat instructive to learn that in the early church parish councils didn’t exist.  Well, actually they did, but they consisted of the local council of presbyters.  In the first several centuries, the local pastor was the bishop, who presided over and was the focal point of unity for all the churches in the city or village.  The bishop was the one whose confession of faith determined the faith his flock, and he was the one who accordingly presided at every baptism that took place in the city or village.  Accordingly they saw their bishop every Sunday; he was the one who personally excommunicated anyone needing excommunication and he was the one who welcomed them back and restored them to Eucharistic communion when they repented, laying his hands upon them and praying for their absolution. 
But he did not make the pastoral or administrative decisions:  those were made by his local council of presbyters.  Thus, for example, if the church had a candidate for reader or subdeacon, the decision to ordain or not to ordain was made by the presbyteral council, not by the bishop.  Obviously the bishop had a fair bit of moral clout, and his own opinion and wishes usually carried the day.  But the power of administrative and pastoral decision lay with his council, not solely with him.  (How things have changed.  If you want to see the canons mandating the change, you can’t.  There aren’t any.)  The presbyters were not elected each year for a term of office as present-day parish council members are.  They were chosen and then ordained by the bishop for life.  If all of the congregation couldn’t fit into one place and required a second meeting place, this second “overflow” congregation was presided over by one of the presbyters. But the bishop still remained the pastor for all the Christians in the same village.
That was then, this is now.  Today the bishop usually lives and liturgizes at a tremendous distance from most of the congregations over which he has pastoral charge, and his presbyteral council is correspondingly scattered over a large area.  The presbyters no longer serve together each Sunday at the same Liturgy, but serve in their own little congregations, often in great isolation one from another.  The bishop’s oversight, of necessity, is minimal.
But not, however, the oversight of the secular government.  In the West, churches are registered in that clergy are licenced by the State to perform and register marriages and (in Canada anyway) receive little official slips of paper after burying the dead.  Money given to the church is eligible for tax-deductible receipts, so that in church we render both to God and to Caesar. 
Part of the regulation of churches (again, in Canada anyway) involves their registration as Charitable Societies (hence those tax receipts), and that includes the legal necessity of having Annual General Meetings of the membership, having a Constitution and By-laws and periodic meetings of the Board of Directors—a.k.a. the Parish Council.  The Church of the first centuries had no AGMs, no Constitution or By-laws, no tax receipt eligibility—and no Parish Council.  They didn’t need them, for the Church kept itself as far from government supervision (i.e. from persecution) as it could manage, and the bishop and the presbyters made all the decisions, including the financial ones.
Given the scattering of the so-called “local church” over a wide area and the resultant scattering of the presbyters from each other, the help from the Parish Council becomes a matter of necessity even apart from the watchful eye of Caesar.  Bluntly put, there is no way a single parish priest could take care of the multitude of concerns affecting his congregation, and help from other members of the flock has become indispensible.  The healthy functioning of these Parish Councils and their healthy relationship with the priest are matters crucial to the health of the parish. 
As any priest who has been at his job for longer than several months can tell you, such healthy function cannot always be presumed.  I remember one dear priest who discovered that something needed to be done or purchased in his parish, and he said to another person in the parish, “Just do it.  I’ll fight with the Parish Council later.”  Sometimes the Parish Council consists of people intent on running the parish and treating the priest like a paid employee whose only job is to serve Liturgy and do what he is told.  Sometimes it is the priest who is the bully, and who tyrannizes and abuses the people under him, including his long-suffering Parish Council.  Sometimes Parish Councils become old boys’ clubs (or old girls’ clubs) with its members clinging to power and office like big fishes in little ponds and refusing to allow “younger blood” (i.e. anyone else) to be elected to office.  Sometimes it is the bishop who makes life interesting.  I remember one situation (not in my jurisdiction!) where the bishop demanded that each parish contribute a set amount to his central fund.  One parish demurred and the bishop put the squeeze on the parish priest to make the parish cough up the money.  Said priest found himself in a tight spot, canonically responsible to his bishop but in fact financial responsible and dependent upon his Parish Council.  Where’s voluntary euthanasia when you need it?
A good description for the functioning of priest and Parish Council can sometimes be found where least expected—in the jurisdictional by-laws.  Thus The Statute of the Orthodox Church in America (1991 edition) reads in part:  “At the head of the parish is its Rector.  According to the teachings of the Church, he is the spiritual father and teacher of his flock and the celebrant of the liturgical worship …No activities in the parish can be initiated without his knowledge, approval, and blessing; neither should he do anything pertaining to the parish without the knowledge of his parishioners and parish organs elected by them, so that always and everywhere there may be unity, mutual trust, cooperation, and love.”  Note the mutuality between priest and Parish Council (the “parish organs”):  no activities can be initiated with his knowledge, nor may he initiate them without the knowledge of the Council. 
Given this mutuality, one may ask the question, “Who is in charge then?”  The answer:  Christ is.  Christ’s love and life are manifested through the joint unity of priest and Parish Council.  It is too easy for power struggles to arise, with a kind of administrative tug of war between priest and council.  In this wretched mess, which side gets to have its way?  And which side has to back down?  When it is about power, one might imagine that one side wins and the other side loses, but in fact in this situation everyone loses, for the Church is not about power but about Christ.  The aim of priest and Parish Council is to discover and discern Christ’s will in any given situation and then to do it.  I remember one day in the early years of our own parish.  We had a decision to make about money at an AGM, and the congregation was split down the middle about what to do.  I refused to allow the vote to be taken (so much for Roberts’ Rules of Order) and asked them to pray about it during the coming week.  They did, and at the later meeting someone made a suggestion for breaking the deadlock which passed unanimously.  The point is it is not about power:  it is about discerning God’s will together, and this discernment is made jointly by priest and Parish Council.
This means that the priest should come to the Parish Council realizing that priesthood is not about power but about love, service, and washing the feet of his people.  If he doesn’t understand this he should take off the cassock and get another job.  The people of the Parish Council should regard their task as a ministry for Christ, for which they will be judged at the Last Day, and part of this ministry involves supporting and loving their priest.  Like the dry and dusty Statute said:  unity, mutual trust, cooperation, and love.  Mutual love between priest and Parish Council are essential if the parish is to function properly.  

I would end with two final questions for council members and priest respectively.  For Parish Council members:  do you understand that your priest is your papa, and that supporting him in prayer, word, and deed, is your top priority?  And for the priest:  are you willing to lay down your life for your sheep as all good shepherds are willing to do?  These questions are not simply rhetorical.  They will be asked and an answer demanded before the dread judgment seat of Christ.   I would also like to add a quick addendum here, giving thanks to God for my own Parish Council.  They are indescribably wonderful, and a gift from God.

Friday, February 17, 2017

“The Doors! The Doors!”

          I sometimes think we Orthodox have a problem with modernity—by which I don’t mean that we should begin ordaining women to the priesthood or marrying homosexuals (those two thoroughly modern issues) or otherwise throwing the Scriptures into the dustbin.  Rather I mean that we seem not to be as good as we might be at coping with the demise of Byzantium.  For example, we still continue to use the term “Constantinople” when every map and travel agent in the world has used the term “Istanbul” for some time now.  And we glory in titles such as “the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East”, despite the fact that the term “the East” refers not to a direction of the compass, but to one of the original major administrative divisions of the Roman Empire, divisions which have long since lost any real significance.  We need to face the fact of Byzantium’s demise along with all its many consequences.
            One of those consequences is the sad recognition that the world is no longer Christian as it once was.  In the early Church, everyone was all too keenly aware that the world was not Christian and a hard line was drawn between the Church and the World, separating those inside from those outside with a kind of ruthless clarity.  Take for example the agape meal celebrated in the third century.  The document now known as The Apostolic Tradition gives directions for how that supper meal should be ordered.  (The details of authorship need not detain us here; regardless of who wrote it, it clearly reflects the common Christian mind of its time.)  At that meal, the faithful received a fragment of the blessed bread from the bishop’s hand before taking their own meal.  “But to the catechumens let exorcised bread be given…A catechumen shall not sit at table at the Lord’s supper [i.e. the agape meal].”  Note:  not only were the catechumens excluded from the Eucharist; they could not even sit at the same table as the faithful at the agape meal and share the non-eucharistic bread.  In the Eucharistic service, they were allowed to be present for the reading of the Scriptures and for the instruction (just as any visitor was allowed), but were dismissed with prayer immediately afterward.  They were excluded from the corporate intercessions which the faithful offered for the world and its needs, and from the corporate exchange of the Kiss of Peace, because (quoting The Apostolic Tradition again) “their kiss is not yet holy”.  The whole world lay under the power of the Evil One (1 John 5:19) and those in the world were tainted and unclean—a taint and uncleanness that only Christian baptism could wipe away.  That is why the catechumens were rigorously excluded from all Christian rites and functions and could only passively hear the Scriptures and receive the prayers of the faithful. 
            Clearly things have changed, and if a Christian from the early third century could be brought back to life and brought forward in time to our own century, he or she would be shocked at what we do and allow.  And the multiple shocks received at our Liturgy would begin early.  The ancient Christian might wonder a bit why the service began without the celebrant greeting everyone (as done in his day), but he would be floored when the Great Litany began with outsiders, visitors, and catechumens present.  For the prayers and intercessions of the Church could only be offered by the baptized, the royal priesthood, the communicant faithful.  In the words of Gregory Dix (old words now, but still true), “The Church is the Body of Christ and prays ‘in the name of Jesus’, i.e. in His Person.  The Spirit of adoption whereby the church cries to God in Christ’s Name, ‘Abba, Father’ with the certainty of being heard Himself makes intercession with her in her prayers.  Those who have not yet put on Christ by baptism cannot join in offering that prevailing prayer” (from his The Shape of the Liturgy).   The ancient Christian would be shocked that the line between the World and the Kingdom had somehow be erased, and that the saving boundaries and walls of the Church had apparently been torn down.  What were unbaptized outsiders doing here during the time of the Church’s intercessory prayer?  How could they offer that prayer if they were not yet part of Christ’s body?
            So what happened and caused the change, allowing the intercessory prayers to be offered at that place in the service?  In a word, Byzantium happened.  Increasingly from the fourth century onward, the line between the Church and the World came to be blurred, as more and more people in society claimed membership in the Church.  By the time the thing was in full swing, it was difficult to find unbaptized people anywhere.  There were Jewish enclaves of course, and heretical groups, but pretty everyone else in society was considered at least in theory to be in the Church as well.  This resulted in a general lowering of the spiritual temperature, about which clergy were already complaining in Chrysostom’s day.  But canonically speaking the old dividing line between the Church and the World was hard to find.  This being so, no one batted an eye at praying the Great Litany before the catechumens had been dismissed later on in the service.  The whole idea of the catechumenate had become anachronistic anyway.  One could pray the intercessions of the faithful before the catechumens were dismissed because the latter no longer existed.  (Why one would continue praying for and dismissing non-existent people is another question, and a good one.)  The Liturgy which allowed everyone in society to be present throughout was the Liturgy of Byzantium, a Liturgy which assumed that everyone present was a part of the Church.
            We need to acknowledge that Byzantium is gone, and that in the words of the old song, “It’s Istanbul, not Constantinople”.  More importantly, we need to acknowledge that many if not most of the people in the world around us in North America are not Christians.  Some might object to regarding nice secular people as tainted or unclean (in the same way as third century Christians regarded the non-Christians surrounding them), but this objection simply reveals how far we are from the mindset of the early Church.  The cry of “The Doors! The Doors!” was originally a diaconal call to the doorkeeper to guard the doors against secular intrusion, and served as a kind of verbal dividing line between the Church and the World.  In Byzantium it eventually came to have the same anachronistic meaninglessness as the prayer for and dismissal of the by-then non-existent catechumens, since the assembled church no longer needed protection against hostile intrusion.  Perhaps the retention today in the Liturgy of that ancient cry may yet prove providential.  The line between the Church and the World, blurred in the heyday of Byzantium, has once again come to the fore.
            The fine liturgical details resulting from this acknowledgment are less important than the acknowledgment itself.  The World is once again a place of sin, rebellion, and spiritual danger in a way that it was not when Christendom and Byzantium were still standing.  Becoming Orthodox must be seen as a renunciation of this World with its perverted values and as an entrance into a completely different moral universe.  Christians are fundamentally different from the society around them, and this difference must be insisted upon canonically (i.e. by excommunicating blatantly worldly behaviour) and possibly expressed liturgically as well.  It is no good pretending that western society around us is Christian and that we may therefore follow its norms.  Through God’s grace and baptism, we are different from the society in which we now live.  We need to realize that we belong no longer to the World, but to the Kingdom of God, and to close the spiritual doors to worldliness.  Byzantium is long gone, and once again we live as exiles and aliens in the world around us.  Let us hearken to the ancient diaconal cry, and set our faces away from the World and toward the coming Kingdom.  In words of a very old prayer, “Let grace come, and let the world pass away”—even the world which flies the national flags we so often see around us.  Our ultimate allegiance lies elsewhere.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What’s Wrong with Suicide?

Eventually every pastor will be faced with the question of what to do about the theological issue of suicide, either because he will be asked to preside at the funeral of someone who has taken his or her own life, or because he will be asked to offer prayer for their repose.  What is the proper response, both theologically and pastorally?  May one legitimately preside at the funeral of a suicide or offer a memorial service (such as a Panikhida) for their repose?  What are we to think about their final eternal destiny?
            It is no good pretending that the weight of Christian history does not offer a dark view of the matter.  The classic view, at least in the West, was expressed well by G.K. Chesterton (d. 1936).  In his book Orthodoxy, he wrote comparing the martyr to the suicide in the following words: “A suicide is obviously the opposite of a martyr.  A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life.   A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything.  One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end…The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere destroyer; spiritually he destroys the universe…One man [the martyr] flung away his life; he was so good that his dry bones could heal cities in pestilence.  Another man flung away life; he was so bad that his bones would pollute his brethren’s”.
            Ouch.  Well, no one ever accused GKC of mincing words.  And putting aside the intensity of his prose, he does express the attitude of the church of his day which steadfastly refused to bury a suicide in consecrated ground.  And this attitude was well understood for some time before Chesterton put pen to paper.  Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet knew that “the Everlasting has fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter”.
            Given this negative view of suicide and the presumption that a suicide would be eternally lost, we may still ask the question “What’s so wrong with suicide?”  Obviously suicide is always a tragedy and always to be avoided, but why did our forefathers feel that those committing the act were to be reprobated in this way?  Please note here that I am discussing active suicide, the act wherein a person takes his own life or arranges for another to take his life, not the issue of what is sometime called “passive euthanasia”, wherein a person allows himself to be “unplugged” from life-support machines in a hospital and let death take its course.  That is also an important issue, but it is not the one I am discussing here.
            I think it is important to examine the question of motivation when assessing the relative morality of any act.  That is, one must look at the question of why a person commits suicide, and what he or she hopes to accomplish in others by the act.  In some cases the motivation is to inflict hurt and pain upon others.  That person wants to kill himself so that those finding the body afterward will be filled with shock, trauma, and terrible lasting anguish.  The subtext of the suicide note reads, “You’ll be sorry for what you’ve done to me!”  This act of suicide is not simply aimed at extinguishing one’s own life, but more importantly uses this self-destruction as a way of inflicting grief upon the survivors.  It is as much an act of aggression as of self-harm.  In this scenario, if the suicide’s body were not discovered, the act of suicide would have no point.  The man killing himself does not want to simply die, but to reach out beyond the grave and hurt others.  If he simply vanished by (for example) throwing himself off a ship into the sea leaving his surviving family to believe he was still alive somewhere in the world, the act of suicide would have no point, for the whole purpose of the act was to inflict pain upon those discovering that he had killed himself.
            Given this motivation, one can readily see why some might be so opposed to the act, and why it opined that the dead man’s chances for eternal bliss were so slim.  But not all suicides (or, as I suspect, actually very few suicides) spring from this motivation.  Of the people I knew who killed themselves, their primary motivation was not to inflict guilt or pain upon those surviving, but simply to make their own interior pain stop.  This is the way it is, I am told, with those who kill themselves when they are clinically depressed.  They do not want to die; they just feel that they cannot go on living in such pain, and suicide seems to them to be the only way to make the pain go away.  Such people deserve our sympathy and our prayers—including our corporate liturgical prayers.  It may be that some liturgical tweaking could be done with the prayers normally used at Christian burials expressing the ambiguous and tragic nature of the situation and accentuating the mercy of God.  That would be for bishops to decide and to bless.  But it seems to me that clergy should be allowed to preside at such funerals, and to offer the comfort of the Church’s intercession for the dead.  Indeed, the bishops of the North American Church (SCOBA) have a decade ago have issued a pastoral letter tending in this direction.  In the case of suicide, as with so many other things, motivation is everything.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Liturgy and the Language of the Street

          One sometimes comes across mild debates in Orthodox circles about whether or not our Sunday Divine Liturgy should employ the archaic forms (e.g. “Thou hast”) or the contemporary ones (e.g. “You have”).  Our own O.C.A. website has perhaps wisely decided not to jump into the debate and take definitive sides, but to offer the liturgical texts in both forms, so that one has a choice of downloading either the “You/ Your Version” or the “Thou/ Thy Version”.   What can one say about this debate?
            First of all, one can recognize that there is no such thing as an inherently holy language.  Muslims declare that Arabic holds such a privileged position, so liturgical prayers must be offered in Arabic regardless of whether or not the Muslim worshipper understands the language.  But Christians have never made such claims for their own faith, and accordingly liturgical Christian prayer has been offered in all languages.  That of course was part of the point of Pentecost:  now all the tongues of men have been sanctified by the indwelling Spirit so that one can pray with complete authenticity in one’s native tongue.  This Pentecostal truth finds expression also in our Bible translations:  despite the fact that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (and Aramaic) and the New Testament written in Greek, the Bible may be and has been translated into many languages, and no one suggests that the product is not actually the Bible.  Of course some translations are better than others, but we do not follow our Muslim friends.  They deny that Scripture can be authentically translated at all and they dub such translations as only “the meaning of the Quran” and not the actual Quran itself.  Unlike them, we say that Scripture may indeed be authentically translated.  The King James Version or the English Standard Version, for example, whatever their virtues and flaws, are still the Bible.  All language is simply a vehicle; it is the meaning that matters.
            Secondly, since it is the meaning that matters, the meaning of prayer must be comprehensible and understood by the person doing the praying.  That is why liturgical prayer has always been translated from the original to the vernacular of the nation using it.  Cyril and Methodius, though doubtless saying their own prayers in Greek, took pains to translate those prayers into the tongue of the Slavs for use in their later missionary endeavours.  They did not insist that the Slavs learn Greek in order to commune liturgically with God.  Some people in their time opined that the Church’s worship must be conducted in either Latin, Hebrew, or Greek, the three languages atop the cross of Christ announcing to the world that He was the King of the Jews.  Cyril and Methodius demurred, and with them the rest of the Orthodox Church.  Pentecost means that all vernaculars are acceptable, and moreover “it is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people” (to coin a phrase). 
            Thirdly, the importance of liturgical comprehensibility means that both the “You/ Your Version” and the “Thou/ Thy Version” are legitimate, since both are equally well understood by speakers of English.  The debate over which English forms to use in North American churches pales in comparison with the debate over whether to worship in English or (for example) Slavonic.  The former debate is not unimportant, but needs to be put into its proper context.  For the debate over whether to use archaic or contemporary English concerns the proper amount of reverence required for worship; it is important but less important than the concern for comprehensibility.  Worshipping in a very reverent Slavonic does the English worshipper no good if he or she cannot understand Slavonic.  It would be like listening to glossolalia:  the Slavonic speaker in tongues may give thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified (1 Corinthians 14:17)—better in such a case to speak five words that can be understood in the vernacular than ten thousand in a tongue (v. 19).
            Fourthly, it is true that divine worship must be not only comprehensible, but also reverent.  This debate is muddied by the fact that use of the form “Thou” is sometimes lauded as more formal and reverent than the form “You”, when in historical fact the form “thou” was intended as the familiar, not the formal.  In the Anglican classic Book of Common Prayer, God was addressed as “Thou” since Christ taught us to invoke Him with loving familiarity as our abba; it is only the bishop in that book who is addressed with the formal “you”.   But after all language is more than history, and what was familiar in one age may end up being formal in another age.  Certainly the present use of the term “thou” does savour of a reverent and specialized usage. 
            Some people say that the Liturgy must be conducted “in the language of the street” while others insist that it must not be.  One must be careful to define exactly what is meant by the term.  If one means by this that there should be no difference between the language used when speaking to our buddies at Starbucks or the hockey game (to say nothing of the locker room), and the language used when speaking to God in church, then this is clearly wrong.  People like Fr. John Whiteford have pointed out that the Church has always used the best and most elevated form of language available for its divine worship.  (See his excellent .)  But if by the term “the language of street” one simply means an actual vernacular, then such a language should be acceptable, for the vernacular can still be sufficiently elevated and poetic.  Take love poetry for example:  a man may write elevated poems of great tenderness and beauty to his beloved without necessarily addressing her as “thee”.  Language need not be archaic to be elevated and beautiful. 
Take for a liturgical example the exclamation of the Prayer of the Thrice-holy recited by the priest just prior to the singing of the Trisagion Hymn.  At our own St. Herman’s parish the prayer ends with the words, “for holy are You, O our God, and unto You we send up glory:  to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages”.  It is not much different than praying “for holy art Thou, O our God, and unto Thee we send up glory”.  The former is not any more an unworthy “language of the street” than the latter.  Rendering it in true “street language” would look something like “for You’re holy, God—glory to You forever”.  One need only glance at this true street version to see the difference.  Poetry, beauty, and an elevated spirit do not depend upon verbal archaism.  A poet knows that things as simple as an inversion of words (“holy are You” instead of “You are holy”) and the use of the vocative “O” (“O our God” instead of simply “our God”) can work wonders, bringing the language away from the Starbucks tables and into the divine throne room of God.  It is contemporary, but still elevated.   Once again, comparison is instructive:  at Starbucks I might say to my buddy, “you’re looking good, my friend”; I would not say, “looking good You are, O my friend”.  If I did, he would look at me rather oddly, and perhaps ask me why I was talking like Yoda.
Finally, if both the archaic and the contemporary can be equally reverential and elevated, why choose one over the other?  I would suggest that the contemporary possesses the added advantage as being closer to our speech during the time when we are not in church.  There is always a terrible temptation for all of us to separate our Sunday morning behaviour from our behaviour after we leave the church.  We can hermetically seal off Liturgy from life, and neglect what some have called “the liturgy after the Liturgy” so that we are afflicted by a kind of spiritual schizophrenia, with our worship split off completely from the rest of life.  This can be exacerbated if we possess a special language in which we address God (not, I hasten to add, that those who opt for the archaic forms are guilty of this.  I speak here only of temptations and of my own heart).  As St. James long ago pointed out, out of the same mouth come both blessing and cursing—with the same tongue we bless the Lord and Father and also curse men who are made in His likeness (James 3:9-10).  It may be of some help if we forego use of a specialized liturgical tongue and retain the same language for both God and men, for then the inconsistency of which James warns us can be more easily detected and avoided.  Using the contemporary vernacular to bless the Lord and Father ought to carry over after the Liturgy has concluded so that we refuse to use that language to curse men made in His likeness.  Liturgical language can help unify our lives and our hearts, so that the holiness of the time spent praying to God flows over into the rest of our lives as well.

One last added thought:  it is important after we have made our liturgical choices to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).  Both choices can be and have been made by people genuinely concerned to honour God and to please Him.  As St. James reminds us, honouring Him means holding our brethren in honour as well, regardless of whether or not their own liturgical choices are the same as ours.