From time to time over the decades I have heard conversations among Orthodox about ‘What the problem with the Orthodox world is’. Some I have heard say: ‘The episcopate’. Others say: ‘Lack of leadership’. Others: ‘Lack of pastors’. Others: ‘Uneducated clergy’. Others: ‘Infrequent communion’. Others: ‘There are not enough churches’. Others: ‘Politics’. Others: ‘There’s not enough money’. Others: ‘Too much money’. Others: ‘Ecumenism’ (how old-fashioned that word sounds now). Listening to such conversations among those older than myself, many years ago I came to my own much more radical, but perhaps also much more obvious, conclusion which I present below. Let me give some examples.
The Problem of the Episcopate
Here one of the great problems is that, with very weak monastic life, Orthodox bishops are drawn from a very small pool of candidates. Here we must also recall that, even if there were strong monastic life, most monks are in any case not at all suitable to become bishops: the very ‘monastic’ monk makes a disastrous bishop, as he has no concept of family life and the general realities of life in the world. If they do become bishops they make the most crass decisions out of naivety, ordaining bandits and perverts and not ordaining the suitable.
Indeed, real monks flee even the possibility of the episcopate and have to be taken kicking and screaming for consecration. In some Local Churches, the situation is so dire that just any celibate can become a bishop, especially if he belongs to the right local wealthy family (one of four?). His faith is not very important, but being celibate and being from the right local wealthy family are. As a result, there are a lot of bishops who are bureaucrats, diplomats or just academics. Faith in Christ really does not count very much with them at all.
The main aim of the bishop-bureaucrat, ‘administrator’ or ‘effective manager’ (the Russian jargon) is to collect money and property, so gathering power into his hands. After all, marble, gold and flashy vestments, flats and cars need hard cash. How else can you show off how prestigious and powerful you are? A few years ago we saw one who had been appointed to another diocese. His first act was to buy himself a very fancy car.
That was him finished. Half the flock turned away at once and never returned. And frankly, why should they have? The previous bishop had travelled by public transport and had been respected for that, though admittedly he had travelled very little. The new bishop still could not understand how he had alienated half his flock in his first week (he only realised this about a year afterwards). Some years later he was removed after a large amount of money had disappeared……Another failure in a long line in that particular diocese, which appears to have a suicide wish, ordaining the incompetent and banishing the competent.
But why does a bishop need a chauffeur or a cook or a chancellery and to issue decrees (which are usually ignored anyway)? Ordinary people do not have a chauffeur or a cook or a chancellery and does not issue decrees. If they did, they too would soon find themselves as despised and ignored as their bishops.
Bishops are given power, which some of them think means suspending, depriving of living and home or defrocking righteous priests (and others) and ordaining their corrupt yes-men favourites in their place. Some cultivate this power into a kind of feudal arbitrary rule, the ability to strike terror and intimidate. It is impossible to pray with such bishops because they are bullies who simply traumatise. Little wonder that in one Local Church there is actually a trade-union for priests to defend themselves against such bullies.
The fear of some Synods of bishops to stand up to such bullies whom they themselves appointed discredits the episcopate because there are whole Synods which fall into cowardice and let the corrupt go on for years. There has to be another way, the way of justice. Let us make clear that we are not talking about those who deserve suspension and defrocking according to the canons. The very real fear of priests of being utterly unjustly suspended and defrocked is not their fault. It is the fault of tyrannical and unChristian bishops, who do not know the word Love. Trauma reigns. As for trust, that went out of the window decades ago.
Then there are the bishops who are mere diplomats or book-lovers, who hide in their cathedrals, never visiting their crumbling dioceses, and remain unknown to their flocks. They prefer speaking at conferences for intellectuals.
We have witnessed the conduct of certain bishops in the last year in relation to covid. Terrorised by the vague possibility of death with covid, they have closed themselves down and closed down their dioceses, threatening their priests with suspension and defrocking, if they so much as serve the liturgy or visit the sick, as in one group in one Diaspora country. These conformists are those who, wishing to swim with the atheist State tide, go over and above even the demands of the atheist State in closing down their churches. The concept of churches in the catacombs is totally alien to such bishops, as they are totally integrated into the local Establishment (and local masonic lodge). I have had people asking if such bishops have any faith at all. In answer, I shrug my shoulders and look to the heavens. The fact is, I just don’t know.
On ordination 36 years ago I was told by an elderly Russian priest that ‘whatever you do, don’t contact the bishop unless it’s an emergency, you will annoy him’. Indeed, there are bishops I have heard of who actually forbid their clergy to contact them or make contact impossible because they refuse to answer any form of communication. They don’t want problems, and yet they are happy to interfere in the details of pastoral life and upset clergy and people alike, thus creating problems. Their heavy-handedness defies definition. One new and power-crazy bishop we know managed to alienate his whole diocese in just nine months. A quite remarkable feat. Surely a record? Unless you know better….
The Problem of the Priesthood
There are priest-careerists. You can tell them a mile off. Even the most unchurched person knows them. It is as though they carry an odour about them. And the odour is not that of eau-de-cologne, but the foul stench of money.
On the other hand, if you allow a married priesthood, as Christ did, it is only natural that the priest should earn enough money to look after his family. There are Orthodox bishops who condemn the cash-saving Roman Catholic solution, that is, imposing celibates only (sometimes homosexuals, sometimes worse). And that is exactly what some bishops do: ordain a 22-year-old, make him archimandrite and there you have it: a cheap parish priest.
Only, as happens quite often (I have known many examples), by the time they are 30 they want to get married. And they do. Not so far from here, we know a married archimandrite with two children, though his bishop left him priest. And actually I don’t blame him for doing so, but the bishop who ordained the married archimandrite at an uncanonical age. Another bishop we met would only ordain priests with two children or fewer. Those who did not use contraception could not be ordained: they were too expensive.
The problem is that such events do nothing to create respect for the clergy and parish life. The simple solution: in a small parish with 100 wage-earners, ask them to contribute 1% of their salary to the priest’s salary. This would mean that the priest would earn exactly the average salary of all his parishioners. If it is a medium-sized parish with 200 wage-earners, they will contribute 0.5% of their salary. Etc.
This brings us to the next and massive problem.
That is the lack of parishes. There are quite a few (though probably only a fifth of the number required) church buildings, but a parish is a different matter. A church is a building you ‘go to’ as often or as rarely as you want, for five minutes once a year (like the thousands who, I am told, ‘go to…’ (a church where there are never more than 200 present at any one time). There are others who attend a church at least three times a week and come before the start and leave after the end. Only they are parishioners. A parish is a community to which you belong, of which you are a member. And parishioners are people who socialise and help each other outside Sundays.
In Russia and most of ex-Communist Eastern Europe, parish life was almost completely destroyed by the Communists. Though, in truth, often parish life was very often very weak even before the Communists came. Which is precisely why the Communists came…..
To create a Church family, which is what a parish is, is not easy. It takes years. There are different nationalities, different ages, people live in different places, often far apart. And this brings us to our next section.
The Problem of the People
Most Orthodox Christians the world over are only nominal. This nominalism is the ‘hatch, match, dispatch’ variety. In other words, they go (at best) to church three times in a lifetime, for baptism, wedding and funeral. They are not Churched Orthodox, who belonged to the Church, whose priority is the Church. Some people ask why a Revolution in ‘Orthodox Russia’ took place. It was because of nominalism. When there is an attack on the Faith, the first people to lapse and even overnight become enemies of the Church are the nominal. Thus, in Soviet Russia, most of the militant Communists, from Stalin downwards, were baptised Orthodox. They were obviously not Churched Orthodox. Thus, we can see the fragility of ‘Orthodox countries’, where the majority are only nominal Orthodox. We can see the same fragility today where clergy are State-paid. A fragility which worries. Those countries hang by a thread.
Nominalism is precisely why confession and communion are infrequent. Confession and communion, though two separate sacraments, together form a statement that we are Christians, that we repent and that we partake of Christ, the Head of the Church. Both are equally important, which is why they are so frequent and so closely linked. Some common questions of the baptised but unChurched are: What is confession? What is communion? I have never had them. Why can’t you give communion to my (unbaptised) baby? We now have the extraordinary Roman Catholic practice in some churches of communion always, but confession never. And they actually justify that as normal! What is this world that we live in?
Many people like to blame ‘the Church’ for everything. This sounds like a blasphemy, as the Church is Christ’s, His Mother’s (Who is the Mother of the Church), His saints’ and His angels’. However, by ‘the Church’, they do not actually mean Christ (which is what ‘Church’ means), but the clergy.
Yes, we are aware of the faults of the clergy (see the extensive lists above), but what about the faults of the people? The people statistically make up 2,444 out of every 2,445 Orthodox (90,000 bishops, priests and deacons out of 220 million), 99.945% of the Church. Where is the responsibility for the Faith of the people, their consciousness of belonging to ‘the royal priesthood’? Why this passive, consumerist attitude? This is not the attitude of Church people.
Some people blame the clergy for the obvious lack of missionary work. But it is much more their responsibility, as they are the vast majority. If nothing is done inside parishes, in internal missionary work, nothing can be done outside parishes, in external missionary work. Why is that we have to wait for bishops and priests to set up parishes, buy church buildings, do missionary work? All should start at the grassroots. And where do the clergy come from? They come from the people. Clergy are not born clergy! Is there truth in the old and harsh saying that: ‘The people get the clergy they deserve?’ The lack of zeal among the people for upright bishops surely results in what we have. We should not complain about our situation when it is our own fault.
What is the main problem of the Orthodox world? In my view, it is undoubtedly its sheer lack of Orthodoxy. At all three levels, as described above. This means the lack of dogmatic understanding and the lack of works of love, in other words, the lack of love, which in fact are the result of each other. For if you do not love God, you will not love your neighbour or yourself. Put simply: No respect for God = no respect for others = no self-respect.
Whenever in Church history the faithful people, most parish priests and monastics and the freely-appointed bishops have combined to defend the Faith against tyrants and monsters, they have created an unstoppable force, a force which radically changes the course of history. Why? Because they realise that they, only together, are the Church.