Holy Trinity Cathedral - Ecclesiology

Hierarchy and Laity in the Orthodox Church

John Meyendorff

(On the occasion of Protopresbyter Nicholas Afanasieff's book "The Ministry of the Laity in the Church" Orthodox Theological Institute, Paris 1955, 78 pp)

[Translator's note: It is difficult to render into English the Russian term "predstoyatel' and the Greek "proistamenos". Avoiding the term "President" the term "Head" is used for "The one who presides."]

The question of the interrelation of the laity and church hierarchy is one of the more vital topics for today's Orthodox consciousness. It is likewise a vital one in the Catholic Church. It is significant for the resolution of many practical problems of contemporary church life, its missionary and social activities and its witness before the world. In Russian ecclesiastical literature this question occupied a primary place in the debates in connection with the preparations for the Local Moscow Council of 1917-18. The Council brought out the well-known decisions about the participation of the laity in the ecclesiastical governance. However, the Orthodox consciousness has not rendered a final judgment upon these decisions. To date, their full acceptance has not taken place and many ask themselves: are these decisions in full accord with the nature of the Church and her Sacred Tradition?

The question of lay participation in the fullness of Church life is of primary importance for the Orthodox Churches of the East as well. Nearly all new movements aimed at the full renaissance of church life are initiated by the laity and are supported by them. The lack of internal and the intellectual preparation on the part of the clergy on the one hand and the incontestable influences of protestant methodology on the other drive many people towards counter-church anti-clericalism.

There is a dire need in contemporary Orthodoxy to discern those norms, which are formed by church tradition, in the context of which the life of the Church must flow. Just as in our "jurisdictional" arguments, the subject matter has to do with what is basically fundamental about the Church itself, about her internal and eternal laws. These laws are for the most part forgotten and at times they are replaced by other principles: Orthodoxy itself then, is transformed into "Eastern-rite Protestantism," into a "democracy," or even "Catholicism without the Pope."

The recently published [1955] book by Fr. Nicholas Afanasieff "The Ministry of the Laity in the Church" is an attempt to delve, within contemporary Russian church literature, into the depth of the problem.

In the book's first part (introduction, chapters 1 and 2) the author emphasizes and develops the New Testament teaching on the "Royal Priesthood" of all Church members (see 1 Peter ii:5; Rev. i:6; v:10; as the realization of the O.T. prophesy: Exod. xix:6).

Many specifics in the rite of Baptism likewise point to the priesthood of all Christians. The sacrament of Chrismation is nothing other than an ordination into the kingdom and the priesthood. All Christians offer the spiritual Sacrifice of the Eucharist. All are "consecrated" members of the people of God. Not everyone has the "grace to preside" at the Eucharistic Assembly, but the Head [ proistamenos in Greek] is not separated from the people, as a "priest" is from the unconsecrated, but stands as the High Priest among priests. "The 'Laic' as a member of the people, sacrifices concurrently with the Head but not in the same manner as the latter" (pg. 32).

The book's second part is devoted to service of the laity in church governance and teaching. Fr. Nicholas' basic premise is: "The service of the laity in the sphere of the priesthood is more prominent. In this sphere the faithful are co-servers along with their Heads. In the sphere of governance and teaching the people of God are governed and taught by those who ate appointed to that service. In these spheres the faithful are not co-servers with their Heads (pp 64-65)." In this way, according to the author, it is the grace for presiding, which entails the grace of governance and of teaching, and not the grace of priesthood, which belongs to all members of the people of God.

Fr. Afanasieff's book distinguishes itself by the exceptional clarity in its presentation. The author adheres to a good theological method, basing his judgments almost exclusively on the text of the New Testament and works of the early Fathers. His historical sensitivity allows him to present a number of important premises for the elucidation of the Orthodox teaching about the Church. However, it is precisely on the basis of these premises that it is possible to have a fruitful debate with the author.

It becomes obvious for us that there is a contradiction between the book's two parts and in each one, there is an one-sidedness, which does not call for a refutation but rather a completion or a corrective. By what means is it possible for all members of the people of God to "carry out their priesthood in conjunction with their Head" without participating in governance or teaching, as if the Kingdom and Truth are separate from the priesthood and thus belong to the Head alone and not to the whole Church?

Speaking of the priesthood of all Christians and correctly pointing to their co-celebration with the Head, which has been forgotten in church practice but preserved in the liturgical tradition of the Church, the author himself distinguishes that service from the High-priestly service of the Heads: "The Laic, as a member of the people co-celebrates with his Head but not like the latter" (p. 32). Fr. Nicolas does not indicate where the substance of that difference is, which is substantiated by the full Tradition of the Church.

The Scripture and the earliest Church Tradition say that the Apostles, when appointing Heads of Churches, did not endow them with the Apostolic grace (the grace, which is contingent upon a personal witness of the Lord's Resurrection and is not transferable), but made   them "Apostolic successors" in the Church and for the Church. There is no Apostolic succession outside the Church, but only within the Church, and it specifically points to those who, in each Church, are called to preside and be the image of Christ Himself. It is not the Apostolic succession but their presiding among "priestly" people, which makes them High Priests, but they receive that grace for presiding from the laying on of hands by the successors of the Apostles. This particular grace, inasmuch as the Eucharist is the actualization of the Sacrifice of the Only High Priest Jesus Christ, presupposes the High Priestly service, which is distinct from the general Royal Priesthood of the people of God. (*)

As the image of Christ, the Head of the Eucharist is the Hierarch. If the Head is in the rank of a presbyter, then he receives from the bishop the assignment to preside in his place that is, to carry out the service of the Hierarch.

Therefore not only are the teaching and the governing functions endowed with a special charisma but so is the High Priesthood. All these ministries in the Church belong to the one who, according to St. Ignatius of Antioch, "presides in God's place" (Trall. vi:1 [ sic. does not match English translation]) at the Eucharistic assembly, i.e. the bishop.

But as Fr. Nicolas Afanasieff persistently and correctly points out in his book, it is only within the Church itself, and not over her that the ministries of the Spirit are possible: for the bishop to function as High Priest, Teacher and Governor, the people are essential just as he himself is essential for the people of God. The people take part in all three of the bishop's different ministries by pronouncing "Amen" and their role is identical , essential, and active. The "weighing what is said" by the people, of which St. Paul speaks (1 Cor. xiv:29, 1 Thess. v:21), is the exact confirmation of their "joint service" at the Liturgy about which Fr. Nicolas writes so well. When the Head celebrates the sacred service the people ratify his prayer with the sacramental word "Amen." When the Head teaches, the people "weigh what is said," i.e. verify, accept, or reject. When the Head governs he is not "domineering over those in [his] charge but [is] being [an] example to the flock" (1 Peter v:3.).

The Eucharist is the assembly of the Church: it is the Church itself. The role of the Head and the people's participation in the Eucharist is the norm of their interrelation, which must be preserved in every phase of Christian life, i.e. in the preservation of the Truth and in the governance of the Church.

It is historically and dogmatically correct that in ancient times the ministry of teaching and of governance and the right to participate in the councils belonged to the Heads of the Churches. For this they received and continue to receive gifts of grace. On this premise Fr. N. Afanasieff does not see the possibility of lay participation in teaching and in governance. But we already saw that the author himself reminds us of the gifts to   "weigh what is said" given to all Christians. Why not recognize that this gift "to weigh" can manifest itself historically in different ways, which may include lay participation in councils? Furthermore one must never forget that the life of the church's organism presupposes a single whole. One cannot breach one norm of church structure without thus breaching the others. Therefore one cannot reinstate the norm in one phase without reinstating it in others.

The role of the laity in Church governance and in teaching is an active role. Fr. Nicolas Afanasieff is far removed from the catholic teaching about "the teaching church" and "the church which is taught" but one could draw a conclusion from his book in its favor because he writes about the "teaching charismas" but passes over rather hurriedly about the conditions when it is expressed in the Church.

The source of our ecclesiastical maladies, bringing with them a number of misunderstandings, is the loss of the consciousness of the Church as a living society within which the Holy Spirit dwells and acts, defining all ministries and proclaiming God's will. The ecclesiological directives in the Scripture, our liturgical order and all of the canonical tradition presupposes the existence of a society of   faithful as the primary nucleus of church life at the head of which is the bishop. In accordance with Canon 19 of the Council in Trullo [sic] "he who is elected a bishop is one who is blameless in all things, chosen by all the people." The election of a bishop by the people is presumed in our rite of the bishop's ordination. The bishop's connection with his community is likewise seen in the canons, which forbid the transfer of bishops from one diocese to another. In the ancient Church the Christian community was a living, conciliar organism and the bishop who governed it was in the full sense "its person" and thus, the charismas, which he received for teaching and governing, could completely correspond to his High Priestly ministry and could without any hesitation be subject to the "weighing by the people."

In our days there occur some unbelievable conflicts between the Pastor and the flock! The Russian bishops during the Synodal period were in situations, which did not allow them "to know by name" not just the   flocks in their diocese (which they frequently ruled for short periods of time), but they did not know all of the rectors under their care. Under such conditions it would be completely abnormal and un-church-like to expect that the bishops alone could represent their churches at the councils as was the case in the early church. (**)

However, the re-establishment of a diocese as a living church community likewise presumes the restoration of the ancient practice of reception into the Church as well as exclusion from her. Our present church masses would often be too uninformed to participate for example, in the election of bishops. This is not surprising because the slow process of the detachment of bishops from their flocks began as early as the Fourth century when the Church changed from a persecuted minority to an official establishment of the empire. But in our times when Christians once again became a minority, only a return to the eternal norms of Church structure could Church life experience a re-birth.

Everyone is aware of the attempts at church reform by the 1917-1918 Moscow Local Council. Fr. Nicolas Afanasieff's negative view towards that is partly based on the fact that the reform carried a juridical character. But can one do without laws as a foundation for protecting the nature of church life in relation to historical circumstances? The reforms of 1917-1918 should also be reviewed in their substance. Their fundamental defect lies in the acceptance, as the basic structure of the Church, not the diocese as the sacramental community of Christians headed by the bishop, but the whole national Russian Church on the one hand, and the parish on the other. Proposals for an increase in the number of dioceses and the establishment of Metropolitan districts did not receive sufficient attention at the Council and failed to be brought into being. The laity were included in all stages of church governance because of the method of representation. It is true, that only the method of representation gave the laity a voice in the life of the church as a whole because of the deficient church structure, wherein the local diocesan community on the one hand was absorbed into the massive structure of the national Church headed by the patriarch, having a direct power over all dioceses, and on the other hand was dissipated into the small parochial units enjoying broad powers of self-government. Thus Fr. Afanasieff is partly right, saying that "the Council unintentionally continued that period in the history of the Russian Church which it attempted to end" (p. 52). But one should not disparage its efforts since it was able to engender a feeling of responsibility for the Church among the laity. The 1917-1918 Council was a positive response of the Church's consciousness to the crying and the anti-canonical malfeasances of the past, but even it was unable to move away completely from the old categories of thinking. In the future it is incumbent upon church consciousness to bring about activity on the part of the laity within the framework determined by the nature of the Church. This presupposes the re-establishment of a Christian community capable of becoming an organ of the Holy Spirit in the selection of a bishop who would be capable, upon receiving Apostolic succession and being in oneness of faith with other Churches, to exercise the charismas of Teaching and Governance in imitation of Christ, doing nothing outside or contrary to the people who, together with him, constitute the Body of Christ. But as long as the Church fails to see the possibility of returning to that ancient norm, she will inevitably offer the laity other means of activity in the life of the church.

The participation of the laity in local councils and even in church preaching is not the norm . It is a heresy, if this presumes, on our part, a rejection of the charismas of the High Priesthood, Teaching and Governance, granted to the Heads of the churches. But it is a healthy reaction of church consciousness if it furthers the Royal priesthood of all Christians and their common responsibility for the truth and if it comes about due to the temporary impossibility of advancing the ministry of the "laics" in the Church or by the incapability of the Heads for governance and teaching. In the same manner, the performance of all sacraments of the Church belongs to the bishop, but the circumstances of Church life from the earliest times forced the bishops to delegate the presbyters to perform Baptisms, Chrismations (reserved to the bishop in the West), the Eucharist and other sacraments. It would be incorrect to say that all presbyters are bishops, but no one in the Church ever questioned the legitimacy of the delegation although, as any departure from the norm, it had not only positive but negative consequences (fragmentation of the community, a lessening of the ties between the bishop and his flock, etc.).

On the other hand every gift of grace presupposes a responsible ministry on the part of the one who receives it. The charisma of the Heads, inasmuch as it is in fact their personal gift, a talent allotted by God, not only gives them power but also judges their activity. The ministry to preside lies on them like a heavy cross. Thus the different ministries, of which St. Paul writes, are internally united with each other. They are all included in the one life of the Body of the Church. All are participants in the one task and fulfill each other, without distorting the internal order of the Body (see 1 Cor. xii:14-31). In this sense one should understand the joint undertaking of all members of the people of God in the one task of their salvation.

J. Meyendorff
Translated by Alvian Smirensky


*The prayer for the installation of bishops given by Hippolytus of Rome in the "Apostolic Tradition" and the witness of Ireneus of Lyons, clearly indicate the combining in the person of the bishop, both the Apostolic succession and the grace of High Priesthood.

** Certain ancient practices have been preserved better in the Orthodox East. The Eastern dioceses are comparatively small and more closely resemble the canonical norm. Bishops are rarely moved. If Russia were to adopt the present ratio of bishops to their flocks as in Greece, then the number of Russian dioceses would increase from 67 to 2000.

Vestnik RSKhD [Messenger of Russian Student Christian Movement ] (Paris), 1955, No. 39 pp. 36-45

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