Cooperation Among the Bishops

By Father Thomas Hopko

As the image of the Holy Trinity, the Orthodox Church must actualize itself in the world as a truly hierarchal, truly conciliar community. Means must be found on every level of church life for the fullest and deepest possible communion and cooperation so that the "mind of Christ" may be discovered and realized in every instance in the most perfect possible way. The leaders in the task of accomplishing cooperation and communion in the everyday life of the Church are the bishops.

Episcopatus Unus Est

We have often heard in recent years the ancient saying of St. Cyprian of Carthage: Episcopatus unus est. The episcopate is one. Metropolitan Theodosius used this saying just a few months ago at the installation of Bishop Nathaniel of Detroit. The point of the expression, to refer to St. Cyprian himself, is that each bishop is a successor of the apostle Peter as a rock of faith, each bishop holds the episcopal office in its fullness, and all bishops hold the office together solidly and in perfect unity. Each one is in union with the other. No one exists alone. And no one acts alone. The one mind, heart, will and soul of the Church as the one body of Christ is expressed in action by the unity of the bishops in harmony.

To fulfill their episcopal duties, the bishops do not merely consult and confer with each other, but they actually meet together in council to make common decisions affecting the entire Church. They are obliged to do so by the Church's canons. At least twice a year, usually in the fall and during Great Lent, the bishops must gather together in one place and remain together for as long as it takes in order to come to one mind and one action in all disputed and divisive issues confronting the Church's life and teaching. No bishop can say that what he does in his diocese is not the business of the other. None can claim that anything in his church is its own private affair. In the Church of Christ there are no such things as "private affairs." When it comes to Christian belief and behavior everything is everybody's business.

Meetings of Bishops

In Orthodox America today the entire episcopate of the Church literally never meets. Representatives of the various Orthodox "jurisdictions" meet sporadically under the auspices of the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America, but not on a regular basis and not for more than a day or two, if that. The meetings are usually for public relations purposes, and virtually never involve the inner life of the churches themselves. They are certainly not held as the opportunity for fulfilling the episcopal obligation of mutual examination, questioning and discussion for the sake of harmonious and unified action.

The Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) meets twice a year, each time for about three days. The sessions are normally "closed" in the sense that the bishops meet alone, without advisors or assistants from their dioceses. The main activity of the sessions, judging from newspaper articles is to report and hear reports; to monitor the church's central offices departments and committees, and to deal with disciplinary matters usually involving the clergy. As important as such "routine" matters are for healthy church life, there is need for more reflection on the many burning issues of church life in a truly conciliar setting. Such conciliar reflection would open the way to common decisions and common action.

Where does one see the entire episcopate of the Church, or even of a particular "jurisdiction," sitting down with each other, and with those involved in the Church's various ministries, in order to analyze, reflect, discuss and, most importantly, decide IN COMMON What needs to be done for the edification of the whole body and the salvation of its people?

One-Sided Practice

One reason for the weakness of the conciliar aspect of the Church today is, in my opinion, an unbalanced understanding of the so-called "monarchical episcopate" taken from the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, with its emphasis on the catholic integrity of the local church led by its bishop. Surely each bishop with the presbyters, deacons and faithful people of his region constitute the Church in a given place in its catholic fulness, mystically and sacramentally. There is even such "catholic fulness" in a mystical, sacramental way in the local parish without the physical presence of the bishop as long as the local community is in communion with its episcopal father. Perhaps it has been necessary in recent times to stress this important truth in the face of "neo-papal" understandings of catholicity, together with the persistence of imperial and Turkocratic structures of hierarchal organization in the Church. But if the result of this modern application of "Ignatian ecclesiology" will be the conviction expressed in action, that the diocese (or worse yet the parish) is a self-sufficient, self-enclosed ecclesial entity beyond the questioning of others and the accounting to them, then we have fallen into a terrible heresy which must be immediately healed.

According to Orthodox teaching and canonical practice each bishop is obliged to give an account of the faith and practice of his church to his brother bishops, and so to preserve the unity, identity and integrity of the Church in all places. The bishops cannot do this unless they meet with each other, and with their presbyters and people, for this express purpose. One obvious improvement in the life of Orthodox America, therefore, would be longer, more intense, more open meetings of the bishops within each "jurisdiction," and across "jurisdictions," at which specific problems of church life would be resolved in common for common action in the various dioceses and parishes. The specific issues for common resolution would be in areas involving theological doctrines (e.g. the structures of the Church), liturgical practices (e.g. the rules for participation in holy communion), ethical behavior (e.g. sexual morality), canonical discipline (e.g. the training and ordination of the clergy), missionary work (e.g. the establishment of churches in areas where none now exist), etc. There are endless issues where no common mind and no common practice exist in the various Orthodox churches. The bishops' duty is to discover the Church's common mind for common action, and they can only do so if they meet together, with appropriate assistance, for this purpose. There is no good reason why this cannot be accomplished in our free society with sufficient effort and good will.

The Orthodox Church, June 1985.

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