The Regime of the Orthodox Church

Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and St Vlassios

 Translation of the article in Greek Τό πολίτευμα τῆς Ὀρθοδόξου Ἐκκλησίας


The Regime of the Orthodox Church

Prompted by the Ukrainian issue, there are discussions about ‘primacy’ within the Church. Some people reject it, and others misinterpret it. The Roman Catholics usually interpret primacy in terms of essentialism, and some contemporary Orthodox theologians interpret it in terms of personalism.

My purpose in the present article on this subject is not to set out the theological dimensions of the problem, but to stress the fact that in the Orthodox Church we speak more about the Church’s synodical and hierarchical regime. Some views will be highlighted that I have previously stressed in other contexts.

1. Synodality and the Hierarchical System

The synodical regime of the Church is connected with the hierarchical system, and in fact synodality (conciliarity) is stressed together with the hierarchical system. In any case, this is true, from another perspective, in states and in democratic regimes, as there is a popular assembly, but, at the same time, there is also a hierarchy of ministries and authorities: not everyone has the same rights and duties.

The Greek word synodos is made up of two words, syn ‘with’ and odos ‘way’, and denotes a shared journey. This is the context in which we should look at the expression that the Divine Liturgy is a “synod of heaven and earth”, that is to say, a meeting and a shared journey.

The word hierarchy denotes the leader of the sacred rites, the bishop or hierarch, but also the hierarchical arrangement of charismas and ministries. The synod, therefore, does not exclude the hierarchy, and the hierarchy does not exclude the synod. We find this word hierarchy in the works of St Dionysius the Areopagite, On the Celestial Hierarchy and On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, in which nine companies of angels are identified, which are divided into three sets of three, and which are linked with the earthly ecclesiastical hierarchy, as regards the rites (Baptism, Synaxis and Chrism), the three stages of ascent to God (purification, illumination and perfection), the three degrees of the priesthood (hierarch, priest and deacon), and as regards the three orders of laity (catechumens-excommunicated, faithful and therapeutae-monks). The phrase “functioning of the synodical regime” also denotes this reality.

It has been observed (by Alexander Schmemann) that the Church’s regime is regarded as “synodically hierarchical” or “hierarchically synodical”. The hierarchical principal is not contrary to the synodical principle, as the synodical principle is established by means of the hierarchical principle. When one of the two is absent, the other cannot exist. In that case, there is no real expression of the Church.

This interpretative explanation of the terms is very useful for what will be said below with regard to the functioning of the synodical and hierarchical regime of the Church of Greece.

2. The Divine Liturgy as the Model of the Hierarchical Synodality of the Church

As we know, the Church is the Body of Christ and the communion of deification, which means that those who are members of the Church are members of the Body of Christ and are on their way to deification. This is not a static state, but continuous movement, an ongoing journey, which St Maximus the Confessor calls “ever-moving stability” and “stationary motion”: “It will acquire ever-moving stability, the never-ending enjoyment of divine things, and stationary motion, the insatiable appetite for these things.” The Church is not an established institution, but an expedition in Christ, a journey towards participation in the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom is experienced starting from now, and it will come in its fullness in the future.

The Divine Eucharist is the centre of ecclesiastical life. For this reason, the manner in which the Divine Eucharist is celebrated depicts exactly what the Church is, as well as showing what her ultimate aim is.

St Maximus the Confessor’s Mystagogy makes clear the character and purpose of the Church and the Divine Eucharist. Ecclesiology cannot be examined independently of Eucharistology.

The Divine Eucharist is truly the “Synod of heaven and earth”. St John Chrysostom writes very characteristically:

“Oh, how great are Christ’s gifts! Hosts of angels praise Him in heaven; in churches on earth human choirs imitate their doxology. In heaven, Seraphim sing aloud the thrice-holy hymn; on earth the human multitude sings the same hymn. A common heavenly and earthly feast is celebrated: one eucharist, one rejoicing, one joyful choir. The indescribable condescension of the Lord has brought this about; the Holy Spirit has put it together; and this harmony of sounds was orchestrated by the Father’s good pleasure. From on high come harmonious melodies, and, moved by the Holy Trinity as though by a plectrum, pleasant and blessed music resounds, the angelic hymn, the unending symphony. This is the outcome of our effort here; this is the fruit of our gathering.”

The central point of this passage by St John Chrysostom is “one eucharist, one rejoicing, one joyful choir” of angels and human beings, the departed and the living.

The hierarchy of the charismas and ministries of those who take part in the Divine Liturgy can be differentiated into many degrees. There are the catechumens, those preparing for baptism, and the faithful who have been baptised. There are laypeople in different spiritual states, who are being purified, illuminated and deified. There are clergy of different orders: bishops, priests and deacons. And there are those who serve at the Divine Liturgy in various ways, as subdeacons, readers, chanters and helpers. They all participate in the Mystery (Sacrament) of the Divine Liturgy, but in different ways, so there is synodality but also a hierarchy. The laypeople take part in the Divine Liturgy by praying and taking Holy Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ. The chanters chant on behalf of the people. The deacons address supplications to God for the people. The priests offer the bloodless rite, with the permission of their bishops, and the bishops are the presidents of the Eucharistic assembly.

Although those present at the Divine Liturgy share in the great Mystery, and the Clergy approach the altar and pray, it is the president of the Divine Eucharist who offers the bloodless sacrifice and recites the Prayer of Consecration, which is a prayer to the Father to send the Holy Spirit and to change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. In this way, there is a concelebration, but particular categories of spiritual charismas and ministries can be distinguished. Even when clergy of the same rank concelebrate, the first of the celebrants offers the bloodless sacrifice and the others participate in the Mystery. The celebration of the Mystery of the Divine Eucharist presupposes someone who takes the lead. Therefore synodality works in combination with the hierarchical system.

This distinction between the charismatic ministries in the Divine Liturgy is also clear in the book of the Revelation of St John, which presents the vision of the heavenly Church and the heavenly Divine Liturgy that St John the Evangelist saw. As mentioned above, it is, of course, linked with the earthly Divine Liturgy.

In this vision of the heavenly Divine Liturgy we see “one like the Son of Man” among the seven lampstands (Rev. 1:12ff.); the One sitting on the throne, and the twenty-four elders sitting on thrones “around the throne”; the four living creatures in the midst of the throne, and the worship the twenty-four elders and the liturgical creatures offer to Him Who sits upon the throne (Rev. 4:1ff.); the Lamb standing “as though it had been slain” “in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders”, and their worship of this Lamb (Rev. 5:6ff.); the altar and “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God” (Rev. 6:9ff.); the “great multitude” “standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9ff.); the censer and the smoke of the incense (Rev. 8:3ff.); the song of the redeemed (Rev. 14:1ff.); the hymn ‘Alleluia’ (Rev. 19:1ff.); the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9ff.); the new heaven and the new earth, and the holy city of Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1ff.).

This entire experience of revelation is also the heavenly Liturgy and the pattern for the earthly Divine Liturgy. There is a spiritual fragrance about all these things. The prayers and the order of the Divine Liturgy show a synodical and hierarchical journey and ascent to the heights of Mount Sinai, Golgotha, and the new tomb of the Resurrection.

The Divine Liturgy not only depicts the experience on Mount Tabor, but also expresses it and shares in it. On Mount Tabor, Christ was in the middle, in the uncreated Light, which was pouring forth from within, as Christ’s Body is also a source of uncreated Light. The Prophets were on each side of Christ, talking to Him. And the three Disciples fell on their faces because, although they were asking to construct created tabernacles for Christ, Moses and Elijah, they themselves were under the uncreated tabernacle, the bright cloud, the presence of the Holy Spirit. All these spiritual states are reminiscent of the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.

Also, through this revelatory experience of St John the Evangelist’s, the earthly created church building took shape. We see the same in the case of Moses, who constructed the tabernacle of witness on the basis of the uncreated tabernacle not made with hands, which he saw on Mount Sinai, and later the Temple of Solomon was constructed on the same basis, as well as Christian churches, which are divided into the narthex, the nave and the Holy of Holies, which is the sanctuary.

Consequently, in the manner in which the Divine Liturgy is celebrated and the place in which it is celebrated we see the synodical and hierarchical structure of the ecclesiastical regime.

3. The Synodical and Hierarchal Regime at Every Level of Church Life

The Divine Liturgy, both by the way in which it is celebrated and its ‘spirit’, has always been the model for experiencing the whole life of the Church. In any case, the Divine Liturgy is not an isolated part of ecclesiastical life, but the central core and foundation of the whole structure of the Church.

It is characteristic that iconographers who depict the meetings of the Ecumenical Councils use as their basis the icon of Pentecost, when the Disciples received the Holy Spirit. This model, however, also represents the manner in which every Divine Eucharist is concelebrated, when the bishop’s throne is in the apse behind the altar. The Divine Eucharist, the mystery of Pentecost, and the meetings of the Councils are interconnected, to a relative extent.

From this perspective, the Church’s whole administration and pastoral ministry should function on the model of the Divine Eucharist, in other words, synodically and hierarchically, and should be an extension of it. In any case, any split between the sacramental and administrative life of the Church is inconceivable. The synodical regime of the Church at the so-called administrative and pastoral level must function in the same way as the Divine Liturgy is celebrated, although the analogy cannot be exact. The synodical structure of the Church and the synodical administration of ecclesiastical affairs constitute the mystery of the Church. There is an excellent analysis of this based on the sacred Canons by Archimandrite George Kapsanis, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of St Grigoriou on the Holy Mountain, in an important study of his.

The structure of the spiritual life functions according to the theological concept of synergy, as God acts and man co-operates. Christ brings about deification, whereas man undergoes deification; he participates in deification. And this happens to varying degrees.

Synodality and the hierarchical system ought to operate in the relations between bishops, and at meetings of the Hierarchy, as an experience and extension of the Divine Liturgy. The Synod of Bishops is a concelebration, an extension of the Divine Liturgy and of prayer. This is the reason why we begin meetings of the Hierarchy by invoking the Paraclete, and we finish its business with the words “By the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God have mercy upon us and save us.”

At these meetings there is the President, who is not only present and supervises the way in which the Synod (the Hierarchy or the Standing Holy Synod) works, but also institutes its sacred work, as also happens in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. There are also co-administrators or concelebrants. The thirty-fourth Apostolic Canon requires this for the operation of the Metropolitan system: “The bishops…must acknowledge him who is first among them [the protos] and account him as their head, and do nothing of consequence without his consent” in synodical matters, although not in matters that concern particular dioceses. But neither may he who is first, the protos, “do anything without the consent of all.” On these conditions, “there will be unanimity, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

This synodical regime ought to function in the administration of the local Holy Metropolises of the Church, and in the relations between bishops, priests and laypeople, because laypeople are not ‘passive’ members of the Church, but Christians with spiritual gifts who are able to share in the uncreated grace of God, and who have the blessing of being shepherded towards their own personal salvation.

The bishop is the president of the Eucharistic assembly, but also the president of the whole canonical structure of the diocese and the metropolis, as the administration of the Church takes place within the framework of the pastoral ministry, and this pastoral ministry is an expression of the Eucharistic atmosphere, and is dependent on the participation of all the members of the Church in the Mystery (Sacrament) of the Divine Liturgy. It is in this sense that we speak about the bishop-centred regime of the Church, which is not, however, independent of her synodical and hierarchical regime. It is significant that the sacred Canons refer to the manner in which we take part in the Divine Liturgy. What is more, even the arrangement of the bishop’s throne behind the altar presupposes that the priests stand at a lower level than the bishop’s throne, although not on the same level as the laity, because there is a hierarchy of charismas.

The synodical and hierarchical structure of the ecclesiastical regime, as an extension of the Divine Liturgy, should also function between priests and laypeople in their parishes, as well as between abbots and monks in monasteries. The synodical and hierarchical regime functions in all aspects of ecclesiastical life. We should not expect to find it only in the Synods of the Hierarchy; it should also operate in the other expressions of Church life. It is not possible for there to be factions and clandestine meetings in ecclesiastical life. “The Church is regarded as a continuous synod”, as this is what the word Ekklēsia ‘Church’ means.

It is a basic principal of ecclesiastical life that anyone who knows how to work synodically and hierarchically as a priest in his parish and as metropolitan in his Metropolis, is also able to work in a canonical and synodical manner in other functions of Church life, and in the Synods of the Church’s Hierarchy. Ecclesiological illnesses start from the way in which the parish and the Metropolis are structured, and they also express themselves at higher ecclesiastical levels. In any case, carcinogenesis begins from a cell and spreads to the whole body. Anyone who is unable to act synodically in his parish and Metropolis is also unable to function synodically and ecclesiastically in meetings of bishops.

From all this it is clear that the regime of the Church is synodical and functions hierarchically, and it is also hierarchical and functions synodically. Synodality does not abolish the hierarchical system; nor does the hierarchical system abolish synodality.

This is also true of the way in which all the Orthodox Churches function, just as it also applies to pan-Orthodox Liturgies. There is obviously a protos, the one who is first, who is responsible for the good functioning of the Body of the Church. Autocephaly, as I have stressed in another article of mine, does not mean ‘autocephalarchy’ (independence). In any case, Christ is the head of the Church, and even the term ‘autocephaly’ (which literally means ‘being its own head’) cannot be understood in an absolute sense. Rather, this term denotes the self-administration of some regions, and not their full independence.

In the Orthodox Church there is a protos, who co-exists hierarchically with the other primates. Essentially, all the bishops are equal among themselves, since they all have the high-priesthood of Christ. However, according to the canonical system of ecclesiastical administration, they are not all equal in honour, and this is understood in accordance with their administrative and Eucharistic position within the Church. But that is the subject of another article of mine.