The event in Crete, originally billed as “the Great and Holy Council”, has generated much interest, and more than a few photo-ops. The secular media might be forgiven for thinking that here we have Byzantium on parade. In particular the secular world might be forgiven for concluding that Orthodox leadership is all about power, pomp, and long titles, along with perhaps jewellery and brocade. Take for example the opening toast of the Ecumenical Patriarch offered at a luncheon given in his honour and that of the other primates: “We express our joy for the presence of our Modesty and all the brother Beatitudes the Primates of the Most Holy Orthodox Autocephalous Churches at this luncheon that Your Excellency has graciously offered…” He went on to refer to his office as “the Most Holy Apostolic and Patriarchal Throne, in the person of our Modesty”, and to the Archbishop of Greece as “His Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece”.
Granted that this was a solemn state occasion where one is accustomed to such formalities, the continued and ubiquitous use of such long formal titles when one refers to oneself (and not just at the event in Crete) leaves the world with a lasting impression that the Orthodox leaders are all about long titles and their own dignity. That this is (let us assume) not the case makes the ubiquitous and customary use of such formality all the more unfortunate. This ecclesiastical habit is not confined to the upper echelons of our leadership. Even someone further down the ecclesiastical ladder is referred to (on a book of theological essays he has edited) as “the Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Throne”. Nor is the phenomenon restricted to representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as a number of invited participants who stayed away stated as one of their complaints the provided seating arrangements. The apparent concern for dignity can be observed in many Orthodox hierarchs, not just those centered in Istanbul.
Please let me be clear: I am not saying that any of these men are proud or fond of self-aggrandizement. I do not know any of them personally, and cheerfully believe they are humble, dedicated, and good men. My point is one of optics: Orthodoxy projects a view of its leadership that portrays them as very concerned with privilege, self-importance and long titles. When one refers to oneself in the plural with titles such as “our Modesty”, no one in the secular world really believes the person is being modest, especially when one refers to one’s office as “the Most Holy Apostolic and Patriarchal Throne”. One might never guess from such a description that the local flock proper to that throne in fact consists of no more than a dwindling few thousand in Istanbul, which is less than the number of students that attend many urban high schools.
Part of the problem, I submit, is that the quite proper concern for canonical authority has become too much divorced from moral authority—that is, from trust and love. Every pastor, whether of a little Orthodox mission, a larger urban parish, the bishop of a diocese, or the patriarch of an ancient see, combines canonical authority with moral authority. That is, he occupies his seat because someone has given him the right to do so (those who elected or ordained him), and he also begins to build up a store of credibility and trust with those to whom he ministers. This latter is not automatic, and is not speedily accomplished, but it is this which allows him to effectively function, and constitutes the true power of pastors. I could refer to myself at our Parish Annual General Meeting as, “Our Humility, the unworthy occupant of the holy, Orthodox, Presbyteral Throne of Langley and Those Suburbs Around It”, but it would not redound to my glory or add to my authority. My people do not dispute my canonical authority or deny that I should be their Rector. They take this for granted and then more or less ignore it. They follow me not so much because of my canonical authority, but because they love and trust me. This love is not automatic, and can be eroded or even forfeited if I act unwisely or stupidly or otherwise give them reason not to trust my judgment.
By focusing so visibly and emphatically upon canonical authority, the Church risks giving the world the erroneous impression that it thinks the world should respect it because of its grandiosity, historical lineage, and institutional power. This would be a serious strategic mistake. People respect integrity and self-sacrifice, not historical privilege, and are more impressed by the garments of humility than by rich brocade. The present Pope knows this, which is why he consistently “dresses down” and (if memory serves) took a pass on wearing ermine vestments at one of his first papal liturgies. I am not necessarily suggesting that our leadership dress down and put their miters into mothballs. But I do suggest that in the absence of serving the world in terms the world can both understand and value, those miters will not redound to their glory as much as might be imagined.
One may take the Salvation Army as an example. They do not spend much public time rehearsing their noble record, fancying up their uniforms, and making sure their General gets in the news. Rather they just keep on running soup kitchens, thrift stores, and sanctuaries for the unfortunate, and that is why they have accumulated credibility in the eyes of the secular world. People drop money into their Christmas kettles because what they do resonates with society at large. Their salvation message of “Blood and Fire”, if it gains traction, does so because of the moral authority their work has garnered for them. We pastors of the Orthodox Church who strive to gain the ear of the world forget this at our peril.
Since the clergy have has their stated aim to be servants to the rest of the Church and the slaves of all (Mark 10:43-44), it would be helpful if they trumpeted their earthly and historical dignity a little less loudly. No one observing the Byzantine pomp, the Byzantine titles, and the portentous deportment of the assembled hierarchs would guess that here was with gathering of servants and slaves. Slaves do not worry about where they sit, or refer to themselves in the plural. Their eyes look to the hand of their master (Psalm 123:2), and their attention is focused upon what the master will ask them to do next. If the Orthodox Church is really intent upon making a good impression on the world, it must do a better job of sitting more lightly on its historical authority and rights, and get down more visibly to the job of washing the feet of the poor.