Saturday, April 30, 2016

Pascha: The Blast of a Trumpet

          From the prophecies of Isaiah: “It will come about also in that day that a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were perishing in the land of Assyria and who were scattered in the land of Egypt will come and worship the Lord in the holy mountain at Jerusalem” (Isaiah 27:13). The prophet here surveys the world around him, and sees how the people of God were languishing in exile, scattered to the four winds and perishing helplessly in the lands of the mighty superpowers of the day, Assyria and Egypt. Israel was tiny, powerless, unable to lift a finger to help; the superpowers sat invincible on their haughty thrones, intent upon keeping their prey within their grip. But help would arrive, and it would come about that in the day God arose to shake the towers and counsels of the great, He would save His people. A great trumpet would be blown, the signal of deliverance and freedom, a summons for the exiles to arise and be free and come home.
          Why a trumpet? Why not (for example) a signal fire, or the waving of a standard? Why a trumpet blast, and what did the blast of a trumpet mean to Israel? For one thing, it meant the Year of Jubilee. In the Law, every seventh year was a year of release, a year when all the slaves were to be set free (Exodus 21:1), and after every forty-nine years—i.e. seven times seven years—freedom would come to all in the land: “You shall consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family” (Leviticus 25:10). No matter what had happened by way of poverty or misfortune, whatever the disaster which had forced the poor man to sell his land to pay his debts, once every lifetime, once every fifty years, everyone had a second chance to start over. Everyone could go free, everyone could go home. The downtrodden waited to hear the blast of that jubilee trumpet—and indeed the very word “jubilee” comes from the Hebrew word for “ram’s horn” or “trumpet”. When the Septuagint writers encountered the Hebrew word, they rendered it “signal of release”, αφεσεως σημασια.
          That is why the signal for the gathering of the exiles was a trumpet, for God was announcing a worldwide jubilee for His people. Their Assyrian and Egyptian oppressors and debtors might rage all they liked, but His people had been set free and were going home. Every debt was remitted, and every shackle was shattered, every bond, broken.
          This prophecy of restoration, like all such prophecies, finds its fulfillment in Christ. He is our Jubilee, the Jubilee of all the world, and His Resurrection is the trumpet which announces it. With the rolling away of the stone from the door of the tomb, a trumpet began sounding which has never ceased to sound. It calls all the exiles home, announcing the forgiveness of every debt, liberation from every bond of sin and death. And not just the Jewish exiles, for Christ died not only for the Jewish nation, “but He that might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad”, Gentiles as well as Jews (John 11:52). As many in the world whom God taught and who heard the voice of the Shepherd, just as many God would gather into one, “and they shall become one flock with one Shepherd” (John 10:16). It did not matter whether or not one was a great sinner, or bound by shackles of addiction and despair. It did not matter whether or not one lived in the land of Assyria or the land of Egypt—Christ came to forgive and liberate all, and gather the exile safe and sound in His holy flock.
          What then is our responsibility? Pascha calls us to live like men and women who have heard the blast of a trumpet, who have arisen like those alive from the dead, living in joy. Nietzsche famously said that he would believe in the Redeemer when the Christians looked a little more redeemed. Fair enough: let us live in such a way that all may know that we have been redeemed—living each day in freedom and joy. Formerly we lived like everyone else, helpless and trembling in the shadow of death, debtors to sin in the lands of Assyria and Egypt. But no longer. Now we are going home, our faces radiant with Pascha, the faces of those who have heard the blast of the Jubilee trumpet. Let that trumpet sound in the ears of the weary world, loud enough to wake the dead: Christ is risen! 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Who Was That Woman?

            In the services of Bridegroom Matins in Holy Week we hear of a woman who anointed Christ just before His Passion.  In the first Kathisma Hymn for Great and Holy Wednesday, she is described in this way:  “The harlot came to You, O Lover of mankind, pouring myrrh and tears on Your feet.  At Your command she was delivered from the stench of her evil deeds, but your graceless disciple, though breathing Your grace, rejected it and wallowed in filth, selling You in his love of money”.  In the third Kathisma Hymn from that service, we also read:  “In tears the harlot cried out, O compassionate One, as she fervently wiped Your most pure feet with the hair of her head, and she groaned from the depths of her soul, ‘Cast me not away, neither abhor me, O my God, but receive me in my repentance and save me’.”  And from the Praises of that service, we read the following:  “Oh, the wretchedness of Judas!  He saw the harlot kiss the footsteps of Christ, but deceitfully he contemplated the kiss of betrayal.  She loosed her hair, while he bound himself with wrath.  He offered the stench of wickedness instead of myrrh, for envy cannot distinguish value.”   There is much more poetry, all of it wonderful, culminating in the beautiful “Hymn of Kassia”, in which she meditates at length on “The woman who had fallen into many sins”.  Here we ask the simple question:  who was that woman?
            The Scripture texts upon which the hymns are based are Matthew 26:6-13 (and the parallel in Mark 14:3-9, and also John 12:1-8) and Luke 7:36-50.  The writers of the hymns, looking at these two different accounts, concluded that they both referred to the same incident, not only because Luke’s Gospel does not elsewhere contain a story about a woman wiping Christ’s feet immediately before His Passion, but also because of certain common details found in both stories.  For example, in both stories we find a woman anointing Christ’s feet with perfume and wiping them dry with her hair as He reclined at table (Matthew 26:7, John 12:2-3 and Luke 7:36-38); and in both stories the event took place in the home of a certain Simon, identified “Simon the leper” in Matthew 26:6 and as Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:36,40.  Surely then, Luke’s version is simply his retelling of the story also recounted by Matthew, Mark, and John?  And the woman in question there is Mary, the sister of Lazarus (John 12:3)?   There are, however, problems with this identification.
            First of all is the chronological problem.  Though Matthew, Mark, and John are clear that the incident occurred “six days before the Passover” (John 12:1) and that accordingly the anointing could be considered to take the place of a funerary anointing for His imminent death and burial (Matthew 26:12, John 12:7), Luke places the story early in His Christ’s ministry, and reports no words from Christ that suggested the anointing could be considered a burial offering.  In fact Luke specifically records that “it came about soon afterwards that He began going about from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the Kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1), which in fact He did not do after the anointing recorded in Matthew, Mark, and John.
            Then there is the problem of the words of dismissal.  In Luke’s account, after the anointing, Christ dismisses the woman, saying, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50).  No such dismissal is recorded in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and John, and indeed such a dismissal would have been impossible, for Mary was one of those who was hosting the supper!  Thus in John 12:1-3 we read:  “Jesus came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.  So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving, but Lazarus was one of those reclining with Him. Mary therefore took a pound of very costly genuine spikenard ointment and anointed the feet of Jesus”.  Note: Martha was serving, presumably with her sister Mary.  Mary, along with her brother and sister, was the one hosting the supper in Bethany, no doubt given in gratitude for the raising of Lazarus.  Is it likely therefore that Christ would dismiss her from the meal which she was serving?  In Luke’s account he makes it clear that the woman doing the anointing was an unwelcome intruder (Luke 7:39), not one of the hosts.  Indeed, in Luke’s account it was the Pharisee who “invited Him”, with Lazarus and Martha nowhere in sight.
            Finally and most conclusively, there is the problem of the woman’s character.  In Luke’s account the woman is “a sinner”—i.e. an immoral woman, possibly (but not necessarily) a prostitute.  (That is, she may or may not have been paid for the sex she provided.)  Her presence at the meal therefore was a scandal, and Simon privately thought that Christ’s allowing her to touch Him disqualified Him as a prophet (Luke 7:39).  Simon was, in fact, puzzled as to why Christ would allow her presence there.  It is inconceivable that Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, had such a character.  John’s extensive mention of her in the account of the raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-44 contains no hint that Mary was notoriously immoral—and this raising happened just shortly before the incident of the anointing.  In Luke’s account, Simon the Pharisee assumes that Christ has no direct personal knowledge of the sinful woman.  It would have been nonsensical for him to observe, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is” if “this woman” were in fact a long-time friend of Christ and who moreover was one of those hosting the meal. 
In short, there is no way to harmonize these passages or to assert that they refer to the same event.  Luke records the anointing of a sinful woman early in Christ’s ministry.  Matthew, Mark, and John record the anointing performed by Mary of Bethany just shortly before Christ’s Passion.  The name of “Simon”, occurring in both accounts, is simply a coincidence, and in fact the Holy Land was full of Simons, since it was the name of the one the patriarchs and also of a famous high priest (Exodus 1:2, Sirach 50:1).  Peter was one of those Simons, as was his apostolic comrade “Simon the Zealot” (Luke 6:15), and the fact that a Simon had invited Christ to a supper early in His ministry, and another Simon had provided the venue for the meal served by Martha and her family was not at all unusual.  Luke evidently saw the reporting of two similar anointings as something of literary over-kill, and so chose to report the first one, doubtless because it conformed to one of his central themes which was Christ as the friend of sinners (Luke 7:34). 
So, we may ask, what are we to make of our hymns for Bridegroom Matins?  It appears that at least one exegetical opinion in ancient times equated the two anointings, and the creative and poetic possibilities in this equation were too good to pass up—not, of course, that the hymn-writer consciously knew the anointings were different but decided to equate them anyway, but rather that the poetic possibilities exercised their own kind of power.  The lasting value of the hymns lies in the lessons found in the contrast—lessons about the superiority of love over greed.  The picture of a penitent harlot drawing near to Christ at the same instant as Judas was coldly plotting to sell Him for silver is a startling and powerful one.  It reveals not only the dangers of cold-heartedness and greed, but also the depth of the divine mercy, which embraces and saves even the wretched prostitute if only she will come to Christ.  We receive these words as poetry, not exegesis, and their value for us does not depend upon their historical accuracy. 
Who was that woman?  She was not one woman, but two—an immoral sinner, and a grateful friend.  But despite their differences they had one thing in common:  their love for Christ, for which they were willing to perform an act of extraordinary and even scandalous devotion.  Who was that woman?  She was the wise woman whom we can all aspire to become.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Feast of Christ the King

In the Western liturgical calendar we find the feast of “Christ the King” (often changed to conform to the draconian canons of political correctness as “The Reign of Christ”).  Someone once asked me if we Orthodox kept such a feast, and I answered, “Yes, we do.  It is called ‘Palm Sunday’”. 
            On the first Palm Sunday, Christ entered Jerusalem in triumph and was hailed by the multitudes as the coming Messiah.  In John’s eyewitness version of the event, he reported that the people cried out, “Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13).  It was long since they had a king, and now at last they had one. (Herod, technically a king, hardly counted.  Everyone wanted a real king who ruled over an independent Israel, not a puppet of Rome.)  The last real king was Zedekiah, who was pulled from his throne by the Babylonians, had his eyes gouged out, and was sent in chains to Babylon in 586 B.C. (2 Kings 25:7).  Since that time Israel remained as a province and plaything of the major powers and empires of the day, and as such suffered much humiliation and injustice.  But that would all change when Messiah came.  He would set things right.  He would free Israel from Gentile tyranny and exalt the nation to a place of political supremacy in the world.  The hated Pax Romana would be replaced by a Pax Hebraica.  Though Jesus never explicitly claimed to be the Messiah (His preferred title was “Son of Man” from the Book of Daniel and the Book of Enoch), everyone more or less knew that He must be the Messiah.  After all, when the Christ did come, how could he possibly do more miraculous signs than Jesus did? (John 7:31).  So it was that when Jesus entered Jerusalem after raising Lazarus from the dead, the whole city exploded in joy and anticipation.  His triumphal entry was meant to proclaim His Kingship, and the people responded with an almost-hysterical outpouring of acclamation and enthusiasm:  “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!  Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9-10).  And what did they mean by “the coming kingdom of our father David”?  They meant the death of Rome.
            The reason why Jesus avoided the title “Messiah” or Christ in favour of the title “Son of Man” was precisely because in His day the title “Messiah” had become politicised and militarized.  The Messiah was, by definition, a warrior, someone who gathered an army and rose up to overthrow the Gentile oppressors by force of arms.  The Messianic kingdom would come with the shedding of Gentile blood, and with Gentile corpses piled high in the street.  God was on their side, and shining angels would fight along side of courageous men in that battle.  The final result would be a free Jerusalem—freed at the cost of the streets flowing with the blood of Rome.  If you want to imagine how the crowds of Palm Sunday regarded the coming kingdom, think “Zionism” without the collaboration of the great European powers and with none of the ambiguity.
            This is not, however, the kingdom that was actually coming, and Christ was not that sort of king.  He proclaimed this loudly with deeds when He entered the Holy City humbly on a donkey, and not proudly on a war-horse; He proclaimed it calmly with words later when He stood before Pilate.  In that interrogation, Pilate, having received the one purported to be a threat to Rome, tried to understand if Jesus could really be the threat His accusers said He was.  Jesus didn’t seem to him to be the fanatical fire-brand the Sanhedrin insisted He was.  Pilate looked at Him and said, “Are You the king of the Jews?”  Jesus explained that He was, but that His kingdom was not of this world.  If it had been of this world, then His servants would be fighting that He not be delivered up the to the Jews, but as it was, His kingdom was not of this world.  Pilate pounced on the admission:  “So then You are a king?”  Then Jesus told him what His kingship entailed:  “For this I have been born and for this I have come into the the world, to bear witness to the truth.  Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (John 18:33f).  Jesus knew of course where such witness and truth-telling would lead.  It would lead to a cross.  “This is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).  Be sure of it:  Jesus was not crucified despite His goodness, but rather because of it.   Speaking the truth to power and bearing divine witness in this world always leads to suffering.
The people of Palm Sunday thought that the Messiah was the one who would kill the Romans.  As it turned out, the Messiah was the one who would be killed by the Romans to save the whole world.  Though they could not then have known it, this is what it meant for them to take the palm branches in their hands that day and acclaim Him as King—to hear His voice speaking the truth and to follow Him, speaking the truth themselves.  What that in turn would mean for them, the history of martyrdom revealed.  To speak the truth in a world which loves and prefers lies always means suffering for the one speaking the truth.  The darkness of the world and the death of Jesus meant that all of His future followers would be martyric and follow Him to the cross.
That remains our task and our calling today.  We are now the people of Palm Sunday.  It is we who now hold the palm branches in our hands and acclaim Jesus as our King.  We too must speak the truth, even if we are shouted down by the world and pay a price.  Palm Sunday revealed Jesus as the King of Israel, the One who came into the world to bear witness to the truth.  Holding those palms means we must hear His voice and speak His truth.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Altar Girls

Most Orthodox churches of my acquaintance in North America are served by “altar boys”—that is, by boys of pre-pubescent or adolescent age, vested in a sticharion robe and helping the priest by holding a candle, fetching the censer, and otherwise assisting him in the performance of the Divine Liturgy and the other church services.  Sometimes this office is fulfilled by grown men, often of advanced age.  Sometimes such men have been ordained as subdeacons (one can tell if they have by the orarion or long stole which they wear across their torso).  In the early church it appears that such older ordained men were exclusively chosen to serve this function of assistance at the altar, and that the phenomenon of young “altar boys” serving in this capacity is a later one.  The wisdom of such a development will not be debated here.  Here I would like to examine the question of whether or not this youthful function of liturgical assistance in the altar should be extended to girls as well as boys.  We now have altar boys.  Why not altar girls?
            Some voices in the Orthodox Church are calling for precisely this extension.  Thus, for example, Nicholas Denysenko, in his fascinating volume Liturgical Reform After Vatican II:  The Impact on Eastern Orthodoxy.  After surveying a number of different Orthodox approaches to the issue of liturgical reform, Deacon Denysenko writes about the desirability of expanding the boundaries of liturgical participation available to women in the Orthodox Church.  For him this includes the creation of an order of deaconesses, and the formal tonsuring of women as readers in the Church.  “But,” he writes, “the integration of women into liturgical ministry should not end here.  Women and girls should also be permitted to serve as acolytes and enter the sanctuary.  Many Orthodox churches prohibit women from entering the sanctuary on account of rules of ritual impurity, a theological problem exacerbated by a limited episcopal directive in the United States that prohibited women from holding the cloth during Holy Communion.  The prohibition of women and girls from serving as acolytes depends on the faulty theology underpinning rules of ritual impurity and the dubious connection between serving as an acolyte and seeking ordination to a major order [such as deacons and priests].”
            What are we to make of all this? 
            First of all, we can agree with him that the rules of ritual impurity which would supposedly bar women from entering the altar sanctuary and holding the Communion Cloth are indeed based a faulty theology.  Concepts such as ritual impurity, either for women or men, are an essential and universal part of all religions, but the Christian Faith is not a religion.  Rather, it is a participation in the powers of the age to come, and therefore transcends such stoichea or elementary rules of the world such as govern religions (see Galatians 4:3-9, Colossians 2:8).  Concepts governing ritual impurity therefore do not apply to us—not because of any feminist rejection of the concepts as archaic, primitive, misogynist, and out-dated, but simply because these concepts have no relevance for Christians who are rooted in the age to come.
            That said, it is simply not true that the “connection between serving as an acolyte and seeking ordination to a major order” is “dubious”.  On the contrary, it is a proven historical fact, and moreover one that has happened in our own day.  When I first entered the Anglican Church, everyone serving at the altar was male—both the clergy and the junior “altar boys” (these latter called “servers”).  It was understood that only men could become members of “a major order”, and all the laity, both women and men, accepted it.  If asked why this was so, they would not have quoted St. John Chrysostom, or the referred to the consensus patrum, or even a verse from the Bible, though these existed in plenty.  Rather, plain and untrained people that they were, they would have simply replied that “it didn’t look right”.  That is, they had never seen a female in a clerical collar or church vestments standing about the altar (choir robes clearly were something else), and it was this emotional unfamiliarity that made them feel that such a thing as women priests “didn’t look right” and so should not be introduced.  Scholars like Denysenko might live in a world where Scripture, history, and liturgical precedent carry the day, and thus see no connection between acolytes and clergy.  It is true that Scripturally and historically, the two roles of acolyte and clergyman were quite distinct, and had little to do with each other.  But your average Anglican layperson did not inhabit that world.  They just went to their local parish and saw what they saw.  Both the short boy in a vestment and the taller man in a vestment stood about the altar and did liturgical stuff.  Often the short boys grew up and became clergymen themselves.  Indeed, if one served faithfully within the sanctuary as an altar boy it was almost taken for granted that one would eventually pursue Holy Orders—or at least that’s how many clergy felt, and often asked the faithful altar boy if he ever considered becoming a priest when he grew up.  For those living in the parish and not the towers of Academia, the connection between acolyte and major order was the most natural thing in the world.
           That was Anglicanism, of course.  But are Orthodox parishes so very different?  Is your average Orthodox layperson fully formed and immersed in Scripture, Patristics, and Lituriology?  (If it comes to that, is every Orthodox priest fully formed and immersed in Scripture, Patristics, and Lituriology?)  Can one realistically expect your average Orthodox layperson to give more weight to scholarly studies of the history of Holy Orders than to what they see each Sunday with their own eyes?
            Anyway, the Anglican Church of my experience began to expand the liturgical boundaries and allow girls to function as “servers” (referred to by one wag as “serviettes”).  The faithful laity therefore came to see vested girls in the altar sanctuary as normal.  Note well please:  this was before the first female was ordained to a major order.  Those justifying the female servers were adamant that this new development was okay:  the connection between serving as an acolyte and seeking ordination to a major order was dubious. 
            Except that it wasn’t.  Within a few years, the feminist push to obliterate the boundaries set by Holy Tradition succeeded in having women ordained as deacons (including declaring that women previously ordained as deaconesses were now deacons, whether they liked it or not.  Some did not.)  But deacons only, of course.  No one ever said that women could be priests.  That was a completely different Order.  The connection between serving as a deacon and serving as a priest was dubious.  Except that this wasn’t any more dubious than the connection between acolyte and major order, and soon enough a woman was ordained as a priest.  But a priest only, of course.  Not a bishop.  No one ever said that women could be bishops.  The connection between serving as a priest and serving as a bishop was dubious.  Then, of course, came women bishops.  Scholars might now cry out all they like that all these connections were dubious, and had no historical validity.  That is correct.  It is also irrelevant, as recent history has shown.  Developments in the Church occur and the laity acquiesce, not on the basis of sound scholarship, but on the basis of more humble and fundamental things—things like visual familiarity.  That is why our liturgical decisions must take account of how things actually function in the parishes.
            The drive to allow girls in the altar is misplaced, and is a symptom of a greater and more fundamental malaise.  It is easy to see what motivates good people like Deacon Denysenko—they see how girls feel left out and they want to do something to compensate.  The girls cannot grow up to become deacons or priests, but surely we can find something important for them to do so that they will not feel left out?  A girl sees her little brother serving in the sanctuary and looking important and is disappointed that she cannot do the same thing.  Perhaps she can hold the Communion cloth?  Or maybe let’s say that only girls can hold the Communion cloth?  Either way, we must find some way of (as the phrase goes) “involving them in the service”.
            Here, I submit, is the real problem—a devaluation of the role of the laity as laity, a problem which grows from the hidden root of clericalism.  This view of liturgy presupposes that the really important stuff that is done involves having a title and a vestment and a visually prominent role.  Merely being a communicant—i.e. someone who has become a child of God and has crossed over from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God, and who dares to stand before the heavenly God with open face and boldly call Him “Our Father” and who receives the Body and Blood of His Son, after serving with those at the altar to offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice with them—this is nothing.  It is does not have a title.  It does not stand out and call attention to itself.  Though it feeds the soul, it does not nourish the ego.

The truth is that the very title “layman” in our culture has become synonymous with “outsider”, “untrained”.  If I say, “I am a layman in these matters”, this means that I don’t really know what I am talking about.  In fact a member of the laity is the insider, the initiate, a member of the holy laos and people of God, an exalted member of the royal priesthood.  Compared with this, who needs a title or a vestment or a special job?  We have equated the clerical state with power, and therefore have declared the laity to be those without power, gift, or ministry.  This is wrong, and in fact demonic.  Our first task must be the recovery of the dignity of the laity, and a recognition that each baptized Christian has a spiritual gift to be used in the building up of the local Church, in service to the Christian community—a gift which may or may not come with a title or a vestment.  Creating a new category of “altar girl” or finding things for them to do so that they will “feel special and valued” (as I have heard it phrased) is exactly the wrong thing to do.  For our value does not depend upon jobs that are special, but upon our common membership in the holy Body of Christ.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Empty Throne – The Introduction from my latest book

In our little church in Langley, B.C., there is a chair on which no one sits, nor would anyone ever dare to.  We have many chairs and places to sit—we have benches along the sides of the nave (but no pews), chairs in the narthex for overflow visitors, chairs in the church hall for our post-Liturgy lunch.  We have chairs in the library.  We have places to sit in the altar.  But this chair remains empty, as if there were an invisible RESERVED sign resting upon it.  It is found in the back of the altar area, and it is the episcopal throne, in its traditional place.  (In churches using the Greek style of church architecture, the bishop’s throne is located outside the altar, on the south side of the nave.)  It is clearly episcopal, for it is a part of the synthronon or bench for the clergy to sit on during the reading of the lessons at Liturgy, and in our church it is the only part of the bench that comes with arm-rests.  Sometimes leaving the throne vacant feels a little like reserving a chair for Elijah at a Jewish bris:  one always keeps the chair available, even if one never expects its occupant to actually show up.  If the sacramental reality of Christ’s true Body and Blood in the Eucharist has been called “the Real Presence”, there is a sense that the bishop’s reality in the Eucharist might be called “the Real Absence”:  we have his picture in the narthex, we elevate and pronounce his name repeatedly throughout all the services, we have his crucial signature on our antimension, we love him and have him always in our prayers and in our hearts.  But despite all this, he is pretty much never actually here. 
In this our bishop is like every other bishop I have ever heard of.  His own cathedral city and home (the so-called “see”, from the Latin sedes, or seat) is many miles away, and he is very busy taking care of his diocese and his many parishes.  Not being able to bi-locate, of course he can only be in one place at a time, and so most parishes have to do without the bishop’s actual presence for most of the time.  When he does come to visit, it is an occasion of joy, and celebration, and high festivity.  We bake special bread which we offer him along with salt as the traditional gifts of welcome when he first enters.  Everyone wants to see him, and get his blessing, to exchange a few words with him.  (I always make sure that our catechumens in particular get some time with him.)  At the service, we pull out all the liturgical stops as we vest him and make things as fully glorious as we can.  The choir has been practicing the special music well in advance of his arrival, as have the subdeacons.  Lots of photographs are taken when he comes. Everyone is happy when he visits.
Note the verb in the last sentence:  we are happy when he visits.  It is this verb and this reality which most differentiates our situation from that of the early church.  In the days prior to Constantine and even afterward in the days of St. John Chrystostom, the bishop never visited a church any more than I can be said to visit my little parish in Langley.  I don’t visit my church; I am there because I am the pastor.  So it was in the days of Chrysostom:  he didn’t visit the Church of the Hagia Sophia; he was there all the time because he was its pastor—that it, because he was its bishop. 
And it was not just the church in the Imperial capital that experienced its bishop as its normal Sunday morning pastor and weekly preacher.  Every church was like that.  The bishop was everywhere the pastor of the local church.  And in that day, “the local church” was really local.  Every little village, hamlet, town, or city had its own bishop, so that his “church” (what we now call his “diocese”) consisted of the village or city where he lived and the surrounding countryside.   (We even see this reflected in our Liturgy today, when we pray for Christians in “every city and country”—for by “country” is not meant “nation”, but “countryside”, the region surrounding the city.)  The bishop was the local pastor, the one who blessed and presided at every baptism, who anointed all in his church who were sick, who excommunicated the straying, and who reconciled the excommunicated back into the communion of the church when they repented.  He was assisted in his pastoral work and deliberations by a committee of presbyters, and further helped by his deacons.  But he was the face of the local church, the pastoral face upon which all the faithful looked every Sunday.  In the early days he was chosen by them and was bound to them until he died.  He never “visited” his church, for he never went away.  
A celebration of the Eucharist was unthinkable without the presidency of the bishop.  We see this in a rule in an Egyptian Church Order that declares that a community of Christians cannot have their own bishop if they only number twelve persons.  This of course tells us that there were some little enclaves of Christians numbering less than twelve that still wanted their own bishop, otherwise the canon would have been unnecessary.  This reveals as nothing else could the importance of the bishop to the local church in those early days.  If the number of Christians grew in a village or city so that all could not meet in the same place, then the bishop would deputize one of the presbyters to serve that group.  But the bishop was still the main pastor of the village or city, the hub around which Christian life in that area revolved.
This means that things have changed dramatically in the life of the local church.  Now a presbyter, not the bishop, is the local pastor, for bishop’s church or diocese is now no longer a single community and its outlaying countryside, but a sizable area consisting often of many cities and villages and vast distances.  (Our own bishop has all of Canada for his diocese.)   He can only visit each of his parishes once in a while, and thus can only maintain a slight familiarity with the parishioners there.  For day to day pastoral care, the parishioners rely not on the bishop who often lives at a great distance away and who is busy with many other parishes, but on the local presbyter.  He is their priest (a title which once normally described not the presbyter but the bishop).  He is the one who gets the late night emergency call to the hospital.  He is the one who presides at the normal Sunday Eucharist, who baptizes the babies and catechumens, who anoints the sick, hears the confessions, and buries the dead.  The bishop is loved and respected, but he functions as a beloved but distant uncle more than as a father.  Things have changed.
Canonically and constitutionally, of course, things remain what they have always been.  Gregory Dix, writing some time ago in his chapter “Ministry in the Early Church” in Kirk’s large volume The Apostolic Ministry, distinguishes between what he calls the “constitutional” history of the episcopal office and the “administrative” one.  Constitutionally, the office remains what it was from apostolic days:  a ministry of shepherding, consecrating, ordaining, and (for the Anglican Dix in Britain), confirming.  But administratively the office underwent many changes.  Dix recounts:
“There is the first stage [in Britain] when the bishop is above all an evangelist, a missionary monk.  Under the Heptarchy he becomes something not very readily distinguishable from a tribal wizard.  Under the Anglo-Saxon monarchy he becomes a royal counselor…passing by slow degrees into a great feudal landlord and than a national noble.  After this, both before and after the Reformation, he is primarily the great civil servant.  Later still he becomes the somewhat torpid grandee of the eighteenth century.  Finally he is translated into the Victorian philanthropist and the modern spiritual bureaucrat.”[1]
Obviously Dix writes here only of bishops in his native Britain, but his point holds for bishops in all places, in that while the bishop’s constitutional role remains constant, his administrative role is in flux.  “Continuity of name does not necessarily imply continuity of function.”[2]  So it is that although the name of bishop has remained constant through Christian history and his constitutional role has remained unchanged, his administrative role has changed almost out of all recognition.
To truly help our bishops in their ongoing tasks, it is necessary to understand the history of the office, and to see how it has changed administratively since the pre-Nicene days.  That is not because the pre-Nicene period constituted a “golden age” of church history, but because it was only then that we first get to examine in some detail how the church was structured in the apostolic days and how it was meant to function.  As we will see, though there is little in the New Testament which would help us learn how the church leadership actually interacted with the rest of the church, many of these details can be found in the literature of the second and third centuries—details of an office first established by the apostles as part of the deposit of the Faith.
The present relationship of bishop to presbyter and parish in Orthodoxy is the fruit of a long and convoluted development, paralleling that the development of the bishop’s office in Britain that Dix recounted.  Therefore we will attempt to summarize some of those changes in the chapters to come, to show how we arrived at our present situation.  After a quick survey of the long evolution of the bishop’s office in the eastern part of the church, we will offer some concluding reflections.
We begin at the beginning, in the apostolic first century.

The book from which this Introduction was taken has been published by Ancient Faith Publications and is also available from

[1] Gregory Dix, “Ministry in the Early Church, in The Apostolic Ministry, by K.E. Kirk, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1946, p. 187-188.
[2] Ibid, p.189.