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Clericalism as antimission

17 November 2016

Here are two articles on clericalism that I think all Orthodox Christians should read, especially those who are concerned about mission and evangelism.

The first article, by Abbot Tryphon, deals with clericalism in a general way, warning of the dangers — Clericalism – The Morning Offering:

Orthodoxy has traditionally avoided clericalism, yet in more recent times this very corruption of priestly service has enter the doors of the Orthodox Church. The quest for honor has led many clergy to participate in a culture of abuse, where they even turn on one another in their sad attempt at aligning themselves with “officialdom”. The culture of abuse that is encouraged and fomented by refusing to live in adherence to the simplicity and humility of Christ’s example, is not much different than that of the grade school pecking order where the bully builds alliances based on fear.

Please go ahead and click on the link to read the whole article.

Patriarch Kirill in Antarctica

Patriarch Kirill in Antarctica

The other article, by Sergei Chapnin, an Orthodox journalist in Moscow, gives a specific example, and shows how it damaged the mission of the church — Sergei Chapnin: The Demolition of the Church Legacy of Russian Emigration: How It Is Done. — The Wheel: “it is hard to imagine a humble man, especially a clergyman who gives others a picture of himself.”

And Sergei Chapnin goes on to say:

And the final important detail is that the Patriarch in this photo is not shown among the people, but on a deserted beach. It would seem that the anticipated image of the Primate of the largest Orthodox Church is the Patriarch among the people. To demonstrate travel it could be in a remote corner of Russia, but above all with his flock. However, for London the Patriarch chose a completely different image – a deserted beach devoid of people. The only one who has received an honor to be with him, a penguin, is a cute, but exotic animal.

Bishops (and priests and deacons) have important ministries in the church, but they are not the only ministries, and nor does the Church revolve around them, it revolves around Christ. But clericalism creates the impression that the Church revolves around the ordained clergy, and that they alone are important. And the practice of clergy giving pictures of themselves to other people dates back before the age of the selfie.

One of the ways in which Orthodoxy can be seen to have been less clericalist than Western Christianity is in the matter of theological education and training for ministries. I have been involved in this, to some extent, in both Western and Orthodox contexts. And in the West there is an assumption that anyone who studies theology is going to be ordained.

When our daughter went to study theology at the University of Athens several of my non-Orthodox friends asked “Oh, is the Orthodox Church ordaining women then?”

When I taught for a semester at the Orthodox Seminary at Shen Vlash in Albania in 2000, about half the students were male and half were female. When I visited the St Tikhon’s Institute in Moscow, there was something similar. It may be different now, but back then I think that most of the students male as well as female, were not thinking of ordination,

In the Church of Greece for a long time many of the clergy had little academic theological education, and most of the academic theologians were not ordained. I could be wrong, but I believe that even today most of the lecturers and professors in university theology departments are not ordained. It is important to qualify such “theology” by the epithet “academic” here. Not all theology is academic, and in Orthodoxy a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian. An academic theologian who doesn’t pray is a contradiction in terms.

This is one of the things that seems to have changed in the Diaspora, especially in Western countries. Just as in Western denominations, Orthodox Christians in the West are concerned about having well-educated clergy, and have established theological seminaries and academies that follow the same pattern as their Western counterparts.

In a way this is understandable.

In a traditionally Orthodox country, people absorb theology by osmosis, by participation in the Divine Liturgy and the other services of the church. Theology is holistically absorbed from one’s environment, as part of a Christian community (and not from penguins). Where there are non-Christian influences or factors in the environment, such as Turkish overlords, the differences are obvious, and if they aren’t obvious, the overlords, sooner or later, more or less painfully, will make the difference clear.

In the West, and in post-Bolshevik Russia, it is rather different.

In South Africa, with over 10000 different Christian denominations, there are a bewildering number of theologies to chose from, and there is a kind of generic Protestantism that seems to be an amalgam of the loudest voices, mainly tele-evangelists. In such a situation, some Orthodox theological education is needed for those who are to be ordained. And that would be true of the West generally, and also in post-Bolshevik Russia, where there was an enormous influx of people into the Church, most of whom had a very vague idea of what it meant to be Orthodox, and there were very few to teach them. But while there may be a need for educated clergy, it also brings with it the danger of clericalism.

Some years ago, before I became Orthodox, I was Director of Training for Ministries in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand, and among my duties was training people as self-supporting priests and deacons. At the time this was something of a novelty in the Anglican Church, and it was often opposed by the church-supported clergy, who were jealous for their position. As one of them put it, “People will ask, ‘Why is this man still carrying his net?'”

One of those who advocated such self-supporting ministry was Roland Allen, in his books Missionary methods: St Paul’s or ours, and The spontaneous expansion of the Church, and the causes which hinder it. In the latter book Allen wrote:

Spontaneous zeal leads Christian men to teach others, often in secret, often at the risk of their lives and property; and they must be able, not only to convert, but to organize their converts. They must be certain that no white missionaries, no paid agents of foreign societies, are necessary for the establishment of the church. They must know where to turn for Holy Orders, and they must be sure that Holy Orders will be conferred. Church must beget church, as individual begets individual.

At the time Allen wrote this, one of the very few missionaries who followed that method was St Nicholas of Japan, of whose work and first converts that must be a pretty precise description. It was also outlined by St Paul in 2 Tim 2:2.

In South Africa, however (and possibly in other parts of Africa), clericalism is all-pervasive in the prevailing generic Protestantism. A century ago a group of Methodists joined the Anglican Church, wanting Holy Orders. They were called the Order of Ethiopia. Seventy years later, the Anglicans decided to give them a bishop, but they couldn’t decide who the bishop should be, and as a result the Order of Ethiopia disintegrated into several fragments, one of which eventually joined the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church, which is one of the few non-Western churches not to have suffered under Muslim rule, and has a tradition going back at least 1600 years. Several of the South African clergy who joined them, however, are perpetually asking to be made “indigenous local bishops”, but are told that the canons of the church forbid married bishops. So they break away and seek ordination by episcopi vagantes.

So, as Orthodox Christians we have a problem. We need theologically educated leaders, not so that the church can revolve around them (as in clericalism) but rather to keep the Church in orbit around Christ and not being blown off course by every wind of doctrine. We need theological education, but not just for ordained leaders, which carries with it the danger of clericalism.

How can we achieve this?

I suggest two things —

  1. Training for leaders that is not formal and not academic, at least to begin with
  2. Greater recognition to be given to non-ordained leaders, such as evangelists, catechists, readers etc.

But those are subjects for another article.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Gordon permalink
    17 November 2016 1:42 pm

    I consider the dead hand of clericalism to be a severe hindrance to the mission of the church of Christ.
    The New Covenant ministry knows no distinction between clergy and laity and each believer is called to serve according to his/her gifts given by the Spirit of God. In the name of the Head of the Church, all may speak the Word , all may read the Scriptures in public, all may baptize, all may preside at communion, all may pronounce absolution, all may conduct a funeral or a wedding service ( provided in these latter two cases all comply with the normal legal clearance or registration at the court house ).
    Ordination is falsely considered by the Establishment to be a New Covenant sacrament and is used as a cover to maintain the interests and control in these numerous closed and exclusive Clerical Trade Unions.

    Thanks for identifying a systemic failure with regard to Christian mission.

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