Privy Purse literally means allowance of money allocated from the public revenue for the private expenses of a Sovereign or monarch. Our bishops are generally considered kings of their dioceses (a bishop is a king of his people, priest of his people and a prophet of his people). And on this reason they are buried in sitting positions like kings, a tradition maintained by Byzantine royalty, which was later copied by Byzantine bishops, but later discontinued. Currently, only the Syrian Orthodox Church in the Middle East and the Orthodox Syrian Church in Malankara keep that tradition, which has no meaning now when all the monarchies on earth have become functionally defunct. This writer believes that our bishops generally do not get complete rest during their life time on earth due to the number of Holy Liturgies they celebrate, the number of marriages and houses they bless every day, the baptisms they perform, and the public functions they attend every day (fasting ordeals are also part of their daily agenda recently!), and they should start their eternal rest not being seated on a chair, but being flatly laid in a most royal priestly coffin! Jesus, the King of kings did not get a throne of burial; after all, He was wrapped in linen and laid in somebody’s tomb. This is not our topic. Our discussion is on the Purse of our diocesan bishops.
Our diocesan bishops are professed monks. As monks they should not have any earnings or possessions. Strictly speaking, they cannot own anything except their habit and other items for day-to-day use. The Church they serve should take care of their needs, such as residence, food, cloths, transportation, and domestic and office help. Does the Church take care of them adequately? Some bishops in the past had complained that they had been nearly at the point of starvation. If we cannot adequately support a bishop, I urge the Church not to consecrate a bishop, unless he is willing to go to the mission field where he may have only the basics.
Canonically speaking, The Syrian Church does not have a stipulation of maintaining a monastic episcopate like the Byzantine Orthodox Church that has a canonical requirement that only a monk could be made a bishop. In the Oriental Orthodox Churches, to the best of our knowledge there was no canonical and conciliar injunction against a married person becoming a bishop in any of the first three ecumenical councils. Most of our holy fathers during the early centuries of Christianity were married bishops with children, and some of their children also eventually became bishops. However, at least since the eighth century monastics began to monopolize the episcopate due to various reasons, most of which are irrelevant now. The only overriding justification for a monastic episcopate is just convention.
We would love to see our bishops living in strict obedience to their monastic vows, and we venerate their sanctity as monks. This writer was secretary to Metropolitan Mar Thoma Dionysius of Niranam for four years. There is a dictum in English: “Familiarity breeds contempt”. After living with this great hierarch of blessed memory, this writer became convinced that familiarity does not breed contempt; on the other hand, if the person under consideration possesses radiant virtues, it breeds not only appreciation, but also veneration. This great hierarch did not possess practically anything. When we went to perform sacramental rites, it was a custom among our people to give a gift (kaimuth) to him. During those days the amounts were not large; but he never saved a penny in any banks from these gifts (kaimuth). He never had a bank account of his own, except when he had to have such an account in connection with his position as the Manager of Mount Tabor Educational Institutions. Whatever he received as gifts were distributed among the poor without even counting what he had received or what he was about to donate. How many prelates are there like him in the Church now!
There are a lot of rumors spreading in our Orthodox Churches that our bishops are unreasonably attached to money and that their bank deposits are fatter than what the bank even can hold. To the best of our knowledge there are only very few bishops who could be considered ascetically poor. Bishops are supposed to observe poverty as one of their vows and as a virtue. Some of them have accounts with the worth of hundreds of thousands and even millions. Many of these bishops were humble ideal priests when they were elected to the episcopate. But after receiving their episcopal cassocks, they felt more regal and began to think of possessing more material wealth.
We believe the Holy Synods and other supervisory bodies have to think about protecting the integrity and character of our traditional episcopate. We suggest the following:
The Diocese or the Church has to meet all the expenses of a bishop and his staff and maintain his residence unsparingly, but with the simplicity required for monks.
The Church should provide adequate transportation for the bishop and his staff. No car should be registered in the name of a particular bishop. All vehicles are to be bought and registered in the name of the Church.
Every bishop should be provided with discretionary funds with limits of spending. On unusual occasions, the bishop may take from this fund to provide for his personal charities.
The Church should meet all the incidental expenses of the bishop with accountability. This does not mean that he should get permission from the Diocesan Council or Assembly to spend the money he needs for various purposes. He should be treated like the head of a household with respect and dignity. But as a father in the family, he is responsible to the entire Church. The Church should know the amount that is expended.
All substantial charities should be administered through the office of the bishop as a disbursement item covered by the Diocesan budget.
All receipts (for example, gifts received as donations, gifts, stipends, allowances, etc.) taken by the bishop should go to the treasury of the Church or Diocese.
If anyone requires a bishop to perform his sacraments, the Diocese should charge him for the transportation of the bishop and his staff, and an additional tax to help the poor of the Church (education, marriage, house construction for the homeless, etc.).
All the monies donated to the bishop as gift (kaimuth) should be turned over to the Diocese/ Church. However, he may earmark what he received as gift (kaimuth) for his favorite charities or other benevolent purposes.
No monies generated by the ministerial service of a bishop should be deposited in the personal account of the bishop, but may be deposited in his name as the head of a Diocese.
There may be more suggestions. The purpose is to establish a strict monastic discipline within the episcopate. This writer visited the Coptic Church of Egypt a few years ago, and personally observed how their bishops lived. Almost all bishops live in monastic environments. They are well taken care of by their communities. All their receipts are turned over to the monastery or institution they are part of. For example, this writer stayed with Bishop Picenti for about two weeks. He lives in a large monastery (St. BarSoum), which is like an Industrial Estate. He has a bank account in his name, but not in his personal name; the account is in the name of Bishop Picenti of Helwan (Helwan is the name of his diocese). This man does not even see the balances of that account. The account is operated by his diocesan officers (including priests and nuns). The community takes care of him. He never worries about any of his needs. This is the life an ideal monk-bishop.
Can our episcopate imitate this kind of reform to establish a simple monastic life without attachment to money and material possessions? If our bishops cannot live as monks, we do not need the monastic episcopate. Let us start thinking about consecrating virtuous and holy married priests to the order of bishops in our Church, and it is not a violation of the Word of God.