Theology demands the priest to be the ruler of his people

Written By: on May 8th, 2014 and filed under Editorial, Features.

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The thesis of this editorial is that our priests are not just Pujaris (the performers of religious rites) and that they are also administrators who lead their people and that they are also custodians not only of faith, but also of the temporalities of the Church. In order to prove the essence of this thesis we have to briefly explain the theology of Orthodox Priesthood (for more details please read this writer’s book, Orthodox Christian Priesthood: A Patristic Anthology with Commentaries [Malayalam]).

Orthodox priests have a threefold function. They are Sanctification of the faithful through the sacraments (the mysteries of the Church), Preaching the Word of God (Evangelization), and Administration of the Church. All of these functions are equally important. Once the parish priesthood (Idavakapattam) became defunct, and because the priests are no more attached to a parish for life, our church generated a floating priesthood; meaning, no priests sees it important to claim his administrative function as essential to his parish priesthood. A priest who is regularly moving from parish to parish at the whims of his hierarch or parishioners, as a result of the recently adopted western transfer system for parish clergy, naturally becomes less interested in his administrative function, and sometimes altogether gives it up, and turns himself just a pujari.

Why does he do it? As he is a floating priest he lacks the needed inside financial and procedural information, and he would not try to train himself into it; because before he becomes informed in such areas, his transfer order from the bishop would be in the mail. If he gets too much involved and interested in the financial affairs of the parish, the lay trustee and the members of the committee might get jittery about it. The only thing they might want their priest to do is to go to the head of campaign to raise funds to renovate a church or to build a parish hall. The hierarch also might say: “Let them handle money; you celebrate the Liturgy and perform all the sacraments, and go home”. The tendency from the part of the hierarch generally has been to appease the majority so that he could go back to his residence after an arch pastoral visit with a fat purse. This writer is sorry to make this sad comment about our hierarchs in general; he has seen the tears of many priests because of the spinelessness of our hierarchs to resist the pressure of the laity, particularly the treasurer and the members of some churches. Very often, hierarchs look at the numbers in a parish assembly to determine his course of action rather than the truth and propriety that are at stake. There is always a tendency among bishops to placate the laity rather than to defend their coworkers in the priestly ministry.

Another reason for the indifference of priests in articulating their administrative role in their parish is to maintain a cordial relationship with the committee of the parish. It has many advantages. Better relationship means harmony in the parish, which looks great in their resume for better placement in the future. It would also create an advantageous impact on their prospect to generate additional revenue apart from the standardized monthly remuneration either from the diocesan center or from the parish; because the banner over their heads as “a good and humble priest” is definitely an image booster and will earn the sympathy of many people in the parish. This image can be maintained only through non-interference with a lot of administrative areas, particularly with monetary affairs. Many priests would give up their right to be the co-trustee of the parish representing the Holy Church by letting the lay-trustee operate bank accounts without their co-signature. Many priests do this not because it is permissible according to the Constitution of the Church, but because it is the smoothest way to get along with some lay-trustees. This is also important to maintain their “clean image”.

Now let us see what theology teaches regarding the administrative role of priests. In our consideration of the priesthood, we deal with priesthood of the Episcopal order and priesthood of the presbyteral order as one entity. The additional function of a bishop is the ordination of ordinary priests (presbyters) and their appointments. They also have the function of leading a larger portion of the Church. On the other hand, regular priests possesses the basic priestly functions within the basic unit of a larger portion of the Church, which is the parish, except the ordination and appointment of other priests and consecration of Holy Myron. Therefore, we would like to deal with a priesthood comprising the episcopate and the presbyter ate.

Eusebius of Alexandria says in one his sermons:
The priest should conduct himself toward the people in the following way. He ought to pray for his people with his whole heart, to preside over temporal administration until death (writer’s emphasis), and lay down his life for his sheep, according to the command of Christ, who said: “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (Jn 10:11). … Take care of your servants: do not humiliate one and exalt another. Do not honor one and condemn another. Do not give special attention to the rich while you spurn the beggar who cannot offer you a gift. Be careful to treat all equally (Sermon 5: PG 86A, 346).

The Didascalia says:
You (priests) are appointed the good stewards of God who will require of your hands an account of this stewardship he has entrusted to you…. So then, dispense well those things which have been delivered to you as good stewards of God, to the orphans, the widows, the needy and the strangers” (2, 25, 2).

The Didascalia is an ancient document. From the very antiquity of Christianity stewardship was a responsibility of the priesthood. How can a priest have stewardship without the function of administration of his Church? He can delegate his functions to a deacon or a layperson or a lay treasurer; but his responsibility can never be delegated. In other words, administration of the Church is ultimately one of the functions of parish priesthood. It was to counteract the abuses in the priesthood that the Holy Church later permitted the involvement of the laity in the administration of parishes. Theologically speaking, this lay participation is to help the administrative function of the priesthood, not to deny the role of administration by a priest.

According to Orthodoxy, the church is not a perfect democracy like a secular nation. Western Protestantism also embraces strict democracy in their churches. In Orthodoxy, the Church is a hierarchical organization where the hierarchy starts from priesthood and ends at the laity. However, the Church employs democratic principles in the selection of bishops and priests and other ministers, and should also keep its accounts open for all the faithful. In this area we differ from Roman Catholicism, which does not entertain such privileges to the laity, and does not open its financial books to the rest of the Church. Financial accountability to the entire Church is a required virtue in the administration of Orthodox parishes and dioceses and of the Church at large.

Now let us examine the Acts of the Apostles. The apostles were stewards of the receipts of the Church. “’… all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need” (Acts 4: 34-35). We do not see a lay board or committee to receive the proceeds of the things sold by the believers. Actually the administration of the temporal affairs of the Church was with the apostles, not with any other body. The distribution of these proceeds was also done by the apostles. Later deacons were ordained to take care of the poor and needy. Again, apostles were also responsible for the temporal affairs of the Church. Bishops and priests are successors of the apostles, and the functions of the apostles are carried on by the priests of the Church now.

Now we go to relevant parts of the ordination service of priests. The prayers of ordination reflect the theology of priesthood. We see in the Sedro of the Ordination of Priests the following prayer:

“Make him … a minister and steward of thy mysteries, a priest of the true right side, a good administrator and a spiritual pillar”.

In the ordination of Chor-bishops the same prayer is likewise emphasized:

“Make him … a minister and a steward of thy mysteries, a Chor-episcopus of the true right side, a good administrator and spiritual pillar”.

During the prayer invoking the Holy Spirit upon the new Chor-episcopus, the celebrant says:

“Having received grace and mercy, may you attain inheritance, which belongs to the faithful, wise, just, and holy administrators, through the compassion of God”.

If we examine the ordination of bishops, references to his role as an administrator are clearly evident. We would like to keep this treatise shorter.

Yes, Orthodox theology demands the priests to be the administrators of God’s Church. It was the faith of the Church, has been the faith of the Church, and is the faith of the Church. If we dismantle this function of the Orthodox priesthood, there will not be an Orthodox priesthood.

Having said this, no one should think that it is an administration without the partnership of the people of God. Our Constitution has provisions for lay participation and involvement in the administration of the Church. But the ultimate persons endowed with the responsibility of the administration of the Church of God are her bishops and priests.

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