Two proïstámeni ago, I had a singular meeting with the new parish priest. Very singular it was, both because it was the only private meeting I was ever to have with him, and also, because during that meeting I learned many things I had never heard before from an Orthodox priest. To be fair, after giving him the benefit of a year of observation, overlooking his faults left and right, covering them with love as scripture commands, I came to the conclusion that this man had somehow slipped through the Church’s ‘safety net’ and become a priest without actually being a Christian. I told the perennial deacon about this, and he only said, ‘You’re being too hard on the man. Give him time. He’s just green.’ After about four years of despoiling the local church, he was relieved of his charge, and now a single man, he was also divested of priesthood, and went on to follow his lights, this time as an Orthodox layman. Yes, a much safer place if you’re going to be a pretend Christian. I know, as I am probably one myself.
What did I learn from this man? Well, in that private meeting I learned that priests are afraid of their parishioners. Astonished, I pressed him, ‘What do you mean?’ He told me that priests are afraid of their people because they can’t trust them. I had never heard that one before. His predecessors at the parish were men highly regarded and loved by their people—I speak as one of them—and they loved and trusted their people. Some examples? Lay people were allowed to lead bible studies, direct and teach Sunday School, plan and lead youth retreats and activities, read the epistle by coming out of the congregation. I don’t know, there are more things than I can think of at the moment. Personally, I was given the ‘ministry’ of running the Orthodox bookstore, as well as being the editor of the monthly newsletter. The priests had more important things to do than not trust us, and so trust us they did.
What else did I learn from this man? Well, from his homilies I heard ideas never heard before from an Orthodox preacher. ‘If you see evil in the world around you, it’s because of the evil inside yourself, that you’re projecting into it.’ In support of this idea he cited the text, ‘The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!’ (Matthew 6:22-23) following it up with, ‘Evil cannot be defeated. Even God cannot defeat evil. Evil can only be transformed.’ This final assertion was not supported by citing any scripture text. It was merely stated matter-of-factly, as a self-evident truth, and it was part of the drift of where this sermon was going. Sorry, but I couldn’t keep myself from uttering ‘Anáthema!’ several times that morning.
Orthodox people, at least the Greeks, are very forgiving of each other and the clergy sent to them. When a priest who has failed them is given a send-off, they lavish him with banquets, gifts and praise, thanking him for doing so much for the community. This has happened twice in a row in the last ten years. If you ask anyone now if there was any trouble in the parish, if they do not deny it, they might say, ‘Well, yes, things did get a little rough around here for a short time,’ and truthfully so, because even ten years of enduring persecutions is nothing compared to what we’ve been through already (the four hundred years of Turkish subjugation, for example). Yes, those inimitable Greeks! Even I, a youngster of sixty-four years, concerning persecutions, have seen nothing yet. I am happy, though, that what we endured is finally over. God gives and He takes away, and whatever happens, we know ‘is all for the best.’
But I want to dwell not on the past, but on the future, and tell of the local church as I envisage it, a haven of love, respect, healing, discipleship, and most of all, mercy.
A Christ-loving proïstámenos, that is, priest-in-charge, is first of all a pastor, following his Lord, the Good Shepherd. He knows that only he can serve the Divine Liturgy, assisted by his deacons and acolytes, and so he fulfills this call with ardor, honesty, and humility. He doesn’t let time bully him, but speaks the prayers aloud for the edification of his flock, even if it makes the services longer than they might be. He is gentle and considerate of the weak, and lets everyone know they can be at their ease and sit if standing is difficult. He doesn’t scold his sheep when they are acting sheepish, but praises them for even small graces, and he raises them by stages to be partners in ministry, both liturgical and communal. Though he may have chanters who are virtuosos he must discipline them, if they put their chanting before the texts, because the word of God is to be heard and understood, not subverted by a performance.
Any work that the people can canonically do, the Christ-loving proïstámenos hands over to them, based on their qualifications and commitment, so that he can apply himself to being a pastor, not a professional, not a businessman, not a property manager, not a professor, not a politician, not an ethnarch, but a pastor, one who seeks and saves those who are lost, especially the black sheep. He seeks out and calls those in the flock who have gifts for ministry. He determines their qualifications and then assigns them their places. He does not rule them, he reigns, just as Christ does, that is, no micro-managing. Again, trust based on honest acquaintance is the key.
As to the community itself, in worship, in public prayer, in study, in outreach, everything is done in good order and with participation in mind. In the Divine Liturgy, the music is singable, using the settings that the congregation has been accustomed to, not letting the choir take over and give operatic performances. The Trisagion (Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal) especially is singable by the people, and every effort to make this possible is taken. It is for the sake of the people, and for their healing (for singing to God heals the soul) that the Divine Liturgy is offered and sung. The people need to clearly hear and understand the prayers and the hymns and be able to sing them.
The Greek language used in the Divine Liturgy, in alternation with the English, is encouraged, and the people are given every help in learning to sing and pray in Greek with understanding. This is not for the ethnic Greeks alone, but for all, since we are not praying to God in a foreign language out of nationalism, but in a language made universal and divine by its use in the scriptures, the fathers, and in worship.
There is no divide between the Christ-loving proïstámenos, priest assistants, and deacons, and the people, no clerical privilege or exclusiveness, only the honor due to each according to the ministry he has been called to. The exchange of peace between members of the congregation is practiced as it is in all Christian churches, and is not taught to be the prerogative of the clergy alone.
Our Orthodoxy was never intended by Christ, by the holy apostles, or by the Church fathers, to be a spectacle, but a humble and universal access to the Holy Mysteries. In the surrounding world outside the Church are both believers in Christ, and unbelievers. To the former, the Orthodox Church is their heritage as much as ours. To the latter, it is as it is for us, the doorway to life with Christ, which is eternal as well as earthly. Even if we are a cathedral, our glory is not a worldly glory, not splendid, imposing liturgical performances, cultural and social accomplishments. Our glory was, is, and will always be, in the Cross of Christ, from which He reigns as the King of Glory, and of which we partake each according to the measure of his faith. Accepting everyone in every condition of life, we welcome them into the Kingdom by the jarring shock of triple immersion baptism, followed by the healing oil of chrismation, and then the enveloping love of the community. To this end, and to no other, do we ‘build to the glory of God.’
What the temple must have is the Pantokrator above us, to which the priests and people can uplift our hearts. Even if there is no dome in the temple, the divine image of the Pantokrator must be present, as a safeguard against the abuses we have recently suffered.
Finally, that the waters of baptism may be given their proper place, a baptistry, whether within the temple walls, or as a free-standing structure in the plaza, must be constructed. Everything about our life in Christ comes from this, our baptism by immersion in the life-giving waters.
The Church is a pan-human reality into which every people, nation and race is called. Let’s do our utmost to serve Christ this way, opening the Kingdom to all those He has come to save, even ourselves. Let’s write with the pen of our own lives more of those books of the acts of Jesus of which John the evangelist writes, ‘even the whole world would not be big enough to hold them all’ (John 21:25).