One of the criticisms of the Orthodox Churches that is often raised is that it has a rigid hierarchical and even patriarchal structure, a hierarchy of patriarchs, bishops, priests and deacons who run everything in the church, while Protestant structures are more democratic, more ‘congregation-friendly’. As you will have no doubt guessed by now, I am going to disagree with this assessment.
To understand the Orthodox Church hierarchy we need to go right back to its origins, the years of ‘training’ that the Apostles of Christ underwent under His wise supervision. Over and over Jesus taught the Apostles that they were not rulers or masters in the worldly sense employed by any other organisation. An example will serve to illustrate this point:
The hierarchy of the Orthodox Church is not a hierarchy of authority and power, but of humble, self-sacrificial service. If we listen to our clergy it is not because we fear their wrath, but because we respect the gift of the Holy Spirit to which they have humbly submitted themselves. If we treat them with respect it is because they prostrate themselves daily to wash our feet, heal our wounds and straighten our path. I do not know how I can say this any more clearly: leadership in the Orthodox Church is not about power or authority or popularity or wealth. It is a kind of death for the leader. He must put himself willingly and joyfully to death each day out of love for his Master Christ and for his Master’s children. That is one reason why our priesthood wears black, to remind them and us of that daily death.
This point becomes even more apparent when we consider the origins of the names we give our clergy. The episkopos (bishop), the economos (hegumen or archpriest) and the daikon (deacon) were all the titles not of rulers or kings or lords, but of slaves. They were positions responsibility held by slaves in the households of rich men. That’s right, when the early Christians came to give a title to their leaders, they did not call them “Master” or “Teacher” or “Lord”, but “Slave”. And if you know anything about the life of a slave in Roman times, you will understand just how shocking that is. Slaves were considered at the very bottom of society. They were mere possessions of their masters, who often had the legal right to beat them, rape them, sell them off and break up their family; do anything with them they liked in fact.
Thus, the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church ideally is a structure for meeting the needs of the flock of Christ, not at all for meeting the needs of the ‘leaders’. The role of the clergyman is for more like that of a sports coach than that of a General Manager of a company. He is not there to give orders and to be obeyed, but to wisely and carefully bring out the very best in his charges. He is the servant, and those he serves are his masters. When the final victory comes, the crown goes to the athlete, not the coach, yet the coach is as thrilled as if it were he who received it.
You will notice that this system reflects the example and the message of self-sacrificial love of Christ Himself, who came to us “not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many”. The clergy are meant to be a living, breathing icon of that extreme kind of love that is the chief characteristic and the heart of Christianity. The Coptic Orthodox Church is perhaps unique in Christendom in not accepting people who volunteer for this service. In the words of the late Pope Shenouda III, “Those who desire the priesthood are not fit, and those who are fit do not desire it”. This system of ordaining only those who don’t really want to be ordained works amazingly well, and I believe it is one of the things that has protected the Coptic Church from the kinds of moral scandals among the hierarchy that have rocked so many other denominations. In fact, when scandals have happened, they have generally happened to those clergy who coveted clerical rank and succeeded in attaining it, in spite of the approach described above.
It must be admitted that in history (and even today), this ideal has not always been followed faithfully. There have been clergy in all Churches including the Coptic Orthodox Church who have viewed this humble service as a ‘promotion’ that bestowed recognition, power and privilege, and have been ambitious to attain that position, or have abused it once obtained. But this does not mean that the concept of priesthood is therefore in itself wrong. There have been many bad doctors over the years, and no doubt there are many bad doctors even now in surgeries and hospitals harming patients, but we would never think of therefore dismissing the practice of medicine itself. No, if we want to assess the value of medicine, then we are well advised to look at its very best exponents to see what it can achieve. So also with the Orthodox priesthood.
And here we find a veritable galaxy of shining lights to light the way to that Mystery of humble Christ-like service. From the saints of the past such as Pope Peter the Seal of Martyrs, the gentle and learned philosopher-priest who sealed the era of martyrdom with his own blood; to Pope Athanasius the defender of the true faith who suffered exile and came close to death many times for his courageous stand for truth; to Pope Matthew the Poor, who would leave the papal residence each night to wander around the slums of Cairo in disguise, distributing food and clothing to the poor; to Anba Abraam the recent bishop of Fayoum whose simple unconditional giving continues to change lives and hearts a hundred years after his passing from this world; to Fr Bishoy Kamel whom many alive today still remember for his remarkable self-sacrifice and care for all who needed it, regardless of their class or even their religion; to our two most recent official saints, Pope Kyrollos VI and Archdeacon Habib Guirgis, humble, sensible men who gave their lives in the service of others. There are many, many more, but perhaps this sample is enough to make the point.
These men were inspired and enabled to live their beautiful lives by the Mystery of priesthood. But how exactly do these Mysteries have their effects? What is their mechanism? Is it even possible for us to understand this? This shall be our next topic…