Words and Attitudes, and the Way of Christ

Bishop Seraphim : Article
Words and Attitudes, and the Way of Christ
[Published in the “Canadian Orthodox Messenger”, Autumn 2003]

In July of this year, I was invited to participate in the second Orientale Lumen Conference in Sydney, Australia. It lasted four days, and I was one of the presenters, along with Cardinal Kasper of Rome, and Metropolitan Bishoy of Cairo. The conference was interesting ; but it was best being in Australia for the first time, and seeing believers there. These Orientale Lumen conferences came into being as a result of a papal encyclical. The papers presented at these conferences address problems and possibilities in the relationship between the Orthodox Churches and the West. My lengthy paper, presented at this conference, dealt with some of the main problems of language and mutual misunderstanding which keep the progress of conversations slow, and reconciliation still distant.

However, in our own diocesan life, I see some of the same problems at work right amongst us Orthodox. We are misusing important words. We accept without question the western meanings and uses of words which are foundational to our correct self-understanding, and we distort ourselves. For instance, we like to say that Roman Catholics are too legalistic, but do we not too often exceed them in this very attitude towards each other and ourselves ? We often will say that in the West there is too much clericalism ; but is it not so that not only clergy, but also lay people in responsible positions, will often try to force others to obey ?

The word “obedience”, itself, is so often used amongst us in the sense that because someone in authority says a thing must be done, it must be done ; or because an authority expresses an opinion, this opinion therefore must be followed as if it were law. Obedience (and particularly monastic obedience) is not imposed by the higher in authority upon the lower in authority. Neither is obedience compliance given out of fear. In all cases, but particularly in monastic obedience, the compliance is a co-operation which is willingly offered out of love by the lower in authority to the higher in authority. The ideal of complete obedience offered to an elder or eldress can only be possible and life-giving in an atmosphere of selfless love in Christ. There are, however, exceptions to this ideal when unconditional obedience in the love of Christ is offered to an abusive elder, in which the Grace of the Holy Spirit overcomes sin, abuse and pain.

“Authority” is another abused word. This is so often understood to mean one person’s having power over another. Rather, authority means having the responsibility to lead by a good and correct example. Sometimes, a priest or a person in some position of responsibility will expect others to respect and/or obey merely because of one’s title or position. This “do as I say” attitude is wrong. Much better is the attitude of “I think I know the correct way, and I think you would be right and wise to follow”.

Any time we begin to wield power in a worldly way, lording it over someone else, we reject the Gospel and the example of Christ. He, the Good Shepherd, loving and knowing His sheep, and loved and known by His sheep, said : “‘I AM the Way’” (John 14:6). It is for us to walk in this Way. Those who are shepherds and persons in authority must always exercise this leadership following the example of Christ. Otherwise we (even bishops and priests) are not really Christians, but merely fakes.

It is within the context of our call to follow in the Way of Christ that we do not encourage the usual worldly voting process in parishes : it divides, and it sets people against each other. Consensus, which we are so often unwilling to pursue, is the historical Christian way of talking about a matter until we all agree ; and if we cannot yet agree, we do not act.

No Christian in a clerical or lay position of authority or responsibility ought ever dare to push matters by force. Patience must be cultivated. Love must prevail. If we take short-cuts, then we fail. Let us remember who we are, and Whom we serve — Christ Himself.

Let us take the trouble to pray about things, and let us together discover God’s will for us in all situations. Let us recover genuinely Orthodox Christian attitudes and the correct understanding of words in our daily, scriptural and liturgical use, so that what we say and how we say it, the attitudes we hold in our hearts and display in our behaviour, and, finally, what we do – are all together in harmony, and in harmony with Christ our Lord.