Tuesday, 26 June 2012

More Questions from Mr Gove’

We have received another very interesting email from Jean Gove’. Mr Gove’ accepted that we publish the email under his name in order to discuss it.  Here is the email:
My thanks for the lucid answers to my questions almost a year ago.
Another question I've been grappling with for a while:
1.    Are there any Biblical and/or theological reasons as to why the Eucharist cannot be self-administered?
2.    How is the special (super?)nature of the Christian priesthood established historically and theologically?
3.    Why isn't the ‘sending forth’ of the Apostles applicable to all Christians?
4.    And what ultimately makes a priest a priest?
Jean Gove’
We delayed replying to this email for the reason that the authenticity of the Orthodox priesthood has never been an issue for the author of this blog so he doesn’t have a set of arguments at his fingertips.

Let us therefore make a number of general remarks.  The first time in Christian history that the underlying issues that Mr Gove’ is posing are raised is the Reformation, about the 16th Century.  Remember, however, that the Reformation unfolded in a Roman Catholic historical context and has no historical meaning outside of the historical evolution of the Roman Catholic Church.  Before the Reformation, there is no real issue.  The matter has never been a matter of dispute in the Orthodox Church (except after the Reformation, perhaps, among those influenced by the Reformation).

Without having the historical data at our fingertips there are, however, a number of heresies from the 1st to the 4th Centuries that indirectly raise the issue of the priesthood but there is no argument from within ‘normative’ Christianity (we’ll explain what we mean below) that attacks the institution of the priesthood as it is found historically in say the middle of the 3rd Century.

For example, in the historical data concerning the monks of Egypt, starting with Anthony the Great (3rd - 4th C) and including Pachomios (4th C), there is nothing that would indicate that the monastic saints had any doubt about the authenticity of the Christian priesthood.  We find for example in the Life of Anthony the story that a deacon came to Anthony as part of a group of pilgrims without displaying his rank of deacon; when it came time for the group to leave the members asked Anthony to say a prayer; he refused, insisting that the deacon lead the prayer.  It is clear from the context that Anthony understood the man to be a deacon through charismatic clairvoyance.

Evagrius came to Egypt in about 383 as a deacon and in one of the stories of the desert fathers an anti-Origenist monk harshly criticizes him for speaking out in the assembly and one of that monk’s remarks is to the effect, ‘We know that in the world you could easily have become a bishop but here keep your mouth shut.’ In Evagrius’ own writings, the priesthood is treated as existent.  Evagrius himself was offered a bishopric, which he declined.

One of the early canons of the Church from this period regulates that the monk may not seek the priesthood although he may certainly accept it if it is offered to him.  However, there are stories of monks in the Egyptian desert going so far as to cut off their ear so as not to accept the priesthood (a bishopric if we remember correctly) since without an ear, according to their reasoning, the provision of the Old Testament that the priest be without blemish would apply—although sometimes cutting off the ear wasn’t enough to prevent you from being ordained!  This was not because they rejected the existence of the priesthood but because they did not want the honour.

In Syria there is at least one episode in the lives of the ascetics recorded by Theodoret of Cyr (contemporary and interlocutor of Symeon the Stylite, 4th C) where the local bishop comes around to the pillar of a stylite (not Symeon) to ordain him; the stylite draws up the ladder and refuses to descend to be ordained; the bishop ordains him from a distance, remaining on the ground while the stylite is as it were in Heaven; the ordination is treated as valid.

So certainly by the middle of the 4th Century, and even the 3rd Century, no one is disputing within the boundaries of ‘normative’ Christianity that the priesthood exists.  There are deacons, priests, bishops and they have more or less the authority an Orthodox would understand today.  This is not to say that Roman Catholic teaching on the authority of the Bishop, especially the Bishop of Rome, and on the structure of the Church has not evolved since then.

It is also not to say that in some Gnostic heresies from the 1st to the 4th C there is not a radical break with ‘normative’ Christianity and a completely different understanding of the Gospel, including the existence or non-existence of a priesthood, and the characteristics of the priesthood if it exists and also the role of the prophetic ministry.

In this it should be remembered that because there is an Aaronic priesthood in the Old Testament and because already in the Epistle to the Hebrews there is a discussion of Christ as the new High Priest, the humanly natural thing would be for the Christian polity to understand that Christianity has a priesthood at least similar to the priesthood of the Old Testament.  However, in Gnosticism the ‘Bad Guy’ is the God of the Old Testament, so within the Gnostic family of heresies it would be normal for the Christian priesthood to be understood in completely different ways from within ‘normative’ Christianity.

We might remark that another heresy that seems to have rejected the priesthood was a 4th Century Mesopotamian heresy called Messalianism.  Now this heresy is poorly understood since we don’t have much historical data on it.  However, it seems that one of its tenets was that through continual prayer the Holy Spirit might enter into the person in bodily form transforming that person into a saint.  This heresy had, it seems, a number of antinomian elements, perhaps arising in accordance with its teaching that until the Holy Spirit took up bodily abode in the person the Holy Spirit and the Devil both abided in the person.  In other words, until the final transforming experience, which was understood in largely sensible material terms, the person was the abode of both God and the Devil.  (Evidently the mode of abode of the Holy Spirit in the person before the transforming experience was different from after).  The few descriptions we have of the Messalians (from their enemies, certainly) indicate that they lived communally on the streets without work in an atmosphere of sexual promiscuity.

We can now explain what we mean above by ‘normative’ Christianity.  We are simply using the term to enclose those streams of Christianity that accepted the Council of Nicea although those streams of Christianity certainly diverged in subsequent Ecumenical Synods.  There is nothing at the Council of Nicea that would indicate that the priesthood was in any question at all.  The author of the Arian heresy was the deacon Arius; there is no indication that he had any doubts about his priesthood.

Now the above is not a detailed theological and historical argument; for that Mr Gove’ is going to have to go to a University and talk to a Professor of Church History; as we remarked we simply haven’t studied this matter.  We have only made some remarks from memory to give the reader a feel for the actuality of the historical situation.

To continue with Mr Gove’s other questions, the fundamental issue that Mr Gove is raising in his first point is ecclesiology.  This is the ‘theory of the Church’: what is the Church and why?  The reason that the Eucharist cannot be self-administered (although see a remark further down) is that the Church was founded as, and understood from the beginning to be, the society of persons who have turned to Christ; the Church is Christ’s Body; it is a society.  We can see this already on the day of Pentecost.  Mr Gove should read the Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke the Evangelist, who personally knew Christ and Mary His Mother and who accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys.  From the beginning the Eucharist, just like the Last Supper, was a communal act.  In one of his Epistles Paul harshly criticizes the practices of the Corinthians who abuse the nature of the Eucharist as a communal meal, one person getting drunk and another remaining hungry.

In modern studies of ecclesiology, it is taken for granted that the Bishop is where the Church is and the Church is where the Bishop is; it is the Eucharist presided over by the local Bishop that defines the local Church as part of the Universal Church.  The statement that the Bishop is where the Church is and the Church where the Bishop is, is a very ancient 1st or 2nd C statement, we forget whether it is pronounced by Clement of Rome or Irenaeus of Lyons.  But it is the basis of the theology of the Church as a communion of persons in the Holy Spirit.  For while we are members of the body of Christ that does not mean that our personhood has been obliterated in our baptism.

Now the one remark we need to make here is that there is the ancient recorded practice of ascetics taking consecrated bread from the Divine Liturgy to the desert (not secretly but openly) to partake of it during their period of solitude before they return to participate in another Eucharist.  This practice soon fell into desuetude but lives on in the Orthodox Church during Lent, when during the weekdays of strict fast no Eucharist is celebrated but two days a week (sometimes more) bread consecrated in the Divine Liturgy of the previous Saturday or Sunday is partaken of in the Liturgy of the Presanctified.  While such a practice no longer exists in the Roman Catholic Church, no one studying liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church argues that the practice is an Orthodox abuse of the Eucharist.

Indeed in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, on Holy Thursday, the annual commemoration of the Last Supper, consecrated bread is reserved for emergency use throughout the year until the next Holy Thursday, when what remains is consumed after the Liturgy.  In both churches, the priest will take to the dying (or historically in the Roman Catholic Church, the dead) a small bit of this consecrated bread to communicate them.

To further indicate the communal nature of the Church, when one is baptized there must in addition to the priest be a baptized lay person present to complete the social dimension of the Church: entering the Church is a social act and not just a personal act between the believer and Christ.

This position and many of the other positions just discussed are rejected in Reformation theology, either by Luther (the possibility of reserving the consecrated bread for later use) or by Calvin and his successors (the nature of entry into the Church, where the Church is treated as the charismatic unity of all born-again believers in Christ).  But as we said these are very late developments in Christianity.

Moreover, in the Orthodox Church the baptized person is communicated immediately after their baptism.  It is clear that in the Eucharist of Vespers of Holy Saturday (which belongs liturgically to Resurrection Sunday) there is specified a large number of Old Testament readings partly to provide time for the baptism of the catechumens; after baptism they would come to the Church to participate in the rest of the Eucharist so as to receive their first communion.  We are using the term ‘Eucharist’ rather than ‘Divine Liturgy’ so as to speak to Mr Gove’ in the language that he prefers.

With regard to question 2, the establishment of the autonomous priesthood seen as an issue in dogmatics and Church history, we would again refer Mr Gove’ to a Professor in a university.  People write doctorates on these questions; perhaps Mr Gove’ would like to do graduate studies on the matter.

With regard to question 3, the sending forth of the Apostles, while it is true that at the end of the Gospel of Matthew the Great Commission just before the Ascension of Christ is given to the Apostles, we have always understood that the Great Commission applies to the Church as a whole.

Let us suppose that Mr Gove’ becomes Orthodox.  Should he then immediately go to Africa to enlighten the heathen?  We think not.  He should first finish his doctorate in dogmatics so he knows what to teach the heathen.  Then if he thinks that he has a calling to missionary work, he should contact the Bishop who has jurisdiction over the area where he feels called to be a missionary.  The Bishop might want to ordain Mr Gove’ and make him a missionary priest (either married or celibate) to serve where Mr Gove’ wants or elsewhere; or he might accept that Mr Gove’ work as a lay member of a missionary team (usually missions are group activities; remember Christ sent the Apostles out two by two); or he might suggest that Mr Gove’ become a University Professor in his home town either in a secular field such as physics or in theology; or he might suggest that Mr Gove’ become a monk as a preliminary to becoming a missionary.

Finally, there is Mr Gove’s last question on the ultimate nature of the priesthood in the Orthodox Church.  The priesthood is a charismatic gift of God in the Holy Spirit to the person being ordained which enables him to make things holy, to handle the holy and to stand as the image of God to the members of the Church; the priesthood enables the believer to sanctify the bread and wine; to sanctify the water; to remit sins; to heal the sick; to join believers in marriage; to make monastics; to make other priests—in general to handle and to do all those things in the Church which make the Church a space of salvation for the believer.  However, it is not the priest that saves the believer; it is God working with the believer who acts sincerely according to the Gospel commandments, including making use of the services of the priest.

Ultimately, Mr Gove’, becoming Orthodox is a matter of being drawn by the Father.  The knowledge of the dogmatic reality of the Church, while it is studied in universities, is ultimately a matter of being enlightened by the Holy Spirit, first in Baptism and subsequently through personal spiritual endeavour guided by the Church.  As Elder Sophrony (Sakharov) remarks in his extended introduction to the writings of Silouan the Athonite, one of the stages of spiritual growth that a Christian goes through is the acquisition of a dogmatic consciousness, which could be defined as a charismatically given inner criterion of dogmatic correctness.  A friend of ours who grew up in Greece remarks that although many Greeks do not practise their religion, because they were baptized as infants and communicated by their mother every Sunday in the parish church, even those who have drifted away from the Church have a clear understanding of what their faith entails.  They just don’t want to practise it.

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