by Fr. Bohdan Hladio,
Ukrainian Orthodox Sobor of St. Volodymyr,
What is a pastor? In discussing “pastoral life”, we understand that many particular problems or issues may not relate directly to all of the faithful, but that there is no pastoral concern which does not relate to the pastor. Who and what should the pastor be?
“Be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” [I Tim. 4:12] This quotation of St. Paul to Timothy, which is traditionally engraved on the back of the priest’s pectoral cross, gives us the answer – the priest or bishop is called to be not just a teacher, or leader, or administrator, but first and foremost an example. We see this teaching reflected practically in the biblical and canonical legislation of the Church regarding those in holy orders. There are several aspects of the “priestly discipline” which are commonly questioned, and which when studied give us a clear picture of the role of the pastor as an example to the believers. Specifically, we can speak of the practices of hunting or social dancing by the clergy; the involuntary killing of another human being by a member of the clergy; and the remarriage of the clergy after ordination.
Hunting and dancing are traditionally forbidden to clergymen. Looking through the Pedalion (the compendium of the canons of the Church) we see that there is no canon which clearly states that clergy (as opposed to laymen) “shall not hunt” or “shall not dance”. However, there are canons which relate to the killing of animals, or to dancing, though not in a clear fashion — social dancing as we presently know it, for example, did not really exist at the time when these canons were written. The tradition of the Church, on the other hand, is very clear on these matters. Those in holy orders should refrain from hunting, and should refrain from social dancing.
Canonically the issue of dancing was related to what we now might call “stage” dancing, or theatrical performance. It was forbidden to all Christians to take part in such spectacles. Having said this, however, it must be understood that there was no dichotomy set up between one type of dancing and another. Canon 53 of the council of Laodicea in 364 A.D. states that “Christians attending weddings must not waltz or dance, but must sup or dine in decent fashion, as becomes Christians.” The clergy have always been advised not to engage in social dancing. On page 36 of the “Archpastoral Epistles, Decisions and Practical Directives for the Clergy of the U.O.C.C.”, sec. 55, we read “Dances. Special attention is drawn to all the priests and clergy that it is not proper for them to dance, or to play roles or take part in public performances of a theatrical and artistic character, because this will not bring good repute either to them or to the Church, but will bring only dissatisfaction among the faithful and misunderstanding in the communities.” (Translation my own.)
While different Churches have different practices, e.g. in a Greek or Serbian parish the priest may lead the first kolo or horo (line dance) at a particular celebration, or we may see a priest who will dance a polka at a zabava (“but only with my wife!”), all the Orthodox agree that social dancing is not something which befits, or is beneficial to, the clerical state.
Hunting is referred to in the canonical legislation only in as much as Christians are to refrain from taking part in the arena spectacles during which animals were killed (Canon 51 of the Quinisext Council). The interpretation of this canon is accepted as sufficient to forbid clerics from hunting, for if it is forbidden to even watch an animal being killed, how much more should it be forbidden to kill the animal oneself. This legislation applies even to monastics who are not ordained, but in reference to the person of the priest or bishop there is a very specific reason for it. The priest is ordained to offer to God the bloodless sacrifice, and therefore the spilling of blood is incompatible with his calling. (The fact that clerics have always been forbidden to bear arms is clearly underlined in the history of the destruction of Constantinople by the Latin Crusaders in 1204. It was inconceivable for the Orthodox that priests and monks could bear arms, and yet they saw with their own eyes Latin clerics and monastics doing so). It is for this same reason that it is forbidden to bind Gospel books in leather covers — because nothing which has been killed is permitted on the altar where the bloodless sacrifice is performed.
If a priest accidentally kills someone, in an automobile accident for example, he is forbidden to continue to serve at the altar. This may seem a great punishment for an act for which the priest himself does not bear responsibility, but the Church’s tradition and the canonical legislation on this matter is very clear (Canon 66 of the Apostolic Canons, Canon 5 of St. Gregory of Nyssa, etc). This is related to the same point made above, that the spilling of blood is incompatible with the priesthood, for the priest is to dispense Life (the Holy Mysteries), not death. This again points to an idealized conception of the person of the priest, in other words, to the idea that the priest should exemplify Christian teaching not only in his words, but in his life.
At this point it is important to emphasize that all these things — hunting, dancing or accidental homicide — are matters which can or do affect all members of the Church. What we see in both the traditional practices and the canonical legislation is an understanding that the bishop or priest as the leader, as the teacher and especially as the one who stands in the place of Christ during the Liturgy and offers the Bloodless Sacrifice should be an exemplar, doing his best to fulfill the Christian life in an ideal manner. It must be admitted that there is in some sense a double standard involved — a standard of perfection for the priest, and a standard of toleration for the faithful. But we must also keep in mind the biblical injunction that “to whom much has been entrusted, from them much will be demanded.” As we all know from our jobs – greater responsibilities bring with them greater accountability. So to say that this state of affairs is unjust is simply not true — after all, every priest knows the rules going in.
The practical, disciplinary concerns regarding dancing, hunting or accidental killing, while well attested to in our canonical legislation, are in a practical sense often of a “relative” nature. We have, for example, priests who might dance or hunt (though one would hope that they would do this only with the blessing of their bishop). I personally am aware of the case of a priest in another Orthodox Church who was permitted by his bishops, after they had studied the details of the situation, to return to service at the altar after having accidentally killed someone in an automobile accident. The question of a second marriage after ordination, however, is different from the above examples. While in the first three examples we have tradition and canonical legislation as normative, in this instance Holy Scripture itself is the guiding factor. Second marriages for the clergy are dealt with in the New Testament. In I Timothy 3:2, 12 and Tit. 1:6 St. Paul clearly states that only men who are “the husband of one wife” may be admitted to higher orders. This is the reason that it would be (in theory) much easier to return to the practice of a married episcopate, for this is clearly biblical and historical, than to admit twice-married men to the priesthood.
Fr. John Meyendorff, in speaking of the “big three” problems of a) election of married men to the episcopate, b) marriage after ordination and c) admission to the clergy of men who had married more than once, or whose wife was married previously, and permission for widowed priests to marry again, states: “… the issue is much more serious in the third case. There doctrine — New Testament doctrine on marriage — is clearly involved. Not only is there the clear requirement of I Tim. 3:2,12 and Tit. 1:6, but it is unavoidable to remember that second marriage is admitted by the Church exclusively as a toleration, never as a norm. The New Testament norm of marriage is a unique and eternal bond between two beings, in the image of God and Israel, of Christ and the Church [Eph. 5]. Until the tenth century second marriages were never blessed in Church and required a long period of penance. For laymen, such marriages are admitted “by economy”, as a lesser evil [I Cor. 7:8-9] or as a new chance to build up a life. How could priests preach such a doctrine of marriage, if they themselves did not practice it? The canonical legislation forbidding men married twice to be ordained, or priests to remarry protect not only priesthood, but also the Church’s doctrine on marriage.” [Living Tradition, pp. 109-110]
This is one of the most difficult canonical prescriptions to understand from a worldly perspective — especially if it involves a good priest, or a young priest, or a priest with children. We are all aware of the fact that this was a much greater problem in the past, when simple life expectancy and medical knowledge made the chance of the death of a priest’s wife much greater and much more common. But as Fr. Meyendorff states, the priest cannot truly preach that which he does not live. Consequently the Church does permit him to remarry, but does not permit him to continue serving, or preaching, if he does so.
Even in this instance, though, there are exceptions. I personally am aware of two instances (not in our jurisdiction) where Orthodox priests, having been widowed, were permitted to return to serve at the altar after having taken a second wife. The bishops involved reviewed the details of the cases, and decided to permit this through the invocation of ekonomia, a one-time relaxation of the discipline of the Church for a specific reason. As might be imagined, such a decision caused much questioning and discussion. And here we come to one of the most important points regarding the role of the pastor as example for the flock.
As we know, some pastors are good examples, some are not. What difference does this make for the faithful? As long as the bishop or priest is not preaching heresy, we are taught that we should follow him, pray for him, and not judge him. If the bishop or the priest plays “fast and loose” with the discipline of the Church it is he who will give account before Christ — not us. In the above cited cases of bishops invoking ekonomia we must understand that the bishops involved do this with full recognition of the severity of the matter. We are not permitted to judge their actions, taken on behalf of the Church, any more than we can judge other bishops who, in dealing with a similar problem, refuse to invoke ekonomia, feeling that this is a greater responsibility than they are able to bear, or that it might not be beneficial to the Church.
The priest does not “possess” the priesthood, priesthood is only possessed by the Church. The priest is entrusted with a community of believers by the bishop, and is in a concrete relationship with both his bishop, the faithful, and with God. The earthly hierarchy simply reflects the heavenly hierarchy, and we have order, both in heaven and on earth. Anyone who “oversteps their bounds”, and ceases to act responsibly towards the one who holds them accountable: the faithful to their priest, the priests to their bishop, the bishops to the Church and all of us to God, is understood to excommunicate themselves from the body of the Church. So as we see, the requirement of St. Paul for the pastor to be a good example is one which has eternal consequences.
If the priest or bishop is greedy, or a glutton, or unfaithful, or adulterous, or lazy, if he is more concerned with the things of the world than with the preaching of the Gospel, he will have to give account before Christ not only for his own sins, but for all those souls who either left the Church or did not enter it because of his bad example.
Let us close, though, with a cautionary note. It is easy to judge, to say that “because of canon so-and-so” someone is sinning. But we must all remember that we are servants of God — so who am I to judge the servant of another? Yes, we should all maintain in our own personal Christian lives the discipline of the Church, whether canonical, traditional or biblical, as much as possible.
Yes, we should listen to and respect our bishops, priests, and also our lay leaders as those whom God has given us for our salvation. But we must always pray that God, “who heals every ill and supplies what is lacking” (from the ordination prayer), will provide us with pastors who are good and holy examples to the believers “in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.”