|MARCH 2009||BIBLE STUDY SERIES||
THE MINISTRY OF EPISCOPATE
The consecration of seven new bishops seems to become an epoch making event in the modern history of the Malankara Orthodox Church. Not only was the process by which they were selected unique but also was the systematic training, which they have received prior to the consecration excellent. The event gets a new attraction due to a third factor, i.e. change of leadership in the Church; six of the senior bishops have entered their eternal rest during the last two years and the new group of bishops will make 25% of the Holy Episcopal Synod. At this juncture it is important to examine the meaning of the post of the bishop and its various functions and features.
Meaning of the Word Episcopos:
The New Testament uses the term episkopos five times only:
Functions of a Bishop:
We can say that Orthodox Church is episcopocentric, because everything depends upon the bishop and nothing can be done without him. But what actually is this “everything”? Does it include all sacramental functions of a parish like baptism, marriage and funeral? None of the Orthodox Churches has got the practice of our Church; one or more bishops attending the sacraments of a parish. Every day they have to travel at least hundred kilometres just to lead the funerals and weddings. Even though our bishops are suffocated with this hectic schedule, they are helpless, because it has become a custom especially in central Travancore to invite a bishop for personal functions. People consider the position of the bishops as a ceremonial one and they do not understand more than that about him. Does the above “everything” mean that the bishop should be consulted before each and every instance in the decision making process of a parish? This has become a practice in our Church since the dioceses have become small in their geographical area and since communication became easier. The parish priests have got the freedom and discretion to take decisions as per the constitution and canons and customs of our Church. Bishops can be approached only when things become “exceptional”. What then are the duties of a bishop?
According to Orthodox ecclesiology the bishop is the President of the Eucharist. Ignatius of Antioch says: “you should regard the Eucharist as valid which is celebrated either by the bishop, or by someone he authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Smyrn. 8,1-2). The priests are just “vicars” of a bishop. However, this Eucharistic function of the bishop has been changed later. Zizoulas, himself being a bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church and an authority on the topic says; “the Eucharist, from being the business of the episcopate par excellence, was later (it remains to be seen when) largely transformed into the principal task of the parish and the presbyter. While the bishop, from being par excellence the ‘president’ of the Eucharist was largely transformed into an administrator and a co-ordinator of the life of the parishes” (Eucharist Bishop Church, HCOP, Brookline 2001, p. 23).
The Eucharistic function of the bishop should not be considered as less important to other duties of a bishop. On the one hand the bishop is the sacramental presence of Jesus Christ with in the Church. But on the other hand he unites all the people. That is why we say there can not be more than one bishop within a local Church. Since the bishops represent Christ they have to possess a model life. Paulose Gregorios says; “On the analogy of both the consecration of Holy Chrism, and also the consecrated Chrism itself being sacraments, the consecration of a bishop as well as the consecrated bishop is a sacrament” (Glory and Burden, ISPCK/MGF, Delhi 2006, p.95). We have already seen the list of qualities, which St. Paul expected from a bishop (1Tim 3,1ff; Tit 1,7-9). St. John Chrysostom says; “The offences of the insignificant, even if made public, harm no one seriously. But those who are set upon the pinnacle of this honour not only catch every eye; more than that, however trifling their offences, these little things seem great to others, since everyone measures sin, not by the size of the offence, but by the standing of the sinner” (On the Priesthood, SVSP 1984, p. 85-6).
What distinguishes a bishop from a priest is his authority for ordination. It is his prerogative as a successor of the Apostles. Laying on of hands was originated in the rabbinic schools of Judaism. A candidate was ordained as a rabbi once he completed his training in interpreting the Torah. Early Church adopted this as a sign for handing over priestly authority. However, by ordaining somebody the bishop is transferring not just his authority for teaching, which was the practice of Jewish rabbis, but also the gift of the Holy Spirit. The ordained gets the divine charisma, which will be used for the edification of the Church. The deacon gets the charisma of service while the priest gets the charisma of forgiveness of sins and that of the authority for presiding over the sacraments.
Teaching can be considered as the unique function of a bishop. Even though the New Testament did not make a distinction between a priest (presbuteros) and a bishop (episcopos) in this regard, later on the bishop became the final authority for teaching. He is the one who declares a final word about a disputed matter of faith. He will decide what is “orthodox” and what a “heretical” teaching is. He does this not as an individual but as the member of the Holy Episcopal Synod. For this he needs a lot of time for learning the faith of the Church and for examining the writings of the Holy Fathers. However, most of our bishops do not get enough time for reading and reflecting because of their pre-occupations with ordinary functions like a wedding or funeral. The administrative duties can also become a hindrance for their study and meditation. Some bishops are exhausted by attending committees after committees.
Therefore the Church as a whole has to rethink about the rank as well as functions of an episcopos. He is different from a priest and a deacon not simply in the vestments but in his identity. This should be widely understood and respected. “Seven” is a sabbatical number and it was considered as a number of perfection in the Bible. Let the consecration of the seven new bishops become a milestone. Once the whole Church acknowledge not only their apostolic succession but also their apostolic authority things will be quite different. Let each one do his own duty; the priests should perform all parish duties and the committees should fulfil their responsibilities. Bishops may stand at the top as Jesus Christ is the head of the Church.
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