Clericalism: Ecclesial Alienation at the Heart of Orthodoxy 

INSIGHTS DR ADRAHTAS 3 Unity is of paramount importance in the Orthodox Church but, if one puts aside the theological dimension, historically this concern has been played out mainly as something desirable rather than something given. Perhaps this is the very reason that unity has been so much praised and sought after. Furthermore, in the past, whenever things would reach some kind of breaking point, the centripetal inclination and the centrifugal tendencies in Orthodoxy would sometimes manage to strike a balance – reaffirming thus unity – and sometimes fail to do so, leading to the creation of schismatic factions. However, the Church as such always remained inviolable… up until recently…      What we witness nowadays is a quite different phenomenon: the “Orthodox” remain faithful to the Church – in the sense that they do not break away – but they do so by imperceptibly yet decisively shifting their allegiance. To put it differently, they seem to be members of one Church but confess their membership to another. In more ways than one, they are tied up with what is dubbed the “institutionalised” or “systemic” or “historical” or “you name it” Church, on the one hand, while their heart, mind and soul belongs to the “true”, “existential” or “lived” Church of their communal and personal experience, on the other…    Does the Church Have Two (Mutually Exclusive) Sides?  To be sure, the Orthodox Church has many sides and aspects; sometimes even contradictory to one another. Nevertheless, there is nothing like an internal divide that could negate one dimension of the Church for the sake of another. Simply put, from its very inception, the Church has been inherently, consistently and relentlessly anti-Manichaean, that is, opposed – both in theory and in practice – to any irreducible binary division of the created order. This does not mean that there aren’t any nasty things taking place in the Church, but that these are not to be seen in isolation or autonomously. The Church is not a sum made up of adding this or that aspect, and subtracting this or that dimension; rather, it is an environment within which everything serves a purpose within the wide Divine Economy (i.e., Plan) of things.  So, the least that could be said is that a division between the Church-as-institution, to be ignored, negated or even combatted, and the Church-as-experience, to be cherished, affirmed or cultivated, is just superficial and simplistic – and, it goes without saying, totally wrong! Of course, there is a condition called institutionalism that is foreign to the ecclesial nature of Orthodoxy, but equally so there is a condition called pietism – either moralistic or intellectualist – that degrades the personalism of Church life. Orthodoxy is first and foremost a Church, which means that it constitutes a historical phenomenon with institutional and experiential aspects. Both are needed, since they are intrinsically related – diachronically and synchronically – and both are expressions of charismatic ecclesiality.      But there seems to be a problem; for some reason these two aspects don’t blend in anymore. An indication of what might be the underlying cause is the fact that those espousing anti-institutionalised Orthodoxy are mostly non-clergy, whereas the clergy more often than not tend to stress the importance of the institution factor. This distribution, so to speak, betrays the widening gap between clergy and laity in Orthodoxy, a gap that in practice – if not in theory (yet) – entails a (real) Church (visible and tangible through the clergy) and a (quasi-) Church addendum (made up of the laity). The tension between the two becomes even greater, if one considers that the laity who promote experiential ecclesiality are more likely to be well trained theologians…         Clericalism as Ecclesial Corruption             It is common knowledge that the clergy, especially the hierarchy, behave in the Church under the conviction that they are the ones who really know how to run the Church. They so much identify with Church administration – and, for that matter, they so much identify administration with the Church – that they eventually identify themselves with the Church! It is very common nowadays to come across a discourse in so-called ecclesiastical circles according to which the term “Church” is used synonymously – to say the least – with “clergy” or, even better, “bishops”. This didn’t take place overnight, of course, but has deeper causes, while by no means does it entail some kind of “bad guys” in the Church versus some good ones, although it does point to a profound ecclesial corruption…     Not only do the clergy have the know-how regarding Church administration, but they also hold the keys to the divine secrets of theology. That is the prevailing view; not only amongst them but also amongst the overwhelming majority of the “flock”. It seems, moreover, that this view is bolstered in a defence kind of fashion against the challenges posed by lay theologians. The latter, although utilised and coopted whenever expediency dictates so, are pejoratively defined as “scholastic”, “intellectualist”, “bookish” or “non-experiential”, that is, lacking at the very core of Orthodoxy: the direct experience of the Divine. But here is where the real “religion war” starts; a war between two different claims regarding experience, namely, between experience ex officio and experience by knowledge…   We have reached a point where two things seem to be quite obvious: on the one hand, the clergy have come much closer to the Church as a religious institution, while the laity have detached themselves all the more from that very institution. This, in other words, is the dynamics of secularisation, namely, the simultaneous de-religionisation of society and religionisation of traditional forms of sacredness. Thus, in modernity the Orthodox Church has done nothing else but to internalise – and intensify, I would dare say – this dynamics, adopting by necessity an ambiguous attitude towards its own self…   What is the exit from this apotheosis of secularisation and cult-formation that translates as clericalism? Perhaps the only exit is to take the tension of the dynamics as far as possible and let the whole thing resolve itself… After all, there is no way backwards in history!   


"Insights into Global Orthodoxy" is a fortnightly column that features opinion articles that on the one hand capture the pulse of global Orthodoxy from the perspective of local sensitivities, needs and/or limitations, and on the other hand delve into the local pragmatics and significance of Orthodoxy in light of global trends and prerogatives.

Dr Vassilis Adrahtas holds a PhD in Studies in Religion (USyd) and a PhD in the Sociology of Religion (Panteion). He has taught at several universities in Australia and overseas. Since 2015 he has been teaching ancient Greek Religion and Myth at the University of New South Wales and Islamic Studies at Western Sydney University. He has published ten books. He has extensive experience in the print media as editor-in-chief, and columnist, and for a while he worked as a radio producer. He lives in Sydney, Australia, his birthplace.

Read also The religiosity of Christian Orthodoxy and the world
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