Episcopacy Envy

Bishops are easier to control and follow, which is the consolation to us Presbyterians who sometimes give into the temptation to wish for a church with more visibility and influence. But if you read the articles in First Things about the Ukranian and Russian churches, you understand that presbyters are much harder to master (just ask James VI) than bishops and so have their own influence even if it comes without visibility:

. . . from a Russian Orthodox point of view, all the other large churches in Ukraine have violated church unity. At best, their existence is tragic; at worst, schismatic. The creation of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the sixteenth century took Orthodox believers away from Moscow and subjected them to Rome. The Ukrainian Autocephalous Church came into being only because the Bolsheviks wanted to destroy the Russian Orthodox Church by dividing it and therefore destroying it from within. The Kyivan Patriarchate exploited Ukrainian nationalism, and therefore anti-Russian sentiment, in order to break from Moscow.

The experience of persecution under communism has taught the Moscow Patriarchate to value visible unity at almost any price. After the death of Patriarch Tikhon in 1925, Metropolitan Sergi (Stragorodski) illegitimately assumed patriarchal powers. The man who should have succeeded Tikhon, Metropolitan Kirill (Smirnov), was outraged by Sergi’s willingness to subject the Church to a godless state in a futile effort to save the Church as a public institution. In protest, Kirill denied the validity of the Eucharist celebrated by Sergi and his supporters. Another Tikhon loyalist, Metropolitan Agafangel (Preobrazhenski), ordered his priests to disobey mandates of Sergi that violated Christian conscience. Sergi responded by denouncing both men, thereby encouraging the secret police to arrest them, send them into exile, and subject them to physical and psychological torture.

Nevertheless, neither Kirill nor Agafangel broke the unity of the Church or organized a movement to remove Sergi from office. Moreover, Kirill later repented of breaking Eucharistic fellowship. In short, Kirill and Agafangel expressed their opposition within the bounds of what they understood to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Today, the Russian Orthodox Church has canonized not Sergi, but rather Kirill and Agafangel. The message is clear: The Church must remain one, and divisions only weaken it and the people and nation whom it serves.
To the other Ukrainian churches, the question of church unity looks different. The Kyivan Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church argue that Orthodox believers have always been allowed to organize themselves along national lines. An autocephalous Ukrainian Church does not violate church unity; on the contrary, the autocephalous Orthodox churches cultivate an intensive fellowship among themselves.

From this perspective, the Moscow Patriarchate is not interested in saving Ukrainians from a nationalistic agenda, but rather is seeking to subject them to Russian imperialistic pretensions. An independent Ukrainian Orthodoxy can help the Ukrainian people reclaim their unique language and national traditions over and against a Russia that has often tried to eliminate Ukrainian identity or reduce it to a variety of Russian identity (as when Russians commonly assert that “the Ukrainian language is just a Russian village dialect”). For this kind of nationalistic Orthodoxy, to be Ukrainian means not to be Russian.

When you have only one person to control, as opposed to a committee (read assembly), making deals and peddling influence for national purposes becomes much easier. The one exception to this is a bishop with a universal, as opposed to a geographically defined, jurisdiction. And this is what makes the papacy different from other bishops — sort of. The pope is not defined by any nation — consider the opposition that the Vatican exhibited during events leading up to Italian unification. That doesn’t mean the pope was entirely independent of political authority or place. The Bishop of Rome needed various European monarchs to make that long trek over the Alps to put things right in Rome — such as ridding the city of the Lombards and restore the pope to his position. The papacy has also been bound up with the West (and one of the draws for converts to Rome is Roman Catholicism’s identification with the civilization of Western Europe). It’s not as if when we think of Roman Catholicism Vancouver or Seoul immediately come to mind.

Michael Sean Winters recently described in the context of Bishop Cupich’s recent installation in Chicago how, aside from politics, technology contributed to the centralization of papacy’s authority (and what Pope Francis may be doing to change that):

In contemplating the +Cupich appointment and what it might mean, I am reminded of an earlier predecessor, Cardinal Samuel Stritch. In the 1950s, at a dinner with Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J., Murray was explaining the stance taken by the late Cardinal James Gibbons on the issue of church-state relations. In the 1950s, you will recall, Murray’s theories on the subject were under a cloud at the Holy Office. Cardinal Stritch listened to Murray and then opined, “Well, of course, none of us can go as far as Cardinal Gibbons went.” Murray, in a letter to his friends Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, said he wanted to blurt out, “Why not?” +Gibbons had been the preeminent American churchman for half a century, starting with his appointment to Baltimore in 1877, until his death in 1921. It was during that time that the Romanization of the American hierarchy began in earnest, with the appointment of William Henry O’Connell to Portland, Maine in 1901 and to Boston as coadjutor archbishop in 1906. By the time +Stritch and Murray were dining together, long gone were the days when priests in a vacant diocese and bishops within the province submitted their ternas to Rome for episcopal appointments.

The centralization of ecclesiastical authority in Rome was not driven exclusively by ideological ultramonstanism. It was also a function of emerging technologies. With the telegraph, then the telephone, then the fax and now the internet, the sayings and doings of popes reached people worldwide. No longer did Rome issue a papal bull in Latin, which was sent to the bishops of the world who would then translate the text into the vernacular and issue their own pastoral letter to their clergy, who would, in turn, apply the teaching in the pulpit and the confessional. There were layers of pastoral application that vanished in the course of the twentieth century. By 1968, when Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, the New York Times had the headline “Pope Bans Pill” before any bishop anywhere had a chance to read the encyclical and make some sense of it. I am not sure we, as a Church, have adapted to that kind of difference in how the teachings of the Church are communicated or received.

This centralization has been a decidedly mixed blessing. On the one hand, the Catholic Church stands alone among the world’s religions in having a central focus of our identity and mission. On the other hand, Roman minutanti may not always know the local situation of the various churches as well as the pastors on the ground. And, many, though not all, bishops seem emasculated, which is different from being obedient, more like branch managers of Vatican Inc than bishops in their own right. +Cupich is many things, but emasculated is not one of them.

Now, for the first time in a long time, we have a pope who seems committed to some degree of decentralization of authority away from Rome. So, in thinking about the impact of +Cupich’s tenure, perhaps we should not be looking to the +Bernardin years but to the +Gibbons years. Will he become a model for a new kind of bishop, one who is not always looking over his shoulder to make sure the CDF isn’t listening? Will leadership in the USCCB have a different character, and different outcomes, as the body increasingly becomes the focus for any devolved authority from Roman curial congregations? If, as Pope Francis clearly wants, bishops are now being encouraged to speak frankly, even to disagree in public, will +Cupich be the kind of national leader who can keep the bishops unified even while they search for consensus? The smart money says he will.

And what goes for political authorities also applies to journalists. Imagine a religion reporter needing to find out what the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America thinks about immigration reform. First, the Assembly doesn’t exist beyond its stated times of meeting and, second, with the exception of David Robertson, moderator of the Free Church of Scotland who gives Pope Francis a run for his money in comments to the press about various and sundry temporal affairs, a moderator of an assembly also ceases to hold office once the commissioners vote to adjourn. If you want to know the mind of the Presbyterian Church on matters other than its doctrinal statements, rules for worship, and form of government (all available on-line and hardly pertinent for thinking about, say, fracking), imagine trying to round up the neighborhood cats for a game of kickball.

Of course, the temptation for us real biblical overseers looking on at the world of episcopacy is to become jealous over the attention that rulers and reporters give to bishops. At the same time, the consolation is having a job that let’s you do what you really think to be important without always having to position yourself before the public or negotiate with rulers. After all, it is one thing to be a favorite professor of the college president. But with that favoritism comes a lot of potential scrutiny and back room conversations that no amount of wining and dining can make pleasant.