Clergy and Laity in the Orthodox Church
Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann
An Urgent Issue
No one would deny that the clergy-laity issue in our church here in America is both an urgent and confused one. It is urgent because the progress of the church is often hindered by mistrust and conflicts, misunderstandings and frustrations. It is confused for there has been no constructive and sincere discussion, no real attempt to understand it in the light of our faith and in terms of our real situation. It is indeed a paradox for from both sides, the clerical and the lay, comes the same complaint: Priests and laymen alike proclaim that their respective rights are denied, their responsibilities and possibilities of action limited. If the priest speaks sometimes of the lay "tyrannies", the laity denounce the "bossism" of the priest. Who is right, who is wrong? And are we to continue in this frustrating "civil war" at a time when we need unity and the total mobilization of all our resources to withstand the challenge of the modern world? When Catholics and Protestants outnumber us by 150 to 1, the younger generations shake in their attachment to Orthodoxy and we must count on each one for the gigantic tasks that we face? We call ourselves Orthodox — i.e. men of the true faith. We ought then to be capable of finding in their true faith guiding principles and positive solutions to all our problems...
The present way is nothing more than an attempt to clarify the issue under discussion. Although written by a priest, its purpose is not to "take side", for in my opinion, there are no sides to be taken but a misunderstanding to be dissipated. This misunderstanding, to be sure, has deep roots in a rather unprecedented situation in which we have to live as Orthodox. It can not be cleared by mere quotations from canons and ancient texts. Yet, it is still a misunderstanding. This is what all people of good faith must understand. It requires only that we honestly and sincerely put the interests of our church above our personal "likes" and "dislikes", overcome our inhibitions and breathe the pure air of the wonderful and glorious faith which is ours.
Clarification of Terms
A major source of the misunderstanding, strange as it may seem, is terminological. The terms clergy and laity are used all the time, yet, without a clear understanding of their proper — i.e. Orthodox, meaning. People do not realize that between such Orthodox meaning and the current one, which we find in, say, Webster’s Dictionary, there exists a rather radical difference. We must begin, then, by restoring to the terms we use their true significance.
In Webster, lay is defined as:
"of or pertaining to the laity as distinct from the clergy" or
"not of or from a particular profession".
As to clergy, the definition reads as follows:
"in the Christian Church, the body of men ordained to the service of God, ministry".
Both definitions imply, first, an opposition: laity is opposed to clergy and clergy to laity. They imply, also, in a case of laity, a negation. A layman is someone who has no particular status (not a particular profession). These definitions, accepted virtually in all Western languages, reflect a specifically Western religious background and history. They are rooted in the great conflicts which opposed in the Middle Ages the spiritual power to the secular one, the Church and the state. They have, however, nothing to do with the initial Christians use of both terms, which is alone the norm for the Orthodox Church.
The Meaning of "Lay"
The words lay, laity, layman come from the Greek word laos which means people. "Laikos," layman, is the one who belongs to the people, who is a member of an organic and organized community. It is, in other words, not a negative, but a highly positive term. It implies the ideas of full, responsible, active membership as opposed, for example, to the status of a candidate. Yet the Christian use made this term even more positive. It comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament where the word laos is applied ordinary to the People of God, to Israel, the people elected and sanctified by God Himself as His people. This concept of the "people of God" is central in the Bible. The Bible affirms that God has chosen one people among many to be His particular instrument in history, to fulfill His plan, to prepare, above everything else, the coming of Christ, the Saviour of the World. With this one people God has entered into "covenant", a pact or agreement of mutual belonging. The Old Testament, however, is but the preparation of the New. And in Christ, the privileges and the election of the "people of God" are extended to all those who accept Him, believe in Him and are ready to accept Him as God and Saviour. Thus, the Church, the community of those who believe in Christ, becomes the true people of God, the "laos" and each Christian a laikos — a member of the People of God.
The layman, is the one, therefore, who shares in Divine election and receives from God a special gift and privilege of membership. It is a highly positive vocation, radically different from the one we find defined in Webster. We can say that in our Orthodox teaching each Christian, be he a Bishop, Priest, Deacon or just member of the Church is, first of all, and before everything else a layman, for it is neither a negative nor a partial, but an all-embracing term and our common vocation.. Before we are anything specific we are all laymen because the whole Church is the laity — the people, the family, the community — elected and established by Christ Himself.
The Layman Is Ordained
We are accustomed to think of "ordination" as precisely the distinctive mark of clergy. They are the ordained and the laity, the non-ordained Christians. Here again, however, Orthodoxy differs from Western "clericalism," be it Roman Catholic or Protestant. If ordination means primarily the bestowing of the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the fulfillment of our vacation as Christians and members of the Church, each layman becomes a layman — laikos — through ordination. We find it in the Sacrament of Holy Chrism, which follows Baptism. Why are there two, and not just one, sacraments of entrance into the Church? Because if Baptism restores in us our true human nature, obscured by sin, Chrismation gives us the positive power and grace to be Christians, to act as Christians, to build together the Church of God and be responsible participants in the life of the Church. In this sacrament we pray that the newly baptized be:
"an honorable member of God’s Church
"a consecrated vessel
"a child of light
"an heir of God’s kingdom,
that "having preserved the gift of the Holy Spirit and increased the measure of grace committed unto him, he may receive the prize of his high calling and be numbered with the first borne whose names are written in heaven".
We are very far from the dull Webster definition. St. Paul call all baptized Christians "fellow citizens with the saints and the household of God" (Eph. 2:1a). "For through Christ"— he says — ye are no more strangers and foreigners but fellow citizens with the saints... in whom all the building fully framed together growth unto a holy temple in the Lord, in whom ye also are built together for an habitation of God through the Spirit."
The Layman in the Liturgy
We think of worship as a specifically clerical sphere of activity. The priest celebrates, the laity attend. One is active, the other passive. It is another error and a serious one at that. The Christian term for worship is leitourgia which means precisely a corporate, common, all embracing action in which all those who are present are active participants. All prayers in the Orthodox Church are always written in terms of the plural we. We offer, we pray, we thank, we adore, we enter, we ascend, we receive. The layman is in a very direct way the co-celebrant of the priest, the latter offering to God the prayers of the Church, representingall people, speaking on their behalf. One illustration of this co-celebration may be helpful; the word Amen, to which we are so used, that we really pay no attention to it. And yet it is a crucial word. No prayer, no sacrifice, no blessing is ever given in the Church without being sanctioned by the Amen which means an approval, agreement, participation. To say Amen to anything means that I make it mine, that I give my consent to it... And "Amen" is indeed the Word of the laity in the Church, expressing the function of the laity as the People of God, which freely and joyfully accepts the Divine offer, sanctions it with its consent. There is really no service, no liturgy without the Amen of those who have been ordained to serve God as community, as Church.
And, thus, whatever liturgical service we consider, we see that it always follows the pattern of dialogue, cooperation, collaboration, cooperation between the celebrant and the congregation. It is indeed a common action ("leitourgia") in which the responsible participation of everyone is essential and indispensable, for through it the Church, the People of God, fulfills its purpose and goal.
The Place of Clergy
It is this Orthodox understanding of the "laity" that discloses the real meaning and function of clergy. In the Orthodox Church clergy is not above laity or opposed to it. First of all, strangely at it may seem, the basic meaning of term clergy is very close to that of laity. Clergy comes from "clerus" which means the "part of God". "Clergy" means that part of mankind that belongs to God, has accepted His call, has dedicated itself to God. In this initial meaning the whole Church is described as "clergy"— part or inheritance of God: "O God, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance": (kleronomia or clergy — in Greek). The Church because She is the People of God (laity) is His "part", His "inheritance".
But gradually the term "clergy" was limited to those who fulfilled a special ministry within the People of God, who were especially set apart to serve on behalf of the whole community. For, from the very beginning, the People of God was not amorphous but was given by Christ Himself a structure, an order, a hierarchical shape:
"And God has set some in the Church, first apostles, secondary prophets, thirdly teachers... Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?... Now you are the body of Christ, and members in particular..." (1 Cor. 12:28-29)
Historically the Church was built on the Apostles, whom Christ Himself has elected and appointed. The Apostles again elected and appointed their own helpers and successors, so that throughout the whole uninterrupted development of the Church, there has always been the continuity of this Divine appointment and election.
The "clergy" therefore is needed to make the Church what she has to be: the special People or Part of God. Their special function is to perpetuate within the Church that which does not depend on men: the Grace of God, the Teaching of God, the commandments of God, the saving and healing power of God. We stress this "of God" for the whole meaning of "clergy" lies precisely in their total identification with the objective teaching of the Church. It is not theirteaching or their power: they have none, but that which has been kept and perpetuated in the Church from the Apostles down to our own time and which constitutes the essence of the Church. The Priest has the power to teach, but only inasmuch as he teaches the Tradition of the Church, and is completely obedient to it. He has the power to celebrate, but again, only inasmuch as he fulfills the eternal Priesthood of Christ Himself. He is bound — totally and exclusively — by the Truth which he represents and, thus, can never speak or command in his own name.
Our people in their criticism of the clergy fear the excessive "power" of clergy, yet too often they do not realize that the priest represents nothing else than the "Power" of the Church, of which they are members and not any specific "clerical" power. For it is clear to everybody that the Church existed before we were born and has always existed as a body of doctrine, order, liturgy, etc. It does not belong to anyone of us to change the Church or to make it follow our own taste, for the simple reason that we belong to the Church, but the Church does not belong to us. We have been mercifully accepted by God into His household, made worthy of Hid Body and Blood, of His Revelation, of Communion with Him. And the clergy represent this continuity, this identity of the Church in doctrine, life and grace throughout space and time. They teach the same eternal teaching, they bring to us the same eternal Christ, they announce the same and eternal Saving Act of God.
Without this hierarchical structure the Church would become a purely human organization reflecting the various ideas, tastes, choices of men. She would cease to be the Divine Institution, God’s gift to us. But then "laity" could not be "laity"— the People of God — any more, there would be no Amen to be said, for where there is no gift there can be no acceptance... The mystery of Holy Orders in the Church is that which makes the whole Church truly and fully the Laos, the Laity, the very People of God.
The Basis for Unity and Cooperation
The conclusion is clear: there is no opposition between clergy and laity in the Church. Both are essential. The Church as a totality is Laity and the Church as a totality is the Inheritance, the Clergy of God. And in order to be this, there must exist within the Church the distinction of functions, of ministries that complete one another. The clergy are ordained to make the Church the gift of God,— the manifestation and communication of His truth, grace and salvation to men. It is their sacred function, and they fulfill it only in complete obedience to God. The laity are ordained to make the Church the acceptance of that gift, the "Amen" of mankind to God. They equally can fulfill their function only in complete obedience to God. It is the same obedience: to God and to the Church that establishes the harmony between clergy and laity, make them one body, growing into the fullness of Christ.
Some Errors to Be Rejected
This simple and Orthodox truth is obscured too often by some ideas, that we have willingly or unwillingly accepted from the environment in which we live.
1. An uncritical application of the idea of democracy to the Church. Democracy is the greatest and noblest ideal of the human community. But in its very essence it does not apply to the Church for the simple reason that the Church is not a mere human community. She is governed not "by the people, and for the people"— but by God and for the fulfillment of His Kingdom. Her structure, dogma, liturgy and ethics do not depend on any majority vote, for all these elements are God given and God defined. Both clergy and laity are to accept them in obedience and humility.
2. A false idea of clericalism as absolute power for which the priest has no account to give. In fact, the priest in the Orthodox Church must be ready to explain his every opinion, decision or statement, to justify them not only "formally" by a reference to a canon or rule, but spiritually as true, saving and according to the will of God. For again, if all of us, laity and clergy, are obedient to God, this obedience is free and requires our free acceptance: "I call you not slaves, for a slave knows not what his Lord does; but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard, I have made known to you" (John 15;15) and "ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). In the Orthodox Church, the preservation of truth, the welfare of the Church, mission, philanthropy, etc.— are all a common concern of the whole Church, and all Christians are corporately responsible for the life of the Church. Neither blind obedience nor democracy, but a free and joyful acceptance of what is true, noble, constructive and conducive of the Divine love and salvation.
3. A false idea of Church property. "It is our Church, for we have bought or built it..." No, it is never our Church, for we have dedicated it, i.e., given it, to God. It is neither the clergy’s, nor the laity’s "property", but indeed the sacred property of God Himself. He is the real owner, and if we can and must make decisions concerning this property, those decisions are to comply with God’s will. And here again both clergy and laity must have initiative and responsibility, in searching out the will of God. The same applies to Church money, houses and everything that "belongs to the Church."
4. A false idea of the priest’s salary: "We pay him..." No, the priest cannot be paid for his work, because no one can buy grace or salvation, and the priest’s "work" is to communicate grace and to work at man’s salvation. The money he receives from the Church (i.e. from the People of God and not from "us"— employers of an employee...) is intended to make him free for the work of God. And he, being also a member of the Church, cannot be a "hired" man, but a responsible participant in the decisions concerning the best use of the Church’s money.
5. A false opposition between the spiritual and the material areas in the life of the Church: "let the priest take care of the spiritual, and we — the laity — will take care of the material things..." We believe in the Incarnation of the Son of God. He made Himself material in order to spiritualize all matter, to make all things spiritually meaningful, related to God... Whatever we do in the Church is always both spiritual and material. We build a material Church but its goal is spiritual: how can they be isolated from one another? We collect money, but in order to use it for Christ’s sake. We organize a banquet, but if it is at all related to the Church, its goal — whatever it is — is also spiritual, cannot be abstracted from faith, hope and love, by which the Church exists. Otherwise, it would cease to be a "Church affair", would have nothing to do with the Church. Thus to oppose the spiritual to the material, to think that they can be separated is un-Orthodox. In all things pertaining to the Church there is always a need for the participation of both clergy and laity, for the action of the whole People of God.
Many mistakes have been made on both sides in the past, let us forget them. Let us rather make an attempt to find and to make ours the truth of the Church. It is simple, wonderful and constructive. It liberates us from all fears, bitterness and inhibitions. And we shall work together — in the unity of faith and love — for the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom.
Thy will be done. Not ours.
"Clergy and Laity in the Orthodox Church" (Orthodox Life, 1) (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1959).