Recently Dr. Bradley Nassif wrote an article entitled “The Calling of a Bishop is to Preach the Gospel” and this is a good start and a jump off point for this discussion. Dr. Nassif states that “All bishops are to proclaim and interpret the gospel of Christ to the church and to the world.” and what is the Gospel? “The gospel is the “good news” that God became human in Jesus Christ, took upon himself our fallen humanity in order to restore it into communion with God, conquer sin and vanquish death. This he did pre-eminently through Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. This “good news” must be at the very core of every life-giving action in the church – the sacraments and throughout every liturgical season of fasting and prayer.”
My personal belief is that the Gospel also includes the interpretation of events of the day and how that fits in the Christian life. What do I mean by this? An example of what I mean would be the present health care debate. The Church needs to be heard on these issues and the church, meaning the bishops, need to speak on these issues. Catholic bishop after Catholic Bishop have written statements instructing the faithful on what the church teaches on this very important social issue.
A brief check of the SCOBA website will reveal that since that start of the summer the SCOBA bishops have released the following statements:
Disability and Communion
ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN PRISON MINISTRY
College Student Sunday – September 20, 2009
All important topics don’t get me wrong but where is the teaching office of the bishop? Why is silence all we hear on such an important debate?
In my own comments on the topic at American Orthodox Institute blog (click here) I argue that why it all well and good for us to argue for administrative unity, the unity we seek comes not through administrative structures but grace-filled human encounters.
The problem with any authentic human encounter is that (even if it is grace-filled) it isn’t always pleasant. I suspect that (especially at first) any substantive moral teaching offered by the bishops in the the US will not be well received. That said, however, I am hesitant to conclude that a lack of positive reception is necessarily a bad thing, much less that it would be polarizing.
Rather it is more likely the case that if the bishops were to take a more intentional approach to offering moral instruction this would invariably bring to light the divisions that are already present in the Church. Let me take one example.
Among the lower clergy, I know that there is no consensus on matters such as war & peace, economics, or sexual morality (specifically, contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage). Typically, however, we simply chose not to talk about our differences. Given this state of affairs among the priests and deacons I suspect that there is likely also no consensus on these matters among the bishops (and as I have mentioned before, there is also no consensus among the laity for that matter). This is true both cross jurisdictional line and even within a given jurisdiction.
But simply agreeing among ourselves not to talk about these matters doesn’t make our disagreements go away–it has quite the opposite effect, it gives our disagreements more and more power over us. Increasingly, we seem committed not to discuss our disagreements in matters of social justice and personal morality so as not to rock the boat. Unfortunately deciding to remain silent only results in more silence and (in order to not break our rule to not disagree) our becoming ever more guarded with each other when we are together.
Let me ask you a question: If we cannot speak our minds, if we cannot say what is in our hearts but must remain guarded with each other, can we really say that we love each other? What is our communion worth if it is only maintained by dishonesty with each other and our silence about the moral tradition of the Church?
There is certainly a place for silence in the spiritual life but we cannot be silent about the Gospel–even if speaking means that we are in conflict with each other, to say nothing of the world.
All of this came to mind this morning when reading Front Porch Republic’s Jeremy Beer and his thought on culture (“Anti-Culture, America and the Other”).
The truth is that we have a culture that is growing in its psychological power, and increasing its sociological foothold, everyday. We have our thou-shalt-nots. We live within a web of mutually reinforcing nos, taboos, do-not-discusses, and impossible-to-think-otherwises. This web is the harder to see, sometimes, because it is rooted in an ideology that claims to be content-free, neutral, procedural—liberalism (in the deep philosophical sense, needless to say). This is the point of Jim Kalb in his The Tyranny of Liberalism, and I think that he is substantially right. Kalb sums up the ideology of liberalism as the enforcement of “equal freedom.” But it is important to understand, as Kalb does, that this ideology does not simply issue in a set of political or social doctrines, but in a culture in the profoundly anthropological, Rieffian/Freudian sense. And the culture of liberalism—like all cultures—is essentially subrational.
While the whole of the post is excellent, I was especially drawn to his observation at the beginning of his essay “that in the twentieth-century West there had risen to social dominance not any particular culture but a suspicion of all cultures, which consisted in authoritative institutions and internalized psychological demands—you know, guilt. Nothing any longer regulated individual conduct except for the idea that nothing should regulate individual conduct.”
I worry (as I mentioned in my posts on antinomianism in the Orthodox Church) that what ever might be its cause or intent, our lack of moral witness plays into the profoundly unhealthy tendency among many of us to seek out a culture that does not regulate our conduct.
That might seem a strange fear for an Orthodox priest to have about the pastoral life of the Church, but I nevertheless do think that this is a real pastoral challenge which, if left unanswered (and even if it is as our Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical brothers and sisters have discovered) can serious undermine the spiritual health of the Church.
Let me return to the question of episcopal moral teaching.
As I wrote recently to someone, the Gospel demands not only those who preach the Word but (as the late Karl Rahner famously stated) hearers of the Word. Any preacher will tell you, the best preaching (really the only preaching worth anything) is always a dialog between the preacher and the congregation. If, as I think they are, our bishops (to say nothing of lower clergy and lay leaders) are reticent to enter into the moral debates of our time might it not be, at least in part, because we rather prefer it to be this way?
I must confess, in many ways I rather prefer the silence but that’s not a good thing is it?
As always, your thoughts, comments, questions and criticisms are not only welcome but actively sought.