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Why Orthodox Bishops are Celibate

Without bishops, there is no Church. Orthodox are quite different from Anglicans and other Protestants, with their clericalist, territorial and congregational mentality, in that we recognise the vital importance and authority of bishops. In an ideal world, each Orthodox diocese, containing about fifty parishes, has its own bishop, whom it knows well and who frequently visits his clergy and his parishes, several of which may be in the same town. These bishops are able to commit themselves to such a way of life because they have no personal family attachments, they are celibate and, in the Russian Church, monks.

However, this is an ideal and, although the above is still the case in much of Greece, elsewhere it is not always the case. The reasons why it is not always the case may be because of political persecution for financial reasons, or else because of weak monastic life within a Local Church. Local Churches, where monasticism has been openly discouraged and even attacked and so have no or hardly any monasteries, suffer from a lack of bishops. Or, as is tragically more often the case, they suffer from scandals involving the acts of bishops who were quite unsuitable for the episcopate.

Following yet more recent allegations against an OCA bishop, and in recent years it is not the first either there, or in the Paris Jurisdiction, or among Finnish Orthodox, where monasticism is also weak, calls from the Protestant-minded have been heard for married bishops. A married episcopate, they say, would, for example, stop pedophilia and homosexuality. (Ironically, the last two allegations of pedophilia against Orthodox bishops, in Canada and France, have both concerned bishops who were converts from Anglicanism, from, that is, Protestantism).

Why is a married episcopate not a possibility? Why in Soviet times were the only married bishops excommunicated renovationist schismatics? Why, in post-Soviet times was the married Metropolitan of Kiev Philaret Denisenko defrocked and the Russian bishop in Paris removed? And why last year was another Orthodox bishop (also a convert from Protestantism) defrocked and returned to lay status, before he got married? What are the arguments against a married episcopate? We can give four concrete arguments:

1. First of all, any married bishop would automatically put himself out of communion with the rest of the Orthodox Church, including with the vast majority of his own clergy and people. The decisions of Universal Church Councils, in the case of episcopal celibacy Canon XII of the Sixth Universal Council in the seventh century, cannot be reversed. No Local Church is an arrogant island to itself; in the Church we have the concept of catholicity, we do things together.

2. Secondly, with a married episcopate there would automatically come the danger of episcopal favouritism to a bishop’s children, sons receiving the best parishes, daughters being married to property etc etc. In other words, there would be all sorts of unimaginable scandals. This, after all, was one of the main reasons why episcopal celibacy was canonically suggested in the early centuries (Canon VI of the Apostles).

3. Thirdly, a married episcopate would attract ambitious married clergy, power-seekers, and be a motive for jealousy among married clergy. The elimination of such unseemly consequences of a married episcopate were yet another reason why episcopal celibacy was canonised in the first place.

4. Finally, there is a much-overlooked reason why a married episcopate, so much discussed by males, is unacceptable. This is because it would be quite unfair to the wife of a bishop. Ask the wife of any married priest how she finds the divisive struggle to be married to a husband, who is also a priest and married to the altar, where he has left his wedding ring, and she will tell you that marriage to a bishop would simply be impossible. He would have no time for her or for their children.

5. Recently and astonishingly, a purely secular criterion has been put forward in favour of a married episcopate. This is that since on average people now live longer, celibacy over the longer lifespan is more difficult. This is an extraordinary argument. Indeed, it is rather an argument for celibacy. With a longer life and more difficulties, surely we could attain a higher degree of wisdom, even of holiness? A longer life merely represents a greater possibility for repentance, not for sin.

Cases of pedophilia, homosexuality and marriage among the episcopate are thankfully rare in the Orthodox Churches. Nevertheless, precisely because they are, mercifully, so rare, we all know of them. However, they exist as cases of decadence, in times of decadence, as exceptions. And nobody would wish to institute decadence, an exception, as a norm. Episcopal scandals are a symptom of a disease, not the cause of it. The cause, wherever the symptoms may occur, in the USA or in Europe, is always the same: in a lack of genuine monastic life. Let us be radical and deal with the cause of the problem, not its results.

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