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The Problem of "Mini-Eldership"

Now, when the succession of true Orthodox spirituality, severed during the years of State atheism, is only beginning to be reestablished, one of the critical problems of Church life is the problem of spiritual guidance. In the excerpt presented below, from the speech of the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Aleksiy II, sharp criticism is brought upon the phenomenon of so-called mini-eldership, to our great sorrow, widespread, these days.

Observing the pleasing process of the rebirth of church life in our country, when many people, artificially torn away from church tradition, are in the last decade coming to God, we cannot fail to see that the main difficulty lies in the loss of the ties of the present generation of Russian Christians with church tradition.

From the times of the apostles in Christ’s Church, bishops, as the apostolic successors, give God’s people the blessed gifts of the Holy Sacraments. "There is no Church without a bishop, — said the holy martyr-among-priests Ignatius the God-bearer, — where the bishop is, there the people must be, just as where there is Jesus Christ, there is the assembled Church" (see: To the Smyrnans, Chapter VIII).

In the most recent times our Church past is often presented in a distorted light, its bishops are used as objects of evil gossip. This, in babes of faith, gives rise to an erroneous idea about bishops. And this is done consciously — "I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad" (Mt. 26:31).

It is very sad to see how some clerics of our church, verbally loyal to their hierarchal leadership, behave like schismatics, pretending to be some kind of "elders." By criticizing their hierarchal leadership, they, in contrast to the Spirit-bearing fathers of the past, use this criticism to attract attention to themselves and create authority. As a rule, they declare as a necessary and only condition of salvation complete submission of those who come to them for guidance, turning them into some sort of robots, unable, without blessing of their "elder," to perform any deed, no matter now trivial it may be. The person, therefore, is deprived of that blessed freedom of will which is granted him by God. In affirming their correctness, they incorrectly quote the writings of the holy fathers, prophaning their great work and corrupting the very idea of eldership.

A true elder, first of all thanks to his high spirituality, behaves very carefully with every concrete person. With the strength of his experience and blessed gift he reveals the image of God in the person through those methods, which are in accord with his spiritual makeup and development. Separate modern "elders" (more truly we shall call them "mini-elders"), not having spiritual reason, place burdens on their enchurched grievous to be borne (Lk. 11:46), in their pastoral activities use stereotypes, disastrous for spiritual life; without basis apply to laymen, most often not spiritually strengthened, forms of spiritual guidance applicable only to monasticism.

Often as proof of their loyalty to themselves they demand those coming to them to sell their poor belongings, and as a result they, deprived of their belongings and living quarters, come under absolute dependence of such a shepherd. Such a distorted interpretation of the Savior’s words "sell all that thou hast... and … follow Me" (Lk. 18:22) coincides more with the practice of modern totalitarian sects flooding Russia in the last years, than with the spirit of the Gospel laws.

Through similar "elders" spreads the practice of performing marriages, in which people who are poorly acquainted or do not know each other at all are blessed for connubial life. Often this is combined with the instilling of the non-Orthodox view of this Sacrament, in which the reason for marriage is limited to bearing children. Such a view is completely at odds with the holy fathers’ understanding of the Sacrament of Marriage as a school for growth in Christian love, as the mysterious unification of the spirits, souls and bodies of the married couple. Such a mini-elder interpretation of marriage narrows the fullness of spiritual life possible in a Christian family, reduces it to the expression of one human essence. It disrupts the establishment of the domestic churches, in which, according to one modern apologist, for the Russian Church exemplifies its future: "If its members learn to found domestic churches — the Russian Church will continue to exist, if not — the Russian Church will wither" (V. Rev. Gleb Kaleda. The Domestic Church. M., 1997.C.12).

The same mini-elders quite often do not allow access to the Eucharist for persons who have "not removed their crowns," that is, not dissolved Church marriages. As a result people, often at the ages of 60 — 70, many years ago divorced and not having any desire to enter a new marriage, besiege the Patriarchate with demands to dissolve their marriage. True, among them are sometimes people very young, already entered upon marriage a second time, for whom, condescending to their weaknesses, such a blessing is truly given, for this reason the corresponding rite of second marriages exists. But for those who are determined to use such a divorce only for more expansive traveling down the sinful path of adultery, such a blessing for divorce, naturally, cannot be given.

That overemphasized meaning, which is given in mini-elder parishes to the priest, is disastrously mirrored in church life. Its center becomes confession, which is surrounded by out-of-place ceremonies, turning an extremely personal Sacrament into a massive activity, about which I will say more a little later. The liturgy in such cases is performed with impermissible carelessness, sometimes with interruptions for continuing confessions.

In the sermons of these priests, in bringing attention to the importance of the Sacrament of Repentance to their parishioners, they do not reveal the fullness of the meaning of the Holy Eucharist as the Sacrament that creates the Church.

The unhealthy dependence of newly baptized on the mini-elder figure causes distorted forms of parish life. People go to church to meet "their priest," not Christ, to talk to their friends, but not to be in prayerful association with the Fullness of the Church. A characteristic lack of church consciousness among the enchurched, in which there is no room for an understanding of unity and universality of the Church, is supported by such priests, instilling in their children that salvation is possible only within the limits of their community, and as confirmation judging other priests, thus alienating people from them. This leads to self-isolation of these kind of communities from other parishes, from the bishop, and, in the final analysis, from the Church.

Self-isolation often results in impermissible politicization of such communities, when the "left" or the "right" political orientation is announced as the only one corresponding to an Orthodox worldly view. In such communities criticism of Church leadership, deadly for Church unity, is easily acclimated, which we have just mentioned. Not surprisingly, the sickly forms of communal life in these parishes sooner remind one of the sectal seclusion of schismatic communities or the isolation of protestant groups. Many similar communities arose in post-revolutionary years, and their sorry end is known to us. A community not headed by a bishop, cuts itself off from the Church, and thus, is already condemned to spiritual death.

The above-mentioned distortions of pastoral activity, liturgical and communal life have serious ecclesiastical consequences. Priests, in similar ways establishing their authority, in fact appropriate an honor for themselves which by right can only belong to a bishop. The destruction of church consciousness connected with this in them, as well as in their parish, forms in the Church an ideological and ecclesiastical trend, in essence, of a protestant type, in which is lost the Spirit which creates the theological and organizational forms of Orthodoxy, filling and enlivening them. And, as a result, people, finding "the road to the Church," turn away from it, notwithstanding the reestablishment of the outer gloriousness of the churches and their material well-being. And this, unfortunately, is not their fault, but of the various "elders" — false priests.

No less the formal attitude of priests toward their pastoral responsibilities repulses people from the Church.

It is extremely important to move as quickly as possible from the practice of formal execution of rites to reverent, thoughtful fulfillment of the Sacraments and rituals, beginning with baptism, confession, marriage and burial. Here are always necessary the sympathetic participation of the priest, catechization — preparation for the Sacrament — and preaching, because at these important moments of a person’s life it is particularly easy to find a contact with the heart of a person opening itself up to God’s truth. In contrast, the formal or even "commercial" approach of a priest to those coming to the Church could for long, if not forever, alienate them from the church, instills contempt toward greedy priests. The Church — is not a store for spiritual wares, it is impermissible to "trade in grace." Freely have you received — freely give, — preached the Savior to us. He who turns his priestly service into a means of foul gain deserves the fate of Simon the magician. Better that such persons leave the boundaries of the Church and participate in business in the marketplace.

The way some priests perform the Sacrament of Confession calls for the heaviest reprimands.

Some priests, particularly among the white (married) clergy, often do not hear out those confessing. To some extent this is justified in large parishes with a greater attendance on holidays, though we have more than once required the assignment of a greater number of priests in such parishes to perform confessions.

The other extreme is no better, characteristic mainly in the monastic priesthood. A person, coming to confession, is told that he must remember and relate every sin to its every detail. And not only sin, but even thought. The result is worthy of tears: the person, leaving the confession, does not feel healed, and sometimes comes to complete despair, realizing the impossibility of remembering absolutely everything.

Such confessors should remember the original goal of the Sacrament of Confession. This does not demand great wisdom, one must only open the Book of Needs and see the questions, asked of the confessing during the confession. Originally this Sacrament was performed, when a person performed a deadly sin, through which he fell away from the Church.

In relation to the sins of desires, found in thoughts (battles of thoughts), those were revealed usually in the confession of thoughts, previously performed in monasteries. But the confession of thoughts was not tied to the Sacrament of Confession — the former was heard by an elder, sometimes one who was not a priest. During it, he gave directions, and, of course, did not read any releasing prayer, because this was a discussion.

During our time the so called mini-elders, not having a proper understanding of the Sacrament of Confession, turn the confession into a torture for the confessor, or into a discussion, lasting sometimes an hour with each person, regardless of the fact that there is a crowd of penitents waiting. The result, as a rule, is that the beginning of the Liturgy is delayed, and many who came for confession leave without it.

Some faithful, preparing for confession, make notes. This habit, healthy by itself, under an incorrect understanding of the meaning of the confession could have a negative impact on the soul of the penitent. In the approach that demands "relating everything to its most minute details" the faithful begin to approach confession as a report to God of permitted sins. During confession of such people it is easy to see their desire to read everything as quickly as possible (for lack of time) and more completely, so that they would not miss anything, sometimes without any penitent feeling. After the confessions of such people they often come up again, and again, saying that they have forgotten a sin. After the confession, as a rule, they ask the priest to tear up or burn their list, considering this act almost the most important moment of their confession.

Even worse, when the priest, taking such a list, reads it, or, not reading it, tears it up, and, not saying a word, reads the releasing prayer. In this manner he places himself in the position of director of God’s judgment. Does such a priest remember what he says to the penitent, during the prayers before the confession: "You child, Christ is standing unseen, accepting your confession... I am only a witness." Does know his place during the performance of the Sacrament of Confession? Does he know, that he is not a judge, but a witness and spiritual guide? To a person, giving a priest a written text and saying: "Read it yourself," one must explain, that the sin is confessed before God, that the priest is not interested in knowing, but if necessary, is only a witness and spiritual counsel, helping to heal the illness of sin. One must explain to the faithful, that confession — is not an account before God, and the more so before a confessor about performed sins, but a note — is a memo for the penitent himself. One must not, in search of cheap popularity, tear or burn such confession notes, but just the opposite, one must explain, that the tearing up of a paper has no sacramental meaning, but is, if not superstition, then Phariseeism ("the sins of my writing tear asunder"). Unfortunately, we often look at the Sacrament statically, but one must observe it dynamically. One must explain to the faithful, that the main part of the confession — is not the words, but the realization of one’s sinfulness, the falling away from God through sin, the desire to return to Him and to not repeat the mistakes of the past. One should concentrate the attention not so much on the forgiveness of the sins, as much as on the grace for battle with sin, given through this Sacrament, and on the responsibility of those receiving this grace. Here it would be fitting to remember the parable of the talents, to quote the words of the Book of Needs: "From these from now on you must beware, since you have been baptized with second baptism."

In these days of universal permissiveness many brochures have been published like "The Proper Sequence of Confession," "The Sacrament of Confession" and so on. Many are published without our blessing, even if on the first page is printed, "By the blessing of the Most Holy Patriarch Aleksiy." In them one can find questions by the confessor or examples of confessions for all sins, beginning with thoughts and ending with felonies. One example to illustrate the quality of several of these brochures. One may, for example, see a reminder of such a sin, unknown, however, against which law: "Did you spend much time on unnecessary clothes washing?" And this is offered as a preparation for confession to a worldly person, a woman, a housewife?! Does this mean — that doing nothing and walking around in dirt, is a Christian way of life? Not everyone today has the ability to buy an imported automatic washing machine. Did the writer of this brochure read the words of Apostle Paul: But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel (1 Tim. 5:8)?

It is sad, that some priests, mainly hieromonks, considering confession according to these brochures in-depth and exhaustive, actively use them when performing the Sacrament of Confession without taking into account age, sex, the place of the person in society. Can one imagine, how an innocent 15 year old girl feels, when, calling things by their names, she is asked questions about the sin of sodomy and the like, or a proper family woman, when this type of confessor begins to ask about intimate details of her married relations. And this is particularly characteristic of mini-elders and monastic priesthood. Will there be a desire to return to the Sacrament of Confession in these people, who have gone through such a "master" confession? I think not. Of course, these questions are partly mentioned in the Book of Needs in the usual sequence for confession. But there is also given a reservation, that the priest must give questions "with full reasonable trial depending on the difference in persons and, by that, making trial: differing for the clerical, differing for person, differing for monk, differing for layman, differing for young, differing for old."

It is apparent that for the modern person it is more applicable to follow the confession by the order of the ten words of Moses in the Christian interpretation, and the one confessing must have not a passive role, but an active one, in first order he must himself confess that which is on his conscience, and questions when necessary should be added as a reminder to the confessing of something forgotten.

Sometimes faithful are not permitted to partake of Communion without enough reason. One should be barred from Communion only for a deadly sin or for unpreparedness. The igumen of one of the greater Moscow stavropigial monasteries two days before the feast day of the birth of Christ did not find it possible to permit a young woman to partake of Communion simply because she, modestly, within the family circle, not breaking fast, met the New Year and drank a little wine. On the feast day of the birth of Christ she was left without Communion of the Holy Mysteries of Christ. This igumen should read the fasting rules for Great Lent. Even in Great Lent wine is permitted on feast days, beginning with the first Saturday of Lent. In the Christmas Fast, the stricter part begins only on the next day, January 2 by the new calendar.

Formalism is contained in the approach to the Sacrament of Baptism. In many churches in the chase for earnings there is a "conveyor method," in which the first, main and last part of the preparation for baptism is the payment at the candle table, and the priest is put in the position of rite-performer. In each church it is necessary to set up at least one preparatory meeting with those asking about baptism.

The Baptism itself should be performed according to the rules and traditions of our Church, that is, through total immersion. It is impermissible to perform it in a small amount of water.

Those striving toward huge earnings should remember, that preparatory teachings, catechizations, even deferring the Sacrament of Baptism may bring greater earnings in the future. A person, accepting Holy Baptism formally, will not come to church again. A person, realizing its meaning, will begin to be a regular parishioner...

Missionary Leaflet # E 50c
Copyright © 2002 Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission
466 Foothill Blvd, Box 397, La Canada, Ca 91011
Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant)

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