Metropolitan Petros of Accra
I thought that we should talk quite openly about the proverbial ‘elephant in the room.’ It’s not a literal elephant, but it is an issue that has certainly made headlines and done its rounds within our broader Orthodox community quicker than the recent raging fires of Pendeli mountain. It’s caused sensation and it’s caused shock and scandal. It’s provided food for gossip for those prone to this diet. It’s been a cause of publishing on Facebook—for reasons that still baffle me, and that I find cruel, insensitive, judgmental, vindictive, serving an anti-Church and anti-clerical agenda. It shook the faith of some but was also an opportunity for prayer for others.
I’m talking about the recent arrest of an Orthodox priest (not of the Archdiocese of Accra) on suspicion of committing a most horrendous murder. I’m not here to defend it, or sweep it under the carpet, as the Church often has done in such situations. I’m here to talk about it, and perhaps, present you with another perspective on the issue. Bear with me, please.
Scandals are not new to the Church. These almost always involve priestly ‘indiscretions’ of a sexual or financial nature. In the past, much of these could be covered up. Nowadays, it’s not so easy. The press, which by its nature thrives on sensation, has a field day when it comes to the Church. And scandals are by no means restricted to any one Church. They rear their head in every Christian denomination, whether Catholic, Charismatic or, yes, even in the Holy Orthodox Church. No Church, no religion is exempt from this. It’s not a recent phenomenon. It has accompanied the Church and religions throughout their history. It has accompanied all humans from their distant origins.
And that is precisely the point—to err is human—and the Church has an obvious and all-important human element. It is comprised of persons who are fallible, persons far from perfect, carrying in themselves weaknesses and passions. And this applies to the clergy, too—to bishops, to priests, to deacons, and to monks and nuns. But it also applies to all the laity, the non-ordained people, since we, all together, constitute the Church.
Of course, the Church is holy since its founder, the Lord Jesus Christ, is holy, since its mission is to make us holy, to sanctify us and the whole of creation, since it is the meeting place of humanity and divinity. Yet the Church’s members, whether clergy or laity, are often far from holy. This does not diminish the Church’s holiness. We must understand that holiness is both a gift and a calling. It is an invitation. God offers us that gift, and it is for us to actually strive towards that aim. Some of us make it, some don’t, some don’t even try. Some of us do try or are constantly trying, but we fall in the process. To deny the Church’s holiness because of sinful priests or bishops is like denying that a hospital is a place of healing because it’s full of sick people. And the Church is a hospital, and we are all patients in need of healing.
So, isn’t the priest holy?
Probably not. His priesthood certainly is, but in fact, holy priests are the exception rather than the rule. The rest of us are trying—admittedly, some harder than others. Yet this is not to be confused with his liturgical and sanctifying role. That remains valid and holy because, ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit who acts in every blessing, in every act of sanctification. Just because a doctor may be sick doesn’t mean he can’t heal others.
But isn’t the priest God’s representative?
God doesn’t need representatives. This is an antiquated notion that served power-hungry priests and bishops. In fact, it would be more correct to say that the priest is the people’s representative to God and, therefore, is as about as holy or as sinful as the people themselves. The priest is appointed by the Church and is even ordained with the approval of the people, as one who is to lead them in worship as they stand before God.
I must admit that priests and bishops have basked in the idea of their over-inflated role for far too long. I guess we ourselves have been guilty of ‘elevating’ our own position in the eyes of the people. It feeds our delusions of grandeur, our inflated (or deflated) sense of self, and our pride. We like being raised-upon a pedestal, not realizing that when we fall, we fall harder from that height. Perhaps a bit of humility would serve us well….
In fact, an awareness of the priest’s unworthiness is stressed at almost every service he performs. His own priestly prayers emphasize this. The actions in the Liturgy reinforce this. There are times when the priest turns to the congregation and pleads “Forgive me, the sinner!” He is not acting-out some lines from a well-rehearsed play. It is the honest and sincere appeal for understanding, for empathy, and for forgiveness. It is also the acknowledgment and confession that he is just a man, weak and susceptible to error and sin.
Shouldn’t the priest be an example?
Of course! He has an immense task of guiding others, of counseling them, of being their companion in their spiritual life. By becoming a priest, he undertakes the supreme effort not to sin. But sometimes he fails. On a positive note, I guess this could make him appear more human in the eyes of the faithful, more able to understand their weaknesses and failures, because he shares in them. But let’s be realistic. When he does sin, he damages the Church, perhaps more so than crooked judges, lawyers, and police officers damage the legal system.
He damages his own credibility and the faith others have placed in him and his mission. And there are times when a wayward priest must be removed or defrocked, or even imprisoned if his sin constitutes a felony, as in the case of child abuse or murder. The priest must make the supreme effort—but sometimes he fails. It’s not an excuse. It’s a fact of our fallen nature.
But can he then officiate? Can he then preach if he himself is sinful?
The greatest of our Saints have been constantly all too aware of their sinfulness. We are all sinful and if this sinlessness was the sole criterion, we would have no priests. Does a doctor have the right to heal if he, himself, gets sick? Expecting a priest to be perfect, not to ever sin, is like expecting your doctor never to get sick.
As clergymen we have a huge responsibility before God, our own conscience, and our congregations. As men we carry the same weaknesses and inclinations as anyone else. As Christians we must make the effort to overcome these. As sinners we fall. As repentant sinners, living in the light of God’s mercy and of the Risen Lord, we need to get up after falling and try again and again and again.
As priests or bishops, and as men, we have need of your prayers, your understanding, and your love. When we fall, we have need of your compassion and your forgiveness. Do we not offer you the same? If we have judged you, then let us too be judged. If we have threatened you with hellfire and brimstone, then let us feel that fear too. If we have rejected you, then let us too be rejected. If we have ostracized you, then let us too be ostracized.
But if we have offered you unconditional love, if we have offered you compassion, if we have assured you of God’s love and mercy and offered you reconciliation and inclusion into God’s Church, do we not merit the same?
There is no doubt that that specific crime committed was heinous, gruesome, and judgement will be served. May the sentence passed be an opportunity of remorse, repentance, and healing. But let’s all keep in mind that behind that crime is a person who is one of us, a deeply troubled soul who at the very least deserves our prayer…. Or at least, our sacred silence.
✠ Petros of Accra
Metropolitan Petros (Parginos) is the ruling hierarch for the Metropolis of Accra, Ghana in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa, and the founder/administrator of St. Mark’s Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa. He holds a PhD from the University of the North West focusing on Orthodox-Catholic dialogue. His Eminence has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue.
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