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January 28, 2023

Orthodoxy and demagogy

Enraged that President Basescu spoke in the Sibiu Metropolitan Cathedral, PNL leader Crin Antonescu baldly invoked a church tradition: ‘in the church, laypeople [only] listen.’ He is not the first case of half-learned politician, when it comes to Orthodox practice and doctrine, who refers to ‘truths’ taken by sound.

This closes the loop of media circus that began with ex-King Mihai’s speech in Parliament last week. Then the president was criticised for his absence, but the same reproaches went against the Patriarch who also skipped the moment.

Let us first clarify the question of laymen’s ‘rights’. Maybe politicians of Antonescu’s education are not very familiar with the history of their Church. It is true that, beginning with its new status as official Church of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire, the history of Christianity was marked by strong clerical trends. Sometimes, in situations of crisis, the Church would become even stiffer about its clericalist exclusivities which, in turn, generated reactions. The best-known reaction came from the so-called Protestant Reform, leading to the scission of Western Christianity. Such phenomena were also influenced by the Eastern Church, whose descendant is also the Romanian Patriarchy. The cleric-lay distinction was more a calamitous one, actually making a decisive contribution to the diminution – sometimes going as far as extinction – of the Christian conscience of the ‘laymen’. One Romanian term for ‘lay’ is ‘mirean’, a word of Slavic language and meaning

A person ‘of the world’ in opposition to the monk who opted for a purely spiritual existence in seclusion. In fact, the opposition was between monachism and ‘the world’. Even the priests who were not monks were called ‘priests of mir’ [world]. In the context of the emergence of Protestantism, both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church strengthened the control over the promoters of the doctrine to avoid derailment. Implicitly, a new wave of clericalism fell upon the two sacramental Churches. Despite of this censorship system designed to preserve the correctness of the doctrine, not all those dealing with matters of doctrine were clerics. It means that, with a certain absolution, a ‘layman’ may preach in a church.

The ultimate irony is that this kind of statement was made during the canonisation of Andrei Saguna, probably the highest exponent of the reintegration of the lay community of Romanian Orthodoxy with the activities of the Church in the last centuries. In order to make his argument even more convincing, Antonescu gave the ‘guiding’ example of Romanian kings who would always sit quiet in the church, humbly listening to the sermons f the clergy. Guilty is Patriarch Daniel himself, for being so obedient to the political power that he violated Orthodox canons.

All the more so can we speak of less pretentious themes such as the small reverential message of President Basescu. Of course, he is not the first president who tries to cultivate his popularity by associating himself with events of Orthodox piety. On the other hand, the Liberal leader’s retort was even more embarrassing. More serious than that is the continuation of promoting the association between the ‘legitimate’ history of the Orthodox Church and the monarchy. Patriarch Daniel was reproached that he had ‘betrayed’ the tradition by missing from the ex-King’s jubilee.

Maybe Crin Antonescu is not very knowledgeable about the biblical history and instauration of Judaic royalty, a claim of the Jews not to the liking of God. In other words, the association of Christianity with a certain form of politics is relative and medieval excesses are far from being normative. Apart from its tinge of demagogy, this entire political-religious dilemma is also meaningful for a more general mentality of developing a professional clergy, turning the lay population into much too passive (sometimes moribund) limbs of the ecclesial corps. But those were not just specific activities, corresponding to their sacramental mission (liturgical practice). Priests became in public conscience the ‘professionals’ of Christian wisdom and the ‘lay people’ became simple school pupils, while more and more priests receive rather mediocre education. What was called Christian catechesis is not exclusively meant for the clergy, unless we invoke traditions that were only installed for limited periods of time. In fact, the Orthodox catechesis is in structural crisis for a variety of reasons and not since yesterday. Any Christian needs theological education. In the last century people repeatedly mentioned the restoration of the ties between the academia and the clergy, but the result was a failure because the clergy were suffering from an intellectual complex and the intellectuals were suffering from an ecclesial complex, where they suspect each other of evil intentions in the first place.

The case of Metropolitan Bishop Andrei Saguna really ought to make us think. Of course, his strategy to reform the Church was dictated by the specific circumstances offered by the epoch of the assertion of modern nations. The Churches were caught up in a larger political dance. But, beyond the derailments of ecclesial nationalism (calamitous and often still not overcome), Saguna’s endeavour sought a beneficial engagement of laymen in the activities of the Church. ‘Lay’ is a word of Greek origin, meaning the member of a ‘people’, the one who belongs to ‘the people of God’. A ‘people’ equally including clerics and non-clerics.

In the Transylvanian Church, laymen are thus part of the decision-making process. Bishops used to be elected by ‘assemblies’ containing a majority of secular members. After the unification of Transylvania with the national Romanian state, following WWI, the principle was expanded to the entire Romanian Patriarchy. It was in use until recently, when the decision was to return to an older principle and the election of the bishops became an internal affair of the bishops’ college. In other words, the Metropolitan Bishop Andrei Saguna militated for the laymen not just to listen, but also to make their (Orthodox) Christian voice head. From a certain point of view, his canonisation is surprising, because it usually happens to personalities that distinguished by ascetic rigour.  Like any bishop, Saguna was a monk, but one that was very much interested in the modern word: press, business and sciences. He never hesitated to cultivate his good ties with the governors of Transylvania in a cosy ‘bourgeois’ circle during a card game. Not by chance, Saguna was accused of Lutheran, Liberal and even Masonic influences. But, apart from the coat of the time, some of his reformist principles are more Orthodox than we may be tempted to think. Saguna made no bones about defending his independence from the Romanian politicians of his time, preferring to be first an Orthodox and then a phylo-Romanian. If they keep invoking the Orthodoxy, today’s politicians ought to be more knowledgeable on the subject, at least to avoid giving the impression of demagogy.

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