Bishops in Council: Are They Representative?

by Peter Bouteneff

It is commonly understood in the Orthodox Church that the bishop represents the Church, particularly within its conciliar life. But can he truly represent the Church, in its diversity, in every way and context?

The bishop represents the Church in at least two ways: (1) He distinguishes the local manifestation of the Universal Church from any random gathering of like-minded individuals. (Ignatius’s second-century epistles testify to this episcopal function with reference to the person of Christ.) (2) He carries the duty to maintain continuity with the apostolic faith, the traditio of right doctrine. The early church established a clear succession: Christ → Apostles → Bishops.

Our bishops live out that continuity in the roles they play in our conciliar life. Councils developed as the Church’s foremost instrument of insuring apostolic faith and order. Since the bishops are ex officio charged with that task, the councils are constituted chiefly by bishops. Councils function to define Church teaching, and also establish its canonical order to determine its structures and govern its members’ lives through directives about liturgy, fasting, marriage, and so on.

The bishop’s diverse functions, each figuring into his role as representative of the Church, require that he be equipped with theological, administrative, moral, and pastoral discernment to properly govern the Church. But a bishop’s living up to the high calling of his office is not automatic; it is his responsibility. His consecration in apostolic succession does not guarantee purity of faith, as we see in the fates of Apollinarius, Nestorius, and countless others who fell into heresy. Neither does it guarantee that he will maintain his moral purity. The chief guarantee of a bishop’s rectitude resides in the mutual accountability between Church and bishop, such that the Church abides by bishops ruling in council, but also deposes any one of them who grievously fails to hold to his calling—and thus fails to represent the Church.

The bishop’s representation of the Church’s theology, order, and canonical life, therefore, is both a given of his episcopal office and rank, and also contingent on his deliberate and prayerful cultivation of the relevant aptitudes and skills, with the support of his flock.

That said, however, we should ask whether even a thoroughly righteous man of prayer, trained in the Church’s theology, canon law, and history, and a skilled administrator, can comprehensively represent the concerns and lives of the Church’s young and old, rich and poor, married and celibate, ordained and lay. Conciliar deliberations on Arianism or Nestorianism may not require the Church’s entire diverse constituency, but the issues under consideration at today’s councils surely do.

Types of Representation

The Great and Holy Council that assembled in Crete last June tested the capacity of bishops to represent aspects of the Church in several ways. When the churches of Russia, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Antioch each elected to sit out the Council, it was proposed that the Council convene anyway, that each represent the totality of Orthodoxy. Yet the absent churches have rejected the Council’s authority: why? Because they were not represented there. They clearly believe that bishops of one local church cannot represent the bishops of another. Several other groups from within Churches who were present likewise felt under-represented and un-spoken for.

But let us consider a few other Church constituencies who were not at the council in person. The largest such group by far is women. Women, who constitute over 50% of the Orthodox Church, were represented by around five members of the more than four hundred people constituting the Churches’ delegations and advisors. A woman I know mentioned this to a bishop as a problem. He responded by saying that he (a) by being a bishop, and (b) as one who regularly visits his parishes and listens to his people, represents women as well as men. “Don’t I represent you?” he asked?

Well, yes he does. But, also, emphatically no he doesn’t.

In a groundbreaking essay emanating from postcolonial theory, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak highlighted two definitions of representation. One is conveyed by the German Vertreten, which carries a political sense: one person acting as proxy for another. The other is Darstellen, which conveys re-presentation, more like a portrait, which theologians might liken to perikhoresis. The Trinitarian co-inherence is such that our Lord Jesus Christ can say to Philip, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus re-presents the Father perfectly, not by proxy.

Both kinds of representation are appropriate and realistic depending on given situations. In the political and ecclesiastical spheres we choose persons to undertake our concerns in the “proxy” sense. In other settings, such as in courts of law, we do well to be there in person, even as we are assisted in our representation by an attorney. The problem arises when people confuse the two forms of representation, especially when they assume that proxy is qualitatively the same as true re-presentation.

Russia, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Antioch could have been represented at the Crete Council by proxy (Vertreten), had they so deputized bishops from other localities. But they insisted that they needed to speak on their own behalf, else the Council would not be universally representative. As regards women, the bishop who told my friend that he represented women did indeed represent all Orthodox Christians, by proxy (Vertreten). But without a woman’s life experience, cultural constraints, and physical nature, the bishop should recognize that he cannot be a voice for any woman, much less all women in the sense of Darstellen.


This raises important questions. The first concerns the representation of people for whom decisions are being made. When a council considers “the churches in the diaspora,” should it not feature a considerable delegation who can speak directly to the “diaspora’s” actual ecclesiastical and pastoral needs? When a council considers divorce and remarriage of clergy, can those decisions really best be taken by persons who, despite their wisdom and pastoral sensitivity, are celibate men? Lived experience is irreplaceable. Realistically, we must acknowledge that the men we elect, in trust and love, as our bishop-representatives cannot fully represent mothers affected by domestic violence, the disabled, the homeless and/or destitute, blue-collar workers, clergy wives, etc., who will be profoundly affected by the canons on which they are deciding. Bishops may represent canon law directly, but they can only represent the Church’s diverse membership, by greater or lesser abstraction.

My second question concerns diversity, generally. Our global councils honor the ecclesiastical universality of representation. Should we not also be concerned with portraying the diversity among and within our churches? Whether or not geographically or ethnically sensitive issues are being decided, a deliberative discussion ought properly to re-present the full diversity-in-unity of the Orthodox Church. We want the diversity of married and celibate, male and female, ordained and lay, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Without them, the Council operates purely on an abstract, “proxy” level, not the “perikhoretic.”

Bishops do represent the Church, and they should continue to be the lead participants of our formal councils. But all of us, especially our bishops, ought to recognize the nature and limits of their de facto capacity to represent us all. That means that our churches should reconsider how to assemble their delegations and advisory bodies. Those on site at Crete displayed little or no diversity in gender, status of ordination, and many other crucial demographics. They represented the Orthodox Church by proxy. Is it time that we take steps to create a truer re-presentation?

Peter Bouteneff is Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.