As the bishop’s role has grown in stature through the centuries, with bishops becoming the ultimate arbiter of things doctrinal and canonical, the way we elect bishops has changed and evolved. The participation of the laity in the electoral process has waned. In his late fourth-century treatise On the Priesthood, St. John Chrysostom was already lamenting how bishops were promoted:
Tell me, then, where do you think these great disturbances in the church come from? Personally, I think that they transpire from the ill-considered and random manner in which bishops are chosen. (Book III, 10)
The upcoming election of a new archbishop for the ancient Church of Cyprus is an opportunity to reflect on the role of the laity in selecting candidates for elevation or ordination in the Orthodox Church—especially (but not only) elevation to the highest level of the priesthood.
In Cyprus, metropolitans and bishops aspiring to the vacant throne of the archbishop have publicly declared their candidacy. Over the next few weeks, a course of action established by the Church’s charter will be set into motion. All resident baptized Orthodox Christians will be invited to choose from a list of candidates. The three names with the most votes will then be submitted to the Holy Synod, which will then elect its new presiding primate. The first part of this process has become a full-fledged campaign, complete with polls and plots, use of social media, and conspiracy theories about “stolen” votes and consternation about “fraudulent” elections.
The Church of Cyprus is the last of the Orthodox Churches to continue the apostolic practice of episcopal election through popular vote and synodal confirmation. The rest of the Orthodox Churches have, conveniently and complacently, switched to electing their bishops behind closed doors. These other Churches will doubtless remain silent about the election process in the Church of Cyprus, which was founded by St. Barnabas. They will no doubt say that they wish to refrain from interference in the decisions of self-governed Churches. But I wonder whether their silence actually indicates an aversion to including the “public”—that is, the laity—in what they consider their own private affairs.
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