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(The Orthodox Syrian Church of India is in the process of selecting/ electing seven new hierarchs to fill several vacancies within the Church. The writer, one our contributors, is highlighting some cogent points that might theologically and canonically legitimize that process within his Church)

By Tenny Thomas

The answer to the question “Who chooses a new bishop?” is “The Holy Spirit.”Christ has not abandoned His church, and continues to guide and govern her through the Holy Spirit. However, the Holy Spirit uses human beings to accomplish this. The process consists of two parts: identifying priests with the necessary qualities, and selecting the one who best fills a specific vacancy. We have to try to find the best candidate who fits the niche.

Identifying the Right Priests

The process of identifying priests with the qualities desired in a bishop is an ongoing process, even if there are no vacancies. The bishop of a diocese in the Indian rthodox Church should give the Catholicos the names of priests they think would make good bishops. The candidates passed on by a bishop should usually be from his diocese or with whom he has served, since these are the priests he knows best. In my opinion, the process of 30 people having to sign a form and then getting the consent of the person to become a bishop is uncanonical. From when have we become a worldly and secular institution?

The Qualities of a Bishop

The church is very explicit about the qualities that must be present in a candidate to the episcopacy. He must be “a good pastor of souls and teacher of the Faith.” The church examines whether the candidates “enjoy a good reputation; whether they are of irreproachable morality; whether they are endowed with right judgment and prudence; whether they are even-tempered and of stable character; whether they firmly hold the Orthodox Faith; whether they are devoted to the Apostolic See and faithful to the Church; whether they have a thorough knowledge of dogmatic and moral theology and canon law; whether they are outstanding for their piety, their spirit of sacrifice and their pastoral zeal; whether they have an aptitude for governing.”

Consideration is also be given to “intellectual qualities, studies completed, social sense, spirit of dialogue and cooperation, openness to the signs of the times, praise-worthy impartiality, family background, health, age (40-50) and inherited characteristics.” By the way, celibacy is by no way the only criterion for episcopacy. There was a time when men ran away from wanting to become a bishop, nowadays, we have many running for it and setting their eyes on higher offices. We sing in Syriac: tow b’shlomo aboon d’rabyath rooho d’qudsho: w’ablaishoneh t’een laqleedai d’baith aloho – (Hail Bishop, whom the Holy Spirit did raise up, and, with his tongue, bears the keys to God’s house).
The List

Periodically, the bishops must meet under the chairmanship of the Catholicos to consider the names of priests who are possible candidates for the episcopacy. At such meetings, a list of candidates for the episcopacy must be assembled, voted on and forwarded to the Managing committee. While the Managing committee can nominate a priest for bishop not from this pool of candidates, most appointments must come from these lists. When the church needs bishops, the second part of the process must get underway i.e. the thorough screening for the best persons who will fill specific vacancies. Why should we wait till the next association to have a pool of good and able candidates? Why wait, start early!

During the investigation the Church must send out a confidential questionnaire on the candidate to people who know him. The questions must address the physical, intellectual, moral, spiritual, social, and priestly characteristics that one would hope for in a bishop. Those from whom a report is requested must include clergy and laity and also from secular and religious institutions…these must include the priest’s diocesan bishop, others should be diocesan officials the person has gotten to know personally and also people who have worked with him on secular and academic levels too. The laity consulted should be officers in diocesan lay organizations or on diocesan advisory committees. Each must be told to answer the questions without consulting others. They cannot tell anyone, especially the candidate, that they have received the questionnaire. If we already have a pool of able candidates, then these reports makes the selection of the best among the list much easier.

Church’s Report

After the Church has examined the responses to the questionnaires, a ‘bishopelecting panel’ should prepare a final list of qualified candidates and write a report extracting and synthesizing the content of the consultation and giving their own judgment. The report must be sent to the Holy Synod, and no bishop sees the report unless he attends the Holy Synod convened.

Holy Synod

When the report arrives at the Holy Synod, the members discuss the appointment under the chairmanship of the Catholicos. The Holy Synod should finalize the best candidates. If there are only five qualified candidates for the five positions, well and good, but if there are more than five able candidates, election should not be our option.

The Catholicos

In the case of more able candidates than positions, the Catholicos should send out a Church wide kalpana to all parishes to observe 3 days of fasting for the need to choose bishops. After three days, let HH the Catholicos request the faithful (men, women and children) and clergy to gather for a Holy Liturgy. During the Holy Qurbana the names of the able candidates should be in a vessel on the altar. In the midst of the liturgy, offer litanies and draw names from the cup. Why have we become a church where we talk about being so liturgical but we do not value the spirituality of our services? This is how at the end, the church, led by the Holy Spirit, makes the appointment. Our way of choosing bishops today is a mockery of democracy and church canons.

We are a liturgical church and we must choose names from the ‘final list of able candidates during the Divine Liturgy. Let us see how the former saintly Patriarch of Alexandria, Kyrillos VI, was chosen to become the Patriarch.1

There was no patriarch on the See of St. Mark at the time of the election of Kyrillos VI, and therefore Metropolitan Athanasios was the locum tenens as Deputy Patriarch. There were many bishops under him. As a preparation for the election, Metropolitan Athanasios made a nomination list, and all nominations were on behalf of spiritually outstanding monk-priests who never knew they had been in the list of nominations. There were no bishops in the list. Nominations were submitted on behalf of Fr. Demian, Fr. Angelos, Father Timotheos, and Father Mina. Having later known about his nomination, Father Mina declined to be part of this process. Having heard about this the Deputy Patriarch called Fr. Mina and asked him:

“Father Mina, why are you not part of this election?”

“Your Holiness, … may the Lord choose a good shepherd to guide His people with piety and purity of heart.” Father Mina replied.

“You should not have missed this duty.”

“Who am I but a little worm, to even consider this glorious and serious responsibility, and carry its enormous trusteeship, which should be given to a divinely chosen person, and not to whomever wants it.”

[1 The reference to this incident is taken from Chor-Episcopos Dr. Kyriakos of Chicago,

“Episcopal Election In The Orthodox Syrian Church of Malankara – India” in The Voice of

Orthodoxy, March-April 2008, Volume 11, Issue 2. ]
“But, I still did not hear your answer as to why you did not allow yourself to be

nominated and allow the Lord to choose according to His will.”

“Your Holiness, all my fathers, the monks, who were nominated, are suitable for this critical position. But as for me, I am content with the Lord’s grace that is with


“Father Mina, I am submitting a nomination for you.”

“ … but where would the lowly stand among kings?’

“The Lord can lift the poor man from the pits to seat him with the principals of His people.”

Later Father Mina conducted a campaign against himself like St Ephraim.

On April 17, 1959 the nominees were narrowed down to three monks, Fr. Demian, Fr Angelos, and Fr. Mina.

On Sunday, April 19, 1959 the Deputy Patriarch offered the Papal Election Liturgy, which was attended by high dignitaries of the country, including the late President Anwar Sadat, ambassadors and high-ranking delegates of other churches in the world. At the end of the Liturgy, a young deacon was appointed to draw one of the nominations from their container placed on the altar. He pulled out the nomination that has the name of Father Mina, a humble monk of St Demiana Monastery.

While this was going on Fr. Mina was celebrating his Sunday Liturgy at St. Mina’s Monastery in Cairo. The news of his divine election was broadcast all over the radio stations in Egypt, and it came to the attention of the participants of Fr. Mina’s Liturgy. Bells of all the Churches rang all over Egypt, but Fr. Mina refused to allow his beloved people to ring the bell of St. Mina’s Monastery Church. You should know what Fr. Mina did when he heard about it. He went up to the sanctuary and cried. The people forced him out of the sanctuary. He came out and addressed his people: “Glory be to God. The Lord has chosen to demonstrate His power and glory through my weakness. I tremble with fear in the glory of Your power. … From You we receive power and help, O our Lord and Redeemer.”

Here are some things that I believe Indian Orthodox Christians need to be

asking as they choose their leaders.

  1. It is now so much how this individual “came over” in a short exposure to the people, but whether this person’s record is of someone who not only is able to lead, but is able to lead through perilous waters in difficult times. What has been their record as a pastor, evangelist, missionary, leader? Whatever the future configuration of the church, these years ahead are going to be extraordinarily

difficult, and will require a leader who is firm but flexible when it comes to guiding a group of congregations through rough seas.

  1. We need to be asking whether any of these individuals understand what is going on in the culture, where the culture is leading us, and what the impact will be upon the churches. The 21st Century is profoundly different in almost every way from the 20th, and the church that does not understand this is in deep trouble. If we are looking for someone who will try to maintain the institution in its present form then we are already digging the grave into which most of just about any diocese will very quickly be dropped.
  2. Choosing a bishop is a theological act, so we want to know what a person believes, what their relationship to God is through Jesus Christ, whether they are able to be the chief missionary of the diocese. When you are part of a church like ours that tends to defer to the culture rather than Scriptures and Christian tradition in shaping its values, this is a major, major set of questions that need to be asked. Failing to do so is a great danger.
  3. Furthermore, we need to be asking if this individual has a vision for the future.

Vision is a key component to leadership, for as Scripture says, without a vision the people perish. We have been prone in the church to elect managers and administrators, who at times make compromises, and the result is that we have not had the kind of leadership that will take us to the places where God might want us to go.

  1. While a person’s charm, wit, and social abilities are important, they ought not to be at the top of the list. Some of the greatest bishops in history would not have been the life and soul of a cocktail party –indeed, a good number of those who do have such skills have been disasters. The election of bishops must not be a popularity contest.
  2. While managerial and administrative skills ought not at the top of the list, it helps if someone knows themselves well enough that in leading they are able to guide an entity forward and fill the gaps in their own skill mix. We have to elect people who have a mix of administrative skills, management and above all the humility to serve.
  3. A bishop should be someone with staying power. The stress of the office is so great these days. A bishop is someone who is involved in the leadership of a spiritual conflict, and therefore needs to be spiritually, physically, emotionally, up to the task.
  4. Good bishops are people of prayer and study of the Word. They are individuals who keep themselves spiritually alert and fresh. They lead from grace that is centered on Jesus Christ, and not out of ego, personal gratification, or in pursuit of any specific political agenda.
  5. Good bishops have an inner humility. This is a spiritual grace that tends to get overlooked in our push-and-shove age. This humility allows them to be honest to God and honest with themselves. A terrific place to start when thinking about who might be a bishop for a diocese is Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 3.1ff.
  6. A good bishop is someone who knows how to listen to and take good advice

and wise counsel from Godly priests and laity.

  1. We are a Church that focuses on the worship so much…if a bishop is present he tends to lead the service. This is not the top priority, but we need bishops who know the rubrics of the service and who can lead a service beautifully. I am not saying that they all should be melodious singers and chanters, but it helps. A lot more can be said, but these are just some of the qualifications that we need to be looking for in those who are called to lead us, and we need to deliberately set the bar high. I expect those who lead to reflect Christ’s grace transparently -this should be so of priests and certainly of bishops. Many of our problems in the past generations have resulted from setting the bar too low. The sort of bishop that a diocese needs today is someone for whom Christ is their all in all, someone who is determined that the Gospel is not about the Church as an institution, but about the Kingdom of God.

May the Holy Spirit guide our Church and move our leaders to discern and chose the best men for the episcopate. Hab moryo l’eeto deelokh qadishto shayno ’shlomo – (Grant, O Lord, Your Holy Church peace and tranquility)! -TVOO