The Church: “She” or “It” – In conversation with my godfather

“When He had come and fulfilled for our sake the entire plan of salvation, on the night in which He was delivered up, or rather when He delivered Himself up for the life of the world,…” (Orthodox divine liturgy).

The following is my transcription of some deep wisdom from my godfather, David Goa, in a telephone conversation we had last week. I found his thoughts on the church’s vocation “for the life of the world,” and baptism as our ordination into the royal priesthood “for the life of the world” fascinating and fresh. Here is David Goa:

Let’s think together about the church as IT versus the church as SHE.

The church as an IT refers to the institution including all the ways the institutional structure has been and should be critiqued.

The church as SHE refers to our vocation, drawing people into communion for the life of the world.

Vocation, Discernment & Our Priesthood

As I converse with ministers, I encounter a great number of them in vocational crisis. What are they? Are they to be activists? politicians? therapists? liturgists? CEOs? If we refrain from seeing the church as an IT and can move beyond false vocations into the church as SHE that draws people into communion for the life of the world, then how would this clarify the vocation of those in ministry?

Historically, the local clergy were the representatives of the bishop at the parish level. And the bishop is a RE-presentation of Jesus Christ. Like Christ, their authority as bishops was based (1) first and foremost on servanthood. They were also identified by (2) the maturity of their discernment—especially discerning the gifts in the community, and (3) their attentiveness to communion in all its forms in the life of the world.

The bishops, prior to Constantine, were chosen by their local communities having in mind these two questions: (1) who among us has cultivated the gift of discernment, able to identify both the gifts in the community and the needs in the world and (2) who among us is also willing to put the two together. Remember, satan has discernment too, but uses it to keep things apart. Why separate the gifts of the church and the needs of the community? Because one’s power base is more stable that way than if you start putting gifts and needs together.

So, the clergy’s task is to discern the gifts and the needs in the world, and to call forward those gifts in the community, to bless those gifts, and to encourages the community to use them for the life of the world.

Instead of being colonized by sacraments, discernment is the central pastoral duty, invoking and equipping the priesthood of all believers. The priesthood of all believers (“the royal priesthood”) is not for the sake of the institution. It is a vocational priesthood of the church (SHE) in the world, where we are attentive to grace at work in all its forms.

The liturgical life of the church is to praise and worship God and, in our litanies, to offer up the world (with all its warts) in the presence of the divine Mystery, and to deepen our awareness of communion whenever we come upon it on the path (but too often miss). This is our vocation as the royal priesthood: (1) drawing closer to God’s presence, (2) drinking more deeply of the communion, (3) and opening our capacity to experience the surprise of how that communion transfigures the world.

Baptismal Ordination and the Cleansing of Our Eyes

Baptism is a theophany—an appearance of Christ in our midst. How so? Baptism is a washing of our eyes as a community to see the baptized as they truly are (already) and to hear the Father speak the words, “Behold, my beloved son/daughter.” They don’t become God’s children during baptism any more than Jesus did. Baptism is the revelation that the baptized are, above and before all, God’s children, rather than our reductions of them to their family, tribal, or personal history.

This is the reason for the extensive “exorcism” rituals during Orthodox baptism, including child baptism. The exorcisms are not about driving demons out of babies. It is about separating the baptized: (1) from parental aspirations for the child that will smother their unique calling, (2) from tribal allegiances that would seek to confine them, (3) from their own life history, including serious life decisions (past or future) that would reframe their lives and bind them to those decisions.WE are being exorcised so that we can behold the baptized person as the Father saw Jesus and to confess the theophany: “This is the christos (anointed one) among us.” Not that they become that, but that they are that, admitting that we don’t see it apart from the cleansing of our eyes.

Baptism is an initiation of the community to the reality that the baptized one is being ordained as a royal priest, in their Christly vocation for the blessing and healing of creation. As such, it is true from birth and can be revealed at birth (hence, the possibility of child baptisms). The baptismal gown is the clerical robe of their calling as royal priests for the life of the world.

By contrast, during ordination into the professional priesthood, the priest puts on the robe that covers the baptismal gown of their royal priesthood (to creation) and delimits their priesthood as a servant tethered to the altar of the community, to serve their priesthood to the world (again, by discerning their gifts and the needs in the world).

Reversing this role had made the church a fruitless gelding, where the only functioning priesthood is professional, and both the priestly service and gifts of the laity are for the sake of the institution. This is a great tragedy. It’s high time for a restoration of our collective vocation… “for the life of the world.”


Picture of Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Bradley Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More