Question relating to the manner of acquisition of Church property often strike us with their timeliness. In fact, for many of us, much about this sphere is unclear; indeed for some of us is so because we do not wish to have these questions clarified for us. Things are, to a large degree, complicated by the conflict between our Orthodox concepts of this issue and western styles of thought and legal practice.
Under this protestant influence, there has developed amongst some of our believers, who otherwise cannot pride themselves on having deeply experienced the body of the Church, a concept which is contrary to Orthodoxy and which envisages some plain and simple division of work and responsibility; to the Priest, the altar and concerns about spiritual matters, and to the laity, everything else. This has led to a certain illogicality: that the leading man of each parish, who is formally a member of the Church congregation and, as a result of his function, a member of the Church Board, is denied that which every ordinary member of the Board has, namely the right to concern himself with the material aspect of the Church community. The Priest is, according to them, an appointee, an official under contract, and so long as he abides by that unwritten rule and does not mix himself in these works, there is some sort of taut peace and matters, supposedly, are going well. If one breaks this mould, the Priest’s headaches begin. They can only do this to the Priest because he is professionally tied to and submerged in the Church for life. To others, the Church may mean much, but does not have to.
In order to better appreciate this question, it is essential to review the centuries old practices of our Holy Church and to see what the purpose of Church ownership of property is and the manner in which that property has been administered. Even from the time of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostles, Church incomes were used firstly, to maintain the clergy, to furnish Holy Churches and to make possible all that which stands in a direct link to the global works of the Church; and after that, to help the needy, the widows, the poor, pilgrims and others.
These matters are regulated by Apostolic Rules, Canons of the Ecumenical and local Church Councils, Rules of the Holy Fathers and teachers of the Church, and positive Church regulations.
Rule 41 of the Holy Apostles directs that Church estates are given out by the Bishop to those who need them, and he himself takes what is required for his essential needs and the needs of the brother pilgrims. The foundation for this regulation of the Holy Apostles is set out in the writings of the Apostle Paul who, through his question, suggests clear answers.
“What soldier ever has to pay his own expenses in the Army? What farmer does not eat grapes from his own vineyard? What Shepherd does not use the milk from his own sheep?” (1. Cor. 9, 7)
Secondly, in the same Epistle to the Corinthians, the Holy Apostle is more direct:
“Surely, you know that the men who work in the temple get their food from the temple and that those who offer the sacrifices on the altar get a share of the sacrifices. In the same way, the Lord has ordered that those who preach the gospel shall get their living from it”. (1. Cor. 13, 14)
The truth is that there has crept into the Orthodox Church, over time, an “accountant’s” spirit so that the Church gradually disregarded its practice of helping the needy. In the last decade we have observed a paradox in that certain Protestant Church organizations far surpass us in their volunteer activities. From this we ought all, as individuals, to learn, and our rich and self-sufficient and isolated Church communities should take their lesson and reproach there from as well. We all know that we will be asked when it will be decided on which side we will go: to the Kingdom of Heaven or to hell. Money buried in banks is, from the perspective of the Orthodox Church, a buried ‘talent’ for which we will have to answer before God.
Who administers Church property?
Yesterday, today and in the future, it has been, should be and is the clergy, the hierarchy headed by the Bishop. The faithful are helpers. However, much this may not appeal to some, and even though there may be certain insufficiencies in this, this is and always has been the practice of the Orthodox Church.
The Apostles, themselves, were the first ones to do this, but as their works multiplied and the danger arose that they would neglect the most important of their tasks, to spread the word of God, they freed themselves from the weight of worries about material things. In the Acts of the Apostles, 6, 2-4, we read:
“Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.”
Christ’s command to the Apostles that they enrich all nations with his knowledge (Mt. 28, 19) was the additional reason that the Apostles set up their alternates, the Bishops, in all those places where the word of God took root, while they untiringly continued further. Along with the fullness of authority and weight of responsibility for the flock entrusted to them, the Apostles gave to the Bishops, exclusively, the responsibility for the care of the material estates of their local Churches. One must bear in mind that the size of bishoprics, at that time, was usually comparable with the size of parishes today. From that, certain conclusions come on their own.
In Rule38, the Holy Apostles explicitly say:
“Let the Bishop be responsible for all Church things and let him administer them, remembering that god oversees his works.”
This Rule served as the foundation for all later canonical elaborations and has never lost its validity in the Holy Orthodox Church. The administration of Church property is left to the Bishop and his conscience for his consideration. It is understood that an individual who has been raised to that uplifted and responsible position knows what he does and that he governs himself on the basis that God’s wakeful eye follows him everywhere.
The 41st Apostolic Rule supports the above quoted 38th Rule, and confirms the assertion that if the Bishops are to be “entrusted with the valuable souls of men, so much more should they be entrusted with responsibility about money”. This Rule brings priests and deacons into the work of the administration of Church property, but only as intermediaries and executors of the Bishop’s instructions. This is because when the Church began to acquire immovable estates and regular incomes, it became impossible for the Bishops alone to deal with its entire property.
Over time, in Church practice, the function of a Church bursar develops. The 26th Canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council sanctions this practice and requires that:
“Each Church, which has a Bishop, must also have a bursar from its own clerics, who will administer Church property according to the instructions of the Bishop, in order that Church administration is not without a witness.”
The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council found it necessary to strengthen this Canon with their own 11th Canon and to stress that Church bursars must be clerics; certainly because during the time of the iconoclast battles, the civil authorities became more powerful and usurped unto themselves rights to which they were not entitled. In the interpretation of this Rule, and as a result of the specific question about the administration of monastic property, one of the most significant canonist in the history of the Church, Valsamon, says:
“No one, not even a crazy person, would suggest that secular persons could administer the property of a monastery.”
The Church bursar was, in the domain of material works, simply an extension of the Bishop’s hand. He had no independence of decision making, but rather worked under the supervision and authority of his Bishop.
Later, we see that other hierarchical persons, priests and deacons, obtain a role in the administration of church property. The Council of Antioch, with its 24th Rule, directs that presbyters and deacons, who form part of the Bishop’s retinue, therefore know properly what things belong to the church, and nothing is supposed to be hidden from them. Subsequently, the 25th Rule given at the same Council goes further and prescribes that if the Bishop does not administer Church property with the knowledge of the presbyters and deacon, and if Church interests are diminished in some way, the Bishop must answer for this before the Diocesan Council.
From the very beginning, Church property was viewed as something holy. Even the concept of ownership itself was understood conditionally; that which is given to the Church is a gift to the Lord and belongs to God. Since, according to the words of Christ we meet in every pauper, Church property is, in it’s purpose, for the poor. As a result, every misuse of Church property is considered a sacrilege for which the offender can be separated from the Church community. For any type of embezzlement of Church property, spiritual individuals were punished with the strictest spiritual punishments. This practice of the Orthodox Church continues to this day.
Over time, as the Church grew, it become clear that Bishops could not be appointed in small places and presbyters were appointed in their stead. This is when the parish in the modern sense started. When this happened, the administration of the Church material goods passed to the parish Priest. As the Bishop’s delegate and authorized representative, the parish Priest dealt with Church properties as part of his responsibility to his Bishop. What took place first with the Apostles and then with the Bishops happened also with the Priests; in order that the Priest would not neglect his spiritual obligations because of works of material administration, it was necessary to bring in the laity. Trustees, wardens or guardians were appointed from the lay members of respective parishes
“who were under the direct supervision of the parish Priest and responsible to the Diocesan Bishop, to administer all property which belongs to that parish. In order to ensure that the most deserving parishioners be appointed to this task, it was deliberately decided that the respective trustees be elected by the entire Church congregation which in this way participated as well in the very administration of Church property”. (Milas)
Involvement in the Church is not nor can it be a form of rulership; it is primarily service. Deacon rose in Church practice from the need to free up the Apostles to cover more territory for works on the spiritual plane. Church Boards in the present time have this purpose: to allow the Priest a wider scope for spiritual work, to help him in that and in no way to restrict him. Church properties are only entrusted to the Priest and the faithful together in the care.
“The Church congregation may take part in the administration of Church property, but that does not give it a right of ownership because in that case every trustee could be considered the owner of the property of those who are the beneficiaries of his trusteeship”. (Milas)
It is understood that the Church is the owner of Church property.
For all of us, gathered in the Church, it is beneficial to know the scope of our involvement and the degree of our authority. When everyone works in his own sphere and refrains from involving himself in matters in which he is not competent there can be no conflicts. Everyone is given such responsibilities and rights in the Church as is suitable for the purpose given and for the health of the Church, and primarily, as is necessary for our salvation.