Orthodox America


There was a lively interchange recently on the Internet concerning the exclamation "Axios" (Greek, meaning "worthy") heard at the ordination of bishops, priests, and deacons. It is a rare occasion in most parishes to witness an ordination, and, for many people, Axios is just another foreign word in the Orthodox lexicon. It has, however, an interesting history and a significance that extends well beyond its ritual aspect.

In Hapgood's Service Book, the rubrics for the ordination of a deacon specify that at the end of the rite the officiating bishop lays the stole on the candidate's shoulder, "saying in a loud voice, 'Axios!' And likewise they without, in both Choirs, sing thrice: Axios." Essentially the same form is used at the ordination of priests and bishops.

The indication "choirs" properly refers to "the people," and in parishes which have preserved or revived the ancient practice of congregational singing, this identification is very clear. In a majority of today's parishes, however, the use of choirs and particularly of choir lofts-a later innovation from the West-has artificially set the singers apart and encouraged the rest of the congregation to slip into a passive role. One of the unfortunate consequences of such a development is that the laity no longer have a sense of direct participation in the election of clergy, when, in fact, this is explicitly called for by the early Church fathers. In their writings, it is evident that "Axios" is no mere formality but a vocal expression of a very real participation.

In an appendix, Hapgood notes:

"Many traditions quoted by ancient writers affirm that the clergy and all the people, by uttering this word, 'Axios,' at the consecration of Bishops, and at the ordination of Priests and Deacons, thereby give their testimony to the blameless life and good morals of him who had received the laying-on of hands. St. Clement (A.D.97) instituted in the Primitive Church, in the name of the Apostles, a law that such testimony should be exacted especially at the Consecration of Bishops, in reply to the definite question, thrice put to the people, 'Is he, in truth, worthy of this ministry?'"

This must not, however, be understood as some kind of democratic process in which a candidate is chosen by a majority vote. Bishops are not popularly elected officials; God Himself appoints them to teach and to rule over the Church, bestowing upon them for this purpose special gifts of the Holy Spirit: And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues (I Cor. 12:28). St. Cyprian of Carthage (258) writes that "the Lord . . . condescends to elect and to appoint for Himself bishops in His Church" (Letter 48:4), and in the most ancient prayer of election to the episcopacy, preserved in the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome (235), it says, "O God, stablish him whom Thou hast prepared for us. . ."

The same holy father, however, also writes: "A bishop should be elected by all the people" (Canon of the Church of Alexandria). This is similarly stated in the first century Didache: "Accordingly, elect for yourselves bishops and deacons, men who are an honor to the Lord. . . honest and well-tried" (chap. 15). St. John Chrysostom also makes it clear that a bishop "ought to rule people with their own consent" (Homily II on Titus). Just how is one to interpret this? A chapter on "The Episcopacy" in The Priest's Handbook (Nastol'naya Kniga Svyashchennika, Moscow, 1983) offers a clarification which may be summarized as follows:

From the very beginning of the historical existence of the Church, there were certain persons whom God Himself appointed to govern through the bestowal of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Only he who has received the gift of government can govern the people of God. The laity, while they do not have the gift of government, have the gift of discernment to "prove all things" (I Thess. 5:21). This represents a special form of ministry entrusted not to individual members of the Church, but to the people of God as a whole in their common task. In the early Church, everything that took place, whether it was the celebration of the Mysteries, the reception of catechumens or penitents into the Church, the excommunication of heretics, etc.-all was done with the participation of the people. The testimony of the people concerning the revelation of God's will in the early Church was in the nature of a consensus concerning that which took place as being consonant with God's will. This did not mean that each member of the clergy or laity expressed his personal opinion or desire concerning whatever was being done in the Church. The church authority, in the person of the bishops, was not bound by the will of the people, just as the people were not bound by the will of their leaders. The overriding authority was the will of God as revealed by the Holy Spirit acting through the bishops and confirmed by the same Spirit in the voice of the people.

The Church in its composition represents a totality of clergy and laity, and therefore the participation of the latter in the selection of a bishop is, in principle, entirely justified. The first rule of the Fourth Council of Carthage states, "A bishop is ordained in agreement of the clergy and people." The same rule is affirmed by the Constitution of the Holy Apostles: ". . . a bishop to be ordained is to be . . . unblameable, a select person, chosen by the whole people, who, when he is named and approved, let the people assemble. . . on the Lord's day, and let them give their consent" (VIII:4). Sometimes the people would propose their own candidate for the bishops' consideration. Sometimes the will of the people had a decisive significance. When there was a unanimous decision, the people expressed their verdict by exclaiming "Axios!" or "Anaxios!" (unworthy).

This practice did not, however, exist for long in the Church. The authority of the Byzantine emperors dealt it a strong blow. Already in the laws of the Emperor Justinian (+565), the right to elevate a bishop was left up not to the people but to the clergy and the rulers; subsequently it became the prerogative of prominent individuals, patrons of the particular local church, who were granted virtually unconditional right to choose the bishop for that church. The Emperor Theodosius, in limiting the rights of the people and the clergy in this regard, went so far as to personally appoint Nectarius bishop of Constantinople, in spite of the fact that the latter was still only a catechumen and not yet baptized. In this way the people were gradually deprived of the right to elect a bishop. At the Second Ecumenical Council (381), it was decided that secular authorities had no right to elect clergy: ". . . he who is raised to the episcopate must be chosen by bishops" (Canon III).

It remains the responsibility of the laity to confirm the bishops' choice. This presupposes, however, a proper understanding of the nature of the Church, a real sense of communion, a oneness of mind as befits the Body of Christ, whose members are all supposed to work together, being fitly joined by the grace of the Holy Spirit. We have lost sight of authentic Orthodox life, and only when this is restored, only when we make the acquisition of the Holy Spirit the principal focus of our lives can we expect the cry of "Axios" to serve its original intent. 


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