In every Divine Liturgy, as well as in other Holy Services, we address petitions to God “For our Archbishop (the name), the reverend presbyters, the deacons in the service of Christ, and all our brotherhood in Christ.” In this, we are praying for the spiritual pastors (Bishop, Priests and Deacons) that the Church has made responsible for every liturgical and spiritual need of the faithful. This pastoral care for Christians continues until their departure from this world, and even beyond, with the offering of Memorial Services for the comfort of their souls.
As we know, after His Ascension to Heaven, the Lord continued His redemptive work for humanity through His Apostles, and then the same through His Bishops. He established St. James (+62) the Adelfotheos (that is, His Brother) as the first Bishop of Jerusalem, who then assumed the spiritual care of the entire first Christian community there. According to the tradition, St. James wrote the text of the first Divine Liturgy, which was then used as the foundation for the Divine Liturgies which were celebrated (and continue to be celebrated) in all Churches in the world. After that, the Holy Apostles, in the cities where they established new Churches, ordained a Bishop to be the pastor of that local Church. As St. Paul, St. Ignatius (Bishop of Antioch, called Theophoros=”the one bearing God in his heart”), and other Holy Fathers declare (along with the Holy Canons of the Church), the Bishop is “an icon of God and of Christ.” The services of the Church can only be done through the Bishop. Without him, there can be no Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, Baptism, or Marriage. The Bishop is the guardian of the unity of the Church, and of the pure faith. They are the center of every local Church. As St. Cyprian says, those who do not follow their Bishop cannot be part of the Church.
Depending on the needs of his Diocese, the Bishop ordains Presbyters (Priests) for every parish, and entrusts them with administering the Sacred Mysteries (with the exception of Ordination and the Inauguration of new churches) and shepherding the faithful in their care. All of this is done always in communion with their Bishop. The Deacons are ordained in order to help the Bishop and the Priests in their liturgical and pastoral duties, although they are unable to celebrate the Sacraments on their own. St. Ignatius writes that the Presbyters-priests are joined together with the Bishop like the strings on a guitar (See, Letter to the Ephesians, IV, 1, ΒΕΠ, Β', p. 265). Whoever performs any act in the Church in secret without permission from the Bishop, is serving and worshipping the devil (Smyrnaeans, VIII, 2, ΒΕΠ, Β', p. 281).
How then, can a faithful person know whether or not a Eucharistic gathering is legitimately of the Orthodox Church? In other words, how can we know a Divine Liturgy is an Orthodox one?
A knowledgable, contemporary father of the Church offers this answer:
“For a Divine Liturgy to be valid and canonical (that is, indeed Orthodox), a few external similarities are not sufficient; not even the fact that the Orthodox text of the Divine Liturgy may be followed. Saint Ignatius of Antioch gives an answer to this question by saying that a Divine Liturgy which is celebrated by a Bishop, or by a Presbyter who is in communion with the Bishop and has the necessary authorization, is truly Orthodox. The Bishop is the guarantor of Christ’s presence, because his priesthood goes back to Christ himself, via apostolic succession, which is the unbroken chain of unity with the Apostles. What is necessary, therefore, is that the priest who celebrates the Divine Liturgy has an authentic ordination, and is in unity with the Bishop of the local Church. The Bishop’s presence in every Orthodox Liturgy is affirmed by the fact that the Divine Liturgy is celebrated on the antimension [the piece of cloth that stands “in the place of” (anti) the Holy Table (mensa= table)] with his own signature printed, or embroidered on it, and by the commemoration of his name during the Divine Liturgy: “First of all, remember Oh Lord our Archbishop …” and then stating the name of the Bishop. It is also significant that the priest who celebrates the Liturgy does not commemorate the name of the Bishop who ordained him, but the name of the Bishop of the area in which the Divine Liturgy is being celebrated. In order for a Divine Liturgy to be Orthodox, the Bishop whose name is commemorated in this Liturgy must be in unity with the Orthodox Church of that country.” (The Orthodox Church. Faith-Worship-Life, Athens, 1994).
In saying all of this, I hope that every Orthodox Christian has a sense of their duty to pray for the Bishop, the Priests and Deacons of their Church. They carry on their shoulders a great pastoral responsibility for the flock entrusted to them. Additionally, a person should show the appropriate respect for them and readily follow their advice. On the subject of obedience, St. Paul the Apostle writes: “Follow faithfully and obey your Church leaders, because they keep watch over your salvation, for which they are going to give account to God. This way, their care will be exercised with joy and not with grief, something that would be unprofitable for you” (see Hebrews 13:17).
There is also another responsibility of the faithful which comes from what we have already said from our Church’s teaching: Everywhere we go, we should determine whether or not a Divine Liturgy is celebrated by a priest who is in communion with the Orthodox Bishop of that area (and not doing it secretly). The Holy Canons declare that any priest who acts without the blessing of the local Bishop, is subject to being defrocked. This is a matter on which the laity also have an obligation, in that they must know who the Canonical Bishop of the area is. If someone presents himself as an Orthodox priest, the Christian must examine if this person has permission from the local Metropolitan to perform liturgical acts. If there is uncertainty, they should not take part in any church service they are involved with, nor commune with them.
My beloved brothers and sisters, may all of us together, Clergy and Laity, contribute in every way to the unity of our Church - for our own spiritual benefit and for the glory of our Lord, Jesus Christ, who died on the Cross so that we may be united with Him. Amen.