Is the Eucharist episcopo-centric not presbytero-centric? This is the view expressed by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) as found in his article: “Ecclesiological Presuppositions of the Holy Eucharist” in The One and Many: Studies on God, Man, the Church and the World Today (Sebastian Press, 2010). He derives from this that a Presbyter serves in the name of the local bishop that the parish Eucharist is a problem because it does not have all the orders of the Church present because it does not include the bishop and so it must be seen as an extension of the bishop’s one Eucharist. This is in turn follows the logic that at the Eucharist there is the presence of the whole Church and a gathering of the faithful in one place with the bishop. The parish system is thus a distortion of the pure model of one congregation of the faithful in each place gathered around the bishop. Presbyters in this model seem to become vicars of the bishop, who is the required president of every Eucharist. Parishes are only parts of the community of people in one place but also part of the structure. So, is this correct?
The arguments for this view are quite strong and one can find support for them in the patristic literature. However, the results do not seem to properly reflect all the patristic evidence. For example St John Chrysostom describes the presbyter as a true president and teacher of his parish equal with the bishop in all but the power of ordination (Homily 11 on 1 Timothy). Also one can question the notion that a parish is somehow incomplete as a gathering of the Church without the physical presence of the bishops and that this must be somehow actualised. (If this is so on the grounds of all orders being present then the absence of each of a deacon, sub-deacon, reader, chanter, monk etc will also be a problem even if the bishop is present.)
A key assumption that seems to underlie the position in question of Metropolitan Zizioulas, whose thinking is generally consistent with the patristic witness, is that a local church is to be equated with a single gathering of faithful around its bishop and that the parish system is something of an acute problem. Rather it is argued that it is better to be assumed that the parish system was the proper structure of each local church from the start and that it was never intended that a local church was to be only one gathering for the eucharist of all members of that local church, although this was probably the case in many places at various times. Why not? Because the local church structure was not formed around gatherings of faithful but around the system of cities. Bishops were appointed to cities and oversaw the city and its hinterland. With some minor exceptions, bishops were not appointed to villages nor to a section of countryside nor to larger regions with multitudes of cities. Each city would have one bishop regardless of how many faithful were present. This association of bishops with cities can be seen in the New Testament (see Titus) and traced through the patristic record. The episcopal structure is thus based on identifiable secular centres of population in terms of the territorial place and not on the number of congregations nor sizes of congregations. One reason for this is that is enables a recognisable limit of jurisdiction and identification with a physical place and this is important because while the Church is no longer bound to one place, as the nation of the Jews were, there is nevertheless only one Church in each place with one bishop as the icon of one Christ. The Church is not merely an abstraction but is in the world and occupies physical territory; it has a real tangible presence. This is safeguarded in the territorial presence of the bishop and his sole jurisdiction within that territory. The city division rather than other territorial division is appropriate both due to practical issues of overseeing the flock both small enough to know and large enough to support a bishop and also iconically as pointing towards and making present the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city within which God reigns.
Because there is one Christ and many bishops all over the world we have in each local church one bishop and many priests all over that territory; thus reflecting the Catholic Church not only in the Eucharistic gathering but also in the hierarchal and territorial organisation. Also, as each bishop is truly president of his local church and serves with in union with Christ, that is expressed as maintaining and teaching the orthodox faith and acting in obedience to the sacred Canons, (as well as working in councils with other bishops) so too each presbyter is truly president of his local parish in union to Christ manifested as being in union with his bishop in one mind so doing nothing without his consent as well as orthodox faith and canonical obedience. (This is also seen in sees of primacy among bishops that no act is done beyond a bishop’s jurisdiction nor is a bishop appointed without consent of the primate, although a presbyter-bishop relationship is distinct from bishop-bishop for other reasons.) In the Eucharist just as a bishop is a true president of the gathering so also is the presbyter the true president in the parish not merely as a vicar, or hands, of the bishop but fully by way of his ordination to the priesthood. The presbyter fulfils the same iconic function as the bishop in terms of leading the Eucharist and nothing is missing in the parish led by a presbyter without the physical presence of the bishop. (In terms of lower orders they too should be present in a parish as much as in a cathedral.) A parish gathering is not merely a gathering the church in part but a full gathering in its local place. Each parish should, like each diocese, have a proper boundary and all faithful within this boundary should attend that parishes temple for worship.
The bishop does have a relationship with the priests as Christ to the Apostles and this is reflected well in a Eucharist with the bishop enthroned with the presbyters beside him. In terms of a parish the presbyter becomes Christ to the community just each Apostle and each of their successors, the bishops, make Christ present to those who have been entrusted to them.
Is the Eucharist episcopo-centric not presbytero-centric? No, it is also presbytero-centric. Correctly, it is centred around Christ as president and both the bishop and the presbyter enable Christ to be present as such when each presides at a Eucharist. The priest as president does not become congregationalism because the presbyter is ordained by one bishop and he serves with the consent of the bishop. The presidency of the eucharist gathering based on a congregation is not to be seen as equivalent to the presidency of a local church based on a city. Catholicity of the Eucharist is both in Eucharist itself and also in the union of the presbyter, and his community, with the bishop, who is remembered by a presbyter in the rite “among the first”. The bishop recognises his Metropolitan and he his Patriarch and he all others thus maintaining each one’s union, with his community, with the Catholic Church.