Protopresbyter Michael POMAZANSKY: (+1998)

The Function of the Orthodox Parish

The formation period of the parishes of the Russian Church Abroad of the post-war period is coming to an end. Parishes were established externally; there are either churches or places set up for services, along with priests; budgets are established as well.

But internally? The internal aspect of the parish is not settled so easily. The inner construction is far more difficult than the external: but it forms the content, aim and meaning of the establishment of parishes.

That parish life has not completed settled into its norm is occasionally expressed, in a few instances, in internal misunderstandings and unexpected flare-ups. Then it is especially apparent that the parishes do not yet have complete mutual understanding, the proper relationships between the powers within them have not taken shape. And of course, all friction and confrontation are reflected with particular pain on the priest: “It is difficult, very difficult, to lead parish life here.” One often hears these words from our parish priests: “If it is like this everywhere, then all I can say is, ‘Poor priests,’” states the pastor. Yet our communities are small, not five thousands souls, as we had it in our Homeland, it is good if we have a few hundred, or even a few dozen parishioners.

Should the people, the parishioners, be blamed for their evil will? Leaving aside cases of intended, conscious provocation, we must admit that people have a genuine desire to be useful, active participants in the establishment of their parish community. And if the priest chafes and suffers from disorder, then others also suffer, and bad blood arises when they are swallowed by a wave of parish troubles.

In most cases, such things arise from a misconception of methods and from the limitations of the participation of parishioners in parish matters, in other words, because the parish community is insufficiently infused with the concept of the aim and goals of the parish. From this springs the disagreement of action.

Parish and Church.

The geographical points showing parishes of the Church Abroad across the globe (including parishes in Russia) are unevenly distributed. We should mentally draw them closer, unite them and imagine them as pillars of one holy spiritual House-Church of the Conciliar Russian Church Abroad. They may be large and small, but they are equally important and crucial parts of one church organism. The Russian Church Abroad, in turn, forms a part of the great historical edifice of the Russian Church, distinct from the Soviet framework of the so-called Moscow Patriarchate, a building which has lost for our eyes its outlines in a deep, midnight fog. Yet this Church is, still, a part of the one universal Church of Christ. The conditions under which the Church Abroad exists are not easy, in its entirety and on the parish level. Still, life has shown that the general recognition of the real situation of the world is clearer among members of the Church Abroad than among members of many other parts, of the national churches and jurisdictions of the Church; the discernment between truth and deceit is clearer. The path of our Church is straight and open. If it is so, can we drop the candle given to us to carry by Divine Providence?

We in the Diaspora must carry on our humble, local task as part of a greater whole. We must build from good bricks, with proper stonework, joining not with sand but with good cement, with plans and methods invented not by us, but with those that were given from the beginning by the Apostles and saints--the first builders of the Church.

For this we must firmly and constantly bear in mind the unity of the smallest part of the Church with the whole body, the inner unity of the Conciliar Church Abroad.

How often this unity is lost to us in practice, and the entity of the parish, especially when it reaches a certain level of comfort, withdraws into its own “parish egotism.” One hears these words:

“We have everything we need: a church, a choir, a priest, and we live on our own funds. We need no one. There is a bishop in his headquarters. He is needed when a solemn service is in order, or to provide a new priest. Otherwise, we are independent and owe nothing to anyone.”

That is how it was in the olden days, those who lived in the remote villages would say: “Why do we need a government with its ministers, armies, judges, and so on--this is nothing but an unnecessary burden for us...”

Church and parish--are one indivisible whole, they have one structure, one bloodstream, one breath, one spiritual life. The Parish is a single cell or a group of cells of the body of the Church. The whole, said the Apostle, is “formed,” “tempered” of various parts, “through mutual bonds,” receiving from the Lord “growth for self-creation in love.” Parts, though each has its own purpose, feed from the whole and serve the whole. “The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you...Whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored; all the members rejoice with it.” (I Cor. 21:21, 26). One part cut off from the body cannot survive independently. So does the parish receive everything from the Church.

Whence comes the divine service, with its rule and rich content? From whence come service books and Holy Scripture? Whence pastors and clergymen? From the Church. Or, maybe one might think that this can be obtained on the open market? Yes, maybe there are priests who have freed themselves from episcopal authority. But we know that if the parish tears away from the Church, then the sacraments in that church are not sacraments, and communion is not of the Holy Mysteries, and the church is not an Orthodox Church, and the name “Orthodox” is illicit. And we are left with the words of the Apostle: “What have you that was not given? And if it was given, why boast as though you received it not?”

The Builders of the Church

The unseen Creator and Architect of the Church is Christ. Her builders are the successors of the Apostles, the bishops. Upon them lies the burden and great responsibility for the entire edifice. Priests are their assistants, their colleagues, the “hands of the bishops.” “We,” says the Apostle, “are laborers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building.” (I Cor. 3:9). “But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon,” urges the Apostle. “Now if any man build upon this foundation (Christ) gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man’s work shall be made manifest...the first shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.” Such is the responsibility of the bishops, such are the demands made of them. From here comes their dutyBa duty of unwavering faithfulness. “Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.” Before men, continues the Apostle, “am I not hereby justified; but he that judgeth me is the Lord.” (I Cor. 3:12-13, 4:1-2, 4). These words refer to all the builders of the Church: to bishops, as successors to the work of the Apostles, and to their assistants, all the pastors of the Church.

But here one hears the voice of the good Orthodox layman: “We also do not wish to be passive observers, but participants of the building of the Church. Is there room for us?” This is answered by Apostle Peter: “Ye,” he says, “also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices.” (I Peter 2:5). The participants in the building process are all of us. But each should look to his own part. That part is first of all, one’s heart, soul and body. Make of it a temple of God. And then your weight in the general construction of the Church will be greater, and your investment in its work will grow. In the history of the Church, many bishops, builders of the Church, have remained unremembered; they were overshadowed by the light of the memory of other individuals--saints, laborers-in-God, men and women, and especially of martyrs, many of whom were not of clerical rank; they built churches of their souls: and what a contribution they have made in the treasury of the Church!

By the way, the work of building by a parish member is not limited to his own person: before him is a wide field of labor in the Church. For almost every physical thing we see in our newly-constructed churches are the result of zeal and labor on the part of laypersons, selfless, harmonious, creative. Has only a little remained for us from the past from the labors of laymen in our rich ecclesiastical and sacramental legacy? The builders of churches, icon-painters, composers, theologians and church writers, even missionaries: how many of these were laypersons? One thing is needed: a pious Christian spirit, united with the thought of the Church’s benefit: harmony in the common work, the adherence to the customs and rules of the Church. A choir will not be good if the singers do not heed their director. Poor are the workers on a construction site if each builds according to his own taste.

The Laws of the Church.

In church building, there is no room for arbitrariness, for assering one’s own will. Everything in the Church comes from holy law and plans. Laws and plans in this sense are the canons of the Church. As during the construction of the church, all is determined by the plans, and every brick according to its own mold and in its own place, so should the establishment of parish life follow the canons.

Often one hears the comment that the canons are “outdated,” that they cannot be followed today. No, they are not outdated. The life of the Church follows them. If there are canons that are outdated in the sense that they refer to phenomena which have retreated into history, for example, canons which treat schisms or heresies that no longer exist, they yet remain a guide, even if not by letter, but by their spirit. The life of the canons is explained in that they are built on moral foundations, on a strict basis of the Gospel. They make lofty demands of the Christian, and to Christian society, and to the servants of the Church, just as the holy Gospel makes lofty demands. That is why in many instances the canons are a living denunciation of our times, of our spiritual poverty. But their properties do not provide a foundation to recall them, to toss them aside, just as the avoidance of Gospel teachings does not provide justification for changing or simplifying the Gospel for the easing of its moral laws. This desire to live freely, without limiting oneself to the laws of the Church, but retaining only its form, its visible aspect, its esthetic, its traditions and customs which tie us to the past, and this desire to encourage people to self-justification for failing to observe the laws of the Church--this is what is responsible for the statement that the canons have become outdated.

In part, the preservation of the canons is also important in the sense that they are the living pointer to the abnormality of contemporary life, and they reveal to us how far our world has departed from the proper level of self-expectation. They place before us the true church norm. That is why they are in necessary in practice, even when life drifts away from them, for they are a vital compass in our ocean voyage. They serve as a compass also in general ecclesiastical life and in the personal area of spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian. No matter how far ones path strays from its goal, there is hope to straighten the way, so long as we know the path ourselves.

The Spirit of the Canons is Obedience

What is the basis of the acceptance and fulfillment of the canons given by the Church? Their foundation is not coercion, not the imposition of the will of anotherBwhether of one person or that of society, for example, the stateBbut the moral principle of free obedience in the name of God, or, more exactly, the labor of obedience. Obedience is never easy. The egotistical nature of man, so often vain,so proud, so self-loving, prefers to give orders, and not obey. That is why obedienceBChristian, moral, free obedienceBis a podvig, a labor for God. It is a sign of nobility, not slavery; of loftiness, not lowliness. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself served as an example, He was “obedient” to the will of His Father, “even unto death, the death of the cross.” The Lord said to the Apostles: “He who heeds you heeds Me.” The Apostle writes of such obedience to the Christians of Rome: “For your obedience is come abroad to all men” (Rom. 16:19) and to the Philippians: “as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence” (Phil. 2:12). This moral principle is fully expressed in the monastic obedience, “holy obedience,” as they say in monasteries, and it is seen as the first step of spiritual growth. But the entire structure of the Church is suffused with the law of moral obedience.

Bishops stand at the head of the Church. To whom do they owe obedience, since there is no visible authority over them? In strict obedience to the canons of the Church. The authority of the bishop is brought to life in the preservation of canonical laws; they are far from arbitrary rule. The bishops are the leading, often selfless, untiring defenders not of their own will and personal tastes, but of the rule of canon law in the Church, one of the most important of whom says: The bishops of every nation must acknowledge him who is first among them and count him as their head, and do nothing of consequence without his consent...And let each do that which concerns his diocese and those places accordant with it. But neither let him who is the first do anything without the consent of all.” (34th Apostolic Rule). Those who are uncomfortable with the canons, who feel that the bishops demand their observance arbitrarily, contradict themselves: for leaving behind the canons, the bishops are left with nothing but their own unilateral decisions.

Obstacles on the Path of Building

But here lie two stones, obstacles on the path, which must first be moved aside.
One of these is the temptation which snares some public figures, who make the parish a base of operationBone that is ready-made, for social, cultural or nationalist activism. They see a convenient forum to expand their work in its many forms, a ready-made, consistent, attractive, unpolitical parish organization, which attracts people of both sexes, all ages, levels of education, wealth and social strata. They do not exclude religion from the sphere of spiritual virtues: they are prepared to cede first place to religion; but they wish to expand the function of the parish, to include among the parish’s activities certain forms of cultural work, artistic, athletic, and the like. Religion to them, as we can see, is only one function of the parish. Under these circumstances, it is more than enough to simply maintain the church, hire a priest and choir, pay the priest a salary. But for the real guidance of the parish, they feel that the priest has no place.
The inadmissibility of such a situation is obvious. Here the parish ceases to be an indivisble part of the whole Church. The parish, as an organization, is removed from the Church. Let us imagine if the cultural branch of the parish had some overseeing headquarters somewhere, guiding, uniting and controlling itBin such a case we would come to see that the parish ceases under such conditions to be a parish of the Church, and the Church itself, being composed of such parishes, will fall apart. The parish would not be led not by the Church Administration, but by this other organization. Clearly, this is usurpation of the Church and parish.

Another obstacle on the path of parish life is the preconceived notion that the fulfillment of the canons does not correspond with the “freedom” of Western culture. “In the West, there is freedom, and you wish to enslave us.” Of course, this is the voice of ignorance. In governments of law, freedom consists of the right of organizations to live by their own laws and to execute them. Besides, the government, in the words of the Supreme Court, says that to obey the rules of those organizations to which we belong is an honor-bound duty and our civic duty; he who ignores the rules of his organizationBin this case, of his ChurchBis a psychologically unreliable civilian of the stateBthat his loyalty cannot be relied upon. We see before us the example of the shattered church life of Orthodox parishes in America outside of the Church Abroad, which is the result of concessions to these two factors: the understanding of what a parish is has been distorted, and an ignorant view of freedom.

Favorable Conditions

The Russian Church Abroad travels a straight path, though under difficult conditions. And it has the necessities so that its order of life, all aspects of its existence are built on canonical foundations and so that, in part, its parish structure is exemplary.

Are contemporary conditions favorable for this? In many ways, yes. We will not flatter ourselves by equating our parish communities with the Christian communities of the earliest times, when there was a great deal of enthusiasm in the faith and in struggle. But even if we cannot equate, we can still compare, and we find a series of similar conditions:

  1. Our communities, in large part, are young, newly-formed; everything was organized anew from the first stone: a new church, a fresh parish, recently-appointed priest; a new venue, new civil conditions.

  2. Our communities are small, comprised of individuals scattered throughout their town, among heterodox and populations with a different language: a circumstance that in and of itself unites us.

  3. Our bishops, through their external situation, their proximity to their flock, their accessibility, the simplicity of their lives and conditions, approach the situation of the bishops of ancient Christianity; such closeness was hardly possible among the bishops of the old Russian dioceses, with their constituency of a thousand or more parishes, with parishes of a thousand and up to 5 or even 10 thousand souls.

  4. The Church is not connected to the government, is not supported by it and has no special civil obligations.

  5. We will add here the witness for the faith experienced by many refugees, which stoked their souls and the images of martyrdom in death for the Church that illuminates us from such a recent past. But besides all this, the history of the Church gives us for guidance Her enormous experience from the past, which lightens the burden for parishes in fulfilling their purpose.

The Purpose of the Parish

What then, finally, is the purpose of the Church, and in Her the parish? The answer is in the word of God. The Apostle writes: "And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (Ephes. 4:11-13).

And so, here is the purpose: the perfection of saints; the matter of service; the creation of the body of Christ--this triple purpose of the entire Church, and therefore the purpose of each parish.
The internal purposes of the parish--the first point, the perfection of saints, is the moral perfection of members of the Church. The salvation of souls in Christ is first and foremost--it cannot be moved into the background. Those who assign a social goal for the Church, that is, the reformation of social relationships through the Church, and from that the Christian elevation of the person, are wrong. Salvation in Christ comes from prayer, divine service, the laws of the Church, works of love and charity, spiritual labors. The salvation of entrusted souls is the main goal of the pastor. This is also the personal goal of each member of the Church. It is performed in the general body of the Church, not individually, but through mutual spiritual support, and this overcomes the self-loving motion of one’s own self. A personal, worthy life in Christ is one’s duty before the Church as a whole.

The second purpose is that of service–to God and man. It opens wide the field of social church work for each member of the Church and parish. Service to God is participation in the divine services, in church reading and singing, in building churches, care for the beauty and order of the temple–individual examples of works done, as they say, “for God.” Service to man is all sorts of charity for the needy, help for the sick, altruistic care for others. A special, very important, place is occupied by the spiritual and nationalist education of children and youth. This is an area of exceptional importance. We are in danger of losing the young generation for the Church.

Children grow up without the knowledge of the Russian language, more importantly, of Church Slavonic. Those families are very much to blame which ignore their native language. It is the obligation of the parish leadership, on one hand, to influence families in this matter, so that they do not neglect their responsibility before their children, and on the other hand, they must form groups, Saturday and Sunday schools, children’s church choirs and the like, and take other measures to retain the young generation in devotion to the Church and under the Church’s influence.

One cannot accuse our parishes of inertia in this area. Even with our sparse resources, they display the proper work, zeal and selflessness. But here is exactly that stumbling block, where the interests of pastoral work and the interests of society are at odds. The difficult situation a priest finds himself in is not to douse the social activism in the parish and the initiative often stemming form laypersons. The priest cannot do everything himself, in his own name, for everyone, he needs cooperation. But here the cooperation of several persons with the pastor can turn into the desire to lead, to criticize, to create opposition, etc. On the other hand, we hear declarations that due to necessity, the parishioners must take upon themselves one or another parish matter, since the priest is ill-prepared for it. Yet here is where the importance of adhering to the Normal Parish By-Laws becomes especially clear, for it regularizes internal relationships and guarantees the pastor the leadership role of the parish. The priest can then easily employ the broad cooperation of parishioners, since he can rely on the preservation of ecclesiastical order. There is no fear that the rights of the pastor will be usurped, there is no danger that a direction away from the Church will take hold, to its detriment. Then any form of assistance to the priest, in case of his weakness, ignorance, inability, etc., cannot violate the proper relationships in the parish.

Then there is the purpose of the Church as a whole. The third goal is the building of the body of Christ, service to the Church as a whole, expressed to the greatest degree through unity with the whole, the parish with the Church. In our ecclesiastical consciousness, the notion of the entire Orthodox Church can never be extinguished, the love for Her, zeal for the Church, and more concretely–for the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, to which we belong. And so, in fulfilling this third purpose, we almost reach the pinnacle.

Service to the Church as a whole is the practical care for the ecclesiastical centers. It demands first of all the understanding of how much we are obliged locally to these Church centers. The Church Administration cares for the proper observation of the order of service, the printing of church service books and providing them to churches, preserves the episcopal succession and priestly ordinations, cares for the education and preparation of clergymen and provides pastors for church communities. It protects the Church from arbitrariness and from those who introduce temptation into the Church; it guards the external honor of Orthodoxy. It denounces obvious moral temptations, deflects attacks on the faith and the Church no matter whence they may come. It provides the ideological defense of the Church and legal protection when needed. It bears the duty of representation before the civil authorities and the society of the given country.

The fullness of general church life and the multi-faceted, fruitful activity of ecclesiastical, episcopal centers is a direct testament of the wellness of internal life of discrete Orthodox parishes. And conversely, difficulties, weak activity on the part of the episcopal center is evidence of difficult conditions of parish life. Life’s laws are the same everywhere: when cells of an organism fulfill their functions for the whole, they in turn are fed to satiety by the organism, enjoy its overall health, grow, strenghten, and are renewed. Otherwise, they weaken and become feeble. The health of the organism depends also on the health of its parts, and their weakness always affects the organism as a whole.

There are many such aspects in the life of the Church, which require the general participation of the whole Church, every single parish. The time has passed when we knew that we are protected from above, by the state, in a material sense, that everything will be organized without us, and the necessary resources will be provided. Life has completely changed in this sense. Do we recognize such changes in time?

For example: a parish declares that it is need of a good pastor. Who cannot but see all sides of these two words: “a good pastor?” One hopes to see in a pastor piety, lofty morals, good education, ecclesiastical knowledge, a teaching instinct, tact, gregariousness, a family worthy of a pastor and a series of other qualities, among them: the readiness to accept the worst living conditions if necessary. Can the parish itself produce such a candidate? More often than not, it will reply that they have no one like that. Of course: future priests are physically born in parishes; but a pastor must also be prepared, and this is not an easy task. This is a matter for the Church administration. But this can only be done properly if there is perpetual, solid support, spiritual and material, on the part of the parishes.

We must inspire people, seize their attention, their zeal, enthusiasm, conscious care for our central administrations. The psychological side, the heartfelt good will is more important than the material side. But of course, it is most of all expressed in material support.

Who fails to see the importance of material resources in ecclesiastical affairs, as in any affairs? This has not yet been brought to life, by far. We will state directly: not one Christian religion has such disdain for the material basis of their central ecclesiastical administration as do the Orthodox. Their difficult history has taught them that lesson; we have yet to learn it. We think little of the question of how to fund theological schools, publish church service books, print literature especially for pastors, for missionary work of the Church, print apologetics in the struggle against disbelief and sectarianism, for general church charity, and in part, to support Russian Orthodox centers in Palestine and other places, where small groups of people selflessly labor in their churches–solitary points in the heterodox world.

We often hear among our Russian people praise for other church organizations, that they open schools, soup kitchens, orphanages and schools; and at the same time, expressions of regret about ourselves: for we have not received such help in moments of need from our church circles. In fact, it turns out: through the efforts of our Synodal Administration and Diocesan Administrations, a great deal of work was done for emigres. But this was done through the self-sacrificing efforts of the Administration without the aid of the masses of Orthodox people; and if there were indeed several parishes taking an active role is such work, they were few, and concentrated on their own needs.

Truly, we must speak of the material aspect of the Church. It is important to tear down the wall of indifference towards the church administrations, and the parochialism of the parish. “Give to the Church Administration? Why? What do we need it for? Let them get money from somewhere else: they have their own parishioners. Maybe someone will subsidize them. Maybe the monasteries can give them funding.”

It is important to dispel this thought process. Let us remember the alms given by the widow, shown by the Lord for all as an example. This donation was not to the local synagogue, but the Temple of Jerusalem, which united all Jews; it may have been brought from far away. We see before us Apostle Paul, who fervently called upon the Corinthians to regular collections for the “saints” of the central Jerusalem Church, which greatly developed charitable works; the apostle thanks even the Philippians for their generous contributions for the needs of his apostolic work; he makes an example of the Macedonian Church for generosity even beyond their means. We are given a living example by heterodox religions. We cannot but look also at our own Holy Trinity Monastery, where a small group of monks does everything it can to prepare pastors, print church books, create ecclesiastical apologetical and educational literature, and in missionary work–the establishment of new parishes and conducting services in communities deprived of a pastor.
Great and multifaceted is the task of building the body of the Church of Christ. Insofar as it concerns the parish, it means that the parish should not limit itself to its own limited sphere, but must be beneficial and act as the necessary, conscious part of the entire body of the Church.

Let us then summarize:

  1. The parish is not simply a social organization, but a purely ecclesiastical organization, a part of the body of the Church, and is completely subject to the laws and building plans of the entire Church.
  2. The life of the parish, like the life of the entire Church, is built upon canonical law, the foundation of which obligates everyone, without exception, to Christian obedience.
  3. The proper relationships in the parish are established by the Normal Parish By-Laws, obligatory for all parishes.
  4. The interests and needs of the parish should not be a hindrance for the members of the Orthodox Church in their other moral obligation: to care for and serve the Church as a whole.
  5. The well-being and material foundation of the Church Administration and central institutions are necessities for the fulness of Church life.

Russky Pastyr, No. 21, 1995

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