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Protopriest Nicholas Karypov

What Must We Do to Raise our Ecclesiastical Culture?

(Lecture by Protopriest Nicholas Karypov delivered at the 13 th Conference of the Diocese of Sydney, Australia and New Zealand, held at SS Peter and Paul Cathedral in December 2001) 

What do I mean by "ecclesiastical culture?" First of all: the cultivation of the idea that nectar exists beyond the flower's beauty (according to the thoughts of St Basil the Great), but also a clear understanding of the relationship between the flower and the nectar.

With this aim in mind it is necessary to clarify what the Church is, for often this remains a shallow, superficial concept of the Church either as an organization, a building, or an ideology. Few Orthodox parishioners think of the Church as an image of Eucharistic life, of constant repentance, of reconciliation with God among brothers and sisters in the parish. One famous Russian parish priest in the early 20 th century, Fr Alexei Mechev, called his parish his "repenting family."

Of course, the awareness of this notion is very low amongst us, and so we need to quickly catechize everyone. I mean something more than what people learn at parish schools or religious instruction (The "Law of God"—think about this phrase). Indeed, we often operate under conceptions of this expression, returning to the pre-Christian model of behavior and thought, as though we had never heard the words of Apostle Paul and other Christian writers on the difference between Law and Grace.

In my experience, this gap in the proper catechistical knowledge cannot be filled by the priest during a sermon. Sermons, due to time limitations, are more pieces of advice—not lessons. Lessons must be conducted in groups or in person.

The above has led us to the topic of this lecture—to study which happens in a person in our time. A priest must cooperate in the proper approach to reading [spiritual literature], by recommending books and brochures to read, and making them as accessible as possible through the church kiosk and library. People need the guidance of priests and of experienced persons in selecting suitable reading material, depending on their individual level of knowledge.

Increasing the number of parishioners educated in ecclesiastical matters is a great step towards improving a situation wherein parishioners are passive consumers of the spiritual education provided by clergymen. The Orthodox Church never considers the clergy a separate caste of "Brahmans," head and shoulders above mere mortals. In practice, mutual isolation leads to misunderstanding between the clergy and laity.

At one extreme is the unhealthy veneration of so-called spiritual elders; the other extreme is the disrespectful attitude of the democratic mind which leads to anti-clericalism. Clergymen and laymen must communicate and understand each other on the basis of real conciliarity. We must elevate our knowledge of ourselves, of God and of the Church. The Church cannot be healthy if we fail, all together, to raise our level of knowledge, and correspondingly raise our Orthodox consciousness. The clergy cannot do this alone. We need personnel, we need people who have knowledge to further this cultivation.

Following my opening comments, I would like to offer some practical conclusions, which I hope can be expanded further in our discussion.

It is necessary to organize unified groups of catechistic workers from among the clergy and laity to:

a) prepare people for baptism. This must be done not only for adults, who should be prepared over the course of 6-12 months or more, but also should include at least 2-3 preparatory sessions with parents and Godparents of children being baptized.

b) prepare young people for marriage: to explain what Christian wedlock is, what love is. Yes, yes, people need to be told this, or the number of divorces will increase.

c) help people in times of sorrow after the loss of friends or relatives, explaining the reason and need for prayer for the dead.

d) organize a system of visits by clergymen and laity to the elderly and infirm.

e) organize good spiritual libraries, periodicals, video and audio tapes and compact disks. We can and must establish a means of limited publications, to make instructive and educational video and audio recordings.

Speaking of various teaching means in catechism, one cannot exclude monasteries. St John Chrysostom said that one good example is better than a thousand sermons (even, apparently, his sermons!). Our ancestors would say "Angels are the light of monks; monks are the light of laymen." We must not organize tours but pilgrimages to monasteries. There we learn what cannot be learned from books, or from sermons.

Our ethnocentrism, the confusion between our love for our homeland and for God is a problem for all Orthodox Christians in the New World .

A similar problem is our tendency to live in isolation in a self-created spiritual and emotional ghetto. We must find a way to have contact and communication with Orthodoxy of all cultures, even if on a daily, unofficial level, and also to relate to and bear witness before the non-Orthodox, who are often very interested in hearing us. With God ' s help , a great deal can be accomplished .

A good lesson from history is that of the different fates of the Church of the Jews and the Church of the Gentiles. The latter blossomed and grew thanks to its freedom and openness, in contrast with the spirit of exclusionism of the Church of the Jews. There are enough examples of this phenomenon in the later history of the Church, for example, in the cultural exclusionism of Russian history of the 15-17 centuries, which led to the tragedy of schism.

In our diocese, we could have better communication between parishes. There is a degree of isolationism among us: a "leave us alone" attitude. Some of my parishioners have complained that they are not greeted warmly in the parishes of other cities. Of course, this does not mean that we are good and everyone else is bad. We probably act the same way towards them.

There is a real need to attract children and youth to actively participate in services through the creation of youth and children's choirs (the church music conferences are very successful in this regard), to develop interest in learning in the next generation. We are faced with a woeful ignorance in liturgics, even with regard to the order of the Divine Liturgy itself, the Eucharist. Study groups should be established with the goal of learning this aspect of Orthodox Culture.

Our diocese has a fair degree of success with its annual youth conferences in Australia for some 40 years now. We must provide the opportunity for adults to participate in regular conferences, too. A few such conferences have proven successful already, though they are not regularly scheduled.

The Greek colony of Australia , because of its large population, was able to establish good Orthodox schools and colleges. Now a good number of non-Greek students are enrolled in them; in the future we might cooperate more among the various Orthodox groups in this regard. Because of our fragmentation, our children end up studying in state, private or Catholic schools. I understand that this might sound somewhat bold, taking into account the seriousness of the divisions in ecclesiastical politics and ethnic exclusionism, but an organized minority can move mountains, especially if it is accord with God's will. In fact, there is an interesting experiment in cooperation among Orthodox Churches: in 2002, a unified Russian-Serbian Youth Conference is to be held in Victoria .

To start: we must seriously examine our church schools and see what needs to be done to better reflect life in Australia . Unfortunately, our schools are often more like "Potemkin villages" created to please the older generations.

The opinion was expressed at our Diocesan Council meetings in Sydney that the diocesan assemblies themselves must be reinvigorated. As a result, the idea of a new type of lecture arose, somewhat different from traditional reports in which we list our "accomplishments" and enable each individual delegate to feel good about himself, but as a whole, we are stultified. Can we begin to think positively about these gatherings, as a forum for expressing the conciliarity of the Church instead of patting each other on the back?

Since conferences provide an opportunity to feel our conciliar unity, one would like to think that meeting once every three years is not enough. If we wish to grow together spiritually, and make decisions on the future of our diocese together, and not only in financial or legal matters, then we must reconsider whether it is enough to only meet every three years.

The aim of this lecture is to stimulate our thoughts on the question of improving our Church Culture, or, to use a modern expression, to "improve our quality of life," meaning, of course, church life.

Where church life truly thrives there is a spirit of repentance, of restoration, not the self-satisfied resting on our collective laurels.