Michael POMAZANSKY: (+1998)
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
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
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
Gods husbandry, ye are Gods 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 mans work shall be made manifest...the
first shall try every mans 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, ones 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 Churchs 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 ones 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
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 parishs 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
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:
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
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
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.
Church is not connected to the government, is not supported
by it and has no special civil obligations.
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 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 ones own self. A personal, worthy
life in Christ is ones duty before the Church as a whole.
The second purpose is that of serviceto 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 templeindividual
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, childrens
church choirs and the like, and take other measures to retain
the young generation in devotion to the Church and under the
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 concretelyfor 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. Lifes 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
churchessolitary 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 workthe 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:
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.
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.
proper relationships in the parish are established by the
Normal Parish By-Laws, obligatory for all parishes.
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.
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