SAN FRANCISCO: May 10, 2006
Protopriest Victor Potapov
“…You Are Living Stones That Are Being Used to Build a Spiritual House.”
(The Role of an Orthodox Parish Today)
And now you are living stones that
are being used to build a spiritual house ,
an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices,
acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:5)
An old Latin saying reads: "A Christian alone is not a Christian.” You cannot be a Christian split off from other believers in Christ who are part of His Church. As Russian theologian Sergei. I. Fudel put it, “The Church is the end of solitude.” 1
Christianity is community. The very word church, in Greek ecclesia , means “assembly,” “convention.” This word was used by the Savior Himself, founder of the Church, and later by His apostles. 2 In this there is unquestionably a succession between the Old and New Testaments. From the day of Holy Pentecost, Christians felt they were the ‘new Israel,' a people called and sanctified by God in Christ.
The New Testament knows no ethnic boundaries; its message is addressed to all people, whatever may be their heritage, language or prior beliefs and traditions. They enter into the Church of Christ, and it is membership in that Church, and not mere acceptance of New Testament teachings, which forms the foundation of their unity with Christ and one another.
The abstract notion of “Christianity” is unquestionably an idea that evolved with the passage of time. The central and fundamental concept was and remains the Church. From the very first days of its existence, the character of Christian teaching has been social, directed at human society. The core content of all the Church's sacraments has always been communal. Their goal is to introduce a person to a new life in the Church and strengthen them in that life. The Church's ultimate goal was and remains to embrace all of society, indeed all of humanity, to a renewing faith in Christ as savior; for the Lord “…will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge and the truth.” 3 To create the Church of Christ is to form society anew, recreating it on a new foundation.
New Testament teachings always stress the importance of unanimity in spirit and thought among Church members. Communal property and the absence of egoism came naturally to the early Church. 4 The most ancient title Christians used was ‘the brethren'. The Church was called to be the created manifestation of the Divine principle: we distinguish the three persons of the Holy Trinity, but at the same time confess that God is one in His Divine essence.
The call to love God and man is the basis of our faith. 5 This call to love, and the revelation that it is possible, forms an enduring theme throughout the Gospel. True love for God and a readiness to live by His commandments is a difficult task, and egotists are not up to the task. Love for God, the sensation of being a citizen of the Kingdom of God, excludes the thought of a purely personal salvation. The Christian strives not only to save and renew his own soul, but that of loved ones and of all creation.
As SI Fudel writes:
“…The Church starts where, as Christ put it, “two or three are gathered together in His name”. Not where there is one, for love begins where there are “two or three.” Two or three is the first unit of love, and where self and isolation end is there the Church begins.” 6
The Primary Structure of the Catholic Church
The Church of Christ embraces the heavens and the earth, past, present and future, and has an earthly semblance: the parish church. The parish church may be called the primary structure of the Catholic Church.
If, as the Apostle Paul teaches, the Church is the mystical Body of Christ 7 , then the parishes are the small component parts of that great church Body. 8
A human body is composed of many parts with each, no matter how small, having its own purpose and carrying out its own function. All these parts are nourished by the same juices, all beat to the same rhythm and follow the direction of the same soul. They accomplish their purpose in unity and concord with the body as a whole. Just so, the members of a parish must live and act in close unity among themselves and with the whole Church, for our Lord is one: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” 9
In his epistle to the Christians of Ephesus, St. Paul writes of the Savior: “For He is our peace, who hath made both one…” 10 that is joining that, which was divided, that which was split asunder by sin. Uniting with Christ in the Church's Sacraments returns a person to his original wholeness, making him, in the words of that same Pauline epistle: “of the household of God.”
We are “of the household of God” when we are in the Church, for Christ's Church to this day does God's work in the world. Thus the Church, the body of Christ, is that living organism which stands alone on earth against the growing wave of chaos, evil and division. We—you and I—are members, organs, of the Body of Christ. When the various parts of an organism function smoothly and help one another, the body lives. If one organ standing on its own and forgetting that its purpose is to serve the others, opposes the others, then the whole body ceases to function and becomes a corpse.
The Parish Sanctuary
The sanctuary is the concentrated wellspring of living spiritual strength for every parish. On the holy Throne of this sanctuary the Very Son of God offers himself up constantly in a bloodless and redeeming Eucharistic sacrifice for both the quick and the dead. Here, in the sanctuary, before that holy Throne, the earthly Church unites in prayer with the celestial Church, those people and angels and saints who stand before the Throne of God. In partaking of the Holy Gifts we unite ourselves with Christ, and through Him, with the Universal Church. “Unite all of us who partake of this one bread and cup to one another in the communion of the one Holy Spirit... And grant that with one voice and one heart we may glorify and praise Thy most honorable and majestic Name, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” 11
St. John (Maximovich) says this of mystical unity with Christ and through Him with His Church:
“The earthly Church unites all who are reborn through Baptism and who have taken up the Cross of the struggle against sin, and who follow after Christ the contest-master of this struggle. The Divine Eucharist, the offering of the bloodless sacrifice and partaking thereof, sanctifies and strengthens its partakers and makes those who receive of the Body and Blood of Christ true members of His Body, the Church. But only with death is it determined whether a man remained a true member of the Body of Christ to his last breath, or whether sin triumphed in him and drove out the grace binding him to Christ and received by him in the Holy Mysteries.
"He who, as a member of the earthly Church, has reposed in grace, goes over from the earthly Church into the heavenly Church. But he who has fallen away from the earthly Church will not enter into the heavenly, for the Church in this world is the way into the heavenly.” 12
The real life of a parish arises from the depths of the human soul, forged into unity by shared spiritual experiences and conjoined in the sacraments and prayers carried out under the shared roof of one sanctuary.
It is possible to come to church often, even daily, to pray, even to partake of the sacraments, and yet remain aloof, concerned only with one's own salvation and one's own family's welfare; through all of it not finding out what is going on in the parish community. But you cannot really call such a person a member of the church and its community. 13
Fr. Alexander Shmemann proposes, among other matters, that the liturgy should be viewed as a "sacrament of gathering":
“…Remember, it should be firmly kept in mind that we do not go to church for individual prayer, we go there to gather in the Church . The visible sanctuary is but an image of the uncreated temple for which it stands. Therefore “gathering in the Church” is in fact the first liturgical act, the foundation of the entire Liturgy. Without understanding this all subsequent sacramental actions are incomprehensible. And when I say “I am going to Church”, it means that I am going to a gathering of believers in order to constitute, together with them, the Church , to once again become the one I was on the day of my baptism, i.e. a full and absolute member of the Body of Christ: As the Apostle says, “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” (1 Cor. 12:27). I go to demonstrate and realize my membership, to be present and to witness before God and the world the mystery of God's Kingdom which is already “the kingdom of God come with power.” 14
A community member is someone who views the community as a common cause , that is a Liturgia . The Liturgy is usually understood in the narrow sense of being one component in the cycle of services. But this is only partially correct. The Liturgy is more than that. The Liturgy includes within it the fullness of all church activities: worship, missions and charity.
The Parish and the Home Church
The Parish temple is indissolubly linked to the family life of its parishioners. The Orthodox family, in the words of St. Paul, is the “home church.” 15 The parish can be considered a kind of confederacy of all the small churches that are Orthodox households. If an Orthodox family remains closely connected to the church the true spirit of the church naturally pervades it, forming fertile ground for its members' spiritual growth and development. Losing the church in a family inevitably leads to a tragic alienation from the Church, ending in spiritual error and mental isolation for the younger generations. The home life of a truly Orthodox family is firmly founded on the church. This vivid and unshakable foundation gives rise to moral fiber, integrity, honesty, courage, clarity and a spirit of perseverance in the younger generations. Home prayer, a home graced with the presence of icons and oil lamps before them, the cycle of feasts and fasts, all of such a family's life is formed and established under the grace-giving influence of the Church and the parish temple.
The key task set before each parish, each family, every individual Orthodox Christian, is this: to confess that you are an indivisible part of the Church of Christ and direct your entire personal, family and parish life on the basis of that confession, focusing your spiritual strength and consecration in the parish church.
True parish life grows organically from within, from the Altar, the Throne, the Eucharist. Strictly speaking, the entire church establishment, its “organizational” aspect, is based around the community gathering for the Eucharist. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann notes, that is precisely how the first generation of Christians understood community life:
“Only the Sacraments made this organization of Christians something more than a simple human institution with its directors and subordinates, authority and obedience. Instead this was a living organism imbued with the Holy Spirit. All human “service”, all human interrelations become in it a manifestation of that same Spirit, a service to Christ Himself among His brethren.” 16
Parish Charitable Activity and Diaconia
We find evidence in the works of the early Christian apologist Tertullian evidence of the strong love that existed between Christians in those days. Tertullian recounts how examples of Christian love astonished and converted some pagans: “See, they say, how they [Christians] love one another, for they themselves [the pagans] are animated by mutual hatred; how they [Christians] are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves [the pagans] will sooner put to death”. 17 The early Church was a school of love, compassion and forgiveness.
Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Surozh maintains that this cannot be said today, that it does not exist even in the smallest gathering,. If there is love, it is a general love, that which may also be found among pagans and unbelievers: the natural love of one creature for another. This is not the love that was born of the miracle of redemption which the Holy Spirit has performed in us.” 18
We live in an age of unprecedented egotism and hypocrisy. We are often concerned by pollution of our environment, church jurisdiction matters, religious conflicts, ecumenism, wars, and natural disasters. In other words, we show passionate but at the same time quite remote concern about matters affecting people we are not likely to ever meet. Meanwhile there are people right next to us in this modern life in need of our support: the elderly, the infirm, people without enough to eat, the homeless and the indigent. Sometimes these people aren't looking for just a handout, but for kindness and affection.
In the Gospel, we read that the paralytic waited 38 years for the mercy of others. 19 He waited all that time for someone who would lower him into the healing waters. That someone never materialized until the Savior approached the pool. Christ asked the invalid: “Wilt thou be made whole?” and the man answered: “Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool.” That phrase, “I have no man,” has the same tragic ring in our days as they did in those.
How many paralytics are there in our midst? Invalids not only in body, but souls that are suffering and ‘have no man' to lower them into the healing pool? The pool of faith, the pool of hope and of love, the pool of boundless grace filled with therapeutic and miraculous restorative strength, transfiguration and resurrection. This pool is Christ's Church which does not move ‘at a certain season,' as the one in the Gospel, but is constantly moved with the strength and grace of the Holy Spirit, “heals that which is infirm and completes that which is lacking.” 20
Each parish must acknowledge itself to be that inexhaustible fountain of Divine Grace for its particular location. Every parish community can take on the care of several forgotten elderly people, the sick, the poor and the lonely. The Church cared for widows and orphans from the first years of its existence. We must turn to our selfless parishioners and make them aware that needs go beyond providing for their beloved church, that we must also provide for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are in need. I know from personal experience that the call will be answered.
The Apostle Paul gives us the grace-filled formula for diaconia: “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good to edification.” 21
Here we have the root of charitable pastoral service: it is serving one'ss neighbor not for our own benefit, not for earthly rewards, notoriety or self-aggrandizement. This is not service for someone because we are fond of him. Quite the opposite, we give in spite of the weakness, the fallen nature, sins and imperfections of our neighbor. That is why the Apostle speaks of bearing the infirmities of the weak. He calls on us to please, not just to help. To please, as he says: “for his good to edification,” because through serving our neighbor we serve ourselves, benefit ourselves, teach ourselves, ‘edifying' ourselves in what constitutes the fullness of Christian life. “For even Christ pleased not himself” 22 as St. Paul writes. He pleased not Himself, but us, sinners unworthy of His Divine ministry on our behalf.
That serving and loving the lonely and suffering is one of the Church's most important missions is beyond question. St. Paul writes of the Church: “And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it” 23 , and if we do not feel that, we are not of the Church.
The Process of Churching
Most people coming to Holy Orthodoxy from Russia or from other faiths had not been ‘born' in the Church, but rather entered it consciously, when they were old enough to consciously make that choice. Such people enter a new church life, a life that is unfamiliar and alien; but they must make this life their own. Joining the Church, the merging of person into the Church as an organism, into its life, must be so profound that the two lives are indistinguishable.
Churching is a phase all must undergo. It is through the Church, through church life, that the spiritual path opens, and it is on that path the human soul can approach God.
Churching can be either a relatively speedy or a slow process, sometimes easy, sometimes arduous. Unfortunately and inevitably, there are errors, disappointments and sorrows along the way. No one wholly avoids them. But helping someone who has come to the Church but not firmly established themselves is one of the key tasks of the parish and every member thereof.
The Church is always in need of people willing and able to help and to labor on Her behalf. On the other hand, a Christian who does something for the Church receives much more for it than the effort he expends. Often cleaning the floors, cleaning the candleholders, picking up around the grounds, preparing meals, singing, chanting, working in the brotherhood or sisterhood or any other work carried out as part of the church community becomes a part of joining the Church in the most real and effective manner; it something that can be accomplished at the same time he is learning the fundamentals of the faith and participating in the services.
This person will then not feel that there is “some kind of important life that I am not a part of”. Quite the opposite, he will see himself as a part of church life and will begin to feel truly a part of the Church.
We live in an alienated world, a life of isolation from one another. Church members often feel this more acutely than others. They do not always meet with understanding at work, in the world around them, and sometimes even in their own home. This lack of understanding always presents a difficulty.
In our days, where else will we find understanding of our faith, oneness of mind, familiarity and support, if not in our parish church? The people who gather there may come from very different backgrounds, but they are alike in what is important: in thought, feeling, shared joys and sorrows; most importantly, they believe alike, seek after and strive toward God together. One person may move along the path toward God a little farther, another somewhat less. The one who has gone a bit farther can share these small gifts with others. It is completely natural for believers to help one another not only spiritually, but in daily life as well. This is exactly the Lord's commandment to us, and the sign by which His true disciples may be recognized. 24
But the reality of church life today is that to a large extent we have two principal things to offer newcomers: participation in services and an individual asceticism consisting primarily of rules, prohibitions and obligations. Clearly, the fullness of church life is not limited to these two facets. The church offers us a rich, full life, embracing the full spectrum of human activity. This life is based on the Gospel and is filled with the Holy Spirit—only then does it satisfy people's religious predisposition, particularly that of the young. Young people need church activities and association more than others.
It is a great pleasure to see how caring, sincere relationships form in the parish. In like measure, it is bitter to see how often these relationships sour, sometimes evolving into mutual alienation, misunderstanding and even hatred.
Our duty is to rise above petty disagreements and differences, compensating for the weakness of others and smoothing over these differences with love. As St. Paul put it: “Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” 25
Catechism—oral instruction in the Christian faith for both those entering the Church and for its members, must be carried out as part of parish life. It must be carried out in sermons from the ambo, in parish schools, in public and private discussions and in specialized courses.
Today's services are very inaccessible to someone entering the Church. The language is hard to understand and Eucharistic prayers are not read aloud, making it difficult for such people to participate consciously in the service. Often, it is in the liturgical life of the parish that the emphasis on the Eucharist is missing. This leads to parishioners not forming a Eucharistic consciousness and living participation in the liturgical life of the parish. In their religious life, they substitute obedience to all kinds of rules for an understanding of the depth and beauty of our services. Gradually, their spiritual life atrophies or develops into legalism and pharisaism.
The chief goal of catechizing is to develop love for God and for people, and loving devotion to the Church and Her Sacraments. God has given us the gift of serving Him, and catechizing is meant to awaken in us a conscious awareness of that service. 26 The fruits of catechism are acquisition of an orthodox worldview and entry into the Church, that is to say a conscious entrance into the Church's life and sacraments, first and foremost, the Holy Eucharist. In addition to the Eucharist, morality, spiritual life, prayer, love for our neighbors all are part of church life. According to Apostle James, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” 27
In a excellent report delivered by Protopriest Nikolay Karypov at the 13 th Assembly of the Sidney and Australian and New Zealand Diocese he outlines several practical recommendations for effective catechization of parishioners:
“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.
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. 28
All the above suggestions are attainable for most of our parishes.
It is only through a concerted effort, unified in Christ, that a parish will undertake the measures needed to further spiritual enlightenment, to awaken interest in and attention to religious questions, to organize classes and religious discussions about the “one thing needful,” and everything that makes up the inseparable parts of religious education: the parish school, a magazine or newspaper, an internet website or other means of communication, and necessary efforts to distribute religious literature.
The Problem of Language
Our parishes will only flourish if we, as their Russian nucleus, carry out the Gospel commission to share the great treasure of Orthodoxy that we possess with those that thirst for it. If we refuse to do this the Lord may take from us that which we seem to have. 29
The older generation of emigres is dying off. The new generation is being assimilated into Western society. Church Slavonic is as incomprehensible to our young people as it is to most newcomers to the Church.
The Russian Church's liturgical language is marvelous, grace-filled, melodious, and for all that, for many is an obstacle to fully joining the Church.
Let us recall Pentecost. 30 After the miraculous descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles they at once passed that grace of the Spirit on to others. Going out to the people, they began to preach the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the languages of those people.
The Lord wanted His teachings to be understood. That is why the Holy Spirit gave the Apostles the gift of tongues; so they could be understood. So the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift of mission and preaching granted to the Apostles, became a gift of understanding for the people.
Making the Gospel comprehensible was the foundation of the apostolic mission and has remained fundamental throughout the history of Orthodox Christianity. Such great luminaries of Russian Orthodoxy as St. Stephen of Perm, St. Innocent of Moscow, St. Herman of Alaska, St. Tikhon of Moscow, St. Nikolay of Japan, St. John of Shanghai and many others made it the cornerstone of their mission work.
Besides the gift of tongues, there was another gift on Pentecost, a gift we often forget. We are accustomed to paying great attention to words, phrases, and sounds. Our sanctuaries echo with the moving beauty of our singing, the sounds of sermons, the chanting of Sacred Scripture. But more often than not this wealth of divine service, theology and preaching is not reflected in our lives.
Why? Because we often listen but rarely hear. Even if we take everything in emotionally, rationally, aesthetically, we do not let it pierce us through. We do not let it into the depths of our hearts. We often do not like what we can understand. Everything must be somehow “mystical”, and somehow incomprehensible. We do not allow the Word (Christ, the Logos, the Word) to come into us, past our reason, to burn Him into our hearts. In other words we reject the Pentecostal gift: the gift of hearing. To listen and to hear are two different things. The Apostles, and through them the whole Church, did not receive the gift of tongues so that we might listen to their teachings, but so that we might hear them, hear the glad tidings of Christ that they brought to the world and that our Church continues to bring to the world. What is listened to and what is heard imply different levels of obligation. That which is listened to can be forgotten. What is heard is not just recalled, it touches the heart. And if it is full of that power instilled in it by Christ, it shakes the heart to its foundations, it opens the inner eyes as it did for St. Paul on the road to Damascus.
We are all called to hear the Word of God, to let it change our lives and resolve the language problem in our parishes. It is my deeply held belief that the languages of the country must be heard along with Church Slavonic in all our parishes throughout the Diaspora. In North America, Great Britain and Australia that language is English, in South America Spanish and Portuguese, French in France and so on. Thankfully, throughout the years of our life in the Diaspora selfless members of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad have worked, and continue to work, on translating the services.
St. John (Maximovich) reminds us
“The Church has pastors and flock: to the former it is entrusted to preach and to the latter to study (Eph. 4:7-12, Cor. 12, et al.) or to undertake some other task. Each one of them, performing his assigned functions, perform the single great work of forming the Body of Christ, the Church. They must work with one spirit, neither exalting themselves not disparaging others, for they are all parts of one common body (Eph. 4:1-4, Cor. 12:12-27), and each part serves its individual purpose. 31
Parish clergy are to rely on the example of the First Pastor, Christ, not giving orders, not judging, but serving and saving. Heavy-handed authority and criticism kills parish life, while imitating the forgiving and salvific ministry of Christ brings the community to life.
We should never forget Christ's commandment that the one who is first in the Kingdom of God and in the church community, must be a servant to all. 32 The one who exalts themselves will be cast down. That is, those who seek mastery in a Christian community are not seeking the Kingdom of God and will lose the position they desire, and in doing so ruin the community.
Divine law demands that the pastor be an example for others, leading a blameless life and showing the way to Life eternal. The Lord values our acknowledging that we are not better than others. St. Photius the Great taught that “the true Christian leader is not known by the radiance of their garments, but by the heroism of the pitcher and bowl the Lord called for to wash His disciples' feet.”
St. Paul calls upon us to "covet earnestly the best gifts" 33 . These gifts are service to God and people, but they do not earn us human praise—often quite the opposite. There is one path leading to the best gifts: prayer and inner activity. The model that we should seek as clergy trying to be first in the Kingdom of God is not that of the mighty ones of this world, but that of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. His meekness, His humility, should be our model. “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister...” 34
The Church's pastors, called by God to build up parish life, must examine themselves. They must look at their inner state and attitudes, examine their spirit. They must remember that they are builders of the Divine mysteries, planting the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. They are the lamps that reflect the eternal light of Christ's truth and peace into the world. They are the salt of the earth. Just maintaining the light is not enough. They are charged with caring for the souls of the Church's spiritual children, and will have to answer for them before the Judge Himself on the Day of Judgment. They must ever recall that they are “a standard of faith and the picture of meekness” 35 for God's people.
Church Members or Church Goers?
The pastors must tend to God's flock as St. Peter teaches: “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock.” 36 Lay people, for their part, should not strive to exercise power over the clergy, striving to exercise unregulated administration of parish life. Uncontrolled, this approach can lead to a despotic form of church democracy, a situation which makes it impossible to attain a truly Christian life.
A proper relationship between laity and clergy must be founded on love and service, freely given to one another. The welfare of the entire parish depends on correctly understanding these Christian principles, applying them in life, and educating members of the church community in them. Only with this foundation can there be free, internal and organic unity of both among parish members and with the clergy of the parish church, that visible emblem of coming together at the highpoints of our lives.
It is of this unity, a natural and essential characteristic of Christian life, that the Savior speaks when He likens the relationship with believers as like unto a grape vine and its branches. 37 It is to this same unity that the Apostles, particularly St. Paul 38 , called Christians when they referred to the entire Christian community as one body.
In order for lay people to be truly useful to the church community they must be worthy of their calling . This means that they must be fully informed and educated about the task to which they are called in the Church.
But even that is not enough. Lay people called upon to decide Church problems must have a clear Christian worldview and a solid Christian education and be known and respected in the church community. Sometimes, there are people who are poorly educated, but their piety and zeal for God's temple is such, their purposefulness and common sense, honesty and sobriety so profound, that they earn the respect of all in their participation in Church matters.
Lay people are not passive objects to be directed. The mysteries of Holy Baptism and Chrismation are a kind of ordination into a position in the church. Lay people have a holy office to a certain degree, as St. Peter says: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” 39
Protopriest Nikolai Afanasiev, who extensively researched the role of the laity in the Church, says the following about the ecclesiological premise for the service of the faithful in the Church
"Every faithful one is called to serve in the royal priesthood, but the service is carried out when the entire people serves God. In calling the entire people to one service through unity in “one body”, God tasks individuals with particular services to form the body itself. Presiding over the service is one of these services, and without it the Eucharistic gathering could not be conducted and the service of the faithful carried out. The people serve God and have one in their midst who presides. The one who presides can only do so in the presence of the people. These are different services, and they cannot be mixed. But neither can one exist without the other. If one were to exist without the other it would be outside the Church. Thus by maintaining a separate existence of these elements the Eucharistic gathering cannot be attained.” 40
This is reminiscent of the perceptive caution from St. John Chrysostom:
“…we should not leave this to the priests alone. Rather we should all be concerned for the whole Church, as one body belonging to us all. This will serve toward greater affirmation, and will inspire us to greater achievements (in the virtues). Life in the Church should be the life of one home, components of one body; all must be well disposed to one another.” 41
Many different people congregate in the parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad—people of different nationalities, temperaments, life experiences and outlooks. But that which unites us is far greater than that which separates us. We are united in Christ, Whose love reaches every person. He rejects no one, is repulsed by no one. We should always keep that in mind when building parish community life.
We must always remember that we must treat everyone who comes to our parish church with love and attention. We must be open, well wishing and friendly. Every person who crosses the threshold of our sanctuary is a potential member of our church. Lord forbid that we should turn away from someone, reject or alienate him. The Lord gives us this dire warning: “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea….Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones;… For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.” 42
On the other hand we must remind parishioners that we are the Church militant in this world, likened to a ship in which we together are saved from the soul-killing storms of the turbulent sea of life. We must impress upon our people that they are not mere passengers in that ship, but members of the crew. Each must struggle every moment to attain the peace of eternal life. 43
It goes without saying that if our parish life were at a proper level, if members of our parish felt themselves to be living and active members of church society, if they were inspired to work for the common good in God's name, if they would acknowledge the importance of church unity and close interaction, parish life would thrive. Charitable activity and the church infrastructure would thrive as well. Moral and educational tasks would be carried out in the parish with great energy. Pastors would receive full support for their service and the pastors themselves, bolstered by the sympathy and support of parishioners, would be called to a greater level of effort in their service before the altar.
The rebirth of parish life depends on the well-being of our entire Church. Up until the Bolshevik coup of 1917, it was the parish churches that the best minds of Russia saw as the most dependable means of defense against the onset of godless decay. This problem was widely discussed at the All-Russia Council of 1917-1918. 44 But alas they were unable to put the reforms to parish life in place…
The Bolsheviks also understood the renewing power of the Church's primary structure, and therefore arrayed themselves in full strength against the parishes. When the godless ones determined they would not be able to physically destroy the Church they resorted to attempts to corrupt it from within. They made use of all kinds of ‘loyalties' and replaced the parishes with so-called ‘twenties,' consisting primarily of party functionaries or corrupted comrades.
We need to restore the high ideal of the parish and the church community in the parish consciousness of both our pastors and their flocks. We need to convince our people to understand that to fight enemies, both within and without, we need unity. Parishioners must see that we achieve salvation together, and that together we struggle with evil and build the parish family so that it breathes with one breath, loves with one heart and looks at life through one set of spiritual eyes, reacting collectively to events around us.
Only a parish that considers itself an indivisible portion of the greater Body of Christ will be able to do battle with the obstacles to salvation: evil and sin.
Only a parish that remembers that its roots trace back to the period of the Acts of the Apostles can take serious action in providing for the poor and deprived, as well as those who need a kind word.
In 1931, Hieromonk, later Bishop John (Shakhovskoy) expressed a thought of great importance for our days
“…Now we have nothing more firm, more unshakable, more holy than the parish. (…) Its broad animate form was given to us by God. Let us free ourselves of narrow prejudices associated with preconceptions about the parish! For on us depends the shape, the mold into which we pour the profound content of the Church, with Its experience of nineteen centuries, and with the unshakeable Divine promise given to the Church: “And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” 45