THE PARISH … WHAT FOR?
by V. Rev. Sergei Glagolev
*This paper was delivered at the 27th Annual Archdiocesan Convention.
I. The Parish As Orthodoxy: Truth or Treason?
“I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” This we confess every time we assemble to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. For the Holy Fathers this belief in “the Church” is no less than a definition of the reality of God. One cannot, for example, believe in God in the ultimate sense and not believe in the Church. Outside of Church, God and man are abstracts.
I’ve kept a huge Peanuts poster in my office for many years, on which is depicted a Dostoy — evskian Linus clutching his security blanket as he pronounces: “I love mankind: it’s people I can’t stand.” In the same way it is nonsense to say “I love God, but not the Church,” or I love the Church but not the parish,” or “I love the parish but not the parishioners, and finally, “I love parishioners, but not the people."
Holy Scriptures, both Old Testament and New, are founded on the same vision of God that the Church is God’s People, that the Church is God’s Household, that the Church is Christ’s Body, that the Church is Christ’s Bride, that the Church is the pillar and support of the Truth of the living God, wherein is true salvation which was in the Ark of Noah at the flood.
Spiritual blindness prevents the Pharisees from seeing that the fullness of God lives in Christ. That same blindness prevents us from seeing the parish as the Holy Icon of Christ in the world, the parish as that essential link uniting us in the unity of the Church as the unity of the Blessed Trinity, the parish as the revelation of the Holy Church as the fullness of Christ Who fills all in all.
Yes, the parish, my friends, the parish. The parish, in which the fullness of God’s Grace abides — and yet in an attempt to preserve my sanity I find myself looking for ways to escape from the parish for a few moments in order to pray. The parish, wherein a man’s true destiny is revealed and our true human nature partakes of the divine — and yet I catch myself looking elsewhere for consolation, for a word of charity or encouragement. The parish, the foundation of Holy Orthodoxy in the world today — yet so preoccupied with itself in imitation of its worst elements rather than the Saints that its less than stable membership begins to look elsewhere for “religious experiences,” for opportunities to learn and serve, for unfeigned fellowship, for “fulfillment.” The parish, through which Orthodox cultures have been shaped and languages and customs have been sanctified and the history of peoples and nations have been Christianized — yet so hopelessly enslaved in unbelievable self-indulgence by the very cultures shaped not for itself but for transforming the place in which it finds itself; enslaved by the very languages and customs sanctified not for itself but for communicating God’s Grace and God’s Word to all those it can reach out and touch, to all those who would listen; the parish, enslaved by the very history Christianized not for embalming a people in self-petrifying chauvinism but for witnessing the reality of Christ in a viable history of its own life and times.
Orthodoxy: for whom? God help me. I do believe and confess the Church as Mother by whom we are emboldened to dare address the awesome heavenly God as Our Father. But look at what we have done to Holy Mother Church as parish! What remains “Orthodox” in our parochial pursuits except those dangerously abstract connections to some vague national, lingual, cultural and historical identifications! What remains of Christ’s fullness in our petty parochialisms? What remains of the Holy Spirit’s operation in our parochial machinations? (God save us from the Big-Time Operators.) What remains of God’s charity among a people who have prostituted their Orthodoxy to “look American” rather than convert Americans, to serve socials rather than socially serve, to idolize their Orthodoxy rather than serve it in true worship and praise of God?
And yet, the ultimate meaning of words like “Orthodox” and “Church” is meant to be understood in terms of what “parish” means. It is to this incredible credibility gap that we must address ourselves in all candor.
II. The Parish: What For?
Some Dimensions and Perspectives
The parish: what for, if not for God? Your dimensions are too small. Your perspective is all out of whack. You make yourselves the measure of everything and then complain about the pettiness of things. Make Christ the Measure and see for yourself how the perspective changes! I tell you the truth: if the parish is not for Christ and Christ is not for the parish, then even the dribbles you give is too much money spent; if the Liturgy is not heaven on earth, then even the measly hour you grudgingly give once a week is too much time wasted; if your singing is not for God, if your serving is not for Christ, if your participating is not for the Lord Himself, if what you hear is not divine, if what you receive is not the Food of Angels, if your suffering for the parish is not because Orthodoxy is THE True Faith and there is no other, then I agree with you, brother. The parish: what for? Forget it.
But what if you were to forget yourself and follow Christ! (St. Matthew XVI: 24) I don’t mean by this some emotional hallelujah kick. The restoration of man in Christ is not to go on a super-duper “religious” binge (as the pagans were always wont to do). “Religion” is not exempt from man’s inclination to make of everything and anything a self-indulgence. Precisely the problem with secular man is that he, rather than God, is the center of everything. Finally, when his religion is designed primarily to help him rather than help others, to inspire him rather than worship God, and when parish goals serve him rather than serve Christ, then we can ask indeed: the parish, what for! Secular man has no need for parish in the ultimate Orthodox sense. He can indulge himself better, cheaper, and with less bother elsewhere in the secular world.
Christ restores the man of worship to the Household of God. This is what the parish is for. “Today the Holy Spirit has gathered us together; let us pick up the Cross and say: Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord — Hosanna in the highest! (Palm Sunday Verse, Tone 6). Forget yourself; assemble yourselves in the Name of the Lord; pick up your cross and follow Christ. This is what the parish is for.
Man was created for the true worship and service of God. This is what “Orthodoxy” means, my friends. This true worship and service is not man’s invention but God’s Gift in Christ. When a man can say with his gathered brethren in concert with the saints and angels at the end of the Divine Liturgy: “We have seen the true Light! We have received the Heavenly Spirit! We have found the True Faith! Worshipping the undivided Trinity Who has saved us!” — then he has discovered indeed what the parish is for.
Quite simply, the parish is for forgetting yourselves to look at God. Simply put, you will have discovered what the parish is for when you can no longer understand how in the presence of our Lord you can go on thinking about yourself. In Church, above all, Christ is in our midst. He is our God: we can do nothing but worship and serve Him in truth. Without this vision the people perish, not parish (Proverbs 29:18).
III. The Parish As Relationships — People, Priests and Prelates: Who Cares?
The parish is a relationship of people, priests and prelates who care about each other, because God loved us first (I John IV: 19). The parish fulfills in God the ideal of fatherhood, of family, of friendship and of love. These relationships are not just some canonical connections with some bishops who assign some valid priests who serve a bunch of parishioners “in good standing” who keep the parish going by organizing God-knows how many organizations. These relationships are the sacred responsibility of each and all to keep the parish from chopping itself up into self-serving bits.
I quiver and quake when I hear those frightening words “let’s get organized” because this usually means setting up one group from the other to serve special interests of special personalities, institutionalizing fragments of a living whole, literally organizing the life out of an organism that cannot truly function as dissected bits. The parish is a living thing. A bishop is “important” because a parish literally cannot live without a bishop, and a priest cannot exist outside a bishop, and neither can function without a people who responsibly care as Christ’s Body.
Within the parish itself, God save us from Sunday Schools that fragment the children for a “portion” of worship and from those “adults” who actually need Christian Education more than the children they neatly pack away into isolation. God save us from choirs and youth groups and service organizations that are so busy busily busying themselves that they use up — all their energies just perpetuating themselves as a “group.” God save us from the awesome Boards of male-Martha’s anxious and troubled over so many things who would do well to leave the clanking of their financial dishes and the rattling of their organizational spoons with which they serve up their sundry institutional concoctions, and instead, quietly sit at the Lord’s feet to listen. (St. Luke X: 40-42).
To organize groups to extend service and care beyond themselves and provide identity in the greater life of Orthodoxy into which they transcend is one thing. But to formulize, categorize and compartmentalize is to make “things” out of living relationships; and things are used, not loved; and things in return can’t care: only human beings can care in the measure of grace committed to them to fulfill their loving relationships to each other as members of the Body of Christ.
Who cares? People care. Believe it or not, even priests and bishops are people. But an institution of fragmented parts, no matter how efficient, cannot care nor can it expect to evoke care in response. If you yourselves are God’s People first and foremost — the divine humanity of Christ — then to the question “who cares?” your personal response is “I DO” on every level of parish life; because Christ cares.
“Fill their treasuries with every good thing; preserve their marriages in peace and harmony; raise the infants; guide the young; support the aged; encourage the faint-hearted; lead back those who are in error and join them to Thy Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church … remember all Thy people, O Lord, our God. Be all things to all men, 0 Thou Who knowest each man and his request, his home and his need … And among the first, remember, O Lord, our bishops … and grant them for Thy holy churches to rightly define the word of Thy truth … and remember all mankind.” (LITURGY OF SAINT BASIL)
IV. The Parish As A Way of Life — Worship, Work and The World: Why Bother?
But, my dear friends, what we really fail to do is to take the parish seriously as a way of life — as a way of worship and work in the world as citizens of Christ’s heavenly Kingdom. I told the young people at the OCF Conference in San Francisco last June that it is precisely secular man who doesn’t respond to parish as seriousness because he doesn’t even take joy seriously. Oh yes, secular man is pleasant and polite with a friendly smile plastered on his face like a candidate running for office, and maybe he is even somehow “religious” and helpful. But he has lost the sense of the Sacred, by which one is profoundly moved in worship to be bothered — bothered to tears by sin, bothered to sheer joy in salvation, bothered to adore the holiness of Christ’s Presence in our midst, bothered to see the parish as something more than one more useful organization in his collection of nice charities and helpful societies for which he may find a little time in his otherwise busy secular life.
Now, secular man is serious, of course. But it is himself he takes seriously. Science has discovered long ago that the planet earth is not the center of the universe, but secular man has not yet discovered that it is God Who is the center of his life, and not himself.
Parish is the response of the worshipping man to Christ as the center of his life, around Whom life revolves in a faithful orbit of worship and work, in people and places, in time and space, in fasts and feasts, in cycles of blessings and prayers and Sacraments from the cradle to the grave. Now, secular man will use these “rites and blessings.” But the extent to which he accepts them as seriousness in his real everyday world determines whether his parish is a way of life in Christ for him, or whether his parish is one more religious hobby in his secularized, pluralistic world.
V. The Parish As The Challenge — Christ, Culture and Concern: So What?
The parish is the challenge of Christ, of our true Orthodox culture and concern, to convert our world to the mystery of our Lord’s dispensation as far as it is in our power. This is our responsibility. If Christ is simply some more religious discussions, if Orthodox culture is just native dances, foreign food festivals and language classes, if concern is something we squeeze in between socials to “balance” our well-rounded programs, then I tell you honestly that we are irresponsible, and I join you in saying, the parish, so what!
When will it finally dawn on us that the challenge of Orthodoxy in this country is not to “add color” to the already overloaded pluralistic scene, but to convert the American scene to Orthodoxy. So help me, what this country needs is not one more “denomination,” albeit “English-speaking.” This country doesn’t need “American” Orthodoxy. It desperately needs an Orthodoxy in America! It vitally needs an Orthodoxy bound and determined to responsibly convert all that which is American to all that which must be ultimately Orthodox by the transfiguring Light of Christ.
Please bear with me: I don’t think I’m speaking gibberish. Holy Orthodoxy must not — cannot— be dumped into an American “melting-pot.” You and I are here in America not to preserve our venerable past; but neither should we simply add it to an “americana” as a little bit of European spice. We are here to challenge nothing less than the American milieu itself to be Orthodox, to transform it into an Orthodox language and culture, to make of our American heritage an Orthodox expression of life, and not simply adapt our Orthodoxy to Americans.
There are enough “religions” in this country, enough languages and cultures and ways of life and colorful life-styles. We deprive Americans of nothing by not “adding” to it. Neither is there need for us to “borrow” anything to try to look more American. We are already American! Isn’t it time we Americans try to be Orthodox? Isn’t it time Americans became Orthodox? — an Orthodox people, and Orthodox language and culture, and Orthodox responsibility, an Orthodox concern, an Orthodox witness in the world? Ours is not to add, but to convert. Ours is not to borrow, but to transform. We are NOT just one more denomination in this society of ours (“choose the one that suits you best, go to the church of your choice, etc.”, as though you were buying bologna in the supermarket). If Orthodoxy is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, do we dare live in America without trying to convert America? Can we settle for anything less if we take Christ’s challenge seriously? Shame of us for our selfishness!
We are past the point in our history of considering Orthodoxy in this country as a diverse bunch of language groups sustaining identity by thin connecting threads with national churches across the ocean. The danger on the parish level is of another kind. This country has made Americans out of us Greeks, Russians and Syrians. Now only Christ can make Orthodox out of us Americans. An Orthodox Church IN America can mean nothing less than this. Somehow in the parish, this should be a matter of ultimate concern.
VI. The Parish As The Household of God — Faith, Hope and Love: How Come?
The parish is God’s House, and we are the household of God. We are called together as parish to be God’s people, Christ’s family, in whom the Holy Spirit abides with faith, hope and love. We are called together to be that worshipping community of a humanity reconciled to God to make Christ manifest in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit. The parish is that household to which Christ calls us to share in His very Life. The parish is that heavenly destiny which is shared, that common life which is given. The parish is the call to come together to follow Christ, and in true worship the parish is already that ascent to be where Christ is: “In Thy Kingdom remember us, O Lord, when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom !—This day you shall be with Me in Paradise!” (St. Luke XXIII:43).
This is the parish’s precious Orthodox Life. By whose treason is your vision of the parish less noble? By whose treachery is the parish the ignominious reflection of yourselves rather than the holy image of Christ? We can accuse our foreign Orthodox cousins of many sinful, cynical and unbecoming things. But at least they were never secularized to the point of making the Church nothing different than themselves. With all their faults, nonetheless for them the Church was something wholly different, something essentially beyond all that, something absolutely other than their own set standards and their own qualifications for “membership in good standing or their organizing and institutionalizing — in other words, for them the Church is “Holy,” and somehow even with all their sins the “parish reflected this reality and transcended themselves, and to that extent they participated in communion with God.
Now my talk is ending, and if your proposed ‘‘question and answer period is typical, I’m supposed to stand here and defend your parishes, your relationships, your way of life, your organizations and concerns, your household, against your questioning scrutiny and erudite inquisition. Brothers and sisters, you’re wrong. It is you who must defend Orthodoxy from yourselves. The parish is your household of faith; must it defend itself from your faithlessness? The parish is your household of fellowship and love; must it defend itself from your irresponsibility and lovelessness? Must a household defend itself from itself? Yes, in a sense, it must. But it is you yourselves who must do the defending, by faith, by fellowship, by hope and love.
The parish is Orthodoxy: truth or treason? It is for you to examine yourselves in the light of what “God has given to His people once and for all” (St. Jude 1:3). What God has given is the Holy Tradition we share in common with faith, hope and love, as the Orthodox.
The Parish: for whom?
Who didst call us into Thy Holy Church …
Look down on us, Thy worthless servants …
For though we transgress Thy Holy Will, yet we do not deny Thee…
Against Thee alone do we sin,
Yet Thee alone do we serve,
In Thee alone do we believe,
To Thee do we come,
And Thy servants only do we wish to be…”
(AKATHISTOS TO OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST)
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America