The Function of the Orthodox Parish
- Protopresbyter Michael POMAZANSKY: (+1998)
The Function of the Orthodox Parish
http://www.russianorthodoxchurch.ws/STATII/parish-pomaz.html (in Russian)
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: AIt is
difficult, very difficult, to lead parish life here:@ one often hears these
words from our parish priests. AIf 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 mosconception of methods and from
the limitations of the participation of parishioners in parish matters, in
other words, because the parish community is insufficiently infused with
the concept of the aim and goals of the parish. From this springs the
disagreement of action.
Parish and Church.
The geographical points showing parishes of the Church Abroad across the
globe (including parishes in Russia) are unevenly distributed. We should
mentally draw them closer, unite them and imagine them as pillars of one
holy spiritual House-Church of the Conciliar Russian Church Abroad. They
may be large and small, but they are equally important and crucial parts of
one church organism. The Russian Church Abroad, in turn, forms a part of
the great historical edifice of the Russian Church, distinct from the
Soviet framework of the so-called Moscow Patriarchate, a building which has
lost for our eyes its outlines in a deep, midnight fog. Yet this Church is,
still, a part of the one universal Church of Christ. The conditions under
which the Church Abroad exists are not easy, in its entirety and on the
parish level. Still, life has shown that the general recognition of the
real situation of the world is clearer among members of the Church Abroad
than among members of many other parts, of the national churches and
jurisdictions of the Church; the discernment between truth and deceit is
clearer. The path of our Church is straight and open. If it is so, can we
drop the candle given to us to carry by Divine Providence?
We in the Diaspora must carry on our humble, local task as part of a
greater whole. We must build from good bricks, with proper stonework,
joining not with sand but with good cement, with plans and methods invented
not by us, but with those that were given from the beginning by the
Apostles and saints by 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 Aparish egotism.@ One hears these words:
AWe 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 onBthis is nothing but an unnecessary burden for us...
Church and parish C 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
Aformed,@ Atempered@ of various parts, Athrough mutual bonds,@ receiving
from the Lord Agrowth for self-creation in love.@ Parts, though each has
its own purpose, feed from the whole and serve the whole. AThe 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 AOrthodox@ is illicit. And we are left with the words
of the Apostle: AWhat 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 Ahands of the bishops.@ AWe,@ says the Apostle, Aare
laborers together with God: ye are God=s husbandry, ye are God=s building.@
(I Cor. 3:9). ABut let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon,@
urges the Apostle. ANow if any man build upon this foundation (Christ)
gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man=s work shall
be made manifest...the first shall try every man=s work of what sort it is.
@ Such is the responsibility of the bishops, such are the demands made of
them. From here comes their dutyBa duty of unwavering faithfulness. ALet 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, Aam 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
But here one hears the voice of the good Orthodox layman: AWe 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: AYe,@ he
says, Aalso, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy
priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices.@ (I Peter 2:5). The
participants in the building process are all of us. But each should look to
his own part. That part is first of all, one=s heart, soul and body. Make
of it a temple of God. And then your weight in the general construction of
the Church will be greater, and your investment in its work will grow. In
the history of the Church, many bishops, builders of the Church, have
remained unremembered; they were overshadowed by the light of the memory of
other individualsBsaints, 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
By the way, the work of building by a parish member is not limited to his
own person: before him is a wide field of labor in the Church. For almost
every physical thing we see in our newly-constructed churches are the
result of zeal and labor on the part of laypersons, selfless, harmonious,
creative. Has only a little remained for us from the past from the labors
of laymen in our rich ecclesiastical and sacramental legacy? The builders
of churches, icon-painters, composers, theologians and church writers, even
missionaries: how many of these were laypersons? One thing is needed: a
pious Christian spirit, united with the thought of the Church=s benefit:
harmony in the common work, the adherence to the customs and rules of the
Church. A choir will not be good if the singers do not heed their director.
Poor are the workers on a construction site if each builds according to his
The Laws of the Church.
In church building, there is no room for arbitrariness, for assering one=s
own will. Everything in the Church comes from holy law and plans. Laws and
plans in this sense are the canons of the Church. As during the
construction of the church, all is determined by the plans, and every brick
according to its own mold and in its own place, so should the establishment
of parish life follow the canons.
Often one hears the comment that the canons are Aoutdated,@ 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
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
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 Aobedient@ to the will of His Father, Aeven unto
death, the death of the cross.@ The Lord said to the Apostles: AHe who
heeds you heeds Me.@ The Apostle writes of such obedience to the Christians
of Rome: AFor your obedience is come abroad to all men@ (Rom. 16:19) and to
the Philippians: Aas 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, Aholy 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
Obstacles on the Path of Building
But here lie two stones, obstacles on the path, which must first be moved
One of these is the temptation which snares some public figures, who make
the parish a base of operationBone that is ready-made, for social, cultural
or nationalist activism. They see a convenient forum to expand their work
in its many forms, a ready-made, consistent, attractive, unpolitical parish
organization, which attracts people of both sexes, all ages, levels of
education, wealth and social strata. They do not exclude religion from the
sphere of spiritual virtues: they are prepared to cede first place to
religion; but they wish to expand the function of the parish, to include
among the parish=s activities certain forms of cultural work, artistic,
athletic, and the like. Religion to them, as we can see, is only one
function of the parish. Under these ircumstances, 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 Afreedom@ of
Western culture. AIn the West, there is freedom, and you wish to enslave
us.@ Of course, this is the voice of ignorance. In governments of law,
freedom consists of the right of organizations to live by their own laws
and to execute them. Besides, the government, in the words of the Supreme
Court, says that to obey the rules of those organizations to which we
belong is an honor-bound duty and our civic duty; he who ignores the rules
of his organizationBin this case, of his ChurchBis a psychologically
unreliable civilian of the stateBthat his loyalty cannot be relied upon. We
see before us the example of the shattered church life of Orthodox parishes
in America outside of the Church Abroad, which is the result of concessions
to these two factors: the understanding of what a parish is has been
distorted, and an ignorant view of freedom.
The Russian Church Abroad travels a straight path, though under difficult
conditions. And it has the necessities so that its order of life, all
aspects of its existence are built on canonical foundations and so that, in
part, its parish structure is exemplary.
Are contemporary conditions favorable for this? In many ways, yes. We will
not flatter ourselves by equating our parish communities with the Christian
communities of the earliest times, when there was a great deal of
enthusiasm in the faith and in struggle. But even if we cannot equate, we
can still compare, and we find a series of similar conditions:
1. Our communities, in large part, are young, newly-formed; everything was
organized anew from the first stone: a new church, a fresh parish,
recently-appointed priest; a new venue, new civil conditions.
2. Our communities are small, comprised of individuals scattered throughout
their town, among heterodox and populations with a different language: a
circumstance that in and of itself unites us.
3. Our bishops, through their external situation, their proximity to their
flock, their accessibility, the simplicity of their lives and conditions,
approach the situation of the bishops of ancient Christianity; such
closeness was hardly possible among the bishops of the old Russian
dioceses, with their constituency of a thousand or more parishes, with
parishes of a thousand and up to 5 or even 10 thousand souls.
4. The Church is not connected to the government, is not supported by it
and has no special civil obligations.
5. We will add here the witness for the faith experienced by many refugees,
which stoked their souls and the images of martyrdom in death for the
Church that illuminates us from such a recent past. But besides all this,
the history of the Church gives us for guidance Her enormous experience
from the past, which lightens the burden for parishes in fulfilling their
The Purpose of the Parish
What then, finally, is the purpose of the Church, and in Her the parish?
The answer is in the word of God. The Apostle writes: "And he gave some,
apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and
teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry,
for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of
the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto
the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (Ephes. 4:11-13).
And so, here is the purpose: the perfection of saints; the matter of
service; the creation of the body of Christ--this triple purpose of the
entire Church, and therefore the purpose of each parish.
The internal purposes of the parish--the first point, the perfection of
saints, is the moral perfection of members of the Church. The salvation of
souls in Christ is first and foremost--it cannot be moved into the
background. Those who assign a social goal for the Church, that is, the
reformation of social relationships through the Church, and from that the
Christian elevation of the person, are wrong. Salvation in Christ comes
from prayer, divine service, the laws of the Church, works of love and
charity, spiritual labors. The salvation of entrusted souls is the main
goal of the pastor. This is also the personal goal of each member of the
Church. It is performed in the general body of the Church, not
individually, but through mutual spiritual support, and this overcomes the
self-loving motion of one's own self. A personal, worthy life in Christ is
one's duty before the Church as a whole.
The second purpose is that of service?to God and man. It opens wide the
field of social church work for each member of the Church and parish.
Service to God is participation in the divine services, in church reading
and singing, in building churches, care for the beauty and order of the
temple?individual examples of works done, as they say, "for God." Service
to man is all sorts of charity for the needy, help for the sick, altruistic
care for others. A special, very important, place is occupied by the
spiritual and nationalist education of children and youth. This is an area
of exceptional importance. We are in danger of losing the young generation
for the Church. Children grow up without the knowledge of the Russian
language, more importantly, of Church Slavonic. Those families are very
much to blame which ignore their native language. It is the obligation of
the parish leadership, on one hand, to influence families in this matter,
so that they do not neglect their responsibility before their children, and
on the other hand, they must form groups, Saturday and Sunday schools,
children's church choirs and the like, and take other measures to retain
the young generation in devotion to the Church and under the Church's
One cannot accuse our parishes of inertia in this area. Even with our
sparse resources, they display the proper work, zeal and selflessness. But
here is exactly that stumbling block, where the interests of pastoral work
and the interests of society are at odds. The difficult situation a priest
finds himself in is not to douse the social activism in the parish and the
initiative often stemming form laypersons. The priest cannot do everything
himself, in his own name, for everyone, he needs cooperation. But here the
cooperation of several persons with the pastor can turn into the desire to
lead, to criticize, to create opposition, etc. On the other hand, we hear
declarations that due to necessity, the parishioners must take upon
themselves one or another parish matter, since the priest is ill-prepared
for it. Yet here is where the importance of adhering to the Normal Parish
By-Laws becomes especially clear, for it regularizes internal relationships
and guarantees the pastor the leadership role of the parish. The priest can
then easily employ the broad cooperation of parishioners, since he can rely
on the preservation of ecclesiastical order. There is no fear that the
rights of the pastor will be usurped, there is no danger that a direction
away from the Church will take hold, to its detriment. Then any form of
assistance to the priest, in case of his weakness, ignorance, inability,
etc., cannot violate the proper relationships in the parish.
Then there is the purpose of the Church as a whole. The third goal is the
building of the body of Christ, service to the Church as a whole, expressed
to the greatest degree through unity with the whole, the parish with the
Church. In our ecclesiastical consciousness, the notion of the entire
Orthodox Church can never be extinguished, the love for Her, zeal for the
Church, and more concretely?for the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of
Russia, to which we belong. And so, in fulfilling this third purpose, we
almost reach the pinnacle.
Service to the Church as a whole is the practical care for the
ecclesiastical centers. It demands first of all the understanding of how
much we are obliged locally to these Church centers. The Church
Administration cares for the proper observation of the order of service,
the printing of church service books and providing them to churches,
preserves the episcopal succession and priestly ordinations, cares for the
education and preparation of clergymen and provides pastors for church
communities. It protects the Church from arbitrariness and from those who
introduce temptation into the Church; it guards the external honor of
Orthodoxy. It denounces obvious moral temptations, deflects attacks on the
faith and the Church no matter whence they may come. It provides the
ideological defense of the Church and legal protection when needed. It
bears the duty of representation before the civil authorities and the
society of the given country.
The fullness of general church life and the multi-faceted, fruitful
activity of ecclesiastical, episcopal centers is a direct testament of the
wellness of internal life of discrete Orthodox parishes. And conversely,
difficulties, weak activity on the part of the episcopal center is evidence
of difficult conditions of parish life. Life's laws are the same
everywhere: when cells of an organism fulfill their functions for the
whole, they in turn are fed to satiety by the organism, enjoy its overall
health, grow, strenghten, and are renewed. Otherwise, they weaken and
become feeble. The health of the organism depends also on the health of its
parts, and their weakness always affects the organism as a whole.
There are many such aspects in the life of the Church, which require the
general participation of the whole Church, every single parish. The time
has passed when we knew that we are protected from above, by the state, in
a material sense, that everything will be organized without us, and the
necessary resources will be provided. Life has completely changed in this
sense. Do we recognize such changes in time?
For example: a parish declares that it is need of a good pastor. Who cannot
but see all sides of these two words: "a good pastor?" One hopes to see in
a pstor 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
We must inspire people, seize their attention, their zeal, enthusiasm,
conscious care for our central administrations. The psychological side, the
heartfelt good will is more important than the material side. But of
course, it is most of all expressed in material support.
Who fails to see the importance of material resources in ecclesiastical
affairs, as in any affairs? This has not yet been brought to life, by far.
We will state directly: not one Christian religion has such disdain for the
material basis of their central ecclesiastical administration as do the
Orthodox. Their difficult history has taught them that lesson; we have yet
to learn it. We think little of the question of how to fund theological
schools, publish church service books, print literature especially for
pastors, for missionary work of the Church, print apologetics in the
struggle against disbelief and sectarianism, for general church charity,
and in part, to support Russian Orthodox centers in Palestine and other
places, where small groups of people selflessly labor in their
churches?solitary points in the heterodox world.
We often hear among our Russian people praise for other church
organizations, that they open schools, soup kitchens, orphanages and
schools; and at the same time, expressions of regret about ourselves: for
we have not received such help in moments of need from our church circles.
In fact, it turns out: through the efforts of our Synodal Administration
and Diocesan Administrations, a great deal of work was done for emigres.
But this was done through the self-sacrificing efforts of the
Administration without the aid of the masses of Orthodox people; and if
there were indeed several parishes taking an active role is such work, they
were few, and concentrated on their own needs.
Truly, we must speak of the material aspect of the Church. It is important
to tear down the wall of indifference towards the church administrations,
and the parochialism of the parish. "Give to the Church Administration?
Why? What do we need it for? Let them get money from somewhere else: they
have their own parishioners. Maybe someone will subsidize them. Maybe the
monasteries can give them funding."
It is important to dispel this thought process. Let us remember the alms
given by the widow, shown by the Lord for all as an example. This donation
was not to the local synagogue, but the Temple of Jerusalem, which united
all Jews; it may have been brought from far away. We see before us Apostle
Paul, who fervently called upon the Corinthians to regular collections for
the "saints" of the central Jerusalem Church, which greatly developed
charitable works; the apostle thanks even the Philippians for their
generous contributions for the needs of his apostolic work; he makes an
example of the Macedonian Church for generosity even beyond their means. We
are given a living example by heterodox religions. We cannot but look also
at our own Holy Trinity Monastery, where a small group of monks does
everything it can to prepare pastors, print church books, create
ecclesiastical apologetical and educational literature, and in missionary
work?the establishment of new parishes and conducting services in
communities deprived of a pastor.
Great and multifaceted is the task of building the body of the Church of
Christ. Insofar as it concerns the parish, it means that the parish should
not limit itself to its own limited sphere, but must be beneficial and act
as the necessary, conscious part of the entire body of the Church.
Let us then summarize:
1. The parish is not simply a social organization, but a purely
ecclesiastical organization, a part of the body of the Church, and is
completely subject to the laws and building plans of the entire Church.
2. The life of the parish, like the life of the entire Church, is built
upon canonical law, the foundation of which obligates everyone, without
exception, to Christian obedience.
3. The proper relationships in the parish are established by the Normal
Parish By-Laws, obligatory for all parishes.
4. The interests and needs of the parish should not be a hindrance for the
members of the Orthodox Church in their other moral obligation: to care for
and serve the Church as a whole.
5. The well-being and material foundation of the Church Administration and
central institutions are necessities for the fulness of Church life.
Russky Pastyr, No. 21, 1995