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Some Notes on Orthodox Missionary Work

Orthodox missionary work is generally a very different matter from that conducted by most Non-Orthodox missionaries, that is, what is conducted outside the Church. This is because one of the four vital signs of the Church is Apostolicity and so Church missionary work is conducted by those who take as their examples the apostles. Thus, our missionary work is always organic, not worked out according to a top-down plan, but upwards from the grassroots.

Thus, the Apostle Paul went on his journeys not because of a centralised plan, but because the Spirit was calling him to the places to which he travelled through the people who lived there. We can see this in the contemporary Orthodox mission in Africa. There is no plan drawn up by a centralised colonial organisation. The mission there has happened spontaneously, as local spiritual needs have manifested themselves Thus, the nature of genuine missionary work is always chaotic – at least as viewed by tidy human minds. For example, the apostles did not have a map of the Mediterranean world and then stick pins into it, organising missionaries in accordance with them. Indeed, just a century ago, we read in the life of St Nicholas, the Apostle of Japan, how he explicitly did not do this, unlike the Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries also active in Japan at that time, who did work by maps and pins.

Orthodox missionaries go where they are needed, usually directed by their bishops who should have oversight of the general situation. They go where there has gathered a group of local people, at least one of whom can sing and has some knowledge of the services, and who have some sort of public-access premises. Missionaries do not go where they like, on some sort of ego-trip, which always ends in the ghetto and failure. If a missionary has gone where there is an authentic, and not artificial and self-invented, need, then he must create a centre. In other words, he must avoid spreading himself out too thinly, over a large number of places. His centre should be a regional centre, his parish in fact covering a wide catchment area. Only when large enough communities have formed elsewhere, can more local centres appear.

I remember in the 1970s talking to an Italian Roman Catholic missionary to Bangladesh. Without the slightest embarrassment, he told me that his mission there was all about bribery, distributing free clothes, food, medicine and education to draw local people away from Islam. Apparently, such bribery was normal. Orthodox missionary work, however, is all about missionaries sharing the life of their people, of living in the same way as them.

Thus, by Divine Providence, Orthodox missionaries in the Western world, like the Apostle Paul, generally have to work for a living, like their flocks, they have to pay for gas and electricity, fund a mortgage, see to their children’s education and pay their taxes. Orthodox missionaries share in their people’s difficulties, living side by side with them. They do not live in special privileged compounds. They do not spread the Gospel of ‘money is God’s blessing, therefore make a lot of it’, like so many American Protestant missionaries in Latin America or in countries like Thailand, South Korea and, increasingly, China. Money is not in itself God’s blessing; more generally, in human hands, it is poison.

The fruits of Protestant and Catholic-based missions often do not last for more than a few generations or centuries, let alone 2,000 years. This is because they are generally dependent on colonial powers and soon become diluted with local customs. A great temptation of all missions is to play the numbers game. Missions should not be directed at converting large numbers superficially, they should be directed at converting people deeply. If quality comes first, quantity will come next. This is why the greatest missionaries are always saints – they alone have the depth of prayer which can save thousands around them.

Here we should not neglect a form of missionary work which all can practice – prayer for the departed. Orthodox missionary work is directed not only at the living, but also at the departed.

On Easter Night this year, I was able to pray for the repose of the souls of the 469 British victims of the Napoleonic Wars, whose bodies are buried around this church, most of them just over 200 years ago. In this Church, originally built for mercenaries who were to fight in the Crimean War, I also prayed for the repose of the souls of the 700 officers of the Russian Army and Navy who died over 150 years ago in that War, victims of Western and Muslim aggression. If we do not pray for them, who will? Was it my imagination, or did I feel the ground swelling up, as their bodies yearned to rise up from the earth, while the midnight procession snaked around the Church and the crowd of many tongues waited impatiently for the Paschal proclamation: Christ is Risen!

Missionary work is about contacting any human souls who will listen, preparing them for our inevitable meeting with God and our inevitable resurrection. Oh, dry bones, arise!

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