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What is Indispensable When Starting New Parishes

Introduction: People. Premises, Priest

Over the decades we have seen so many small Orthodox ‘communities’ or parishes open and then close. Again and again we have seen the same pitfalls, the same errors fallen into, the same blind enthusiasm wasted. What does it take to open and, above all, to keep open, a new Orthodox parish in the conditions of the Diaspora?

Before anything else, there are four vital considerations. Firstly, is there a group of motivated people and suitable premises (the first two Ps - see below)? Secondly, do you as a group with your proposed premises have the blessing of your bishop to undertake the opening of a new parish? Thirdly, have you all thought about which saint you will dedicate the new church to? And finally (the third P – see below) who will be the priest?

The First P is for People

I remember 28 years ago in Paris where a group of second generation, that is, French-born, Russians, wanted to start a new French-speaking Orthodox ‘community’. Basically, it was a protest group (the second generation often produces these) who wanted to leave their present parishes because of the language and calendar question. All that was going to happen is that several parishes would each lose two individuals. In other words, five Orthodox glasses would contain slightly less liquid than before, so that a sixth glass could set up in rented Roman Catholic premises and on the Roman Catholic calendar.

First of all, you must have a group of Orthodox adults who already live locally and have not been artificially dragged together, pulled out of solid parishes. Do not count children, do not count lapsed Orthodox and do not count Non-Orthodox who are only vaguely interested. In other words, the adults must be Orthodox. Three adults are not enough – starting with such a small number will create a hothouse, an almost incestuous atmosphere. Twenty is a more reasonable figure. If you do not have twenty, is there a realistic chance that twenty can be brought together and soon? There may be if you are starting a parish in a town or city with a population of 100,000 or more, so meeting a local need. If you live in a small town or, worse still, in the country or in the middle of nowhere, think again. What local need are you meeting? This sounds so much like self-serving.

Finally, do you have among you Orthodox adults who can sing? If you do not, you are not ready. Over nearly four decades I have seen any number of converts who want to hold services in their own language in churches. If they cannot sing, they will not be taken seriously by others. You must have a choir (not one person) who can sing in an Orthodox way, without introducing Anglican chant, or ‘American folk tunes’ or such like. In other words, just as the Tradition followed by the new parish must be that of the Mother Church, so the ‘feel’ given by the choir must be that of the choir in the original language.

The Second P is for Premises

The premises to be used must be public access premises, not the front rooms of private houses or ‘garden follies’ in their back gardens. That is always a fatal mistake, because it leads to ‘private churches’ – a contradiction in terms. You should also ask yourselves if the premises you are renting or borrowing could one day belong to you. If so, would you want to buy them? If not, then you have no long-term future there in any case.

In other words, are these premises suitable in the long term, that is, are they convertible so as to create that unique atmosphere where Orthodox feel at home? If, for example, they have features such as Gothic windows, they are unlikely ever to be suitable for Orthodox worship. Think also about location in terms of closeness to public transport and parking, also facilities like heating, toilets, a kitchen, a hall and the possibility to hold processions around the premises.

I have over the decades seen so many groups of all jurisdictions starting services once a month or even less infrequently in rented premises, with two icons, two sand trays and the priest celebrating on a heterodox altar-table without an iconostasis. Nearly forty years later they are still doing the same. These communities do not last, if for no other reason than that the priest is not immortal in this world and a bishop is unlikely to be willing or able to supply another priest for a community that has made no progress in decades.

Conclusion: The Third P is for Priest

If you have met the two first criteria, you will obtain a priest. Therefore, this is the least of your concerns because it is a concern for your bishop. Thus, avoid groups led by those on ego-trips, whose only purpose is self-promotion. The following phrases are a give away: ‘I am being promoted to subdeacon next month’. My name is; ‘Reader X’ or ‘Subdeacon X’. ‘We are having a reception for my ordination which has been widely announced’.

We are not ‘promoted’ – that is a purely secular reflex. When we give our names, we ALWAYS give our surnames, unless we are monks. And we NEVER announce ourselves as readers or subdeacons. Only deacons announce themselves as ‘deacons’ (and NEVER ‘father deacon’ - though others may call them that) and only priests announce themselves as ‘priest’ or, informally, ‘father’. Tonsuring and ordination are kept secret – for the devil has ears too. The obsession with titles is pure clericalism, self-advertising and self-promotion and is not part of the Tradition of the Orthodox Church and mentality.

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