On Orthodox Pastoral Work in the Western World and its Differences with Contemporary Russia
(Written for www.pravmir.ru)
I have kindly been invited to comment on Fr Daniel Sysoyev’s views on pastoral practice. May I first say that I consider Fr Daniel to be a hieromartyr of our times and that although, as you will see below, I believe that we can apply only few of his practices here in the West, I am not at all critical of his practices. Those practices are, in my view, exemplary for contemporary Russia and I have only admiration for Fr Daniel’s zeal. Eternal memory to him!
I will now quote from my own twenty-five years of direct experience as an Orthodox cleric in three different Western countries and travels elsewhere, in Western Europe, the USA and Australia.
First of all, I am reluctant to use the word ‘missionary’ in an Orthodox context. To the Western ear, it smacks of Protestant activism. I think the word ‘pastoral’ is much better. Secondly, I would like to make it clear that all parishes are ‘missionary’. If they are not, and are just ethnic clubs or cultural museums (whether ex-Anglican, Greek, Russian, Serb etc), then they will soon die out – and they do die out. I have seen it all too often.
Secondly, I would like to emphasis that here in the West the enemy of Orthodoxy is most certainly not other Christian groups - we are not in the western Ukraine. We almost always have excellent relations with Roman Catholics and Protestants such as Anglicans. Our enemy is rather secularism. Therefore, our ‘missionary work’ among Non-Orthodox is carried out above all with the vast masses who have no religion at all. I would say that there are three main differences between contemporary post-Soviet Russia and the Western world. These are:
a. An Unknown and Scattered Minority
In the West we Orthodox are a tiny and unknown minority. A typical question from native Western people is ‘Are Orthodox actually Christians?’ or ‘Do you believe in Jesus?’ Orthodox parishes are tiny, usually between 20 and 200 people are present at Sunday liturgies, their flocks often living up to fifty miles and more away from the church building and they are unable to come to church every week because of the distances. A parish of 200 is considered to be big. By Russian standards, especially in Moscow and other big cities, this is tiny. This is because the number of Orthodox in Western countries is very small, on average fewer than 1 in 100 of any Western population is a baptised Orthodox
Also, out of 100 baptised Orthodox, less than 10% are practising, 90% are nominal, many of them not even bothering to attend church for 20 minutes on Easter night. This means that only 1 in a 1,000 of any local population can be expected to be present at a liturgy. This is quite unlike in Russia, Romania, Greece etc, where potentially between 60% and 100% are baptised and are, albeit nominally, Orthodox. Therefore the larger the Western town or city, the greater the potential number of practising Orthodox. A city of 1,000,000 gives a potential congregation of 1,000. However, this is complicated by the fact that each ethnic group, Russian Romanian, Greek etc, goes mainly to its own church. Therefore, the figure of 1,000 potential members of a Church is easily reduced, being divided into different ethnic groups who attend different churches in different languages.
As a result of our small size, our infrastructure is very weak and we lack money. For example, in the two ‘missions’ in which I have been involved as a priest over the last 20 years, in Portugal and England, I was simply given an antimension by my bishop. I had no church, no vestments, no chalice, nothing except an antimension. I even had to pay for my own priest’s cross. Everything else I had to do myself. Moreover, most clergy in the West probably have to work in a secular job in order to survive, their parishes are too small to feed them, let alone house them. In the 1980s, in the Paris jurisdiction, there were two cases where Russian priests had to beg for money, they literally had nothing to eat and feed their families. They were told by their bishop to go and get a job, ‘like everyone else’.
Poverty and having to do secular work merely in order to survive interferes with our ability to do daily services (a great rarity in the West) and to give liturgical and pastoral care on weekdays. Priests are simply not available or else too exhausted. People come to us from Russia and expect our churches to be open permanently, believing that we are paid ‘by the Church’ or ‘by the State’! The funniest thing for us is in Russia when we are told that ROCOR is very rich! Many of us would like to be priests in Russia – in certain respects our lives would be much, much easier.
c. Multiethnic Churches
Outside the Capitals of Western Europe (where there can be concentrations of immigrants from specific Orthodox countries), our Churches are multiethnic and multilingual. For example in our parish in Colchester we have 250 regular parishioners, all of whom we see over a period of say, three months, but they are made up of 17 different nationalities. Therefore, our services are more or less half in Slavonic and half in English (the common language and also the native language of English Orthodox). The parts in each language alternate week by week. We also do small parts in Romanian and Greek. At Easter Matins we use about ten different languages. This creates further linguistic and cultural complications in services and communications. This is quite different from in most parts of the Russian Federation, where only one language – Slavonic – is used and is necessary. Another unnecessary complication is that some Orthodox are used to the new calendar. There is nothing we can do about this.
2. Fr Daniel’s Practices
I only met Fr Daniel once in Moscow in 2007, but was very impressed by his zeal and sincerity. I am sure that his missionary practices are exemplary in Russia, but unfortunately few of them can be applied here. For example, from Fr Daniel’s description, I can make the following comments:
‘A catechetical talk that is being broadcast over the street with the help of the loudspeakers’
In Western countries, we would not be allowed to do this. We would be ‘disturbing the peace’. And who would pay? Most of our parishes are too poor to have such equipment. And, in any case, what language would we do it in? And who would listen, when only a tiny number of passers-by are interested in any sort of religion? And on weekdays, most are at work. And then some of our churches are so remote that no-one passes by. We are not located in the streets of big capital cities. Most who do pass by are in cars. In Russia you have any number of Orthodox passers-by who can go from being nominal to practising. We do not. We would not be broadcasting to nominal Orthodox passing by, but to a few complete indifferents, who would simply say that we were annoying them and perhaps make official complaints about us. Such a practice here would do more harm than good.
‘We held church services in an improvised chapel’.
Almost all our churches our improvised chapels! This is the norm for us and it is rare, even after 50 years of being in improvised chapels, that we manage to build or at least own ‘a proper church’.
‘From the very first days of our services in the newly built temporary church, we organized a current prayer watch without which nothing can be done. Anyone entering the church can see those who are on duty, reading the Hours and Psalter and also seeing to it that the newcomers are able to find their place in the church. The people on duty are prepared Christians who go through catechism beforehand. They approach the newcomers and explain the basics of faith to them. At the tables of those on duty there are leaflets about the Confession and the Holy Communion and other things necessary for the Baptism’.
This is a dream for us. How can we find a single person to do this? First of all, they would ideally need to speak several languages. Secondly, they would have to be free from secular work. Almost all our parishioners are young with young families. They work, as you have to in the West. Work is the religion. But of course we do have brochures and books explaining the Faith and have always done so.
‘We have services every morning and every evening. Once the service starts, people on duty approach those who came for the service and hand out the text of the Liturgy or the Vespers. If someone has a question, they can ask those on duty’.
See my comments in the Introduction.
‘On Saturdays, Sundays and other feast days, one can see in the church our good Tatiana, the catechist. She is responsible for preparing children and adults for Baptism. She sees to it that the catechumens attend the catechetical talks by sending them greetings with the forthcoming feast day and calling those who are already baptized. Of course, she also consults all who come to the parish’.
In the West, this is what the priest does, communicating at services, in confessions, sermons, talks, books, by e-mail, phone and through individual home visits
‘For our parishioners to be active participants of the service, we not only hand them the texts of the services, but also involve them in the singing by the blessing of the late Patriarch Alexey. Our rule is to keep our flock founding it on God's Word’.
We too encourage singing by all, but the results are meagre. Many churches have tiny choirs of one or two people. Our choir is big, 10-15, but it is exceptional. There are several problems here. First of all, there is the language problem, secondly many have young children and cannot come to sing because they are looking after their children, thirdly, people live at a distance and often fail to get to church for the beginning of the service. Finally, in the West, many simply refuse to sing, because they say that they ‘cannot sing’. It is also difficult to sing and pray at the same time and some of our choir sometimes say: ‘I wish I could just go and just pray and not sing’.
‘This is why on usual Sundays we have three sermons. The first one is during the vespers after the Gospel. It is about passions, virtues, and in memory of the saints of the forthcoming day. During the Sunday Liturgy, the first sermon is delivered right after the reading of the Gospel in order to interpret the sacred text, and the second one is read after the dismissal to interpret the Apostles' reading’.
If only people came to the Vigil on Saturday evenings, I would do this! On Sundays I give two different sermons, both at the end of the liturgy, when I am sure that everyone is present, one in Russian, one in English.
‘Now we're putting into practice a service on the Internet (http://mission-center.com) broadcasting the sermons for everyone who wishes to hear them’.
We have had a very active website (www.orthodoxengland.org.uk) for nearly ten years, where we do similar things, though on our site they are written, not spoken, and our coverage is much more modest. Of course, there are also many other better websites, Fr Daniel’s or pravmir.
‘One more find is using the time when the priest takes Communion. As is known, usually at this time either communion prayers or hagiographies are being read. We take it into consideration that many Orthodox people know the Holy Scriptures poorly, so we use this time to read the Bible. This way even our elderly women become well-read in the Word of God’.
In the West anyone can get the Scriptures free. There was no Communism and 70 years of banning of the Gospels here. Among us, during the priest’s communion (which anyway takes only a very short time, because there is usually only one priest and no deacon), the choir sings stichira from the Vigil service, so those who could not be there can at least hear some of the hymns of the feast or of the saint of the day.
‘After the service we started a very useful tradition. Immediately after the Liturgy is over, all the parishioners drink tea or coffee together. On the one hand, it is extremely handy for mothers with children, and on the other hand, it helps people to get to know one another better’.
I think Fr Daniel has adopted this from the West. We have been doing this for decades. Some of our parishes eat together every Sunday and at patronal feasts always around the bishop.
‘Many people visit us not only on Sundays but also on Thursdays. Right after the vespers, we conduct Bible Study. We study the Holy Scriptures on the basis of the patristic writings. The lessons last for two hours where the first hour is dedicated to the Old Testament, and the second one to the New Testament. After the lessons all who attended have tea. In order not to put any strain on the church and to teach people apostolic love, everything necessary for the tea party is brought by the listeners themselves; it helps them to get acquainted better. I cannot remember how many people have found their spouses during such tea parties over the years!’
We do similar things, either on Sundays at talks after the liturgy or else on weekday evenings. Bible study is not so important, as explained above. What is more important to speak of is the meaning of the services and our moral conduct in the inherently secular Western world with all its materialist and cultural temptations. Russia has an Orthodox history and culture, which is only partly submerged. In the West the culture is inherently anti-Orthodox. Our mere survival amid assimilation is very difficult.
These talks are attended by Protestant pastors, members of various sects, provincial imams, the regular church-goers as well as those who are just starting a church life by reading the Holy Scriptures. I am sure that after the Rite of the Membership a former member of a sect must necessarily undergo a program of starting a church life. What can be better than studying the Holy Scriptures from the point of view of the patristic tradition?’ Every Friday we have catechetical school. Anyone who wants to be baptized or join the church after being a member of a sect (and we have many such people, thanks to the work of the parish missionaries) has to attend five talks on faith. So the preparation takes about 40 days, as is stipulated by the Synodal resolution on Feb 20, 1840.
We do this individually. We do not have enough people who have any interest in religion who would come. You cannot imagine the indifferentism in the West. We receive about two people a year into the Church, but we keep them. Some Orthodox churches, which proclaim they are ‘missionary’, receive far more people, but they usually all leave after a few weeks or months. We believe that this is wrong, we seek stability, quality and commitment, not unstable numbers.
Generally, Protestants and Catholics would not bother to come to such talks. They have been so indoctrinated by their culture that it is futile to try and speak to them. Protestantism and Catholicism are not part of Russian culture. In the West, they are, therefore it is almost impossible to make people change. This is why we concentrate on the vast masses who have no religion at all – providing of course that they have any interest whatsoever in religion – and that means very few people.
The most common attitude of Western people to Orthodoxy (if they know what it is at all), is that it is ‘foreign’, ‘for Greeks and Russians only’. They say: ‘I cannot become Orthodox because I am English/French/Italian/American etc’. Sadly, this attitude is much reinforced by ecumenistic and nationalistic Orthodox bishops and priests who say publicly that Orthodoxy is only for Russians, Greeks etc and that Western people must be Catholics or Protestants. We Orthodox in the West are horrified when we hear such things and view these statements, made by senior Orthodox bishops over the last few decades, as a betrayal and apostasy of the Church. Even worse is when such Orthodox bishops and priests openly give communion to Non-Orthodox, which practice is widespread in the West in some Non-Russian Orthodox jurisdictions. As you can now understand, one of our greatest battles is against Orthodox clergy who betray our Orthodox Faith, not against Non-Orthodox, whose churches are largely empty anyway. Sadly, the excesses of such ecumenist clergy then create old calendarist sects and schisms, dividing our forces.
I insisted that every parishioner should participate in these discussions. The experience of hearing confessions showed that a large number of regular parishioners know the basics of Christianity poorly. About 70 per cent of the parishioners doubted (or did not believe at all) the resurrection of the dead. They interpreted the words of the Symbol of Faith “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead” as a symbol of the immortality of soul. There were Orthodox believers who had attended Moscow churches for more than 10 years but still believed that the Divine Spirit was a faceless force. I was glad to see this ignorance disappear.
I remember how once I walked into the church quietly when no one expected to see me, and saw elderly women arguing violently. I was going to bring them to reason saying that the church was no place to argue, but when I approached them I got surprised at the question of their argument. They did not argue as to who should have stood by which candlestick, but discussed who was the Calvary sacrifice for.
True, we do not call our elderly women to mission, and this is why they turn into "Orthodox witches" (as Metr. Antony put it). Indeed, idleness is the mother of all sins. So one of the new programs of our church is to create "grandmothers' voluntary missionary groups." This is in order to make our elderly parishioners feel wanted and necessary for Church and for people. But this is still to be implemented.
This is very much symptomatic of the superstitious ‘rite-worship’ (obryadoverie) of post-Soviet Russia. We generally do not get this in the West. People in the West are better educated – but they do not come to Church. This is the tragedy of the West. People know – but they do not do, they are ‘ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (2 Tim 3, 7). As another priest told me: ‘We have people who have are experts on the Catechitical Homilies of St Cyril of Jerusalem, but they cannot make the sign of the cross and are living in sin with a member of the opposite sex’.
The catechumen in our church should attend Sunday services as often as possible, or as their laziness permits. We always perform Baptism in a solemn way, either during the Christening Liturgy, blessed by the late St. Patriarch Alexei, or before the late Sunday Liturgy. All our parishioners greet God's new babies with joy, and the Baptism itself becomes a new center for unifying Christians. But the Baptism ceremony is even more beautiful at big feast days, the Great Saturday and the Nativity. All our parish still remembers how at the last Nativity we baptized two Maya Indians now living in Bolivia. It was a truly universal festival! Imagine mother and daughter with red skin, with Indian braids, reading the Symbol of Faith in Spanish and then walking to the altar in white clothes!
We usually do baptisms on Saturdays, so that the newly baptised can come and take communion on the Sunday. As for exotic nationalities and languages, we have them all. It is the norm in our parishes. Some very small parishes even boast that they have ‘a Russian’, which is very exotic for some.
We started to solve one more problem in our community. Even in churches where the system of catechization is well regulated, the following difficulty emerges: a person turns to Christ, studies the elements of faith, gets baptized, learns about the sacrament of the Eucharist, and this is all. Where does he head from here? Yes, there is a spiritual guidance (though the form that most often exists in our parishes becomes hard to practice due to the priest's inaccessibility). There is a certain rhythm of Christian life: Pray, fast and so on. But the spiritual growth itself is often left to the will of the parishioners themselves. On the one hand, this is good because it develops the feeling of responsibility. On the other hand, many parishioners do not know how they can fight a passion, how they can learn a virtue. This is where the problem with Confession appears: a person just does not know what to repent of, what to do, and this is why the spiritual life of the Orthodox person can turn into an endless search for sins with no time for following the commandments.
In our small parishes, this tends not to be a problem. Priests are accessible, as also are our bishops in general.
To rectify the situation, at least partially, we decided on an imperfect way of solving the problem: every Great Lent, after reading the penitential canon of St. Andrew of Crete, we started the so-called “master classes on commandments.” I find out beforehand which passion worries the parishioners, which virtues interest them at the moment, and then we analyze what the Holy Scripture and the Holy Fathers say about them. The main author for us is, of course, St. John Climacus, but we also base our talks on the works of St. Theophan the Recluse, Dorotheus of Gaza, Basil of Caesarea and John Chrysostom. As a result, we witness a very important change in the parishioners' choice of books. They read fewer of the current religion-political treatises, 'church' novels, and more of the new creations by the Holy Fathers.
Excellent, but first of all you have to get people to come to the Canon of St Andrew from a distance and after work. Sometimes they will also ask you – what language is it in? This can be a problem with 17 different nationalities.
Now I'd like to say a few words about the school of preparing missionaries working at our church. We founded it a year and a half ago, but in this little time it has already brought much fruit. The entrance exam to this school is the catechism exam by St. Filaret of Moscow. The lessons are dedicated to the Dogmatic theology in a missionary light (i.e. we explain how to speak about this or that dogma in the modern language, based on the Holy Scripture), practical study of sects, study of Islam, polemics with occultism. Our teachers are such well-known theologians as Father Oleg Stenyaev, Y. Maximov, A. Solodkov, A. Lul'ka, and also the author of this text.
The main thing is that having taught people the elements of missionary work, we immediately send them to perform God's business. We start with the simple - mission on the street. Our missionaries, with badges of Apostle Thomas' church, come out to parks, bus stops, yards and invite passers-by to come to the church. With this, we hand out the leaflets (about the confession and christening), and those who get interested also receive the Gospel by Mark, published by Sretensky Monastery. It is remarkable that in most cases, as soon as they understand that we are not a sect but the Orthodox, passers-by talk to us with pleasure, Muslims and pagans argue (but benevolently!), and they all have one reproof, "why do members of sects go out (to agitate), and the Orthodox don’t?" One of the main rules is that, if there is another church nearby, we try to send people there.
How wonderful1 Over the last two decades we have done things which are similar, but in much less sophisticated ways (we do not have the money or people), but without any results. For example, we delivered missionary leaflets to 1,000 homes – there was not a single phone call as a result, let alone someone actually coming to church. In England, many have been poisoned against Christianity by the Protestant culture of trying to force religion on people. Western indifferentism is unimaginable for Russians inside Russia. Also we have the problem of Western nationalism. People say, ‘I am not going to a church where there are foreigners and immigrants, Greeks, Russians etc, who do not speak my language’. Nationalism on the part of Greeks, Russians and others is matched by, say, British or French nationalism. Here we have a cultural problem.
‘After our missionaries have learned to work together, we send them for a more difficult task. It can be a sermon for guest workers or, more important, a talk at sectarians' meetings. We visit open meetings of the charismatic movement or the Baptists' and start to prove, basing it on the Bible, that the Church of the Apostles is the Orthodox Church. Our main idea is that “we are messengers of the Christian unity, we are not calling you names, but calling you to realize Christ's own commandment that "all may be one" (John 17: 21). But that unity is possible only in the Truth, in the Faith of the Apostles that's been given to us by God. Let us look absolutely frankly where this Truth is, and let us unite in it.” Fortunately, this voice is not lost in vain, and many members of various sects come back to God, to His Church’.
Again this is impossible for us. All we can do is present our views passively on websites. Protestantism and Catholicism are so culturally ingrained among those who for centuries have been Protestant or Catholic that this does not work. In any case, it would not be blessed by those Orthodox bishops of some jurisdictions who are compromised by ecumenism.
On Memorial Saturdays our missionaries have to work harder than ever. They preach on the street near the church, explaining the need not only to set up candles, but also to participate in the sacraments. But the hardest way of sermon on this day is at the cemeteries where our 'missionary patrol' comes. Here also our labour produces good results.
There are two more days when all our employees, missionaries, and those on duty, don't have an opportunity to have rest. These are the days of the 'great invasion of those of little faith,' Epiphany and Great Saturday. We try to greet everyone who comes for holy water or for the blessing of the Easter cakes. Missionaries tell about the Sacred history, speak about the Confession, explain the need of Christening and Wedding. They hand out our leaflets and invite people for meetings with the priest. So for many a visit for an Easter cake becomes the first step on the way to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Sadly, generally we do not have such opportunities, because we are not in contact with such nominal Orthodox. We are so few, the chances of contacting nominal Orthodox is very small. And we do not have Orthodox cemeteries in general. Since there are so few living Orthodox, there are even fewer departed Orthodox. Memorial Saturdays are not part of the culture, as in Russia. And even practising Orthodox have absorbed the Western attitude that ‘Saturdays are for shopping and housework, Sundays are for Church’. We do not have the generational presence of Orthodox countries. There are hardly any nominal Orthodox at church or even passing by the church to preach to. As for people who actually come to church, they already know these things. We would be preaching to the converted.
As is known, many people who don't regularly go to church come for the Easter procession. Usually they stand nearby and watch parishioners; but there is an internal force that has brought them out of warm homes to the dark street, to participate, at least partially, in the Easter celebration. So we decided to use this moment. In the interval between the Easter midnight service and midnight (if we start the midnight service at eleven p.m., the interval is about 20 minutes) I read in Russian the Gospel passage about the women who brought anointments to Christ's tomb late in the night (usually I take the 20th chapter of the Gospel by John), and tell the parishioners and those who listen on the street about our main hope – the hope for the resurrection of the flesh, the forgiveness of sins and life eternal.
We do not have the masses of nominal Orthodox to preach to. And then if we did this, what language should we use? In Russia you can do it in Russian, but here….
A special place in the missionary parish is taken by our publishing house that publishes missionary literature. These are not only books in Russian.
This we have always done, but it is very difficult for financial reasons. Often the priest has to pay out of his own pocket – if he has a secular job to finance it. Since our flocks are so small, we only print very small numbers of such brochures
There are also many other ideas waiting to be implemented. For instance, if we had more priests in our church, we could organize Confession vigils during the time when there are many people in the church - on Epiphany, the Great Saturday, the days of Easter and Nativity. Indeed, it would be great if anyone who enters the church and talks to a missionary could start their first Confession and get purged at least from the most serious sins.
If only we had a second priest! Many of our parishes do not have a first priest. For example, we have one priest who looks after seven parishes – he serves them once every two months. When I served the parish in Portugal, I lived in France. Can you imagine how difficult flying from one country to another makes pastoral work. Fr Daniel was able to live near his parish. That makes a big difference.
Another plan is to broaden the missionary opportunities of pilgrim's trips that are seldom used these days. The missionary trips that our missionaries undertake should also lead to organizing missionary parishes.
We have always used pilgrimages and visits for pastoral work.
In general, our situation is that of survival. Our churches are oases for small and scattered groups surviving against the powerful tides of Western secularism. All we can do is to survive. It is a very different reality from in Russia. And we cannot build any form of spiritual life, if it is not based on reality.
Archpriest Andrew Phillips