“The Heart of the Parish Community Must be Love”

How do we preach the Gospel today, taking into consideration all the advances in human knowledge? Do we retrench behind barricades and barriers for fear that maybe, just maybe we might have to change our perspective, or do we meet the challenge by having the courage to look carefully and critically at ourselves and responding with wisdom and compassion to the world we actually live in in the context of the teachings of Jesus Christ Whom we profess to follow?

Editor’s note: Some time ago we translated from Russian Fr. Serafim Gan’s article Why is Attendance Declining in Russian Churches in the West? We’ve decided to ask clergy from different countries and different jurisdictions to share their experience of church attendace in the west. Is attendance increasing or decreasing, and why so? Today we offer our readers Fr. Antony Hughes’ reflections on this topic. Fr. Antony Hughes is pastor of St. Mary Orthodoxy Church, Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, Cambridge, MA, USA.

Fr. Antony Hughes

It would be difficult for me to write about the general situation regarding attendance at Orthodox Churches in America. I am no expert on such things. The demographics I have seen are not terribly reliable. After all, statistics serve the statistician. There are some numbers bandied about these days that seem hopelessly exaggerated on the positive side and some that sound hopelessly dismal on the other.

The better way for me to proceed would be for me to speak of the attendance at my own parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This I do know about. I will also offer a few reflections on why it is what it is. That might interest readers more than sterile numbers.

Not long before I arrived in 1993, the parish voted not to close its doors. Attendance was down, revenues were as well of course. A significant number of parishioners felt that it would be better to shut the doors and merge with another nearby parish. I am most grateful to God and that the motion was not approved.

Since then the parish has grown exponentially. To date the largest growing segment of the community is young couples with children from a variety of ethnic origins. Since St. Mary’s is nestled between Harvard University and MIT directly on the Red Line of the Boston subway system college students come to St. Mary’s from all over the Boston area. We are in the heart of America’s Marketplace of Ideas in a major hub of modern culture.

The tithes and offerings of the people suffice to cover expenses and more. As a result there is no need for fund-raisers and bazaars. Volunteerism is at a high level. The Catechumenate has been re-instituted and new Orthodox Christians are either baptized or chrismated on Holy Saturday each year. The laity are encouraged to participate in all areas of parish life, new ideas are welcomed, and new perspectives are not dismissed out of hand.

In the environment of Cambridge, MA people tend to think deeply about issues of faith and life. Fundamentalism doesn’t play well here. Openness, tolerance, diversity, and inclusiveness are hallmarks of our parish. Everyone is welcome. No one is turned away. We embrace people as they are, not as we think they should be, knowing that the transformation of human life demands a safe, welcoming community where the believer can encounter Christ, the Lord and Giver of Life, without fear or condemnation. Christ stretched out His arms on the Cross to embrace the whole panoply of humanity. We are called to do nothing less. The Church exists as the Ark of Salvation for all.

If I were to asked to put into one word the reason for the growth and success of St. Mary’s, Cambridge, I would say “love.” The heart of the parish community must be love, for God and for one another, if it is to thrive as a living expression of the God Who is Love. Where there is love there is no place for narrow-minded dogmatism or extremism. The Church of Christ is a hospital not a cult or an exclusive club for the self-righteous.

There are no disputes here over language or ethnicity, clothing, or any other external expression of faith. Our diversity demands it. A recent count called to our attention that there are 17 different nationalities represented in our community, but English is the unifying language. Thus, the Liturgy is in English. This is becoming increasingly true for a growing number of American parishes as the walls of ethnicity give way to the realities of life in a multicultural society, not to mention the ever-increasing number of inter-faith and inter-ethnic marriages. Where these facts of life are embraced rather than resisted, parishes are able to navigate well the changes that are necessary for parish survival and growth.

One issue at the heart of Church growth overall is the loss of young people to the life of the Church. I think much of it is due to a poor and narrow-minded transmission of the Faith. The temptation to present an ossified view of the faith that ignores life in the modern world does not attract the young, mostly well-educated young person. Such an Orthodoxy is not relevant, nor is it true to the Faith which must be transmitted to every age as it is, not as we wish it were. It is not the faith that is irrelevant, it is our presentation of it that is. If is not the Gospel that is irrelevant, it is us.

I do not believe, Orthodoxy has any reason to fear the modern world. Far from being a threat, it is an opportunity and a challenge. How do we preach the Gospel today, taking into consideration all the advances in human knowledge? Do we retrench behind barricades and barriers for fear that maybe, just maybe we might have to change our perspective, or do we meet the challenge by having the courage to look carefully and critically at ourselves and responding with wisdom and compassion to the world we actually live in in the context of the teachings of Jesus Christ Whom we profess to follow? For me, the answer is simple. The latter must be our path.

St. Mary’s in Cambridge is a pan-orthodox parish. It is a fact that this kind of parish is the kind that grows in the United States. Our openness to different cultures and peoples, the warm and welcoming atmosphere in the parish, our attention to the beauty of the liturgical services, a growing awareness of the importance of the spiritual life in daily life, our use of the internet and a variety of methods of communication, and our location means that we have to do very little else to attract new members.

I know that there are other parishes in the country that have experienced this kind of dynamic growth. In some areas Orthodoxy appears to be thriving with a significant number of missions arising. In recent years New England has seen three open with two now in the category of parishes. Still in other parts of the country, particularly in states where economic realities have resulted in the closing of factories, once large parishes are on the verge of collapse. This is part of the ever-changing, temporal reality of life. We must be flexible and accept reality as it is and work within it for the glory of God.

At present, in Cambridge, all is well.

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