Communion is not a Reward for “Good Behavior”

Average Americans do not know much about Orthodoxy, as a rule. They treat it as a sort of exotic, ethnic version of Catholicism. There are a lot of various confessions and streams of Christianity here. This issue is a personal one; it is not accepted to discuss individual faith. Americans regard this as a subject one should not pry into.
Maria Abushkina | 26 March 2009
We discussed parish life and traditions in the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad with the priest Alexy Chumakov, the rector of the Protection of the Holy Virgin Church in Los Angeles.

– Father Alexy, what differences will ordinary Russian parishioners notice if they attend the Liturgy in an American Orthodox Church?

– If they come to the Russian Orthodox Church there will not be many differences. Taking into account the existing diversity of parish traditions even in Moscow alone, our differences are not striking, though they do take place. Usually the church is not always open but only when the divine services are held (this disappoints many of those who want “just to put a candle”). The services are held on Sundays and on the important feasts days but not every day. There is practically no “parochial atmosphere” and corresponding subculture which is quite visible in Russian churches. Parishioners (especially women) do not usually follow the dress-code used in Russia – a long skirt and a very simple and high-necked top. The main emphasis here lays on the formality of the clothes, not on its modesty. You are supposed to wear the best clothes for the service here. Instead of a kerchief women usually wear hats (if they do it at all). It will not occur to anyone to admonish someone for being without a head dress. In other respects there are not so many differences if we do not speak about Greek, Arab or some other parishes.

– Is there a Sunday school in your church? What do children do there?

– Our parish was founded over 55 years ago and for many decades a Sunday school was functioning where children studied Russian language, literature, history, geography, and the Law of God. The amount of pupils fluctuated from dozens to half of a hundred, but ten years ago our school moved to a special spacious building in a neighborhood Russian church and thus our parish does not deal with it directly. Instead, we have a more modest Sunday school which only our parishioners’ children attend. They have almost the same program. The main aim of this program is to preserve a religious-cultural upbringing. This issue concerns especially those families where one of the spouses is an American and the other is Russian.

– What acts of charity take place in your parishes?

– There is the Protection of the Holy Virgin Sisterhood in our parish which existed from the first day of the parish’s foundation. The sisters do not only take care of the church, but also give different charity dinners. They gather donations for the lonely, poor and elderly Russian Orthodox people who are spread all over the world and are often in tight situations. The sisters send them gratuities for feast days, and help them in some other ways. It often happens that people who turned out to be far from their homeland in a tight situation without any money and work resort to the sisters. We can rightly regard the old rule of life ora et labora, prayer and labor, as the motto of the Sisterhood.

Do the parishioners gather together after the service to drink tea, for example? Do any pilgrimages take place?

– Yes, after each Sunday liturgy the Sisterhood gives a dinner and tea. For that purpose we have a rather spacious and shaded orchard which adjoins the kitchen, and has many tables. The sisters responsible for this dinner cook several courses. Usually this is a borsch or another soup, several variants of the second course and salads, desert, piroshky and cakes, coffee, tea and other drinks. The parishioners pay about $8-10 depending on the dinner, and have a conversation during and after the dinner. The income from these dinners belongs to the Sisterhood and is used for charitable purposes only.

Concerning the pilgrimages, in recent years they have been organized in a more centralized way. The groups of pilgrims go to the Holy Land, Greece, Rome, Egypt and different places in Russia. This has taken place more often in recent years. Generally, the world “became smaller”. Besides, many parishioners go on pilgrimage by themselves.

– The necessity of frequent communion is being discussed more often in the Russian Orthodox Church. Also frequent confession before taking Communion is being reconsidered for those who take communion often. What does ROCA think about it?

–  It is difficult to answer this question in general. As in Russia, there are priests who follow different ideas concerning this issue. Moreover, we often deal with the faithful of other Orthodox churches, for instance, with Greeks, who have a completely different tradition of confession and taking Communion. I follow the instructions of my longstanding master and predecessor from our parish, the deceased bishop Alexander (Mileant), who tried to have Communion more often without neglecting confession before it. Only if a person leads an active Christian life and is stable in it, and takes Communion once a week, then he or she is allowed to confess once in three weeks or when they have something on their conscience. Communion is not a reward for “a good behavior”, but a cure which can heal us; it is as bread for our soul which can give us strength. After all, this is according to the direct commandment of Christ. Confession before Communion is sometimes the only possibility for us to talk seriously to people who seldom have a chance happen to attend church, to awaken them somehow, to console them. Almost every Sunday there are three or four people at confession who have not confessed for over ten years, and we surely cannot refuse this most valuable tool of our pastor’s practice.

– It is known that Orthodox churches have different traditions of a daily prayer rule. For example, Greeks have shortened the canonical services (Orthros and Compline) with affiliated prayers. What prayer rule does an average parishioner of your church have?

– We do not have one rule for everyone. The parishioners are too different in terms of their spiritual order and state. There are prayer books published in Russia in our bookstore. Also we have prayer books in Russian for those who cannot cope with Church Slavonic and, of course, prayer books in English. Discussing the prayer rule with parishioners, I usually try to urge them not to rush for a long rule but to try to read at least the most important parts from the bottom of their hearts. I know that from experience that almost no one reads “the rule of three Canons”, but many people read preparatory prayers for Holy Communion, though even in this case many get stuck in very long prayers. However, in our church the lector reads preparatory prayers for Holy Communion while the clergy are taking Communion.

– Do American priests have to work in order to make a living? How do they manage to combine work with ministry?

– The majority of our priests have both “civil” work and some professional field. Only rectors of the largest parishes are entirely involved in serving the parish and are able to subsist on the income of their parish. Usually both the priest and his wife are working, to say nothing of deacons. Services do not take place every day, so it is quite possible to have a job and minister to the parish. We are trying to find work with an ‘open-leave’ schedule, of course, but it is not always possible. Some priests work for the sake of medical insurance for their families. It is very expensive in America so only few parishes can provide a priest with it. On the other hand, civil work certainly brings benefit. It helps to understand people, their cares and problems; it brings communication with the external, secular world and it also helps to remain realistic about your position in the world. Such work can insure one from the illness of clericalism.    

– What is the attitude of average Americans towards the Orthodox Church? Do they notice it? How do the authorities treat it?

– Average Americans do not know much about Orthodoxy, as a rule. They treat it as a sort of exotic, ethnic version of Catholicism. There are a lot of various confessions and streams of Christianity here. This issue is a personal one; it is not accepted to discuss individual faith. Americans regard this as a subject one should not pry into.

The authorities have respect for the Orthodox Church as for any religion here. Local authorities and the police always send us invitations to different meetings, discussions and other social events. There are staff chaplains in hospitals which always ask priests to celebrate prayer services, to give Communion to the patients or just to talk to them at patients or their relatives’ request. Hospitals offer to make such calls and they are looking for priests by the phone. In addition, we have free access everywhere including emergency rooms; parking for priests is free. The Church is separated from government but not from society. Moreover, probably its separation from government made it possible to keep and to strengthen the Church’s influence in society as opposed to the majority of European countries (there are more than 80% of the faithful in the USA).

– Does any missionary work take place?

– The preceding rector of the Protection of the Holy Virgin Church, the deceased Bishop Alexander (Mileant) composed, published and spread plenty of missionary leaflets from the beginning of the 1980s to his decease in 2005. They are available on his web-site in several languages. I also try to continue this work as far as possible. We republish old leaflets, edit and compose new ones – they are really needed. It was made then and it is now made at our own expense, with our own hands and with the hands of volunteers among parishioners. Unfortunately, we do not have means to spread such literature in large quantities.

– Do Americans attend services? What attracts them in the Orthodox Church?

– Yes, there has been a so-called “American group” in our church for over 20 years. Each Sunday we serve an early liturgy in English in the aisle. There are about 50-60 people at this liturgy – this is five times less than on the Slavic one, but that is good enough as well. There are two American priests in our church who do not speak Russian. Americans come to Orthodoxy in as many ways as Russians do. Someone was attracted by the antiquity of the Church and by unchanged faith. Someone was attracted by the beauty of the church and the divine service; someone has married a Russian woman and went into her religion.

– Recently we often hear of many people in the USA joining Orthodoxy. Is that true?

– Probably such a movement does exist, and it existed for a long time, but it can hardly be called a wide-scale one. Still, people hear little about Orthodoxy now, and we have some organizational problems as usual. Unfortunately, many Russians baptized in Orthodoxy backslide after emigration; they blend into the crowd. And the amount of such people is more than of Americans who join the Orthodox Church.

– What difficulties do Americans face if they want to get to know Orthodoxy better?

– This is a small number of orthodox people in churches, language barrier (there are not so many English-speaking parishes and most Americans do not know any foreign language), nationality-based division within us and a small number of monasteries.

– What do you think, is the freedom of religion in the United States is real? Do Orthodox Christians face challenges because of their religion?

– I have not faced challenges though I have been living here for over 18 years. I think the freedom of religion is quite real, though this freedom is given to everyone, even for those people whose creeds or moral principles go against the grain for us as for Orthodox Christians.

– Jerry Bergman, the lecturer of the North-West University, Ohio, says: “If the Christian community does not join the struggle for religious freedom immediately, today’s newborns will be persecuted for being Christians physically”. Do you agree with this statement?

– I agree, but not entirely. Probably, Bergman means the following. Changes in society, social changes go along with the deviation from those traditional moral standards which have always existed in the life of society and nations from the Medieval age. Here I also mean publicly demonstrated Christian symbols sponsored by the government and treating speeches against homosexuals as “hate speech”, for instance. Sometimes it is rather difficult for the doctors dealing with public insurances to refuse performing some medical procedures which they find immoral (abortions, for example). In general, Christianity is being systematically pushed out of social life. Certainly, this requires a certain reaction, though I am not sure that anyone will be persecuted physically for being a Christian, though everything is possible. However, it was noticed yet in the first centuries of Christianity, the main enemies who prevent spreading Christianity are Christians themselves, who do not live according to their religion. Thus a famous phrase “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” does not work. Besides, having cast out the beam out of your own eye it will be easier to get to the mote in your brother’s eye. Certainly, this does not mean that Christians must not do their best to prevent the de-christianization of the society.   

Translated by Tatiana Korobeynikova    

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