Recently we posted Fr. Daniel Sysoev’s article on missionary work led by him at his parish in Moscow, Russia. The question came up about which of Fr. Daniel’s ideas would be useful and which may not be so effective in a typical North American/European parish where the people do not share the culture of Orthodox Christian nations, and are probably already Christian; as opposed to Russia where a missionary parish isn’t competing so much with other religious groups. We posed this question to several priests and asked them to share with us their own experience doing missionary work. We begin our series of articles in response to Fr. Daniel’s article with Fr. Gregory Hallam’s essay.
Archpriest Gregory Hallam, Antiochian Orthodox Deanery of the United Kingdom and Ireland
Anyone who achieves great things does so by having the humility to learn from the insights and practices of those who have gone before. In this, the martyred priest Daniel Sysoev is no exception. He stands in that great and glorious tradition of Russian missionary pioneers who, particularly from the 18th century onwards opened up many diverse cultures to the Christian gospel. One can see in Father Daniel’s ministry the classic and universal principles of evangelisation practised by St Innocent of Alaska, St Nicholas of Japan and St Stephen of Perm to mention just a few. As a western Orthodox Christian and priest I have read with great delight and thankfulness to God the accounts of Father Daniel’s work in his Moscow parish. Such stories give us confidence here in the West that what we are trying to do is indeed in accordance with the mind of the Church. Father Daniel’s martyrdom, within the providence of God, is a sign perhaps that we should all attend to his costly witness that the gospel should be actively proclaimed and lived within all our communities. As Father Daniel described them, “missionary parishes” should be the rule and not the exception in the Orthodox Church. In this brief article I shall attempt to compare his work and ours in the United Kingdom and Ireland and with particular reference to my own parish of St Aidan of Lindisfarne in Manchester.
Let us identify the basic principles and practice of parish mission as refined by Father Daniel. These are as follows:-
1. Prayer. Nothing is achieved without prayer. There is no substitute for regular daily services and keeping the church doors open for all those who are drawn by God to his temple.
2. Trained ministries. The work of mission is not accomplished by the priest alone. The church needs to train greeters, catechists, missionaries, preachers and prayer leaders. Schools for such ministries need to be established.
3. Active evangelism. Missionary preachers, contact persons and befrienders need to go out and personally invite people to church on the basis of a simple presentation of the gospel. Opportunities must be taken to reach out to those who come to church but only at major feasts.
4. Comprehensive teaching. Sermons at most services, Bible study groups, small discussion groups and publications need to cover all aspects of Christian faith and life. These will be tailored to the differing needs of enquirers, catechumens and the faithful.
5. Repentance and personal growth. The Church’s ministry of confession and her ascetical disciplines need to be presented to the faithful in a practical and thoroughgoing manner such that they will learn how to acquire holiness.
6. Social and personal life. The church must care for all her members and this includes providing opportunities for them to get to know each other and develop close relationships in a social context.
It seems to me that although situations in different cultures and nations vary, these principles of mission which lay at the heart of Father Daniel’s life and ministry are universal. Only no. 3, “active evangelism” becomes difficult if not impossible in those societies that for religious or political reasons have become hostile to Christianity. In Russia and the West, at least for the moment, the Church has the freedom and the necessity of implementing this principle as well. Nonetheless, we must face the fact many of the faithful think, wrongly of course, that this is only what the sects and cults do. Anyone, however, who has the slightest historical knowledge of Orthodox missions, will know that evangelisation lies at the very heart of the Church’s life. Any local church that has lost its heart and soul for mission is dysfunctional, disobedient to Christ (Matthew 28:19-20) and an occasion for great sorrow. We must not let the heterodox, who copy our own historic methods, undermine our missionary zeal from within.
I shall now proceed to compare our different situations and common opportunities in the light of the six principles of mission enumerated above.
Our parishes in Manchester, and indeed most of the 24 communities in our Deanery (Patriarchate of Antioch, Archdiocese of Western and Central Europe) have all been established since 1995 or later. All of us have had to move at different speeds according to local circumstances. We all started with just a few faithful, a priest usually with a secular job and no church building and began working towards a full parish with a full-time paid priest and an Orthodox temple. Even now (2010) this has not proved possible for all of us, although in Manchester we have indeed achieved this. Since we have no funding other than the giving of our members, many communities do not as yet have either or both of these essentials (a full time priest or a temple). However, progress is being made, thanks be to God. I mention this since these factors do in places impose limitations on what we can achieve; yet with God all things are possible! We have to have faith.
I can only speak of my own parish in any great detail. Can it be considered a “missionary parish” in the sense that Father Daniel understood this and in accordance with the principles that he implemented with his people? I would say, cautiously, “yes” but we have a long way to go in certain areas.
As far as prayer is concerned, although we observe the fasts and the feasts, together with the full liturgical cycle of services for Saturday / Sunday, the Twelve Major Feasts, Nativity, Theophany, Great and Holy Week and Pascha, we do not as yet maintain daily services and keep the church door open throughout the week for occasional visitors. This I believe has to become a priority for us in the next year or so. The main challenge for us concerning daily services is being able to have enough singers to sustain these. Maybe we should content ourselves with what is possible for now and train people simply to read the prayers in church.
On the second principle, we have always encouraged, supported and trained ministries amongst the faithful. I would say that we are still at the training stage but by the end of 2011 we should have a group of people who are sufficiently grounded in the faith to take up more active roles. Training in our parish at the theological level is mainly through a weekly Bible study and a three year course in Orthodox faith and life which meets for three terms per annum each in a cycle of 10 weeks. The teaching syllabus covers Faith and Life, Liturgical Theology, Church History, Old Testament, New Testament, Tradition, Doctrine, Pastoral and Ascetical Theology, Ministries and Mission.
Active evangelism happens at a personal level through friendships and most people feel comfortable with that. However, the major difference between Russia and the UK of course is that we are not an Orthodox culture and therefore there is not that basic sympathetic awareness of Orthodoxy in the general population that would allow for more open forms of evangelism in the street and through visiting homes. Having said that, this also of course was the case when St Nicholas of Japan started his mission in Hokkaido. It didn’t stop him or his Japanese converts from becoming missionaries in a culture that was still antagonistic towards Christianity. So, maybe Christians in the West, and this would include the Orthodox, have simply become timid. Nonetheless, the Orthodox in the UK have a huge mountain to climb in overcoming a basic prejudice amongst the faithful that we “don’t do evangelism.” My usual response to this ignorance is that there would not have been Christianity in these islands if it were not for Orthodox evangelists, both ordained and not ordained in the first millennium, preaching the gospel and setting up new Christian communities right across this land. We are now a post-Christian culture, alienated from Orthodoxy arguably since the Norman invasion nearly 950 years ago. Orthodox Christians need to wake up to the reality of the situation and God’s call to mission which has been ignored by some if not many for so long. Lord have mercy!
As far as teaching is concerned, we have made much more progress in this area. I have already referred to our three-year course in Orthodoxy and our Bible study group. To these I must add Catechism classes for catechumens and Sunday school groups for our children and teens. All this is accomplished in English and although this is controversial in Russia, all our services are in English, so everyone understands the detail and not just the general shape and content of the prayers. I am very encouraged by the way in which our parish has grown in its understanding and practice of the Orthodox Christian life over the last two years. The teaching groups are well attended and the congregation has grown markedly. I feel that we could grow much more in accordance with God’s will if we were able to harness the training and growing confidence of our young and not so young adults by actively taking the Gospel out into the local community. We have not yet reached that stage but we are getting there!
Father Daniel reflected that he needed to provide teaching and discussion to help believers become more effective in struggling again sins, acquiring virtue and living out the commandments. We also feel this need and believe that confession and the other sacraments, notably a regular reception of Holy Communion, could be developed and strengthened in our parish through such teaching. The possibility of doing this in Great Lent is an attractive and realistic option, without of course weakening instruction on these matters at other times.
Finally our social life and interaction of members is quite well developed in our parish. We are a very multicultural community and this diversity has been a great blessing in getting to know people from many different backgrounds. We sometimes spend just as much time at the end of the Liturgy on Sunday over drinks, food and edifying, happy conversation as we do in the service itself. We need to make sure, however, particularly as the parish grows, that such human contact, fellowship and care deepens and extends to include all newcomers and that we make use of the gifts of all the people of God in order to enhance the church’s life and work.
As I was writing this article, the example and costly witness of Father Daniel was uppermost in my mind and deep within my heart. At a human level I really would have liked to meet him and to share insights. I am sure that there must be many other remarkable and dedicated priests and believers in such missionary parishes throughout Russia. In fact I know that there are, for I have met some of these fine people in my visits to Russia in times past. What we need to achieve now, together and above all else is a common dedication to the task of preaching the gospel and a mutual reinforcement of our witness to Christ by sharing with one another as Christian brothers and sisters. I have welcomed the opportunity to do this here in my writing but I look forward also perhaps to the possibility of extending these contacts and fraternal work between our two local churches in years to come. May God direct and inspire our vision!