The clergy friends I know are a diverse lot. Some are Orthodox, some are Protestant, some are Canadian, and some are American. But when I talk to them of late, I find that they all tell the same story: at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, they all lost a sizeable portion of their congregation, and all for the same reason: they couldn’t please everybody.
During the pandemic, as the clergy struggled with the restrictions and sought to care for their congregations, they found that many of their people became frustrated and left—often without saying a word. They simply vanished, as if caught away a kind of Covid “Rapture”, never to be seen again. Some left because there were too many masks, some left because there were too few masks, some left because the people were standing too close together, some left because they objected to any social distancing at all, some left because Communion was administered from a single spoon, some left because Communion was administered from different spoons. What all those who left had in common was that they objected to a policy from the pastor (often not made by him, but made for him by others, such as the bishop), and decided that the congregation no longer suited their needs or conformed to their views, and so they left.
Some, sadly, went nowhere and simply stayed home. But most went to another congregation nearby where the local policy conformed more closely to their view of what should be done and which therefore suited their needs. Clergy are rarely permitted the luxury of discussing their feelings in public or their reactions to such defections, but they are not shy of sharing their feelings over the phone with their clergy friends. Here I will only report the obvious and expected: that the clergy thus treated were rarely philosophical about it, whatever they said in public. That is because they were involved in the lives of all their people and really cared about them.
All of this is hardly new, nor can it be all blamed on Covid. Even before the pandemic hit, clergy were familiar with the phenomenon of parishioners leaving the parish because something there didn’t suit them, and of joining another parish that suited them better. Sometimes the decision to leave was based on distance (“St. Barsanuphius parish is just a quick ten minute drive from my door!”); sometimes the decision was based on local details, such as the length of the sermon. I heard one story where the parishioner left because the priest decided to have Sunday School before the Liturgy and not during it, and the parishioner preferred that Sunday School be held at the same time as Liturgy. It makes, I suppose, for a quieter Liturgy. Anyway, off they went.
The historians among us will note that none of this was possible in the early church. In those days there was only one church in town, the one run by the bishop (not counting, of course, the other church in town run by the Arian bishop), and that presbyters under the bishop together formed a single council and leadership team. If you got ticked at the bishop or his presbyters, you couldn’t leave, because unless you wanted to become an Arian, there was literally no other place else in town to go. You had to stay and work out your problems with the bishop and his team. Running from them was not an option.
It is an option now, and as the Covid pandemic has demonstrated, many avail themselves of it. One may ask, however, what’s the problem with that? Why shouldn’t I leave and go to St. Barsanuphius parish if it’s closer? Why shouldn’t I pick a church that has Sunday School at a time I prefer? It’s my life and my choice; why shouldn’t I do whatever I want?
I have already hinted somewhat at an answer—because running away to avoid working out a conflict is not the path to maturity. Hard as it is, it is usually better to stay and work out problems with others, whether in a church or in a marriage. There are exceptions of course: no one seriously counsels people to stay in dangerous and abusive situations. But short of abuse or criminality, the path to maturity and holiness involves the difficult work of conflict resolution.
Here, however, I would like to focus upon a more important and underlying issue—that of the nature of the parish church. It is possible to regard the parish in primarily consumeristic terms—i.e. a place that offers a product. In this model, the clergy are producers of a product called “the Divine Liturgy” or “grace” or something that will meet your felt “religious needs”. If you like the product and if the parish or clergy meets your religious needs, you are happy to stay. But if they no longer meet your needs or suit you in some way, you leave and find another place which will meet your needs and suit you. In this model, the parishioner is primarily a consumer of a product. The other people in the parish are merely nice people whom you like and who happen to be there to consume the same product.
The parish thus becomes rather like a restaurant. A restaurant is there to offer a product—namely, a good meal at a good price, with an ambience that appeals to you. But you can find the same product elsewhere at another restaurant. After all, a steak is a steak is a steak, whether you sit down to eat it at The Keg, Earle’s, or The White Spot. (Note: this is not meant to be a plug for the local B.C. restaurants.) If they play the music too loudly at The Keg, you simply move to Earle’s where the music is quieter, and there is no harm done. No one will blame you, and The Keg will survive just fine without you.
In the New Testament, however, we find a different model—that of the local parish as a family. You do not pick a family; you are born into it—in the case of the church family, through baptism. That said, in our day people sometimes move around, and if you move from one city to another, obviously you will find another church family. Being born again/ baptized in a church in Montreal doesn’t mean that you have to worship there even after you moved to Edmonton. (Note to my American friends: these cities are several time zones apart.) But all things being equal, your parish church is your family, the place where God calls you to work out your salvation with fear and trembling and humility.
This means that the principle governing parish life is not consumeristic, but personalistic; what is important is not whether or not I like the product (be it the length of the sermon or number of Eucharistic spoons in use), but one’s relationships with the rest of the parish family. Because you belong to God, you also belong to them.
That is partly what St. Paul means when he constantly refers to the local parish church as “the body of Christ”: everyone there were “members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25). They belonged to one another and were connected to one another in the same way as different members, limbs, or organs belonged to each other as parts of the same body. Since they were fellow-members, when one of the family suffered, all suffered together; when one was honoured, all rejoiced together (1 Corinthians 12:26). What effected one, effected all. That is what it means to be parts of the same body.
In this model, relationships are all-important. It is easy to go to the Divine Liturgy, worship with others in the same room, drink coffee with them while making small talk afterward, and then go home and more or less forget all about them. In the parish-as-restaurant model, this is precisely what happens. Who really cares about the couple eating at the table next to you? But in the parish-as-family model, one does care about couple receiving from the same Chalice and drinking coffee next to you afterward.
We see this in a nitty-gritty detail found in Philippians 4:2-3. In the Philippian church, there were apparently two women to did not get along, whose names were Euodia and Syntyche. It would have been easy for St. Paul to simply ignore the whole thing, and conclude that as long as Euodia didn’t throw her coffee cup at Syntyche at the coffee hour after the Liturgy, everything was fine.
But because Euodia and Syntyche were fellow-members of the same body and “members one of another”, this easy way out was not an option. Paul therefore urged them to “be of the same mind”—i.e. stop arguing, resolve their conflict, kiss and make up. Moreover, he urged someone he calls “Syzygus” (Greek for “yokefellow”) to help those women do it. I don’t envy “Syzygus” his job (if that was his actual name). My guess is that he was the husband of one of the women and the brother of the other. This made for a difficult and awkward situation, but Paul evidently felt that the work of reconciliation needed to be accomplished, difficult or not. This reveals as nothing else could how the local parish was a family.
The pandemic has pretty much come and gone (at least in my happy neck of the woods), and left somewhat reconfigured congregations. Those reconfigurations are not the point; the nature of the parish is. Pandemic or no, we must learn to live as members of one another, bearing one another’s burdens, and in this way fulfilling the Law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). It is difficult, and it takes a little courage and a lot of humility. But it is the only path to maturity, holiness, and peace.