WHAT IS A PARISH?
by Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann
What I have to say here may come as a shock to the great majority of Orthodox. Yet it is a self-evident fact that the parish as we understand it now, i.e., as an organization with officers, by-laws, finances, property, meetings, elections, etc., is a very recent phenomenon and exists, in fact, almost exclusively within the Orthodox "diaspora."
This is to say that what we take for granted as the only normative and natural form of the Church's existence is not at all so clearly "granted," and may be not at all so normative. The "parish" as we know it today is, in spite of all its religious connotations, and this may come as a second shock a product of secularization; or, rather, that in the process of its development within the American way of life it has accepted a secularistic basis which little by little dissolves the ultimate seriousness of that which it claims to serve and to be, i.e., the Church. To understand this, one must briefly analyze the genesis and the development of the Orthodox parish in America.
The first thing Orthodox immigrants did as they settled in America was to build churches. The Church was a self-evident, organic part of their life in the old country. It became their first need in the new one. It was a need for the Church for worship, sacraments, for the possibility to baptize, marry and bury not for a "parish," as understood today, but rather for a parish in the old and traditional sense of the word, a place where one could worship together with others and have a religious "term of reference" for his entire life. All early documents support this view.
The "organization" was something secondary, forced, so to speak, on the immigrants by purely external factors. In a Russian or Greek village no one ever asked who is the owner of the parish Church. It was literally the property of God for which everyone had to care, but which belonged to no one in particular. The Church had no other function but that of literally making Christ present through preaching, the sacraments, worship, education, and of making the life of "parishioners" as Christian, as permeated with Christ, as possible. Those who were selected, ordained, set apart to carry out this work of the Church were the "clergy." To give and to administer the Church, both spiritually and materially, was not their "right," but their sacred obligation, the very reason for their being "set apart."
Similarly the sacred obligation of all other "parishioners," called laity, was to receive the teachings of the Church as diligently as possible, to worship God together, to contribute "according to the will of their heart" to the needs of the Church, and finally, to live as much as possible by the precepts of the Christian Faith.
Here, however, in a completely different legal framework, the land and the Church on it had to be purchased and owned by a corporation. The latter was hastily constituted, usually by some energetic and Church-minded people, with no other purpose than to make the Church possible. It was a purely pragmatic development which, however, introduced, almost subconsciously, the first radical change in the old idea of the parish: that of the parish as owner of property. And this idea became little by little a real obsession.
Then came the second change. The immigrant parish was poor, and to have even a humble church together with supporting a priest, was costly. Hence, a constant preoccupation with fund raising and how to make ends meet, a preoccupation which put money and finances at the very heart of the parish's life. In fact, the parish organization was born as a material support for the Church, the Church, and not the parish, being at first the goal and the justification of the parish. But an organization, when it is born and whatever the reason for its birth, follows almost inevitably a logic of development which sooner or later makes its own "ultimate values."
And in America nearly everything contributed to this logic and to that development: the democratic, i.e., basically anti-hierarchical ideal of society, the cult of "free," i.e., private, enterprise, the spirit of competition, the evaluation of everything in terms of "cost," the emphasis on security and saving, the constant exaltation of the "people" and their will, needs, and interests as the only criterion of all activity, and especially the pragmatic character of American religion in which activity and efficiency are the main religious values.
Finally, the Orthodox parish became what it is today: an end in itself, an organization whose whole efforts and energies are aimed at advancing its own good material stability, success, future security, and a kind of self-pride. And it is no longer the parish that serves the Church, it is, indeed, the Church that is forced more and more to serve the parish, to accept it as its "goal" so that a priest, the last sign and representative of the "Church" in the "parish," is considered good when he entirely subordinates the interests of the Church to those of the parish.
The third and the most important change was the inevitable result of the other two: the secularization of the parish and the corresponding loss of religious seriousness. A modern American parish may have many good aspects, but any deeper analysis must admit that it lacks seriousness in the sense we used this term above. Beyond that, however, as organization, i.e., as "parish" it, in fact, opposes this kind of seriousness, because it knows by instinct and from experience that the success it wants and seeks is precisely opposed to religious seriousness. To be "successful" one has to refer and to cater to human pride (the right hand not only knowing what the left one is doing, but spending most of the time acknowledging and publicizing it), the instinct of gain (bingo, or raffles, etc., being more efficient way to fill the parish treasury than any appeal to religious consciousness), vainglory (the best, the greatest, the most expensive . . .). And since all this is done "for the Church" it is thereby justified and glorified as "Christian."
To be exact, a parish organization lives by standards and principles, which, when applied to an individual, are condemned outright by Christianity as immoral: pride, gain, selfishness, and self-affirmation. Even the constant preaching in terms of the "glory" of Orthodoxy is a rather ambiguous substitute for the glory that according to the Gospel is due to God alone. The parish organization has replaced the Church and, by the same token, has become a completely secular organization. In this it is radically different from the parish of the past. It has ceased to be a natural community with a Church as its center and pole of "ultimate reference" and "seriousness." It has not become a religious community, i.e., a group united by and serving a common religious ideal. As it exists today it represents the very victory of secularism within American Orthodoxy.
(Fr. Alexander Schmemann [+1983] was Dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary)