At the present time, in Western Europe at least, Orthodox Church life of all dioceses tends to be dominated by two sorts of church – two extremes. Fortunately, they are not always as extreme as I describe below, because there I describe stereotypes. However, just because they are stereotypes, this does not mean that the tendencies are not there.
Firstly, there can be impersonal cathedrals or other large churches in capitals and large cities. Here hundreds, even thousands, of Orthodox or curious Non-Orthodox call in on a Sunday, light candles, often mill around, do not know each other and cannot know each other, being unable to meet, and all too often do not stay and drift away. The churches which they visit give them little sense of belonging, little sense of community; this is the very opposite of what they need, given that they are homesick and uprooted from their Orthodox homes, whether from contemporary Eastern Europe or from ancient Western Europe.
Secondly, there can be introverted ghettos with narrow ideologies which it is sought to impose, sometimes located in inaccessible places or private houses. They sometimes consist of only half a dozen neophytes and one can even have the impression of ego-trips. Some of the practices in such groups, liturgical and otherwise, are unknown to the rest of the Orthodox Church and seem to have a basis in psychology, not in theology. Ordinary Orthodox naturally feel excluded from them.
Three Basic Needs
What then is required to bring scattered Orthodox and interested Non-Orthodox together? We would recommend three things. The following recommendations do not come from personal opinion, but from nearly forty years of experience and observation:
1. Premises suitable for Orthodox worship. These should be premises easily accessible to the general public and with adequate facilities (parking, children’s facilities, toilets etc), where Orthodox can feel at home, which are warm and prayerful, where there are icons and Orthodox are not distracted. This is why we always avoid using premises used and owned by heterodox, but, if we do not have money to build our own Orthodox premises, convert premises and make them our own, that is, homely for Orthodox. This is all about creating a prayerful atmosphere.
2. A choir whose members can sing and read reasonably well. This should not be in just one language, which would be exclusive and is often the sign of Anglican rigidity and false piety. A choir means that solo singing is not really acceptable to the mass of Orthodox. This in turn means that whoever is responsible for the choir needs to encourage and teach others to sing – no mean task, but a necessary one.
3. A priest who is trained, not necessarily in terms of seminary or university but, above all – and this is far more important – in terms of parish experience. He should neither be a liberal, nor a reactionary. This means that he should be strict in terms of Church teaching, but still be open in terms of understanding human weaknesses and family life. He should not be an intellectual with merely a bookish and modernistic understanding of Orthodoxy. That, as we saw in the Sourozh schism, means that he does not understand real Orthodox, but only other converts like himself. Rather he must be able to provide the liturgical cycle of every Saturday, Sunday and feast day and provide all the sacraments.
To people in exile – and in the 21st century we are all in exile – our duty is to provide a home. And that is what our churches should be – homes, places to which Orthodox belong and feel that they belong.