Christianity has always been spread by monastics and monasteries. This is universal. In normal conditions, what happens is that after their mission has been completed, monastics (some of whom are bishops – real bishops are always monastics) delegate the everyday running of churches to married clergy. These either run the local parishes founded from monasteries or else, in the absence of any support from monasteries or bishops, found parishes themselves.
For centuries and centuries this is how it worked, whether with St Nina in Georgia, St Martin of Tours in Gaul, St Patrick in Ireland, St Augustine in England, St Boniface in the German Lands, St Cyril and Methodius in Moravia, St Stefan of Perm, St Job of Pochaev in what is now the western Ukraine, St Cosmas of Aitolia in Greece or St Herman and St Innocent in Alaska. Today, this age-old system is in crisis everywhere, perhaps especially in the Russian Orthodox Church.
There are not only the massive dysfunctions of episcopal, monastic and parish life, mainly caused by 75 years of vicious Soviet persecution inside the ex-Soviet Union. Outside the ex-Soviet Union the situation is not much better in many places. The decadence in parts of the Russian Church before the Revolution, the chaos of emigration, the scattering of the flock, and the catastrophic lack of finance and infrastructure, have caused enormous problems. Thus, I can remember over 40 years ago the then rector of the Rue Daru Cathedral in Paris, where thousands would gather at Easter, telling me that they had only 25 registered parishioners. The number of people who took communion on Easter Night was similar – 25.
Many, though not all, Russian churches inside Russia and in capital cities outside Russia resemble little more than railway stations. Orthodox Russians call the passers-by who you may never see again ‘prokhozhane’ (as opposed to ‘prikhozhane’, the word for parishioners). Then there are the people who call in from time to time – ‘zakhozhane’. These people you may see only half a dozen times a year. An example: as a parish we have some 4,000 people who are attached to us, but our list of parishioners is just under than 600 and that includes children. And yet all 4,000 would claim to be parishioners!
Another problem, worse in some countries than others, but still common in Russia and the Ukraine, despite recent welcome changes, is the massive imbalance in age and gender. For every 100 women standing in church, there may only be 15 men (at most) and two children. I can remember at the old ROCOR Cathedral in London 40 years ago, there would perhaps be 400 people (average age 75) at the Sunday Liturgy, out of whom three-quarters were elderly women and the only children our own. Where are the men? Where are the young people? Why have the grandparents not passed on the Faith to their children and grandchildren? The situation of the Greek Church in this country today is very similar and very critical. Expect many of their churches to close over the next 20 years.
In the old ROCOR of the time, I can remember one elderly and prominent woman parishioner boasting that the children in their church never made a noise. I politely pointed out that there were no children in her church (and also no baptisms). She then boasted that they never had any divorces in her church. Again I politely pointed out there were no weddings either (the last had been thirty years ago) and that the average age of the parishioners was about 75. She then boasted that they had never had any problem with their clergy. Once more I politely pointed out that that must be because they had no clergy….The last one had died a decade or so before.
As one relatively young archbishop said to me in the 1980s: the fewer parishes we have, the better it is, because the fewer the parishes, the fewer the problems. He died soon afterwards.
Why is it that there are still many churches (especially in Russia and Eastern Europe) which it is impossible to enter with a pram or a pushchair (let alone a wheelchair)? Is it because children (and young people in general) are not welcome and not wanted? (As also in so many churches outside Russia?).
Why are there no contemporary toilets (for children) and no changing facilities, attached to the majority of churches?
Why are there so few meeting places for parishioners to get to know each other and support each other, where children can play together and make friends, and where young people can meet (and perhaps marry)? Or do you want to die out?
Children are our future. That statement is neither new nor original, but blatantly obvious, and yet many people still do not understand it.
A parish is not a cow to be milked for money. A parish is a local community to which people have a sense of belonging, to which they want to belong, so important for a flock which is scattered.
A parish is a community (not a racist ghetto, as in the old emigration), where all are welcome and a community which will stand up to the frequent injustices, persecution, meddling and bullying from outside, and support its clergy both morally and financially. Where does that exist?
Until we have many more parishes, we will not make progress.