In the latest issue of In Communion, Fr John Breck writes about the “parish ethics” that must underlie and shape the relationships and decision-making processes in a Christian community. His article includes a good deal of Scriptural exegesis and he even manages to discuss the seemingly ubiquitous problem of clericalism (when “the authority implied by each ministerial function is invested in the human cleric rather than in the divine Person that cleric is called to reflect and to manifest”).
While Fr Breck obviously writes as an Orthodox priest and In Communion is a publication of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, I am sure that we Catholics and other Christians will find his words – especially his commendation of an inner transformation rooted in repentance and manifested in love – relevant to our own experiences. Here, then, is an excerpt:
If needless tensions and disagreements arise within the local parish, often it is due to the fact that we take our church life for granted. The Church is the realm of the holy: we experience the joy and peace of God’s loving presence with us through the Liturgy and Sacraments. We are nurtured by the reading of Scripture and the celebration of its saving message. We are edified by the singing of hymns that instruct us in our faith and give expression to that faith. Icons remind us that we commune with the saints, asking their constant intercession on our behalf. Although we know that we are called to struggle against temptation and sin – what the holy Fathers refer to as the “passions” – we seldom take that struggle very seriously. Everything is given in the Church: the content of our faith, the presence of God, eternal life itself. So our tendency – our great temptation – is to perform the Church’s rituals, create a vigorous social life within the parish, and assume that we are fulfilling God’s will and our Christian vocation. Nevertheless, when ritual performance and social function occur above all in order to preserve our ethnic identity and cultural heritage, then we can only admit that we have betrayed both God and our vocation.
Among all of us who share an Orthodox heritage, this is indeed the great temptation. The local parish, rather than being the Church, becomes our “possession,” a structure by which and in which we preserve our own heritage and promote our own agendas. Little wonder that we no longer perceive it to be a living and life-giving member of the universal Body of Christ, uniting the living and the dead in an eternal communion that reflects the boundless love of an infinitely merciful God.
It is no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of “problems” that arise within our parishes are due to this misperception concerning the nature of the local church. Problems between clergy and laity, between bishop and priest, and between various members of the community, can usually be traced to our sinful tendency to transform the parish from the Body of Christ into a kind of social organization whose purpose is to provide us with “spiritual” nurture and a communal identity, while imposing little or nothing upon us in the way of repentance, self-sacrifice and love. This situation represents a chronic illness within our church communities. But because it concerns basically our patterns of behavior, it signals as well an ethical or moral crisis.
When the Prodigal repents of his arrogant profligacy and turns back home, he finds the father waiting for him with open arms. Willing to be taken in as a hired servant, he is instead embraced and showered with gifts, to celebrate his “repentance,” his return to the father’s house. The older brother, however, is filled with jealousy. He has remained “faithful” to the duties expected of a son. He has, we can say, played the role of the faithful Pharisee, respecting the rituals of daily life, including required chores and prayer. Yet he condemns himself by comparing his deeds and attitudes to those of his younger brother. Rather than rejoice at his brother’s return, he becomes sullen and resentful. “The household is mine,” he thinks to himself; “I have remained faithful to it, and this fellow who left it of his own accord has no right to be received back.” How many of us harbor similar thoughts and feelings regarding those of other Christian confessions, or of no confession at all? “They abandoned the faith,” we think to ourselves, “therefore they have no business coming into our church, our parish!” And in the midst of this hypocrisy, we wonder why the Church is not growing, why some are predicting that our parishes will simply wither away…
Hypocrisy, though, whether of the Pharisee or of the Older Son in Jesus’ parables, is rooted in a refusal to love. This is the most basic ailment affecting church life today. We have fashioned the parish community into our own image and likeness, creating a style of “Christianity” that is comfortable and undemanding. Would anyone, looking in from outside, ever see in our midst evidence of authentic repentance and a concern for active mission? Would they perceive that we are in fact “Christian,” given that true faith in Christ necessarily entails bearing his Cross for the sake of others? Would they be convinced that we have heard Jesus’ one commandment that sums up every other: “Love the Lord your God…and your neighbor as yourself”? Unless our parish life reflects at its deepest level that most fundamental concern for love, then we cannot claim that our parish is truly “of the Church” at all.