Striving for Parish Unity

EVERY CALLING HAS A CODE of conduct – written or unwritten – which sets out the principles for functioning ethically in that vocation. Some professional standards set limits to govern the practitioner’s exercise of his or her craft while others outline directions or indicate ideals to which the professional should aspire.

As Christians we have general standards of behavior, such as the Ten Commandments, and standards of belief, such as the Nicene Creed. We also have particular norms for believers in specific circumstances, such as clergy or spouses. In the Epistle to the Ephesians St Paul indicates a basic norm for a Christian community: the first rule for living as Church. To be “worthy of the calling with which you were called” (Eph 4:1), a Christian group must “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3).

Mutual Submission

Preserving this unity takes work – we must “endeavor” or strive to attain this goal. It cannot simply be assumed. People are often astonished to find that someone has left their congregation. After all, we stood or knelt together, we lined up for the Eucharist or to kiss the cross together. We were one – weren’t we?

Communal practices – ritual gestures, using offering envelopes or pledging in fundraising campaigns do afford us a measure of unity, but while people may be united in these practices they may be divided in other fundamental ways.

St Paul (writing before there were pledge cards or parish newsletters) indicates that the quality of the interpersonal relationships in a community is the first basis for its unity. If I sense that you ignore me or look down on me, will I want to exchange signs of communion with you? Kissing an icon or worshipping at the Liturgy express our vertical relationships in the Church – to God or the saints – but living in the Body of Christ involves horizontal relationships as well – to fellow parishioners, those in our eparchy and in the wider Church.

Horizontal relationships in a Christian community, Paul writes, should be characterized by two main qualities: humility and long-suffering. Humility in this sense is expressed in “lowliness and gentleness” (Eph 4:2), a virtue continually acclaimed in the New Testament. In the Canticle of the Theotokos (Lk 1:46-56), sung daily at orthros, God is extolled for “regarding the lowliness of His handmaiden” (v. 48) and praised as the One who “puts down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the lowly” (v. 52).

Christ Himself confronted the relationships of believers in Israel. He criticized the Pharisees for loving “the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues” (Matt 23:6) and counseled guests to take the last place rather than the first before the host gives their place to another. When we are tempted to seek preferential treatment or control of even small things in Church, we might well reflect on these passages.

Long term relationships in a parish also demands that we be “long-suffering, bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:3). Some people are simply not going to change. They cannot or will not see that their behavior might offend others. We must simply bear with them if we value unity with them, “warts and all.”

Diversity in Unity

Paul goes on to say that those who strive to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the Church do well to recognize and respect the variety and purpose of the Spirit’s gifts in the Church. In Eph 4: 11 he indicates that there are various levels of leadership such as apostles, pastors and teachers. They have these gifts, not to occupy the best places at feasts, but “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph 4:12).

There have always been a number of ministries in our Church exercised by laypeople: in worship (as chanters and readers), in education (as teachers of children and youth), in the arts (as builders and iconographers) and in administration (on community and administrative councils). In times when the clergy may have been the only literate members of the community they often exercised these ministries as well as those proper to their orders. However in our world today this is no longer appropriate. With sufficient training Church members are capable of exercising all these traditional ministries as well as modern ones such as parish web masters. Ignoring the gifts of parishioners is another way to destroy people’s commitment to their Church.

It is the role of the clergy, according to St. Paul, to see that their believers are afforded the training necessary for service. Ministry of one form or another is the calling of all the faithful, but responsible exercise of ministry presumes that the faithful are willing to be trained and that the pastors and teachers provide the necessary training.

In some cases local clergy can personally “equip the saints” in their parish for works of ministry. A pastor or deacon, for example, may train young men to serve at the altar. They may engage the services of an experienced chanter to train people in church singing or an effective youth worker to train others in this work. In other cases it is the wider circle of “pastors and teachers” – the bishop and his presbyters – who are called to provide more specialized training, equipping people to be clergy or catechists in local parishes. The emergence of on-line courses from seminaries and diocesan ministries can make distance learning an option for training in these roles.

True unity in the local Church as envisioned in this epistle presumes that “the saints” do what is necessary to assume the service to which they are called. It also demands that they respect the gifts and ministries given to others. Higher clergy should not infringe on the roles of one another; rather they should provide the training necessary to improve the quality of their service. Professional teachers build unity, not by boycotting the classes of inexperienced catechists, but by offering their services as master teachers.

Twice at each Divine Liturgy the priest prays that the holy gifts be given to us “for the communion of the Holy Spirit.” By coming forward to share in the Eucharist we are expressing our desire to deepen our communion with God, but also with one another. We are echoing the priest’s prayer in the Liturgy of St Basil, “Unite all of us who share the one Bread and the one Cup to one another in the communion of the Holy Spirit.” By the mutual respect we show one another and by our commitment to serve the Church in ministry we back up our prayer with action.