Russian Orthodox Spirituality
Ministry in a United Methodist's Mind
By: Gregory S. Neal
In 1986 an elderly Russian Orthodox Priest, Otyets (Father) Gregori Alexanderavich Ronikov, told me that one of the most important things all ministers, in all denominations of the Christian faith, should realize was:
Vseo Kristyani kak maposhini.
Maroshina yest manoga vkusi,
No vseo vkusi -- maprozhini.
All Christians are like ice cream.
Ice Cream has many flavors,
But all these flavors are (flavors of) ice cream.
Twenty minutes later I took my first Eucharist as an “affiliated member” of St. Boris and St. Gleb Russian Orthodox Church, just outside of Moscow. I was then, and am still today, a United Methodist—according to Father Gregori, a very strange but not too distasteful flavor of Christianity. One of the interesting things about being a United Methodist is that it’s hard to find any two of us that are exactly alike: liberal, moderate, conservative, formal, informal … a very broad spectrum of belief, conviction, and attitude can be found within United Methodism. If one were to ask five United Methodists what they believed about any specific issue, five different answers would probably be found and a sixth alternative might be suggested! At first glance, this situation should be even more pronounced with regards to me. To borrow a phrase from Father Gregori, I am like Neapolitan ice cream – I have three flavors: I was baptized in the Methodist Church, grew up and was confirmed in the Episcopal Church, and then returned to the United Methodist Church upon receiving my call to ministry. I majored in Religious Studies, History, and Russian Studies during my undergraduate years, initially intending to do graduate work in Eastern and Russian Orthodoxy. I even visited St. Vladimir's Russian Orthodox Theological Seminary for several weeks one summer as a special student, honing my modern Russian, Old Church Slavonic, and getting a solid grounding in Orthodoxy before traveling to the Soviet Union to study Russian language, literature, and history as an exchange student at Moscow State University. While in Russia I went through an abbreviated form of the Russian Orthodox catechism, one specifically designed to prepare an already baptized Christian to partake of the Holy Eucharist within the Russian Orthodox tradition. In short, United Methodism, Anglicanism, and Russian Orthodoxy have all made contributions to my spiritual formation and, as a result, I am bringing to ministry in the United Methodist Church a rather unusual mixture of traditions and experiences.
While this mix has given me a rich background for the practice of ministry, it has also served to isolate me, at least somewhat, from my colleagues within Methodism as well as from the congregations I currently serve as student pastor. While my varied experience does give me the distinct advantage of feeling fairly comfortable in many different Christian settings, it has also made it difficult for me to feel truly at home in any one setting. This is brought out in my current appointment, and in my interactions within the Divinity School community. Basically, I have been told by some that I do not fit the standard mold of a United Methodist minister . . . as if there ever were a “standard mold.” And yet, I believe that I have been called to serve in this tradition of the Christian faith as an ordained minister.
The effect this varied background has had on my concept of ordained ministry is the central focus of this paper, with a specific interest in the influence of Russian Orthodoxy on my spiritual formation. I intend to show that Russian Orthodoxy, working in connection with my Anglican roots, has served to create within me a concept of ordained ministry which adheres closely to the Priestly model. In addition to this, my United Methodist heritage has provided me with a fundamental affinity for the role of the Prophetic Elder, one which tends to shape even the Priestly aspect of ministry and provides me with the basic thrust of my vocational goals.
The Russian attitude toward life is marked by a conception of the universe as one and undivided, as well as by a strong sense of the mutual interdependence of all humans. Russians rarely divide life into compartments. Classifications and subdivisions, so characteristic of the western mind, do not appeal to them. They think and feel along broad lines – basically, the general and the universal. They tend to be more interested in the final goal than in the immediate task confronting them. They are rarely satisfied with what has been called the “temporal expedient,” but are, rather, interested in absolutes and in knowing the “whole truth.” They can be very impatient of limited objectives and are generally fascinated by ideas which have world-wide applications.
This universalism works closely with their understanding of the interdependence of all human beings. On Russia's open and unprotected frontier, the individual often felt lost and helpless; only by working with others could the individual achieve concrete aims and avoid the many dangers of the frontier life. This mentality has lasted well into the modern, industrial period. A third characteristic can be found in the basic humility – or stark realism – of the Russian people, which tends to be the source of much of their endurance and relative moral strength. This realistic outlook, often harsh and fatalistic, was developed during the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century, a period which:
With the preceding factors in mind, it should be noted that the greatest influence in the formation of Russian character has been the Church. It is impossible to study Russian history, sociology, and language without also studying Orthodoxy. The Church—the least institutional and the most "cosmic" of the large national Churches—has given the Russians a love for the mystery of the Incarnation, a rapt appreciation for the majestic truth of the resurrection, and provided them with a pattern of social order, or sobornost, which aims at reconciling the western assertion of humankind’s independence with the eastern desire for cosmic fellowship. For Russians the nature of the resurrection has attained its full meaning in the light of Christ’s victory over death. While atonement for sin is present in their systematic theology, this aspect of the Easter story takes a metaphorical back seat to the proclamation of the victory over death that Christ’s resurrection promises the believer. Russians celebrate Easter with a joy and splendor rarely approached by other ecclesial communions; the Easter night service is an experience that has little parallel in the worship of other Christian traditions – an experience which explains the innate nature of Russian Orthodoxy as “otherworldly.” Universalism, interdependence, humility, and belief in the resurrection as the core of the spiritual life are the four corners of Russian culture. They tend to provide the culture with remarkable stability, even in the midst of amazing political and economic upheavals. Within this conception, Russians find yet another image of their Orthodoxy: they themselves describe their distinct contribution to the Kingdom of God under the curious name of “Moscow, the Third and Last Rome.”
… taught the nation humility and changed a self-willed and undisciplined people into the builders of a great empire. (Zernov p. 177)
The teaching that Moscow is the Third Rome implies the belief that there are three distinct stages in the evolution of the Church. The first one is associated with the old Rome, the ancient seat of Paternal Authority. In Russian Orthodoxy, Rome stands for unity, discipline and order; it emphasizes the oneness of the Church, the stability of order, and the importance of obedience to the authority found there. It represents to humanity the “Fatherhood of God.” The second stage is associated with Constantinople and with an intellectual approach to religion. The defining of dogma, and the controversies resulting from these definitions, is in central focus here. The second Rome reveals the Second Person of the Trinity – the Divine Logos. It excels in the discovery of truth through reason, and in asserting the separation of human and divine. The third stage in this historical-theology of the Church is connected with Moscow. Moscow stands for the unsurpassed beauty and glory of worship. Russian Orthodoxy believes that daily life is the place where divine Grace is exercised; as such, it is primarily concerned with the application of Christianity to communal life. In this understanding, Russian Orthodoxy represents one of the most devotional and artistic of all Christian traditions. It is the “Church of the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of Truth and Giver of Life.” (Zernov p. 180.) Russian Orthodoxy does not view itself as being efficient in organization and discipline. “Inarticulate in speech and logical thought, but captivated by the vision of the transfigured cosmos....” is a common characterization among the clergy regarding their theological training. They tend to view themselves as having an inside track on questions of the inner-life and spiritual truth:
In some respects Russian Orthodoxy has Judaic aspects. It tends to view religion as neither a well-organized institution, nor as a system of doctrines, but as a rule of life. This rule effects every detail of daily living, from food and dress to manners. Orthodoxy has this authority because, in the Russian mind, the Church has the power to transform the Universe into the Kingdom of God. Of central importance in this transformation process is the Holy Eucharist.
Many of the facts known to the Russians have escaped the notice of the better-trained but also more rational western Christians. The Russians have penetrated into secrets of human life concealed from others. They have enjoyed an intimacy of fellowship with the Holy Spirit seldom known by the rest of the Christian world. When, at length, their discoveries were conveyed to the West through the writings of Dostoevsky, Soloviev, Berdyaev, and other modern authors, they revolutionized many accepted western notions and broadened both the Roman and Protestant outlook. (Zernov p. 180)
This is the message of the Third, “and the Last,” Rome. As a cosmic understanding of the Christian faith which views itself as being more mystical than any western expression of Christianity, it stands well rooted within Avery Dulles' “Mystical Communion.” The goal of the Church, in this second ecclesiastical type, is a spiritual and supernatural one: the Church aims to lead all people into communion with the divine. This goal is not simply a future reward for a life well lived, but rather it understood to be manifested with the ontological existence of the Church. In other words,wherever the Church is present, human beings are understood as being already united with God. (Dulles: 58)
This most sacred of all Orthodox Sacraments brings physical matter—human beings—into communion with the Holy Spirit through the medium of faith, love, and prayer. The material world is not destroyed, but purified, regenerated, made into a vehicle of Divine Grace and elevated into the realm of eternal life. The coming resurrection of all people and the transfiguration of the cosmos are reaffirmed at each Eucharist, and those who partake of its mystery pledge themselves to be God’s collaborators in the fulfillment of the purpose for which God has created the world. (Zernov. p. 181)
The means of this spiritual communion within Russian Orthodoxy are best realized through the act of Holy Eucharist. Indeed, the efficacy and importance of this one sacrament within their tradition is so great that it can be said to have an overriding influence on all the other models of the Church—from Institutional through Herald. Without the Eucharist there would be no Body of Christ, and without the Body of Christ there is no mystical union with God and no salvation from sin and death. While initiation into that body may be through baptism, its continued existence is maintained and brought to fruition through the celebration and partaking of the Holy Eucharist. This important factor makes the Russian Orthodox Church very much a Church of the Sacrament, and, specifically, a Church of the Eucharist.
It is not an error to say that Russian Orthodoxy views the Eucharist as the central most imporatn and significant moral act of the Church. Through partaking of Holy Communion, not only is the Body of Christ firmly established in a mystical union with each other and with God, but also the presence of Christ is made sanctifyingly manifest in and through the elements. The Eucharist is indivisibly Christological and Ecclesiological. In its Christological aspect it actualizes, in a palpable way, the presence of the Redeemer within the congregation. In its Ecclesiological aspect the Eucharist celebrates and solidifies the union of the faithful with one another and with the Holy One at the Holy Table. (Dulles:70) This is why Eucharist has such an important role to play in Russian Orthodox services. It is also why the act itself is shrouded so deep in liturgy, extending from the most ancient Christian antiquity, that its source is rooted in the very foundations of the New Testament Church. It is, for the Orthodox Christian, the conduit to those things eternal, the bridge from the material, earthly, mutable world to realm of life eternal. It is a conduit for God’s grace, filtered through the experience of the Church, from the days of the Apostles to today.
The Russian Orthodox Church, along with the thirteen other autocephalous Churches of the Byzantine Orthodox Communion, has four Eucharistic liturgies, all of which have been in use for more than a thousand years. The most common, and the one upon which all western Eucharistic liturgies is based, is that of St. John Chrysostom. Immediately following the Chrysostom liturgy in frequency of use is that of St. Basil the Great, which is celebrated ten times a year: on the eves of Christmas and Epiphany, St. Basil's Day (January 1), five Sundays in Lent, and Thursday and Saturday in Holy Week. The liturgy of St. Gregory of Rome is celebrated on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent. The least used liturgy is that of St. James the Apostle, which is used only on rare occasions [all the sources I consulted would not say when, and my notes on Father Gregori's Catechetical lectures indicate that he had never used it in over fifty years of ministry]. The liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the form used most in Orthodox services, is divided into three parts: the Prothesis (or preparation of the bread and wine), the liturgy of the Catechumens, and the liturgy of the Faithful or the Anaphora. The Anaphora, the main prayer of the service, is itself broken into five parts corresponding to the 5 divisions within Western Eucharistic liturgies of the Great Thanksgiving: Preface, Sanctus, Anamnesis, Epiclesis, and Fraction. During the Prothesis, the priest, assisted by a deacon and servers, cuts the bread for the Eucharistic offering and puts it on the paten. He (there are still no women priests in Russian Orthodoxy) pours wine into the chalice and mixes water with it. These actions are accompanied by prayers to associate them with Christ's sacrifice on the cross and His final victory over sin and death. Symbolically the Prothesis, which takes place behind the Iconostasis and remains unseen by the congregation, represents the hidden years of Incarnate life which Jesus spent at home, unknown to the world, before He started His ministry in his baptism. At this time, lay members bring to the priest the names of people who need prayer, together with small round loaves, and during the Prothesis the priest reads the names, taking a portion from each small loaf and placing the piece on the paten with the rest of the bread.
The liturgy of the Catechumens commemorates Christ's teaching and healing ministry. Its main theme is the proclamation of the Gospel. The “Book of the four Gospels” is brought forward in a procession and presented to the congregation while, at the same time, the Beatitudes are sung. The reading of the Scriptures follows this procession, after which a sermon is preached and prayers are said which are intended to cover the spiritual and material needs of the congregation. In earlier centuries, following these prayers it would have been expected that the Catechumens (those who desired to join the Church but were not yet baptized) would be ushered out so that only those members who were baptized and confirmed would share in the last and most sacred part of the Eucharist.
The liturgy of the Faithful opens with yet another procession, this being the one in which the celebrant and his assistants transfer the bread and wine from the table used for the Prothesis to the alter (or "Throne"). Meanwhile, in Old Church Slavonic the following hymn is sung:
We who, in a mystery, are like the Cherubim
Sing now the three holy hymns to the life-giving Trinity
Let us lay aside all the cares of this life. . . .
Following this the uncorrupted Nicene Creed is recited, and then begins the Introductory Dialog (i.e., the sursum corda) and the Preface. The Eucharistic prayer follows the pattern so familure to Christians in the West, though the length of the prayer tends to be somewhat greater than is found in Western Catholicism or Protestantism. In the Preface the priest thanks God for all the benefits bestowed upon creation in salvation history, and gradually comes to the greatest of all benefits, the Incarnation of God’s Son. The Sanctus is sung, followed by the Anamnesis (or “the making real and present, in current time”) of Christ's works of the Cross, the tomb, resurrection and ascension. The Anamnesis includes the Words of Institution, and is followed by the Epiclesis (the calling down of the Holy Spirit upon the elements of bread and wine) in which the elements are consecrated as the Body and Blood of Christ. Following this prayer the congregations sings the Ochi Nash, or the Lord's Prayer, and then the elements are broken and the communion begins.
The clergy partake first of the bread and the wine from behind the closed doors of the Iconostasis. Then, these doors are opened wide and the chalice containing both elements is brought to the people, who partake by intinction. Following the end of the Anaphora, the people are offered the remaining, unconsecrated bread, in the belief that this last offering unites all those present into one family—be they communicants or not.
While basically conforming to the Byzantium and Western forms of the Chrysostom liturgy, the differences to be found in the average Russian Orthodox service are interesting and should be noted. It is a liturgy performed, for the most part, almost exclusively in Old Church Slavonic (or OCS), with usually only the sermon and portions of the pastoral prayer being in modern Russian. The congregation, having grown up in the Church and having gone through catechetical lectures, knows what to say and when to say it, but the level of comprehension as to exactly what it is they are doing and saying tends to be rather low among the average church member in a small provincial church. Even within a large urban area, in the mid-nineteen-eighties, the level of understanding is dismal (I speak from personal experience, gained at the Church of St. Boris and St. Gleb) – especially so among the more elderly members of the congregation.
Another difference between the Byzantine and Western forms of the Chrysostom liturgy and the form prevailing in the Moscow Patriarchate is found in the presentation of the names of those needing prayer, along with the small loaves of bread, to the priest. The act of reading the names and taking a piece of bread in the place of each one’s presence at the Eucharist insures their inclusion in the Body of Christ at the feast. It was describe to me as (and I'm translating loosely), “Partaking in absentia,” with the power and the authority of the epicletically present Svyatava Duka (“Holy Spirit”) serving as the warrant for the act only so long as it took place within the holy of holies, behind the closed doors of the Iconostasis. This situation generates an interesting tension for, while this this act moves to include the people, intimately, within the holy and shrouded act of the Prothesis, the continued tendency toward non-vernacular language (OCS) in the service makes the full and rich meanings of the liturgy generally inaccessible to a majority of the lay people.
In defense of the continued use of Old Church Slavonic in at least some parts of the liturgy, it should be noted that the use of non-vernacular language does provide a heightened sense of “other-worldliness,” which is the hallmark of Russian and Eastern Orthodox services. When OCS is combined with ancient, non-vernacular hymns, incense, and the lack of pews, this sense of “other-worldliness” is brought to its greatest and most pronounced height. It is with this utter sense of “other-worldliness” that I most readily adhere. It is a sense which assumes an un-critical approach to the salvation act, leaving behind rationality when entering into the presence of the living God. My affinity for this “other-worldly” environment is transferred back into my western roots through my Episcopalian background, and is most readily manifest through structured, liturgical (or “High Church”) worship, the frequent celebration of the Holy Eucharist, and the Priestly model of the ordained ministry.
The primacy of the Holy Eucharist as the most significant moral act of the Church is an indelible part of my ministerial calling. The Sacraments are exercised through the priestly model. This is also the model for healing and pastoral care for, when the pastor breaks the Communion bread, raises hands in the benediction, or leads in prayer, the pastor is only doing what he or she does in counseling or other acts of pastoral care—healing, sustaining, guiding, and reconciling those committed to the pastor’s care (Willimon: 48). Through partaking of the Eucharist one’s sense of loneliness is replaced with a sense of togetherness and family; brokenness is healed through the shear presence of God in and through th consecrated elements of bread and wine; lost-ness is replaced with a sense of being totally and irrevocably formed and rooted in the Church—within the Body of Christ. While this is also true of Baptism, Confession, Penance, Holy Unction, and the other sacraments as recognized by the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, it is fully and most clearly expressed within the Holy Eucharist. The pastoral nature of the priestly model is found as an intrinsic part of the Eucharistic liturgy and, as can be seen in the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the Eucharist manages to handle all of these “acts of pastoral care” in a single act. In doing so, we find yet another manifestation of the Holy Eucharist as the most significant moral act of the Church. As Dr. Willimon said so beautifully, and as Father Gregori would have so loudly applauded:
I know of no Christian denomination which does this more readily than Russian Orthodoxy. It is this function of the sacramental, as exercised within the Priestly model of ordained ministry, that I have brought back with me into my expression of United Methodism. It is the Russian Orthodox expression of “other-worldliness” and mystical exultation which I think I have brought back with me into United Methodism as a deep respect for the place of public worship in the tasks of ordained ministry. It is the primacy of Holy Eucharist as the most moral act of the Church that I have brought back with me into United Methodism as an extreme sense of awe and wonder at the remarkable gift of Christ in and through this sacrament. These concepts have combined with my understanding of the priestly model, and of the sacraments, as aspects of pastoral care to give me a concept of worship which not only confirms, but also establishes my personal concept of ordained ministry as one with priestly dimensions. To again quote Willimon:
The central symbols of the Eucharist—bread, wine, cup, cross, body, blood—hold archetypal power. Its themes speak to the deepest substrata of our being. It involves all of our nature: the subconscious, the sense, feelings, memory, mind, and will. In this encounter with the symbolic [Fr. Gregori would have said c Kristom, “with Christ”], fractions within the self may be expressed and then healed. We may find our views of reality broken down and then reconstructed. Symbols are thus not intended by the religious community to simply soothe the anxious person but to intensify and expand the awareness of God within people. (Willimon: 182)
This understanding of ordained ministry as being Priestly in nature should not been seen as negating, or ignoring, the other two models of ordained ministry: Prophetic and Royal. Neither of these models, however, is found to any great extent in Russian Orthodoxy. Ironically, compared with their approach in other social or political fields, Russian Orthodox Christians tend to shun highly authoritative, domineering Metropolitans and Patriarchs.
Worship invite[s] us to enter a sacred space to do sacred things so that we might better see what is most real. As Leo said of the Lord's Supper, it “makes conspicuous” who we really are and are meant to be. [Amen] (Willimon: 176)
Orthodoxy tends to govern itself by ecclesial consensus, not by hierarchical commandment—ex cathedra or otherwise. This is why the Old Believer Schism was such an unlikely, tragic event. Patriarch Nikon, in the eyes of the Old Believers, was overstepping his boundaries when he ordered changes in the liturgy—and particularly in the way the Russian Orthodox crossed themselves. It was a controversy which, since it didn't really deal with doxological matters, should have remained within the sphere of thelogumena. Metropolitans, Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons do play an important role in modeling the Christian example, and in providing for spiritual discipline – in relation to the sacrament of penance – for which the authority and example can be located in the life and authority of Christ. The place where the Royal Anointing can be seen as having its greatest place of importance is in the ordination of individuals for the priesthood. It is the authority given to them through the laying on of hands and calling down of the Holy Spirit which enables the priest to preside in the Eucharist.
Prophetic ministry has gone in and out of fashion in Russian Orthodoxy, and is currently in a slow but steady resurgence as contact with the ecumenical community—especially through the Russian Orthodox Church In Exile—has brought recognition of the importance of a strong kerigmatic ministry. I have inherited much of this understanding, although I have been more willing to exercise the authority of my current role as Student Pastor than some Russian Orthodox Priests would be. Regarding Prophetic ministry, while preaching is, indeed, important, I understand it as being only supportive to the main task of worship: the glorifying of God and the celebration of Holy Eucharist. Because of this, it should now be clear that I hold that Holy Communion should be celebrated weekly, not just monthly, as in many United Methodist Churches. This is where I find a great amount of conflict with the prevalent tradition in the Churches I am currently serving, for they have not been used to taking Communion more than once a month, and, indeed, do not particularly like doing so at even this frequency (or lack thereof, in my opinion).
The congregations I currently serve cannot be characterized in any way, shape, or form as “high church.” There are a few within the membership who want to make it so, and have pushed in the worship committee for further changes which would move the worship services in that direction. Other groups, however, are too closely tied to the non-liturgical traditions of the typical rural “low church,” on the one hand, or with the free-form style of the charismatic movement to find liturgical worship in any way appealing. Personally, it has been interesting to be in a Methodist Church where the members are used to almost a total lack of all that makes, for me, worship. In this respect, it has been a broadening experience. It has created difficulties in that, while I may see one thing as being needed in the future development of the churches I pastor, they may – and, indeed, do – see something completely different. I often seem foreign to them, as when I suggested we start using the Psalter and liturigical greetings in Sunday morning worship, along with having a Vespers service on Wednesday and Sunday nights. And the same is true in reverse, when they talk about planning a 4th of July Patriotic service, a lay witness week, or a charismatic revival meet at Lake Junaluska. Still, I think my background has given me much to work with in ministering to these congregations, and I'm sure the same will continue to be true in the future.
One of the means by which it has been possible for me to aid in the process of redirection in my student pastorate has been through teaching many various classes: from bible studies for the Sunday School teachers and other laity, to special lectures in Russian Orthodoxy and spirituality, the range of subjects and methods are growing as the needs arise. This is an aspect of the other form of ministry which is important for me, and the form which gives me my vocational goal: the role of the minister as a teacher. Dr. Thomas Oden says that, “The call to teach Christian truth is a significant part of the call to ministry (Oden, p. 142)." I heartily agree. My calling scripture, Ephesians 3:7-11, should make the teaching function of my ministry clear. Nor is the call to teach (and preach) “among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” in conflict with my concept of a Priestly model of ordained ministry. It is just as important that one teach the fundamentals of Eucharistic practice as it is that one teach a course on the Synoptic problem. The ironic thing about my calling, however, is that I currently feel as though I am called to teach Bible rather than liturgy or Systematic Theology. I find New Testament Biblical Criticism as intellectually engaging as I find Russian Orthodoxy and the Eucharistic service spiritually moving. It would be a dilemma if I were not certain of my calling into some form of teaching ministry.
In practice, I have been told that I express the gift for not just teaching, but also for directing and guiding others in teaching, in setting up lesson plans, and in organizing other types of learning retreats. These are all roles of a teaching elder.
I have not only been told that I am a good teacher, but I have also discovered that I enjoy teaching. I sometimes enjoy it more than preaching, for in teaching I am able to focus more upon an exposition of facts, while preaching tends to be more a form of exegetical exhortation. This is not to say that I do not enjoy both activities, it is simply that I enjoy teaching more.
. . . the pastor is by definition the head of a teaching institution. The pastor may delegate some of this responsibility, but essentially it falls to the one who has by calling and preparation, by ordination and experience, been set apart as teaching elder (Oden., p. 145)
In Russian Orthodoxy teaching is viewed as the role more of the Deacon than of the Presbyter. Still, it is a task which is undertaken by all the clergy and, more often than not, is almost completely characterized by catechetical training. Because of the unusual circumstances surrounding my own catechetical instruction in Russian Orthodoxy, Father Gregori taught me separately from the other catechetical class, with an accelerated reading schedule and an abbreviated instructional period. I used the standard catechetical text, which has changed little if at all in almost two centuries, and was called upon to remember my baptism before the congregation through the profession of faith found in the “uncorrupted” Nicene Creed (the Nicene Creed without the filoque clause).
For the most part, catechetical classes comprised the majority of the teaching which could be found in Russian Orthodox Churches until only very recent years. They did not have a Sunday School; they were not allowed to have them in the Soviet Union by law until the revision of laws governing the freedom of religion by the Bogoministrastva (the Ministry, or Department, of God) in 1988. Instead, what served those congregations that were in or near large cities, like Moscow and Kiev, were small, in-home study groups which might have weekly or daily readings from the scriptures in modern Russian, followed by informal prayers. Sometimes they would ask the parish priest, or a local Deacon, over for dinner and an informal lecture on some aspect of theology. If the priest was competent enough, these could be quite interesting. The question of competency, however, was and is a question which still plagues many Russian Orthodox priests due to the frustrating lack of good seminaries, and the decline of the monastery, within the Soviet Union since the Revolution of 1917. Due to this situation, and thanks to the existence of the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile, a few quite good Russian Orthodox Seminaries have been founded. They have, until recent years, served either exile churches—those churches which were not in communion with the Patriarch of Moscow—or those Churches which were in communion with, but not themselves within, the Soviet Union.
In recent decades, however, even the Moscow Patriarchate has begun sending a few seminarians to the United States, and especially to St. Vladimir's Russian Orthodox Theological Seminary just outside of New York City. I was offered the chance to study there prior to going to the Soviet Union in 1986, and I heartily took the chance. The experience gave me my first full introduction to Russian Orthodoxy, as well as a look into the workings of a Theological Seminary. St. Vladimir's and Duke Divinity School are light years apart in many areas, none the least of which is vocational goal and dedication. Rare is the student who is there to study, as was I, just a subject or two. Most Orthodox seminarians commit themselves to six years of study at the graduate level. The general course load for the first few years is theology, philosophy, rhetoric, mathematics, physics, agronomy, medicine, Greek, Latin, Old Church Slavonic, secular and church history. I was taking OCS and Orthodox theology, while also working on Modern Russian and, even with this much lighter load, I had to study as many hours as they did just to keep during the summer-semester. After traveling to the Soviet Union, Father Gregori told me that I would be most advised to forget anything, other than OCS, that I learned at St. Vladimir's. He made me take down, word for word, why:
Such is the extremely negative attitude toward theological teaching in the Soviet Union. When I wrote Father Gregori to tell him I was going to Duke, he wrote me back a long letter saying, almost word for word, the exact same thing as above. He added “and Duke is probably no different.” We shall see.
Seminary studies turn young minds from all fundamental and useful knowledge and impart only external, superficial half-knowledge of subjects that are utterly useless in real life. At the same time, they also inspire desires that are wholly inconsistent with that position in society which the students are to occupy when they leave the seminary. Consequently, through a long series of unrealized hopes, they lead faithful and diligent souls to despair, petty souls to the worst vices, and ordinary souls to evil endeavors and groveling. People who have greater determination and who also do not belong to one of these pathetic categories require long, difficult lessons of real life to atone for the delusions born in the wondrous, unrealistic studies that make up so-called education at most seminaries. [translation mine]
My concept of teaching ministry is, therefore, not really rooted in Russian Orthodoxy at all but, rather, in my home tradition of Methodism. While education for the ministry may be sneered at by some elderly Russian Orthodoxy priests, John Wesley looked upon education as of extreme importance:
Ought not a minister to have, First, a good understanding, a clear apprehension, a sound judgment, and a capacity of reasoning with some closeness? Is not this necessary in a high degree for the work of the ministry? . . . can he take one step aright without first a competent share of knowledge? (Wesley Address to the Clergy: p . 481-82)
Zernov, Nicholas Eastern Christendom: A Study of the Origin and Development of the Eastern Orthodox Church (1961)
Zernov, Nicholas The Russian Religious Renaissance of the Twentieth Century (1963)
Dulles, Avery Models of the Church (1974)
Willimon, William Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (1986)
Oden, Thomas Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry (1980)
Wesley, John: Collected Works
© 1989 Gregory S. Neal*
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*This paper was written in 1989 for a Course in Ministry Formation which Rev. Neal took while in the Masters Degree program at Duke University.
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.