Not long ago, I met a priest whom I shall simply call Father Michael. As pastor of a rather large parish located in a metropolitan area of several million people, Fr. Michael spent a good deal of his time in Church, celebrating a rather complete cycle of liturgical services every day. Besides his unusually full liturgical schedule, however, Fr. Michael offered his parishioners little else. There were no parish organizations or clubs, no fund raising activities or dinners or coffee hours. Conspicuously missing was a Church School program for children, as well as any form of education for teens or adults. Bible studies, teacher training programs, retreats and discussion groups were never offered, and Fr. Michael himself rarely had personal contact with his flock. When asked what form of religious education he offered, Fr. Michael simply replied, "I give sermons!"
"Ah-ha! A lazy priest," you may think. Yet Father Michael was anything but lazy. To the contrary, the lack of activity in his parish had nothing to do with whether or not he wanted social or educational programs, but rather centered around the fact that he couldn't! Fr. Michael's parish is in Moscow, where the formal teaching of religion is restricted to such an extent that it is virtually non-existent, not to mention downright illegal. In discussing this situation, Fr. Michael kept stressing that he was not only stripped of the possibility of teaching the faith, he was likewise stripped of one of the most important and essential aspects of his priesthood as well. His activities were limited - by civil law - to the "ministry of the cult"meaning that he could perform liturgical services. Period.
While Fr. Michael's situation is indeed foreign to us as Orthodox Christians in a free society, we often tend to overemphasize the liturgical or sacramental aspect of the priesthood as well. I remember as a child that the criterion of a good priest was determined by the quality of his singing voice or the flair he displayed while censing. While those days are long gone, we still often function as if the priest's only role is to conduct public worship. As we shall see, the liturgical facet of the priesthood is only half of the priestly ministry. The other element of that ministry is to be found in the educational activity inherently present within the very nature of the priesthood itself.
CHRIST - THE TEACHER
The dual ministry of the priesthood - that of sanctifying and that of teaching - finds its roots in the ministry of Christ Himself. Virtually every icon of Christ depicts Him raising His right hand in blessing, emphasizing His role as Sanctifier, while holding an opened Gospel in His left hand, denoting that He is likewise a teacher - the "rabbi" mentioned in the Scriptures. Prior to His ascension, Christ commissioned the Apostles to continue His ministry of sanctification and education by saying, "Go, teach all nations, baptizing them . . ." The Apostles shared this ministry with the bishops, who in turn passed it on to the priests. So it remains even today in the Orthodox Church, as we continue to acknowledge that any and all forms of teaching are merely an extension of the teaching ministry of Christ Himself.
THE PRIEST AS TEACHER
While it is incorrect to say that the priest "takes the place of Christ" within the local Christian community, the priestly ministry is a sharing in and an extension of the ministry of Christ. Our Lord came into our midst as Saviour and Sanctifier; the priest, in his liturgical role, likewise proclaims Christ's salvation and continues His work of sanctification. And just as Christ revealed Himself as the teacher and enlightener of all mankind, so too the priest must teach the knowledge of God and the "good news" of eternal life and salvation in Jesus Christ.
While the priest's liturgical function is absolutely essential to the ongoing work of Christ and the life of His Church, it cannot be overemphasized to such an extent that it becomes the only facet of the priestly ministry. As the one appointed to oversee the spiritual growth and development of his flock, the priest is responsible for their education as well, teaching the faith "as once delivered by Christ unto His Apostles" as a worker for and co-worker with Christ.
In what ways can - and should - the priest approach his function as the primary teacher of the local Christian community? There are a number of ways this essential ministry of teaching must be approached, and a limitless variety of methods at the disposal of a truly creative priest.
WORSHIP AND EDUCATION
1) The teaching ministry of the priest is related to his liturgical and sacramental ministry. While we have noted a duality within the ministry of Christ as well as in the priestly vocation, it must never be assumed that the two can ever be separated, at least under the conditions of Church life as we experience them. While the celebration of services and sacraments is primarily an act of prayer, worship and sanctification, it is also educational. The priest leads his people in worship not merely as an independent act of praise, but also in an effort to increase their knowledge and experience of the One Whom they are praising. The services of the Orthodox Church contain a number of didactic elements - the verses sung after "Lord I call upon Thee," for example, serve to instruct the faithful as well as worship God - which must be explored as understood by the priest from an educational as well as liturgical point of view. Hence, the celebration of services is the priest's primary educational tool. Not only must the priest understand the didactic elements of public worship, but he must utilize them fully as teacher of his flock.
It is not sufficient that the priest merely preach or write about the services, their meaning and their message. It is essential that he likewise utilize the services of the Church as a method of instruction in and of themselves. One example of this is the current practice in many parishes whereby the entire congregation - not merely the priest - recites the prayer before Holy Communion together. Not only does the prayer serve the liturgical function of offering adoration to "the Christ, the Son of the Living God" in final preparation for the reception of the Eucharist, it also is intended to instruct those who thoughtfully recite it in the very meaning of Christ's mission and our personal response to that mission through the Eucharist. From a purely didactic viewpoint, the contents of that one prayer could not be more clearly taught in a score of sermons or classes. The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim likewise is an excellent educational tool. While answering the question, "How should I, as a Christian, conduct my life in accordance with the will of God," it also provides an outline by which one may assess his or her own spiritual life.
Here are a few samples of how the worship of the Church can be utilized in teaching the faithful:
The necessity of creative liturgical sermons is being recognized more and more. In many parishes, one hears sermons not only at the Divine Liturgy, but at other services as well. Often these take the form of a series, whereby a facet of Orthodoxy is explored in two or three successive weeks from a variety of vantage points. The importance of shorter "sermonettes" is also being rediscovered at such services as the Great Kanon of St. Andrew of Crete, where different themes gleaned from the Kanon itself are presented in a fourpart series, often climaxing in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts on the fifth and final evening. One can clearly see the conscious yet creative interconnection of the liturgical and educational facets of both the priesthood and the liturgy in this example.
2) The priest, by virtue of his teaching ministry, is responsible for the formal religious education of his parishioners. It is simply not enough for a parish to expect the "Sunday School" to be the sum total of the Church's educational mission, especially if the priest only casually monitors its activities. The priest must be actively involved in all formal educational programs within his parish, and is responsible for delegating teaching responsibilities to others as well. It is important for the priest to teach in his Church School, as well as be the one chiefly responsible for its curriculum, teacher training, and the overall goals and objectives of the program. The priest is likewise responsible for instructing parents in their role as the "fundamental educators" of their children, as noted by St. John Chrysostom. While the priest must ensure that the Church School provides an opportunity for coming into closer contact with Christ and His Church, he must also ensure that it is not the only opportunity! Formal programs, while essential in the life of every parish, are not entities in and of themselves, designed to turn out batches of Christian clones. The role of the priest, teachers and parents, as well as their mutual interdependence in the teaching ministry of the Church, is essential.
Adult education is another indispensible aspect of the formal educational programs offered by the priest. A few years ago, many of us were shocked to learn that Moscow's Fr. Dimitri Dutko was arrested for having adult discussions in his Church, yet it is sad to note that few express shock when they discover that many of our own parishes offer no educational opportunities for adults whatsoever.
Formal educational programs, whether they are designed for children, teens or adults, are often scrapped "due to poor attendance," "a lack of cooperation," "inconvenience," or "extenuating circumstances," whatever that means! It must be remembered that regardless of how poor the attendance may be, those who attend ultimately serve to educate those who can't or won't. The priest who recognizes the benefits of peer-education is truly a creative individual and will view such human dynamics as an extension of his own teaching ministry. Peereducation often breaks through emotional barriers which are sometimes inpenetrable for the clergy. The Church behind the Iron Curtain has long recognized the importance of peer-education: if priests cannot teach formally, babushkas can!
Much has been written on educational methodology and strategy within formal settings, which are easily adapted by any priest to his parish's own situation, yet the following examples will serve to emphasize just a small number of options to the priest and his parishioners in the area of formal education:
While no two parishes are alike, a number of triedand-true programs and methods are generally successful in any setting or situation. The priest must always be as creative as Christ Himself in adapting methods and modes of education to varying situations and audiences.
3) "Informal" teaching must never be neglected. Priests are constantly finding themselves in situations which provide opportunities for teaching on a casual or informal level. Christ often found Himself in similar circumstances, and displayed complete mastery in the art of spontaneous education. The parish priest, in following Christ's example by identifying and mingling with his flock, will never be left wanting for informal teaching opportunities, especially among those who feel threatened by formal programs. Here are just a few examples:
JUST THE BEGINNING
This article in no way pretends to exhaust every facet of the priest's teaching ministry. Certain areas, such as the priest as teacher by example, were omitted either because they are quite obvious or have been expounded upon a number of times already. What is intended is the sharing of a creative vision of the educational work entrusted to the clergy, one not only based on the Church's wisdom, but her profound common sense as well. Hopefully, it will help to stimulate all of us - clergy and laity alike - into exploring the teaching ministry of the priest, as based on the example of Christ Himself, more fully.