Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Parish is for the Family

Recent comments in response to the post on the use of authority, and especially in response to the upcoming "Called & Gifted" Workshop my parish is hosting has got me thinking. It seems to me that the theme that underlies our discussion here (and really more generally in the Church) is a question: What is the purpose of the parish as that institution has come to exist in the Church?

The parish is about, I would suggest, fostering and sustaining marriage and family life.

Granted not every Orthodox Christian is, or will be, married. And not every married couple will be blessed with children. But it seems to me that we could do more to encourage healthy marriages and families. To take only one example, I find it worrisome that, unless there are canonical grounds, almost any couple who wants to be married in the Church is married. Among us, pre-marital preparation is often hit or miss at best. Granted not all priests have the time or talent to prepare couples for marriage, but this doesn't absolve us from providing more adequate preparation. Given the divorce rate in America, I find it hard to believe that everyone who wants to be married in the Church is called by Christ to be married or that all those who are called are fit for marriage.

What also got me thinking along these lines is a post on one of the blogs I follow, Pseudo-Polymath. The author of the blog quotes an essay by Wendell Barry in his "book (and eponymous essay) Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays Wendell Barry," in which Barry makes "impassioned" argument for "the importance of community." To illustrate the importance of community, and the harm down by its absence, "Barry notes the inability of public discourse to deal with sex and other issues is due to the failure of community":

Once it [a society or culture] has shrugged off the interests and claims of the community, the public language of sexuality comes directly under the influence of private lust, ambition, and greed and becomes inadequate to deal with the real issues and problems of sexuality. The public dialogue degenerates into a stupefying and useless contest between so-called liberation and so-called morality. The real issues and problems, as they are experienced and suffered in people's lives, cannot be talked about. The public language can deal, however awkwardly and perhaps uselessly, with pornography, sexual harassment, rape, and so on. But it cannot talk about respect, responsibility, sexual discipline, fidelity, or the practice of love. "Sexual education" carried on in this public language, is and can only be, a dispirited description of the working of a sort of anatomical machinery — and this is a sexuality that is neither erotic nor social nor sacramental but rather a cold-blooded, abstract procedure which is finally not even imaginable.
The public discussion of sexual issues has thus degenerated into a poor attempt to equivocate between private lusts and public emergencies. Nowhere in public life (that is, in the public life that counts: the discussions of political and corporate leaders) is there an attempt to respond to community needs in the language of community interest.

While are Catholic brothers and sisters (and especially the late Pope John Paul II) are often accused of being obsessed with matter of sexual morality and intruding into the bedrooms of married people and consenting adults, such criticism reflect precisely the rhetorical lack that Berry highlights. Much like the larger society, Orthodox Christians have retreated from a public discourse about sexuality. If Berry is right in his analysis, this retreat points to an underlying deficiency in our own community life. Or, more on point, a lack of community in our parishes. More often than not, and again as with the larger society, we have privatized conversations about sexuality even while we formally affirm the sacramental nature of marriage and family life.

But the rhetoric of Christian community, whether biblical or patristic, parochial or monastic, liturgical or administrative, is by and large rhetoric about the family and so necessarily assumes a certain, public, sexual ethic that most be taught, and defended, publically. We are, for example, brothers and sisters in Christ, with a common Father in Heaven. The parish and the monastery are under the presidency of a father (or in the case of women's monastery, mother). The clergy are all called father whether he is a patriarch, a bishop, a priest or deacon.

But for this rhetoric to be effective, it must be more than simply formal—it is not enough to use the rhetoric of the family, we must actually be a family and here's where our practice fall short of our ideals.

Reading through the various responses to the use of authority in the Church, it seems to me that there is a fair amount of distrust in the Church for those in positions of authority. My own view (admitted idiosyncratic and unsubstantiated by rigorous research in either the social sciences or the Church fathers), is that the response to this distrust is not administrative reform (though that is no doubt needed) but an explicit commitment in our parishes to the good of the family.

I do not think that we can foster trust among us apart from repentance. The character of that repentance, I would argue, is a shared commitment to supporting and defending marriage and family life according to the tradition of the Church. As I alluded to above, marriage and family life are not the only concern of the parish. As a practical matter though, I think we can begin to renew our communities by focusing, among other things, on the needs of the married couples and families in our parishes.

The question become now this, how can our parishes foster marriage and family life even as our monasteries foster a commitment to a life of public prayer and private repentance?

Your thoughts are actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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