Yesterday's post on the parish, marriage and family life inspired (if I may use that term) a number of very interesting and though provoking comments. Before I respond to the substance of at least some of those comments, let me first say that I am thankful to everyone who posted but especially to Chris and Matushka Mary. Both of them, each in their own way, brought home to me the lack of precision in my language. For this, and for any offense or confusion that I may have caused, I ask your pardon.
I think Chris is correct when he says that "It is one thing to say that we could do more to encourage healthy marriages and families but it is quite another to say that the purpose of the parish is fostering and sustaining marriage and family life." This is one place where my lack of linguistic precision has caused on necessary confusion. I do not mean that the sole purpose of the parish is to foster marriage and family life. Again as Chris rightly points out, these are vocations within the Church, but they do not exhaust the vocational possibilities for Christians. I would add, and here I speak as a married priest, marriage and family life do not even exhaust the vocational possibilities for those so called.
Whether or not a secular service organization can foster marriage and family life, and here I would gently disagree with Chris, is a debatable proposition. What social service agencies do best, I think, is respond to crisis, as well helping people overcome the negative effects of chronic deprivation of one kind or another. It is not at all clear that secular social service agencies as such are particularly good at fostering healthy marriage and families and this for no reason more profound that we do not have a societal consensus on these matters.
But even granting for the sake of discussion that secular social service organizations can foster marriage and family life, this does not exempt the Church from pursuing this as a central part her own vocation to care for those entrusted to her by Christ. And this is actually my central point in the earlier post: It is not all together clear to me that the Church is fulfilling her mission to prepare, foster and sustain the Christian vocation to marriage and family. With W. Berry's comments in the back of my mind, I wondered out loud (a very bad habit that gets me in a great deal of trouble!) if in fact there is this lacunae in the Orthodox Church's pastoral ministry, might not this be a symptom of a more basic problem. As I said yesterday,
Again, whatever good might emerge from the more intentional commitment of parishes to marriage and family cannot, and must not, come at the expense of those Christians who are not married or who do not have children. Chris's experience is an essential cautionary note here. We worship the Most Holy Trinity, not the marriage or the family.
Matushka Mary's comments do a better job than I did of highlighting the centrality of the family in human life. Rightly she points out that
I would argue that even a cursory reading of the Scriptures highlights for us the centrality of the family in salvation. Beginning with our First Parents in the Garden, the Gospel is often (though not exclusively by any means) announced to, and through, marriage and family. The logical conclusion of this, for the Orthodox at least, is the evangelistic (and so necessarily, prophetic) character of marriage in Christ that St Paul articulates for us in Ephesians:
Even if our neglect is a rather benignly intended imitation of the culture's ceding of these to the private sphere, all of this means, or at least I would suggest for purposes of discussion, that in neglecting marriage and family life the Church fails to attend to her own identity. If this forgetfulness becomes habitual, we risk losing the ability not only to care pastorally to those called to marriage and family life, but indeed to the vocational needs of ALL in the Church whether young or old, male or female, heterosexual or homosexual, married, single, celibate, divorced or widowed, with children or without, clergy, monastic or laity living in the world.
Reading through the comments offered by Any Mary, Chrys and Ben, and thinking about things a bit more, I wonder if the monastic emphasis in some parts of the Church is not an attempt to recapture the self-identity of the Church in the parish.
And if we have become forgetful of who we are in Christ, how can we proclaim the Gospel? What do we have to offer except the testimony of our own lives?
Again, and as always, thank you for your comments and questions. They are not only appreciated by me, they are actively sought.