Church Life and Pastoral Care

Thinking beyond the Parish The Church as Chapel

Published on: April 5, 2024
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Thinking beyond the parish
Image Credit: iStock.com/Natalia Kazarina

I will begin by stating the obvious: since the Industrial Revolution, Christian communities have become increasingly mobile. Only slightly less obvious is the fact that the era of globalization has accelerated this shift. In urban and suburban areas especially, people enter and leave communities more frequently than ever, following the demands of employment or personal and familial needs that take them across the country or across the world.

Even as Christian communal life becomes more unstable in a global age, the ideal of the “parish” continues to hold sway over the minds and hearts of many. As the term denotes, the parish and its parishioners are rooted in a particular place. “Parish” connotes stability, a community in which one is born (and baptized), in which one lives one’s life in a cycle of church fasting and feasting, and sacraments (marriages, confessions, anointings), and finally, in which one is buried, preferably in the cemetery beside the church.

In the context of North American Orthodoxy, this parish ideal of a closely-knit group of people working out their faith together in one place over long periods of time fuels our vision of the lifespan of our communities, from its humble beginnings in temporary facilities to its coming of age when the community purchases a property and erects a church temple, to the seeding of new missions, beginning the cycle again.

In rural areas, where property is cheaper and people “put down roots,” it may still be possible to realize this ideal. In urban and suburban areas, however, communities striving to become “parishes” can also become “anxious about many things” (Luke 10:41), such as festival fundraisers, maintenance projects, iconography campaigns, and hall rental management, to the neglect of the “one thing needful” (Luke 10:42).

It may be time to think beyond the parish ideal. Is there a vision that allows us to respond better in certain contexts, both to the global realities of our historical moment and to our vocation in the Gospel? If I might be so bold in this regard, I propose envisioning Orthodox Christian community as a chapel would more accurately represent the situation of urban and suburban North American churches in the 21st century. Such a vision would also help our communities to remain focused on the “one thing needful” of their ecclesial life.

At its core, a chapel is a sacred space dedicated to a gathering for worship and fellowship for those who are on a journey. Whatever the specifics of the chapel space itself—standalone or part of another building or institution, constructed for sacred purposes or multipurpose—built into the concept of a chapel is the understanding that those who gather are here to pause and rest, but not to remain, because they are on their way somewhere else.

Those who gather in a chapel bring with them resources from diverse places and walks of life, and they share their gifts with one another for mutual enrichment and encouragement before they move on. The beauty of an Orthodox community envisioned as a chapel would consist not in the stability of its membership list and the fixity of its liturgical-ascetical practices, but in the ways that members journeying through the community over time continually refresh and renew the experience of our ancient apostolic tradition.

While a community that sees itself as a parish seeks to preserve the permanence of its space as a priority—perhaps even the priority—members of a chapel concern themselves with ensuring that their space is fit for its purpose, enabling the services and fellowship to take place with facility, dignity, and beauty. But the drive behind creating a chapel is not to present a lasting monument, “a continuing city” (Heb. 13:14). It is, rather, a waystation that points the way to the kingdom of God. The actual work of the kingdom lies in the salvation of persons, not in the maintenance of the ecclesial building and grounds.

The Church envisioned as a chapel also has helpful implications for the ways that its members view their clergy. In the worst case, the drive for permanency underlying the parish ideal can lead members to treat their priest as a fixture, an accessory to the Church temple. In the best case, parishioners can come to view their priest as a stable presence in an ever-changing world. The latter vision has its benefits, but it can also lead to spiritual stagnancy and a hampered ability to respond dynamically to a changing cultural landscape.

In an Orthodox community envisioned as a chapel, the priest is a chaplain, which means that his pastoral work is seen as accompaniment. Like the best parish priests, chaplains come alongside those in their care to support, encourage, teach, challenge, and hold them accountable. However, a key part of the definition of chaplaincy recognizes that those in a chaplain’s care come from elsewhere and will (sooner or later) go elsewhere. As such, chaplains are continually preparing for the day when they must hand off those in their charge to another pastor. Chaplains see themselves as part of a continuum of care, a spiritual chain of custody. They work collegially with both previous and future pastoral caregivers to maintain the wellbeing of their members. There is no place for spiritual guruism here.

I am not alone in suggesting that chaplaincy is an increasingly common approach to pastoral care in the 21st century. The ever more mobile and unstable communities of the global age present a challenge to Orthodox pastors in urban and suburban communities to shift their thinking beyond the parish ideal. We may see the shifting landscape of the modern world as a tragedy, but it may be worth viewing also an opportunity to recall not only that “we seek the city which is to come” (Heb. 13:14), but also that the eternal city is not built of “gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw” (1 Cor. 3:12) but of human persons who are indeed “God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9).

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • Fr. Richard René

    Fr. Richard René

    Ph.D. Candidate at Regis-St. Michael's College (University of Toronto)

    Born in Seychelles, Fr. Richard René grew up in Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, before immigrating to British Columbia in 1989. Raised an Anglican (Episcopalian) in his teens, he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in 1993. He and his wife Jaime were married in 1998, and they have three children and t...

    Read author's full bio and see articles by this author

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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