An Orthodox Journal of Cross-Cultural Theology, Dialogue and Mission

Starting Points



by Karen Hetherington

I’ve recently been setting up a study space at my home down in the depths of the South West of England. Most of the last twenty years has been spent balancing home and raising children with a busy job and now I’m at the stage where the children are not far from flying the nest and I have time and space to get back to things that interest me.  One of those is embroidery, and another is the Orthodox Church and her missions, past, present and future.

As I sorted through my papers, I found something I can’t remember acquiring:  “Bringing America to Orthodoxy: A Manual”. It was published in 1988  by the Department of Missions and Evangelism of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. It was, as they say, a blast from the past. It was produced before word processing became ubiquitous: the sample posters are hand drawn, the sample newspaper articles are like photocopies, and everything is single-sided and looks like it was done on a typewriter. Moreover, the content is very specific to a certain time and place: North America in the late eighties when there were many groups of Protestants knocking on the doors of the Orthodox Church and all the Church had to do was gather them up and form them into parishes.

This was about the time I was starting to get interested in Orthodoxy. In the UK, numbers of Anglicans had left the Church of England, so some new parishes were setting up.  Shortly after, in the later 80s,  the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe led to an even greater rush back to the church in places where religion had been oppressed.  After studying Russian at university, I had spent the early 80s working for a charity which supported persecuted Christians, and so I jumped at the opportunity to spend some time in Russia.

During my five years in Moscow,  I worked in a missionary parish, helping with the catechising of the many new believers.     Part of my time was also spent doing research into the Russian Orthodox Church’s missions in Siberia before the 1917 Revolution.  How things have changed! The books and journals I read back then in the 1980s and 90s weren’t even in the Library catalogue: they’d been removed during Soviet times.  It was exciting and hard work finding things.  Now, such historical resources are mostly online. Still, my shelf of photocopies of those journals is a precious resource to me.    They were, indeed, exciting times.

Thirty something years on, and things are different.The mission parishes of those times, both in the UK and the USA, are established parishes. Orthodox churches in the former Communist states are no longer dilapidated, with paper icons pasted onto plyboard.  They are looking good, with icons, mosaics, gilding and marble.

One of the main things that has changed for me is that I have a wider perception of the world.  At that time, in the 80s, it seemed that Orthodoxy was about to sweep the world.  My understanding of the world was tiny at that time: Europe and North America, and not really much beyond that.  Now, when I think of the Orthodox world, I think of ancient churches in Ethiopia, Egypt, Syria; newly opened churches and  communities in South Korea, Hong Kong and Honduras.

Going back to the 1988 Missionary Manual, Appendix I is entitled “A Blueprint for for Establishing Orthodox Churches in North America’. When you read further, Fr. Peter Gillquist writes that those who wrote the Manual ‘have been involved in planting new churches for many years’. Presumably because of this, the blueprint was approved and recommended by the archdiocese.

It is a fascinating document. It  gives the ‘how’ of setting up a mission parish, and gives a lot of detail on the kind of steps needed.  A large part of the manual also focuses on the civic structure of American towns, and how to build up support for the mission.  Then suddenly, it talks about the kind of people who should be involved in the evangelism team. It isn’t enough to be someone who is enthusiastic. They specify that the person should have the following characteristics: “participation in a local parish, consistent tithers, recommendation of priest, … ordered home and family, commitment to prayer and seasonal fasting” to name a few. I find this really interesting.  The manual moves from being something that is very specific, and of purely academic interest to anyone at a different time and different place, to something that might have something in common with witnessing in other places. Workers are always needed.

Yet, if we were to shrink the title to“A Blueprint for Establishing Orthodox Churches”, I would be very uncomfortable. Can there be a blueprint?  Is it as simple as following a Manual?  Does it work the same way wherever and whenever you are? And yet, and yet .. the nub of much of the Church’s calling to evangelize is balancing the particular context of that work with its universality.

Over the next few months, I will be talking with various people who are either involved in missionary activity or who are researching what others have done or are doing. I hope to speak with people in the UK, Africa, Europe, Asia, and anywhere else I can make contact. Let me know if there’s something happening in your locality!  I hope to find out much that is interesting about the particular nature of work in different places, among different people. I also expect to be struck by some moments that have a compelling universality.

Orthodoxy hasn’t swept the planet in the last thirty years but it has acquired a more significant presence in more countries and contexts.  My hope for this blog is that it will open up the conversation about Orthodox witness in the world today; that it will share new initiatives in evangelism and will help us learn from those who are have something to say about sharing and being good news.

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