MICHAEL OLEKSA [*]
This essay will discuss Orthodox mission and its relation to the church in three ways: first, as mission and the church have related historically, second, as they relate now, specifically in the New World, and finally as they should, in the thinking of this writer, relate in the future.
The historical tradition
The Orthodox church has historically conducted missionary outreach as the geographic expansion of the gospel and the Orthodox faith itself. This has been done through evangelizing various tribes and nations, translating sacred texts and holy scripture into the local language, educating and ordaining indigenous clergy, and ultimately establishing a self-governing, administratively autonomous church. The mission of this local church has then historically continued by focusing on developing an authentic "national" social, intellectual and artistic tradition, inspired by and expressive of the Orthodox Christian tradition. In this way, one can speak appropriately of Greek, Romanian, Syrian, Russian or Alaskan Orthodoxy as the catalyst and inspiration for some of the greatest artistic treasures each of these cultures has produced.
This pattern, wherein a given nationality was incorporated into the existing commonwealth of autocephalous churches, began with the mission of the Thessalonian brothers, Saints' Cyril and Methodius. Invited by the Moravian prince Rastislav to create a writing system, and to translate the Bible and liturgical books into Slavonic, the Byzantine mission also provided translations of secular works, as well as books of law and science, for their Slavic converts. The Greek missionaries established schools, ordained clergy, and began the evangelization of villages until this movement was, suppressed by invading Germanic troops from Bavaria who opposed the use of Slavic as an "uncivilized" language. With the support of Latin bishops (who argued that only Greek, Hebrew and Latin qualified as "Christian languages"), Louis the German expelled the Greek missionaries who then fled to Bulgaria where they established a new mission. A century later, Bulgaria would produce many monastic missionaries to evangelize Kievan Rus', the medieval Slavic principality whose capital was Kiev.
As the Russians pushed the Mongols out of Europe they crossed into Central Asia themselves, and brought the gospel to tribal peoples in Siberia. The pattern inaugurated by Saints Cyril and Methodius was repeated by St Stephen of Perm who evangelized the Zyrians, and St Innocent of Irkutsk who baptized the tribes around Lake Baikal.
No two local national churches share the same cultural or artistic ethos. The same seed, as in the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, produces various crops even when it grows to maturity. Some multiply thirty, some sixty, some a hundred fold. The cultural context into which the seed is planted, as well as the soil and climate of the field, account for the difference in the final harvest. The Greek church produces one crop, the Ukrainian another, the French or Polish different results again. These are the lessons concerning mission and the church from past centuries.
Historically, mission has, by definition, meant preaching the gospel message, baptizing those who convert and request baptism, and receiving them into the communion (the sacramental and liturgical fellowship) of the church through holy chrismation and the eucharist. This has been the paradigm followed since apostolic times. Historically, mission has meant the extension and expansion of the church as a visible, eucharistic society into a geographic region and among a theretofore unbaptized people, the construction of church buildings, the education and ordination of local clergy, and the church increasingly becoming the social, moral, spiritual and artistic centre of national life.
Monasticism has played a key role in this process. In 1794, when Gregory Shelikov received permission to recruit monks for missionary work in Alaska, he found ten willing men who then walked most of the way across Siberia from Lake Ladoga to the Pacific. Denied the supplies and material support they had been promised, the Valaam mission nevertheless succeeded in baptizing thousands of local Alutiiq people who flocked to hear their message. Persecutions, drownings and martyrdom eventually reduced the mission to only one humble monk, St Herman, whose example of personal humility inspired thousands more to embrace the Christian faith. Without authentic holiness no evangelical work can succeed.
A brief history of the Orthodox mission in Alaska, 1794-1994
The mission to America which arrived in Kodiak, Alaska on 24 September 1794 had departed from Lake Ladoga nearly a year earlier. Recruited by the founder of the Russian American (commercial) Company, Gregory Shelikov, three hieromonks (monks who had been ordained priests) and five other volunteers travelled the entire length of Siberia to the Pacific. As they stopped each night, they reviewed the missionary expansion of Orthodox Christianity across North Asia. It had been from monastic communities in the Balkans and European Russia that the evangelization of the Slavic tribes had progressed over the previous millennium. The personal witness of devout, pious, holy men and women living in traditional monastic communities attracted, influenced and ultimately converted nomadic tribal peoples east of the Urals. Slavic frontiersmen had ventured into these regions as trappers, hunters, and traders, intermarried with the indigenous population, introduced Christianity, and often baptized their spouses and children. Wh en the first clergy arrived in the Aleutian Islands, they found most of the population converted, and chapels already built.
The Siberian pattern repeated in Alaska
During their first year in residence, the monks compiled a description of the traditional religious beliefs and practices of the Kodiak people, and concluded that many basic ethical and moral teachings were, in fact, universal. Their analysis of Native Alaskan spirituality was, on the whole, positive, stating explicitly that the Americans, as they called them, already knew the ten commandments of the Torah, had a story of the worldwide flood, and believed in an all-powerful creator who governed the universe. Their assessment of the traditional shaman's positive social role should be understood in the context of the Siberian story. And their direct experience of Siberian conditions and the history of Siberian missions greatly influenced their attitudes toward indigenous tribal spiritual life.
The Valaam monks viewed local shamans as traditional healers and prophetic personalities. Each tribal culture passed on to succeeding generations the sacred stories: the myths which told of the creation of the world and its eternal structures, and contained the patterns for appropriate human conduct, in harmony with the eternal paradigms. Songs, dances, ceremonies, various artistic and totemic motifs served as constant reminders of these models, and legends telling of the consequences others had faced for violating the norms reinforced the basic axioms upon which the tribal worldview rested. The First People were in a more intimate relationship with the spiritual world, and often were believed to have had direct access to the gods. This closeness was disrupted or nearly lost by a cosmic catastrophe caused by human error, pride, or ignorance, so that later generations are no longer as wise, as strong, as healthy as their ancestors were. However, the shaman has found the path back to communion with at least som e of the spirits and therefore both validates the truth of the myths and personifies to some extent the otherwise lost abilities and powers of the First People.
Alaskan tribal peoples recognized that the mysterious life force that animates each living thing was a sacred reality. The life in an animal or plant, and the life in a human person was viewed as essentially the same life. Animals have a different physical appearance and form but this is only a human perception. In reality, they are like the human beings who hunt them. The life force, what the Yup'ik Eskimo call the yua within each living thing, has to be respected, treated with reverence. Animals see things humans cannot see, hear what humans cannot hear, sense what humans cannot know. They are not inferior but in many ways superior beings. Further, they are in communication with each other and understand each other's language. A hunter can never overpower. surprise, or out-manoeuvre his prey. The animals must offer themselves, sacrifice themselves, to provide food and clothing for the otherwise helpless humans. In return, humans must be grateful and express this gratitude in various traditional acts of reve rence.
The Valaam mission saw no reason to attack this understanding of spiritual reality. They presented the Christian scripture as a written version of sacred stories, which also contain within them the ultimate model for appropriate human behaviour. Jesus Christ is the universal model, the paradigm for the perfect human being, and all people everywhere are invited to imitate him. Orthodox hymns, art and liturgy were explained as the Christian fulfilment of the old songs and ceremonies. The healing and prophetic gifts of the shamans were not denounced or denied but accepted as the work of God among "the Americans", which paralleled the ministry of the Hebrew prophets, and prepared for a future fulfilment. The shamans, it was reported among the Aleuts, had announced previously that a new faith tradition would come from the West, and when the missionaries approached in their canoes they found the villagers gathered on the seashore to meet them. The missionaries did not attack belief in the sacred quality of the yua either. They identified it with the logoi present in the created universe, and connected the traditional belief with Christ, who is the logos, the source and sustainer of life. Thousands accepted baptism in the first three years of the mission.
Shelikov's company manager, Alexander Baranov, was less positive about the monks. Since his need for workers led him to force hundreds of Aleuts, often at gunpoint, into local hunting parties, and to resettle thousands of Kodiak people at company posts from the Kurile Islands to California, he encountered strong opposition from the missionaries. The monks attempted to organize their flock in opposition to Baranov's exploitation and he responded by placing them under house arrest. After several assassination attempts, some monks returned to Russia, others drowned, one died (mistaken for an intruding shaman from Kamchatka, it seems) and ultimately only one remained near Kodiak. This elder, the Monk Germanos, known locally as Apa (Grandfather) Herman, retreated to nearby Spruce Island, built a monastic cell, and lived until 1837 as a hermit. His devotion to and defense of the Aleuts, plus his holy life and later miracles of healing, confirmed the new Christians in their faith, and led directly to Father Herman ' s canonization at Kodiak in August 1970 as "St Herman of Alaska".
Towards an indigenous church
In 1824, the most remarkable Orthodox missionary, Father loan (later Innocent) Veniaminov, arrived at Unalaska, where he promptly undertook a study of the local language and culture. Having mastered Unangan Aleut, he and a local chief, Ivan Pan'kov, translated the gospel of St Matthew, a Bible storybook and a short catechism into Unangan. Veniaminov also wrote the first book composed in Unangan: "Indication of the Way to the Kingdom of Heaven", and founded the first Unangan bilingual school. Following his lead, the first Aleut priest, Father Jacob Netsvetov translated the gospels according to Saints Mark, Luke and John while serving the village parish at Atka. Veniaminov was later transferred to Sitka, where he designed and built St Michael's Cathedral, founded the "All-Colonial School" for Native and Creole students from throughout the colony, and learned the local Lingit Indian language. Elected bishop of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska in 1842 by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, Veniaminov mo ved the seminary to Kamchatka, where he studied yet another language and culture before finally becoming archbishop of Yakutsk. There, in what is now the Sakha Republic, he learned Yakut, translated the gospels and liturgical books into Yakut, and travelled for years among the nomadic tribes of northeastern Asia. Nearing 70, he was elected metropolitan of Moscow. There, in the ancient capital, he founded the Orthodox Mission Society which continued to support foreign missionary work in Korea, China and Alaska until the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917.
1n 1867, Archbishop Innocent recommended that, with the sale of "our American colonies" to the United States, the mission headquarters be moved to San Francisco, a cathedral erected there and Orthodox services be celebrated in English by a new bishop and clergy sent from Russia. When Russia sold sovereignty of Alaska to the United States in 1867, the mission continued under the direction of Native Alaskans. They did not view Orthodoxy as an alien religion imposed on them by Siberians and Russians but as their own ancestral faith, completed and fulfilled in Christ.
Archbishop Innocent foresaw the expansion of Orthodoxy among the general American population and the creation of an "Orthodox Church in America The self-governing church bearing that name officially requested that Veniaminov be canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1977, he was glorified as "St Innocent, Enlightener of the Aleuts and Apostle to America" at his grave in the St Sergius Holy Trinity Monastery, near Moscow.
Father Netsvetov spent twenty years in his native Aleutian region and requested retirement. Instead he was transferred to the delta of the Yukon River, the homeland of the Yup'ik Eskimo, where he learned the language and translated portions of the gospels and liturgical texts and prayers into Yup'ik. Invited by the Athabaskan Indian tribes of the interior to preach to them, he travelled up river and preached through Aleut interpreters, who, following the pattern of Siberian frontiersmen, had ventured into this region decades before and intermarried with the local women. Netsvetov 's daily pastoral journals have been translated and published in English. In forty years of missionary work, he seldom expresses self-satisfaction but among the Athabaskans in 1853 he expresses his joy at seeing "so many people of different tribes, former enemies joining together to worship God and receive holy communion together. While the basic moral teachings had remained fundamentally the same among the various tribes, the gospel command to love one's enemies proved revolutionary. Finally granted retirement, Netsvetov moved to Sitka where he served the local Lingit Indian parish until his death in 1862. He was canonized in 1993 as 'Baptizer and Enlightener of the Alaska Native Peoples".
The local schools founded by native Orthodox clergy, graduates of the Sitka seminary, continued to provide education for students of all tribes and religious faiths until the Russian revolution and civil war severed all administration and financial ties to the church there. During the middle decades of the 19th century, however, the school prepared Native Americans for service throughout the colony as navigators, seamen, accountants, artists musicians and missionaries. As a result, by the time sovereignty of Alaska was transferred to the United States in 1867, the middle and upper management of the colony was in Aleut hands. Sitka, the capital, was 60% native; Kodiak, the next largest town, 90%. Native Alaskans managed the shops, built the ships and navigated them around the world. The coastline of Alaska was explored and mapped by Aleut explorers and cartographers. A Native chamber orchestra played Mozart and Beethoven at the governor's mansion. Native clergy assumed full responsibility for Alaskan Orthodoxy , and, for the centennial celebrations of the mission in 1894-95, published a series of liturgical and biblical translations in Aleut, Eskimo and Lingit.
Aleut schools continued to function in some villages until the last decades of the 19th century, completely supported by local citizens and staffed with local talent. Only when the last generation of graduates from the Unalaska seminary and training school, forced to close in 1918, began to retire, did the last Aleut schools close. In 1972, the Alaskan Diocese of the Orthodox Church in America founded St Herman of Alaska Pastoral School, which has prepared a new generation of over forty Native Alaskan clergy for service in the mission. This now includes 92 churches and chapels, where worship is conducted in English and Slavonic, as well as Aleut, Eskimo, Lingit and Athabaskan Indian languages. In 1993, His Holiness Patriarch Alexei II inaugurated the bicentennial of the Orthodox Church in America by coming first to Alaska, where he consecrated St Innocent Bicentennial Cathedral, founded in 1968 by native Alaskans in Alaska's largest city, Anchorage.
The current situation in America
The vision of the Russian mission to America had been to establish a united, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual Orthodox Church in America organized provisionally under the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate, and eventually to become an independent and self-governing local church, uniting all ethnic groups in one ecclesiastical structure. The Russian revolution and civil war shattered this dream. Each national group organized itself as an autonomous jurisdiction under the administrative guidance of its headquarters in Europe. This has made normal ecclesiastical life in America almost impossible, and while the founding of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas decades ago was a hopeful sign, there has been little progress toward unification for many years.
This has rendered ineffective and almost non-existent the second level of mission in America. The faith has been introduced, churches built, dioceses defined, clergy ordained, and the services and sacraments celebrated but this, after more than two centuries, has had very little impact on national life. The church's presence has not had any significant influence on social policy, ethics, and aesthetics. The Orthodox witness has inspired few works of art, the founding of only a few monastic centres, and the production of no great literary works. The church has done little to challenge the social status quo, and has been too weak or fearful to enter into national discussion of important ethical or social questions. The church, after more than two centuries in America, remains invisible and to most Americans irrelevant.
The primary need of the church in America is unity, not simply to facilitate administrative efficiency but to render her message credible. The ultimate goal of all Christian mission is unity in faith and love. It is "in the fear of God and with faith and love" that the believers are invited to partake of the eucharist. A unity in faith and love is the final objective toward which the church's earthly existence points, and the ultimate goal for which the Lord himself prayed: "That they may be one as we are." All the ancient controversies about divine person-hood and divine nature focused on precisely this point: since the ancient world had no concept or definition of person, the church fathers had to redefine older words in new ways, and adequate to the gospel message, in order to express and expound the Christian faith.
Mission is directed to the world to draw some into the church, and for the church to inspire and inform society so that still others can hear and receive the word of God with joy. However, even if all were baptized, chrismated and regular communicants, the church's mission would not then be accomplished. Praise, worship, repentance and celebration, as well as participation in the sacraments with joy and understanding are all still the means, not the goal, of mission.
The purpose and goal of Christian mission is, I believe, an all-encompassing unity in truth and in love, in which each human person enters into an eternal loving relationship with each other human person, in the image of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. Only agape constitutes the unity of God in Trinity, the Father, Son and Spirit each being equally divine, equally almighty, equally omniscient, equally all-loving, and each divine person so totally related in love to the others that there can be no division among them. As the Russian theologian Fedotov maintained a century ago, "The Holy Trinity is our social programme".
Mission in the 21st century: unexplored dimensions
The church's mission in the world is to make visible this unity among human persons. No one can be restored, in this sense, to the original status of Adam and Eve as created in the image and likeness of God as an isolated individual. Also, humanity as a whole cannot be the image and likeness of God -- a trinitarian unity-in-love of three divine persons -- until each human person is united to every other human person in truth and in love.
While there is no certainty that all will ultimately be saved, and the church has rejected this Origenist idea as incompatible with divine revelation, there is absolute certainty that it is God's will that "all be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth". The church cannot but submit to and work toward the accomplishment of God's will. Until all are saved, none can be. Only when all human persons have entered into this unity of truth and love will the human race be what God has willed and created it to be: the adequate and complete reflection of who he is, the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity.
Ultimately this unity must include the entire cosmos, the whole created universe. The liturgical acts of blessing natural beauty, flowers, plants, fields, rivers, food and candles, as well as the eucharistic elements, are the iconic expression of God's love and care for the entire creation, and of his desire to bless, sanctify, renew and transfigure it. "For God so loved the cosmos that he sent his only son." There is a cosmic dimension to salvation, to the proclamation of the eternal reign of Christ, which liturgically Orthodoxy has never forgotten but which it has not explicitly addressed, explained or discussed. This essential dimension to Orthodox Christian worship bridges the contemporary gap that exists in those who can find in Christianity no link between their spiritual experience and their deep appreciation of the beauties and wonders of the natural world. There should be an Orthodox mission, a deliberate outreach to those people who are seeking a Christian affirmation for their legitimate concern fo r and love of the cosmos. Orthodoxy includes within her theology a sacred ecology but this is poorly understood or articulated today. This is, as yet, an unexplored dimension of missiology.
The church on earth must be the adequate symbol, the temporal image of the "all-togetherness" to which all persons, of all races, cultures, languages and spiritual traditions, are summoned. Christian division therefore is a blasphemous sin. It distorts the beauty of the church as the icon of the coming eternal reign of God in which each person will be united in truth and love forever with all others. The mission of the church, understood in these terms, is thwarted and even rendered incomprehensible, by division, distrust, injustice, hatred or violence, or any action that encourages or promotes these evils. The mission of the church therefore must focus on reducing and eliminating such conditions among people everywhere. What has often been neglected as "social work" needs to be incorporated sacramentally into the church's understanding of her mission, as the late Byzantine and early Kievan Rus' well knew.
In America there is even more reason to reflect on the horrors of Orthodox jurisdictional disunity. While the federal courts have mandated that racial, ethnic and religious minorities must all be respected and honoured, popular opinion in various referenda and legislative action indicates that citizens prefer an assimilationist approach to the problem of cultural diversity. The average citizen wishes linguistic and national minority groups no harm but expects them to conform to and assimilate into the majority Anglo-Protestant "melting pot", as was required of immigrants for most of the last century.
Orthodoxy has never required or expected linguistic or ethnic uniformity. Historically, it has sought to preserve the unique gifts and talents of each tribal and national group and has encouraged cultural diversity. This has been the pattern in Alaska for over two centuries. While united in one diocese, the Native Peoples have each retained their own language, culture and liturgical/musical traditions. While the usual liturgical language in most parishes is English, certain responses or hymns are regularly sung in Slavonic, Greek, or other Native Alaskan languages. It is this Alaskan model that needs to be extended to and adopted by Orthodox Christians in the rest of North America.
The mission of the church is to call all to a unity that respects and celebrates the unique personal and cultural gifts of all. However, this mission can only be accomplished if the church herself lives her own message. If a unified church, embracing, for example, Greeks and Bulgarians, Serbs and Albanians, Ukrainians and Russians, Palestinians and Lebanese, Cubans and Americans - people of various languages and racial backgrounds - can be established, Orthodoxy will no longer be an unknown and irrelevant, alien minority sect. Orthodox unity in America is not an administrative luxury but a missiological necessity. Only a united Orthodox Church in America can credibly advance the ultimate goal of Orthodox Christian mission by becoming the image, the icon, of the eternal unity-in-truth and in love, to which the church must witness "to the end of the age."
(*.) The V. Rev. Dr Michael J. Oleksa has spent his entire adult life as a missionary priest in the Orthodox Diocese of Alaska, taught at all the universities and in most school districts across the state and served as dean of St Herman's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Kodiak.…