The Orthodox Church and Orthodox Christian Mission from an Alaskan Perspective

Article excerpt

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. …