What is a parish?

In my recent lecture on Orthodoxy in Chicago, given at Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church in Westchester, Illinois, I cautiously addressed the still-controversial issue of the 1897 split in Chicago’s Greek Orthodox community. Let me go over the basic details very briefly, before moving onto the broader question of what constitutes a parish.

In 1892, Fr. Panagiotis Phiambolis came to Chicago and founded the city’s first Greek Orthodox church, Annunciation. This community met in a rented space and existed for at least five years. Of that, there is no dispute. In 1897, for various reasons which I won’t get into right now, the parish divided. The Archbishop of Athens had sent Fr. Theodore Papaconstantine to replace Fr. Phiambolis as priest of Annunciation. Fr. Phiambolis refused to step down, and Fr. Papaconstantine led part of the Annunciation community away to start a separate parish, Holy Trinity. Fr. Phiambolis remained in Chicago for a couple of years, until about 1899, after which he moved to Boston.

This is where things get complicated. Some contend that Annunciation closed when Fr. Phiambolis left in 1899 (or even earlier — some date its closure to 1897). These folks say that there was no Annunciation Church in Chicago from then until 1907, when the current parish of Annunciation (now a cathedral) was established. Thus, according to this narrative, there were two Annunciation parishes — we’ll call them Annunciation 1892 and Annunciation 1907.

Others have a different story. They say that while Annunciation did lack a priest from 1899 (or whatever) until 1907, it continued to exist, serviced by visiting priests. At my lecture, a woman in the audience even said that she had a photo from her grandparents’ wedding, taken on the steps of Annunciation’s building in 1902 or thereabouts. A parish can still exist without a resident priest, and the argument here is that the present Annunciation Cathedral is identical to the original Annunciation Church from 1892.

I should also mention a third, related argument, brought up to me by a gentleman after my talk. This man suggested that, actually, Holy Trinity itself, while technically founded in 1897, may reasonably be dated to 1892. After all, the founders of Holy Trinity were all previously members of Annunciation. Holy Trinity could, according to this interpretation, be considered merely a continuation of Annunciation 1892, under a different name.

All of this caused me to take a step back and ask, “What is a parish?” We can say what is definitely a parish — a cohesive community of Orthodox Christians with a permanent place of worship, a resident priest, and regular church services. But beyond that, there’s a huge gray area. I’ve come up with several factors and sub-factors to help define a parish. The list isn’t exhaustive, and you could have a parish with only a couple of these elements.

An Orthodox community. This is the most essential element. On the OCA website, many former Greek Catholic parishes which converted to Orthodoxy date their foundings to the year they were established as Greek Catholic communities. I don’t do that; I would date their foundings as Orthodox parishes to the year when they converted to Orthodoxy. Before that, they may have been parishes, but they weren’t Orthodox.

A cohesive community. In other words, the Orthodox people must think of themselves as being part of a community. You could have 100 Orthodox in a city, and a priest could occasionally visit them, but if they don’t think of themselves as being a community, it’s hard to argue that a parish is present.

A priest. Most normatively, an Orthodox parish has a resident Orthodox priest. However, this element can be satisfied with something less than that. Many missions are serviced by priests who care for multiple churches, or by priests assigned to other parishes. Throughout history, some communities have relied, at times, on the services of itinerant clergy.

Worship space. Again, the norm here would be a permanent Orthodox temple, owned by the parish. Alternatively, a parish might rent its building. This could be broken down further — the parish could rent the building every day of the week, or only on certain days (e.g. Sundays).

Regular church services. The basic standard is a Sunday liturgy each week, but of course many parishes do a lot more than that. However, you could have a parish that meets less often (only once or twice per month). And while priest-led services are the norm, in theory, regular meetings of the laity for prayers might suffice.

Incorporation. Most parishes are incorporated as legal entities with the state. However, it’s also true that parishes usually predate their incorporation. After all, until you have at least some of the basic elements of a parish, how could you take the steps to incorporate? Incorporation helps us identify a parish, but lack of incorporation doesn’t mean there isn’t a parish.

A parish council or board of trustees. This isn’t absolutely essential, but it’s the norm for Orthodox parishes in America.

Hierarchical oversight. Today, to be an Orthodox parish in America, you pretty much have to be under a bishop. That wasn’t always necessarily the case. I mean, I guess you could argue that some of the early American Orthodox parishes weren’t really Orthodox, because they were established in an ecclesiologically irregular manner, but I don’t take that approach myself. At the very least, there usually was some minimal tie to a bishop or “mother church.”

A common name: Having a common name doesn’t mean a community is a parish, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a parish that didn’t have a name along the lines of “Annunciation,” “Holy Trinity,” or “St. Nicholas.” I’ve heard of fledgling missions called, “Orthodox Mission of [City],” but they usually get a name pretty soon after their establishment.

Self-identity as a parish. This is actually kind of a big one. In Chicago, prior to the 1892 founding of Greek and Russian parishes, the city had a cohesive community of Orthodox Christians. These people had organized themselves into a “society” for the purpose of starting a parish. They elected officers. They seem to have had a name (St. Nicholas), may have rented worship space, and may have had something resembling regular services. Yet, they clearly didn’t consider themselves a parish. In 1888, they met to decide whether to start a parish, and as late as 1892, there was still talk of starting a multiethnic parish. They obviously didn’t consider themselves to be a parish, even though they had a lot of the fundamental elements. In some cases, we might look back with hindsight and say, “That was a parish,” even if the community didn’t say so at the time. But the burden of proof is higher, I think.

In sum, then, we can say for certain that an Orthodox parish exists if there is a cohesive Orthodox community with a common name, self-identifying as a parish, under the jurisdiction of a bishop, incorporated with the state, with a board of trustees, and holding regular church services with a resident priest in a permanent worship space. But lots and lots of parishes don’t have one or more of those elements, and they’re still indisputably parishes.

I think the mimimum to call something a parish has to be a cohesive Orthodox community, but even that may not be enough. Consider: I was once a part of a cohesive Orthodox community which held regular services in a permanent worship space, led by a resident and full-time Orthodox priest. We had a name, a patron saint. We didn’t self-identify as a parish, and while our priest was under an Orthodox bishop, our community was technically an OCF (Orthodox Christian Fellowship, a campus ministry) not under any one hierarch. We didn’t self-identify as a parish; we called ourselves an OCF, even though we had many regular worshippers who weren’t actually OCF members. Later, our priest left his jurisdiction for another, and our community was converted into a mission parish under a specific bishop. At that point, we incorporated ourselves and elected a parish council. Were we a parish at the beginning, when we self-identified as merely an OCF? I don’t think we were, but looking back, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for someone to say, “Hey, that’s a parish, whether you say it is or not.”

Another interesting question, this one from history, concerns the original Orthodox community in Portland, Oregon. In the 1890s, an Orthodox chapel called Holy Trinity was established in Portland, under the oversight of the Russian Diocese. The community had a permanent building and was served by priests who visited from the larger Orthodox parish in Seattle. The Russian Diocese, and perhaps the local community, referred to it as a “chapel.” Was this a “parish,” or was it something else — to steal a term from others, a “proto-parish”? Later, the Greeks formed their own parish, which was also called “Holy Trinity” and, at the outset, rented the original Holy Trinity chapel building. This raises another question: was Holy Trinity Greek parish a continuation of Holy Trinity Russian chapel? After all, at least some (and perhaps most) of the Holy Trinity Greek founders had previously attended Holy Trinity Russian chapel. It’s a gray area.

Returning to the original issue: did Annunciation parish of Chicago persist during the early 1900s, or did it close? Put another way, was the present Annunciation founded in 1892, or 1907? There is, I’m afraid, no single answer. Let’s do the analysis:

  • An Orthodox community: The key question here is whether there were Greek Orthodox people in Chicago who weren’t members of Holy Trinity. I think the answer is yes.
  • A cohesive community: Again, I think the non-Holy Trinity Greeks continued to exist as a cohesive community, as evidenced by the existence (or founding) of Annunciation in 1907.
  • A priest: No, there was not a resident Greek priest in Chicago apart from Holy Trinity in the gap period.
  • Worship space: I think the original Annunciation worship space continued to be maintained. I haven’t verified this, but if true, it is a key argument in favor of Annunciation’s claim.
  • Regular church services: I don’t think there were regular services. I’ve heard that visiting priests occasionally held services for the Annunciation survivors.
  • Incorporation: I’m not sure, but I don’t think the community was incorporated prior to 1907. I hope readers will correct me if I’m wrong.
  • Board of trustees: I don’t know about this. I strongly suspect that there continued to be officers, but I don’t know for sure. This would be another good argument that there was a parish.
  • Hierarchical oversight: Bishops had little practical oversight of Greek parishes in America at the turn of the last century, and without a resident priest, I can’t imagine the Annunciation survivors had much contact with a hierarch.
  • A common name: The argument here depends a lot on this element. The claim is that Annunciation’s survivors continued to refer to themselves as “Annunciation” during the gap period.
  • Self-identity as a parish: This is another critical element, and Annunciation partisans would certainly argue that this self-identity existed.

This leaves us with some basic questions, and perhaps someone in Chicago could look into them:

  1. Did Annunciation’s building continue to be maintained and used by a Greek Orthodox community?
  2. Were the members of that community not members of another Orthodox parish (i.e. Holy Trinity)?
  3. Did that community have a board of trustees?
  4. How often did the community meet for services? How often did a priest visit them? (One place to start looking would be state marriage records.)
  5. Did the parishioners in 1907 understand themselves to be (re-)founding the parish, or did they think that the parish had continued to exist during the gap?

We’ll continue to explore the issues of parish identity in the future, but the whole Chicago debate reminds me that we must always ensure that we define our terms. We can’t take for granted that we all know what a “parish” is, because, as I think I’ve demonstrated, there’s a lot more gray area than we might initially assume.

This article was written by Matthew Namee.

22 Replies to “What is a parish?”

  1. I think your point regarding “An Orthodox community” should be matched under “Hierarchical oversight”. That is, without episcopal oversight of even the most cursory fashion, a religious community may have been a parish “but they weren’t Orthodox”.

    A comparison can be found in the former EOC and HOOM/CSB communities. They considered themselves Orthodox, but they were not under Orthodox, episcopal oversight. Thus, they were parishes, but they were not Orthodox. The “pre”-history of a Uniate parish prior to its conversion to Orthodoxy is important, but it is not a part of its Orthodox history, properly speaking.

    Communities of Orthodox believers may have started religious associations and even built a chapel or temple, but until a priest arrives under the oversight of a truly Orthodox bishop, it is not an Orthodox parish. That is a part of the prelude to its Orthodox history, just like a parish that goes into schism has an appendix or epilogue or “post”-history regarding its Orthodoxy (assuming one is speaking from the canonical POV of “world Orthodoxy”, that is.)

    1. You make a good point, but I don’t think the early Orthodox Greeks in America are analagous to the EOC and HOOM/CSB folks. The Orthodox Greeks were already Orthodox, whereas the EOC and HOOM/CSB folks had not been formally received into the Orthodox Church. So when I say “an Orthodox community,” I mean “a community of individuals who have been baptized/chrismated into the Orthodox Church.” That isn’t to say that they are operating in a strictly canonical manner, or that they were definitely a parish. But my status as an Orthodox Christian is not necessarily predicated on my affiliation with a particular bishop.

  2. “A common name”

    The Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection in New York’s East Village is the former pro-cathedral of the Metropolia and the OCA. It considers itself the direct continuation of St. Nicholas Cathedral on E. 97th St. in Manhattan. St. Nicholas was built by donations from Tsar St. Nicholas II (7,500 rubles) and others, and then Bishop St. Tikhon of the Aleutians and North America laid the cornerstone of the temple on On May 22, 1901. “After the Bolsheviks assumed power in Russia, Soviet controlled elements of the Church of Russia challenged the “Metropolia”, which had declared itself temporarily independent in the early 1920s over ownerhip of St Nicholas Cathedral. By New York State Appellate Court action the ownership of the cathedral was awarded to the Bolshevik controlled “Living Church”, in 1926. The majority of faithful left the Cathedral and re-organized under its current name. At first, the parish used an Episcopalian church on Houston and Chrystie until it was condemned. 17 years after being dispossessed of the beautiful Cathedral of St. Nicholas, the parish raised enough funds to purchase the Olivet Memorial church on East 2nd Street, its present home. The iconostasis of the parish has St. Nicholas as its ‘second patron’ on the opposite side from its patronal icon of the Pokrov.

  3. That’s a good point about EOC/HOOM/Uniates not being Orthodox. It’s an important distinction.

    However, while an individual’s “status as an Orthodox Christian is not necessarily predicated on [his/her] affiliation with a particular bishop”, a parish’s status as a specifically Orthodox parish is. We simply have to be careful about reading into history what we know later happened – the community chapel became an Orthodox parish. I’m sure examples can be found of such communities never becoming a parish or that went into schism, etc.

  4. “Common name”: I probably wasn’t clear enough. I didn’t mean that the name had to be the same over time. There are lots of examples of parishes changing names over time. In Chicago, the present Holy Trinity OCA Cathedral was originally called “St. Vladimir.” My own little mission in Lawrence, Kansas changed its name from St. Sophia to St. Nicholas a year or two ago. I just meant that the people, at a given point in time, called themselves by a common name — they adopted a patron saint or feast.

  5. Regarding hierarchical oversight: you make an excellent point. Now, in the early years, that “oversight” may have been nominal in the extreme, but for the parish to be considered Orthodox, there must at least have been an acknowledgement, on some level, of affiliation with an Orthodox bishop. In my view, it could be so nominal that (theoretically) the bishop himself might not even have been aware of the parish’s existence. If the community said, “We’re affiliated with the Church of Greece,” that might be enough.

    What do you think? How far must hierarchical oversight go to be considered sufficient?

  6. Actually, thinking through this a little more, I’m beginning to think that more substantive hierarchical oversight (which could be in the form of a resident, canonical priest) is essential. This leads to the importance of the concept of the “proto-parish.”

    Several years before the first Orthodox church was founded in San Francisco in 1867-68, the Orthodox of the city had formed an association. I’ve seen some date the founding of the San Francisco parish to the 1850s, based on this association. But the association wasn’t connected to a bishop (or a bishop’s agent, a priest). It was a proto-parish: it had some of the basic elements of a parish, but not enough to be called a full parish.

    Likewise Chicago in the 1880s: you have a community with officers and very occasional church services, and possibly even a building and a name. But with no hierarchical oversight, the association was not a parish. And it didn’t see itself as being a parish — it seemed to recognize that hierarchical oversight, on some level, was necessary.

    New Orleans is less clear, simply because we have less information about its very early years. The New Orleans parish had a resident priest by 1867 (Fr. Stephen Andreades), and given the connection to the Greek consulate, I’m inclined to think that Andreades was sent by the Church of Greece (probably the Abp of Athens himself). If that’s true, then the New Orleans founding may be more accurately dated to 1867, rather than 1865 (when Honcharenko made his visit). But without more detailed information, it’s hard to say.

  7. I’m thinking the parish should at least have made an attempt to reach out to a given local church. This could be a letter or visit to the HQ or a bishop or leader in that church, or it could be reaching out to a priest or deacon who a layman would assume would follow protocol before arriving to serve in a parish. Intention followed by action must be a minimal threshold I think. Intention alone is not enough.

    The Brotherhoods common in Poland-Lithuania following the Unia could also be seen as an example. Orthodox believers seeking to maintain their faith in adverse circumstances. I believe they reached out to Constantinople for assistance and oversight, even if this was often minimal or nominal. Still, the Orthodox impulse is always to establish contact, oversight. There is intent followed by some form of action.

    Where that might get murky is when people don’t necessarily understand who they should and should not be reaching out to as an example of “Orthodox oversight”. One can imagine village laity of one nation not knowing whether Orthodox bishops of another nation are in fact Orthodox. Same can be imagined regarding various schismatic groups, Old Calendarists, etc. The messiness at the time should be allowed to stand, regardless of what the future made more clear, e.g., a Greek church under Moscow that later went under Athens and then under the EP and then perhaps under an Old Calendarist group. Schism and canonicity can be in the eye of the beholder – i.e., OCs don’t see themselves as being in schism – and this, too, should be acknowledged.

  8. If an organized association of laity is hosting services at all regularly under the oversight of a bishop, I would call that a parish or a chapel or even a mission.

    When a parish is a top down initiative it’s easy to see it’s a parish. Bottom up initiatives are harder, but I think intention together with some kind of outreach to a bishop or his perceived representatives together with a building, a board, etc. is the threshold.

  9. “Whenever two or three are gathered in My Name Lo! I am there in the midst of them.”

    “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid.”

    Since there is, outside of statutes, only a canonical definition of a diocese, i.e. a bishop and his flock, and a synod, i.e. bishops acknowledging one of their number as their primate, and no definition that I can think of for parish according to the canons, it is, except for the regulations a Church (i.e. an Autocephalous Church, and the powers that it has devolved to its branches) have issued, a naturally ad hoc construction in Orthodoxy.

    We can say with all assurance that any group that a bishop calls a parish, is a parish. That includes any for whom the bishop has consecrated a Church, gratned an antimens, sent a priest, etc. is a parish. It would include a group which the bishop has taken under his care, even if just as catechumens. Hence the Vilatte parish in WI was a briefly a parish from the time it was received into the catechumenate by Bp. Vladimir. That it went vaganti doesn’t affect that, anymore than the parishes which were taken into the unia did not obliterate the fact that they had been Orthodox parishes. Indeed, that is how/why many returned. St. Alexis Toth’s parish of St. Mary, received around the same time, began as an Orthodox parish the moment Bp. Vladimir agreed to receive them, not when he came to take the parish in person.

    That would also include layman with a standing connection with a bishop/Holy Synod: the 1st Charter of the Russian American Company included reference to the agreed rules, the first of which mentioned as a purpose of the Company the setting up of a mission to the natives and to provide for it. By the last Charter (written in part, it is believed, by St. Innocent of Alaska) placed the Russian American Company within the Diocese of Sitka under Bp. Innocent, and empowered/required the company and its officers to act on its behalf. Hence, when Gov. Kostrimitrinov, former governor of Fort Ross (and who, in the absence of a priest, lead reader services in its Chapel) and resident agent of the Russian American Company and Imperial Vice Consul in SF involved himself in the formation of the Orthodox Society of San Francisco, in 1864, he involved the oversight of St. Innocent, now bishop of Yakutsk and within a year of the formation of the SF, a member of the Holy Governing Synod of Russia, per the acts of the HGS in reference to the Charter of the Russian American Company and Russian law.

    Prior to this, although the chaplancy of the Russian Navy (from whom, according to the Charter, all Russian American officers had to come) ministered to the Orthodox in SF, holding services in Kostrominitov’s home in 1859, there was no parish but only a proto-parish, as there is no evidence that the persons considered themselves as a group or corporate body, anymore than when the various jurisdictions gathered at Navy Pier in Chicago to celebrate the Baptism of Rus’ in 1988 made Navy Pier an Orthodox Parish. Only when ad hoc arrangements congeal into a corporate identity that a parish is born.

  10. Well, I tend to use a narrower definition of “parish,” but I’ll grant that I could be wrong. I don’t know. My immediate reaction is that your interpretation is a little too broad, which is why I like the concept of the “proto-parish.”

    Right now, I’m working with Alexei Krindatch on the forthcoming Atlas of Orthodox Churches in America. I’m responsible for, among other things, the historical census data. In 1906, the US Census Bureau’s Census of Religious Bodies listed 334 Greek Orthodox parishes, but ten years later, the Census reported just 87. The Census explains this “by the adoption of a somewhat different basis of presentation — in 1906 the different communities were reported, but in 1916 only those churches which were well organized were reported.” In all other respects (including the number of church edifices), the Greeks grew significantly in the preceding decade.

    I do think there are a lot of gray areas, even, to some extent, up to the present. Seminary chapels, monastery churches, chapels — these aren’t usually classified as “parishes.” In Wichita, Bishop Basil has a freestanding chapel at his chancery which has daily Matins and Vespers and is attended by a small number of regular worshippers. No one would call it a parish, though. (The difference between it and some of the communities of 100 years ago is that the early communities’ members weren’t members of any other parish, whereas the attendees at Bp Basil’s chapel all are members of regular parishes.)

    I think you can make a strong argument that any cohesive community of Orthodox Christians under a bishop, and not affiliated with another parish, may constitute a parish. I don’t think we can go so far as to call a community of catechumens an “Orthodox parish.” But once those two main elements are satisfied — (1) cohesive community of Orthodox and (2) hierarchical affiliation — a parish may exist, even without any other characteristic. Where I THINK you and I differ, Isa, is that you seem to suggest that these communities are all parishes, whereas I think that once the threshold is met, we must look at them on a case-by-case basis.

    What do you think?

  11. I’ll add that it could be that the corporate body of Orthodox plus “hierarchical affiliation” as evidenced by the assignment of a priest and/or the sending of an antimens is probably enough, in and of itself. I hesitate with the consecration of a temple, because there are certainly cases of chapels or votive churches which aren’t actually meant to be parish churches. But if you assign a priest to shepherd a community… that’s a parish, I think. Things get less clear when there’s no resident priest.

  12. “Where I THINK you and I differ, Isa, is that you seem to suggest that these communities are all parishes, whereas I think that once the threshold is met, we must look at them on a case-by-case basis.
    What do you think?”

    According to the canons (and the Orthodox dogma that they reflect) the bishop defines a parish. The only constraints on him are those imposed by his synod and primate, which are expressed nowadays by the Church Statute/Constitution.

    For instance, the Statute of the Russian Orthodox Church:
    “1. The Parish shall be a community of Orthodox Christians – clergymen and laymen united at a church.
    The Parish shall be a canonical unit of the Russian Orthodox Church under authoritative supervision of the Diocesan Bishop and guided by an appointed rector.
    2. The Parish shall be formed by voluntarily consent of the believing citizens of Orthodox confession who have come of age and with the blessing of the Diocesan Bishop.
    For obtaining the status of the legal entity the Parish shall be registered by the state bodies in the manner prescribed by the legislation of the country where the Parish is located.
    The boundaries of the Parishes shall be determined by the Diocesan Council.
    3. The Parish shall began its activities upon the blessing of the Diocesan Bishop.
    4. The Parish in its civil and legal activities shall observe the canonical rules, the inner by-laws of the Russian Orthodox Church and the legislation of the country of its location.
    5. The Parish shall allocate the money through the Diocese as a compulsory measure for general church needs in the amount established by the Holy Synod and for the needs of the Diocese – in the manner and amount established by the bodies of the Diocesan Authority.
    6. The Parish in its religious, administrative, financial and economic activities shall be subordinate and accountable to the Diocesan Bishop. The Parish shall carry out the resolutions of the Diocesan Assembly and of the Diocesan Council and the instructions of the Diocesan Bishop.
    7. In the event that some members split off or all members of the Parish meeting withdraw from the Parish, they shall not be entitled to claim any rights to the property and assets of the Parish.
    8. In the event that the Parish meeting takes a decision to withdraw from the hierarchic structure and jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Parish shall no longer be recognized as belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church. That will entail the cessation of the activities of the Parish as a religious organization of the Russian Orthodox Church and will deprive it of the right to property, which belonged to the Parish by the right of ownership, use or on any other legal basis, as well as the right to use the name and symbols of the Russian Orthodox Church in its name.
    9. The parish churches, prayer houses and chapels shall be organized with the blessing of the Diocesan Authority and shall maintain the order established by the law.
    10. The bodies of the Parish administration shall be the Rector, the Parish meeting, the Parish Council and the Auditing commission.
    11. The brotherhoods and sisterhoods shall be founded by the parishioners only with the consent of the Rector and with the blessing of the Diocesan Bishop. The brotherhoods and sisterhoods have an objective to attract the parishioners to caring and working for maintaining the churches in the appropriate state, to participating in works of charity, social ministry, religious and moral education. The brotherhoods and sisterhoods at the parishes shall be under the authoritative supervision of the Rectors. In the exceptional cases the Statute of a brotherhood or sisterhood approved by the Diocesan Bishop can be submitted for state registration.
    12. The brotherhoods and sisterhoods shall begin their activity upon the blessing of the Diocesan Bishop.
    13. In exercising their activities the brotherhoods and sisterhoods shall be guided by the present Statute, the resolutions of the Local and Bishops’ Councils, the decisions of the Holy Synod, the decrees of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, the decisions of the Diocesan Bishop and the Rector of the Parish, as well as by the civil statutes of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Diocese and the Parish, at which they are established, and by their own Statute, if the brotherhoods and sisterhoods are registered as legal entities.
    14. The brotherhoods and sisterhoods shall allocate through the parishes the money for general church purposes in the amount established by the Holy Synod; for the diocesan and parish needs – in the manner and amount established by the bodies of the Diocesan authority and the Rectors of the parishes.
    15. The brotherhoods and sisterhoods in their religious, administrative, financial and economic activities shall be subordinate and accountable to the Diocesan Bishops through the Rectors. The brotherhoods and sisterhoods shall abide by the decisions of the Diocesan Authority and the Rectors of the Parishes.
    16. In the event some members split off or all members of the brotherhood or sisterhood withdraw, they shall not be entitled to claim any rights for the property and assets of the brotherhood and sisterhood.
    17. In the event that a general meeting of the brotherhood and sisterhood takes a decision to withdraw from the hierarchic structure and jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, the brotherhoods and sisterhoods shall no longer be recognized as belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church. That shall entail the cessation of the activities of the brotherhood and sisterhood as a religious organization of the Russian Orthodox Church and shall deprive them of the right to property, which belonged to the brotherhood or sisterhood by the right of ownership, use or on any other legal basis, as well as the right to use the name and symbols of the Russian Orthodox Church in their name.”

    The Statute of the OCA:
    “Section 1 The Parish
    The parish is a local community of the Church having at its head a duly appointed priest and consisting of Orthodox Christians who live in accordance with the teachings of the Orthodox Church, comply with the discipline and rules of the Church, and regularly support their parish. Being subordinate to the Diocesan Authority, it is a component part of the Diocese.
    Section 2 Governing Statute
    The organization and administration of a parish are subject to this Statute as adopted at the Second All-American Council of October 19th-21st, 1971, or as amended at any subsequent Council.
    Section 3 Parish and Diocese
    The parish is established by decision of the Diocesan Bishop within whose diocese it is constituted and after the local group petitioning him has satisfied the Bishop that it is self-supporting and stable and that its charter and by-laws are consistent with canonical requirements and the Statute of the Church. Every parish charter or set of by-laws must provide the mechanics for implementing all decisions of the All-American Council. No charter or by-laws of a parish shall be effective unless approved by the Diocesan Authority. According to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, the Bishop is the head of all parishes which constitute his diocese. He appoints parish clergy, has the obligation and right of regular and special visitations to the parish, approves received reports on parish life, and in case of conflicts and disorders within the parish, takes all necessary measures consistent with the Holy Canons. ”

    The Greak Orthodox Archdiocese
    ARTICLE 15
    Section 1: The Parish is the local eucharistic community of the Church in a given
    locality; organized under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese whose ecclesiastical
    authority is its canonically consecrated Hierarch. Locally, the Parish is headed by a
    canonically ordained and duly appointed Priest. The assignment of such appointed
    Priest shall bind the Parish to the Archdiocesan Regulations, Uniform Metropolis
    Regulations and Uniform Parish Regulations with the same force and effect as if the
    same were formally approved and adopted by the Parish.
    Section 2: The aims and purposes of the Parish are to keep, practice and proclaim
    the Orthodox Christian Faith pure and undefiled.
    Section 3: Parishes shall be governed in accordance with the holy canons, the
    Archdiocesan Charter and Regulations promulgated thereunder, and, as to canonical
    and ecclesiastical matters, by the decisions of the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical
    Patriarchate and the Eparchial Synod of the Archdiocese. In accordance with the
    Charter, the Parish shall express the life of the Church in the local community according
    to the Orthodox Christian Faith and Tradition, sanctifying the faithful through the Divine
    Liturgy and the Holy Sacraments. It shall edify the religious and ethical life of the faithful
    in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the decrees and canons of the Holy Apostles
    and the Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Church, as interpreted by the practice of the
    Ecumenical Patriarchate.
    Section 4: The diakonia (ministry) of the Parish will include proclaiming and teaching
    the Gospel in accordance with the Orthodox Faith; sanctifying the faithful through God’s
    grace in worship, the Divine Liturgy and the other sacraments; enhancing its
    parishioners’ spiritual life; and adding to the numbers of the faithful by receiving persons
    into the Church through instruction, baptism and/or chrismation. In addition, the Parish
    shall establish educational and philanthropic activities to foster the aims and mission of
    the Parish and to edify its parishioners in the Faith and ethos of the Church. The Parish
    shall also engage in such inter-Orthodox, ecumenical and interfaith activities as are
    consistent with the policies of the Archdiocese.
    Section 5: The Parish shall conform faithfully to the worship, sacramental life,
    doctrines, canons and discipline of the Church. It shall also adhere to the Archdiocesan Charter, the Regulations and all Hierarchical encyclicals.
    Section 6: Any non-conformance with the foregoing shall be dealt with in
    accordance with the provisions of the canons. The Archbishop, upon the
    recommendation of the local Metropolitan, shall have the authority to revoke the
    ecclesiastical charter of a Parish, if, in his judgment, there is sufficient cause for such
    action. In each such case, notice of the revocation, stating the cause for such action,
    shall be forwarded to the Parish Council in writing.
    Section 7: The Parish shall furthermore abide by the decisions of the Clergy-Laity
    Congresses irrespective of whether it was represented thereat, the administrative
    determinations of the Archdiocesan Council, and such interim legislation as may be
    adopted between Congresses by the Archdiocesan Council.
    Section 8: Each Parish shall be known as the (name) Greek Orthodox Church of
    (locality). Each Parish shall use the authorized logo of the Archdiocese and the name of
    the respective Archdiocesan district/Metropolis on its stationery and publications, in accordance with the Archdiocesan Graphics Standards Manual.”

    What is interesting here is that according to these Statutes, for one reason or another or several, most pre-1921 parishes-including Cathedrals-would not qualiy for parish status.

    Of course, we cannot nor should we project these present day definitions back to evaluate these early parishes. We would need to see if there were any definition of a parish on the basis of the Spiriitual Regulation of Russia, the Constitution of the Rum Mileti-i and the Organic Statute of the Church of Greece.

    In absence of that, we have to go on ascertain the satisfaction of two conditions 1) an Orthodox bishop (laying aside the condition that he have canonical jurisdiction) and 2) parisioners (bishops without flocks existing, but being a problem). As long as no. 2 is connected with no. 1, and no. 1 is satisfied with the existence of no. 2, we have a parish. Of course, the problem is seeing a century or more now after the fact how 1 and 2 were satisfied with each other.

  13. Thanks for posting those regulations. It’s certainly much easier, today, to say what is and is not a parish. The real problem concerns the non-Russian parishes in the pre-1921(ish) era.

    Have you listened to Vera Shevzov’s 2009 lecture at SVS, “Sobor, Sobornost, and the Problem of the Laity”? She discusses the nebulous concept of “parish” in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Here’s the link:


    For our purposes (the study of early American Orthodox history), I think your two conditions are quite reasonable — a bishop and parishioners. A priest is (or should be) automatically connected to a bishop, and so would fall under that heading. I would propose that the other factors I listed (building, name, regular services, etc.) are important in helping us determine whether, in fact, there were actual “parishioners.” This matters most when there isn’t a resident priest — when we’re talking about a fledgling parish.

  14. Your question ‘What is a parish’ and subsequent answers lean heavily in a ‘sociological’ direction, which is important, but not the whole story. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory said fifty years ago now that the one big lacuna in ecclesiology, Eastern as well as Western, was precisely the lack of a THEOLOGICAL answer to the question ‘what is a parish.’ Closer to our own day, the great Greek theologian John Zizioulas has said much the same thing.

    On a related note, have you read Nicholas Ferencz’s book *American Orthodoxy and Parish Congregationalism* (Gorgias Press, 2006)? It’s a fascinating study.

    1. I remember purchasing the book for a reduced price at a convention right after it came out. I read it very shortly thereafter and found that I liked it. I’ll second your recommendation, Adam.

  15. Perhaps Adam or others could share a perspective on how the Roman Catholic Church understands the concept of parish. My understanding is that a parish is assigned a specific geographical territory for which it is the local church (and I assume the bishop requires all faithful in that area to have that parish community as their official parish). The MP regulations above seem to imply much the same, i.e., “The boundaries of the Parishes shall be determined by the Diocesan Council.” This view may have been relaxed in our day, but it seems that this is a basic understanding of how a parish relates to a bishop’s diocese, which is the basic canonical structure of the Church – not the parish. Whereas originally bishops served the only Christian community and the city’s single Divine Liturgy each day, as dioceses grew and presbyters were assigned to Christian communities/Liturgies the bishop could not serve at on that day, the parish developed. That is, the parish developed as the organizational (and normally physical) structure to serve the faithful in a particular area with the bishop’s jurisdiction. One can see chapels filling a function that is less geographically determined and more focused on the needs of a particular demographic of the faithful, e.g., Latin parishes in Constantinople.

    Bishop and faithful does seem to be a good basis for defining an Orthodox community. Many Alaskan parishes went years without a priest and didn’t always have a dedicated church building (especially in the early decades of the Mission), but they still considered themselves Orthodox and an Orthodox community. Parish as geographic jurisdiction seems to fill in the gaps here.

    The situation with former Uniate parishes is that the Alaskans were baptized (if uncatechized in many cases) Orthodox Christians. The former Uniate catechumens were in the odd no man’s land of the catechumenate where you are not fully Orthodox, yet, but you would be buried Orthodox were you to die prior to baptism/chrismation/reception. Perhaps in situations like this either “proto-parish” or “Orthodox community” would be appropriate.

  16. It might help to remember that the presbytery devolved from the episcopate, which is why a priest can celebrate Eucharist and chrismate and serves as the ordinary minister of baptism, whereas a deacon (being an ordained layman in essence) can/does not. The local pastor is the vestige of the chorbishop. Similarly, the parish has devolved from the Diocese as parishes branched out from THE PARISH, the Cathedral.

  17. The Roman tradition has tried to adhere to strict geographical boundaries for parishes (though under the 1983 CIC there are alternatives to this: e.g., “personal” parishes as well as “personal prelatures”), and still does at a de jure level, but de facto people go wherever they want and nobody bothers officially about this. I’m very much looking forward to a new book forthcoming this month on this very question: “What is a Parish” details of which may be found here: http://www.ltp.org/p-2307-what-is-a-parish-canonical-pastoral-and-theological-perspectives.aspx

    I would also note that the issue of parish geography is one that some Protestants also grapple with: eg., the Netherlands Reformed Church, which I discuss briefly here: http://easternchristianbooks.blogspot.com/2011/04/what-is-church.html

    1. I just found the following in the court case Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic All Saints Church v. Kedrovsky (1931): “Under the laws of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church, a parish is stated to be ‘an association of Orthodox Christians composed of the clergy and laity living in a definite locality and united around a temple, forming part of a diocese, under the canonical administration of the diocesan Bishop and under the guidance of a Rector appointed by the latter.'”

      So in list form, this would be:

      1. An association of Orthodox Christians
      2. Living in a definite locality
      3. A temple (which I take to mean a regular worship space)
      4. Part of a diocese
      5. Under a diocesan bishop
      6. Under a priest appointed by the bishop

      This, I think, is what we typically think of when we hear “parish.” If you take away one of those elements, is there still a parish? The most dispensible of those elements might be the priest — if you have a community of Orthodox Christians under a diocesan bishop and using a regular worship space, isn’t that a parish? But today we might call that a “mission,” rather than a full “parish.” In times past, such an arrangement probably fits into the category of a “proto-parish.” I tend to think of a proto-parish as being even more vague than the modern “mission,” because you could (in my view) have a proto-parish that wasn’t under a bishop.

Comments are closed.