This article is from PRAXIS volume 16 issue 1: "Parish as Educator" (Fall 2016).
If you or a loved one were facing major surgery, which surgeon would you prefer? Your first choice is a recent medical school graduate who has read about the procedure in a book but has never seen it done. Your second choice is one who has read about it, seen the procedure done, assisted with the procedure and had her work critiqued by experienced surgeons. Most likely, except in a life-threatening emergency, you would choose the second surgeon.
The key difference between these two surgeons is the curriculum—the program of instruction and learning they followed to become surgeons. The first surgeon (and she could be an excellent surgeon) followed the curriculum of a textbook. The second followed the rich curriculum found in a community of learning where not only are books read, but experiences are also created to teach the new doctor what she needs to know to become a good surgeon.
The same is true in the Church, where we have a curriculum to “make Christians.” In the Department of Religious Education, people often ask us if there’s a “curriculum” for this or that issue, or if the Archdiocese has a “curriculum” for Sunday Church school. What they are asking is whether we have textbooks for a particular topic or program. The simple answer is often “yes, there is a textbook for that,” but this is only a partial answer.
That textbook, like the one used to teach surgery, is only part of the curriculum. The curriculum of the Church comprises the experiences we have in the parish and all that it does on a daily basis to teach us what it is to be an Orthodox Christian, to belong to an Orthodox Christian parish and to become a better Orthodox Christian over the course of our lives. As the late religious educator Maria Harris wrote in her book Fashion Me a People: Curriculum in the Church, “the church doesn’t have an educational program; it is an educational program.”
We only need to turn to the Acts of the Apostles to see that the four basic components of the curriculum are fellowship, liturgy and prayer, teaching, and service. In Acts, we find the following description of the first Christian community, the life of those who accepted the teaching of the apostles at Pentecost: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need” (Acts 2:42–45).
"... all who believed were together, and had all things in common ..."
The first element of the curriculum is the community itself. As Orthodox Christians, we must be part of a parish. We cannot be a Christian alone, as an old Christian adage says, “one Christian is not a Christian.” The fellowship that we have as a parish community is the first teacher. We learn how to live as Christians together, supporting and guiding one another. Fellowship with one another requires hospitality, that is, being friends and being friendly.
Liturgy and Prayer
"... in the breaking of bread, and in prayers."
Whenever we encounter a phrase like this, our first thoughts should go to our liturgical life. When we gather in the Divine Liturgy, we break bread together as we celebrate and commemorate the Lord’s Supper. As Jesus said to His disciples at the Last Supper, when He broke bread with them for the last time, “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).
We learn about who we are as Orthodox Christians through our liturgical life. In the many readings, we hear the teachings of the Lord. We hear from the Old and New Testaments. We hear the stories of saints and events in our Christian history in the hymns.
The way we celebrate our liturgies also teaches us who we are as Orthodox Christians. We gather around our clergy and they lead us in prayer. We stand in our place in the church; the clergy stand in theirs. The rituals of our Church shape our understanding of the events themselves.
We learn about who we are as Orthodox Christians through our liturgical life.
"... they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine ..."
From this we can discern that instruction was taking place among those first Christians. They wanted to know what they believed, who Jesus of Nazareth was and how He connected to the God and stories of the Old Testament. This was done by the apostles themselves. They were the ones who knew Jesus personally and had heard His teachings. They had witnessed and experienced His miracles and, finally, His passion and resurrection. Our task, centuries later, is to be faithful to the teachings of the apostles. When we say that we have apostolic succession as Orthodox Christians, we are referring to more than a historical We learn about who we are as Orthodox Christians through our liturgical life. page 8 PRAXIS w Fall 2016 PARISH AS EDUCATOR linear chain. We have apostolic succession because we also teach what the apostles taught.
Teaching also includes preaching and public witness. When the Church began at Pentecost, it began with a public proclamation by Peter and the other disciples. The Holy Spirit empowered them with everything they needed to share the Good News. As Peter’s sermon that day begins, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem …” (Acts 2:14). This was not a message intended for just a few.
"Now all who believed ... sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need."
That first Christian community cared about its neighbors. From the day of Pentecost, the Church had an outward vision toward the world, sharing all that it had with the poor.
Fellowship. Liturgy. Teaching. Service. In Greek, koinonia, leitourgia, martyria and diakonia. These are the four elements of the curriculum of the Church from the day of Pentecost down to this very day, and in the following pages you’ll read different examples and explorations of how these elements are manifest in Orthodox life.
These are not independent areas of Church life; they overlap. We serve together and we pray for those we serve as a community. We teach that ours is a community that serves and prays. The fullest example of the curriculum that “makes Christians” is found in the parish that strives to live as best it can for all its members in each of these areas.
Rev. Anton C. Vrame, PhD, is director of the Department of Religious Education and author of The Educating Icon: Teaching Wisdom and Holiness in the Orthodox Way (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1999).
Like what you’re reading? Visit the Religious Education Department to view back issues of PRAXIS and learn how to subscribe. You may also contact the Department of Religious Education by phone at (646) 519–6300 or by email at [email protected].