I concluded a September-October visit to Kyiv, Ukraine, by concelebrating the Divine Liturgy with Fr. Heorhiy Kovalenko in a building devoted to programs for children. As the grandson of immigrants from Ukraine, I had spent much of my childhood dreaming of grandiose liturgies in Kyiv’s cathedrals. Perhaps someday, I could serve as a deacon at St. Sophia cathedral, or lead a choir in one of the city’s other holy places. Earlier this year, I did serve in the city’s Spaso-Preobrazhensky cathedral, a new edifice. But on Sunday, October 2, I served with Fr. Heorhiy in a small room with the capacity for about sixty people, with the liturgy sung by a choir of three. The altar was against a wall, with two large icons furnishing a makeshift iconostasis. There were no “holy gates” to cense; performing the required ritual movements demanded more careful attention so as not to bump into a table, a choir stand, or a person!
The experience of serving in this small community was deeply rewarding. We prayed together in an unconventional space; the parish essentially brought the Church into a non-ecclesial space willing to host the Church. In one sense, it was a reminder that the Church can gather to pray almost anywhere. Sure, we had to make some adjustments to serve the liturgy (e.g., there were no ‘deacons’ doors’ for exiting and entering the sanctuary, and it was thoroughly impractical to exit the sanctuary from the space that would normally serve as the north deacon’s door).
This liturgical experience is not new for Orthodox in America. After graduating from seminary in 2000, I led the singing in a mission community that prayed in a funeral home in Anoka, Minnesota. This experience was similar to the one I just described: we had to adjust to our surroundings and were unable to fulfill the customary liturgical requirements. There are dozens of Orthodox mission communities scattered throughout America, meeting in all kinds of spaces (funeral homes, warehouses, storefront properties). Some of these communities observe robust liturgical requirements and calendars, whereas others can meet only for Sunday liturgy. What’s common to Orthodox mission in America is the expectation that mission communities will develop into parishes that own their own property. I wrote a bit about such mission communities in my forthcoming book on Orthodox architecture in America. Some missions succeed, others fail, and some become what I call “semi-permanent” missions, communities that have an established presence but are not likely to attain parish status.
Having reflected on many years of visiting missions and serving in a non-liturgical space in Kyiv, I ask myself, is there an argument to be made for establishing Church communities that have no aspirations for permanent parish status, but gather where they can for prayer, fellowship, and perhaps learning and service? Are we comfortable with the possibility that we might have to fine-tune our rite to liturgize effectively in unfamiliar spaces? My initial response to these reflections is to suggest that liturgy in non-liturgical spaces illuminates the qualities of gathering for the privilege of offering liturgy, and embracing the fact that Christian identity need not be shaped solely by a particular parish community. Is there a future for mobile and nimble Church communities that do not aspire to become parishes? I don’t know if I’ll ever realize my dream of leading a choir in Kyiv’s St. Sophia; but I hope that the Church will be open to the establishment of mobile communities that offer a Gospel witness in all spaces.