I will be heading off to Winnipeg in mid-July as a delegate to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada Sobor, a grand conference held every five years that is the Church’s highest governing body. This will be my first such Sobor, though I am no stranger to Conventions and Conferences, having been actively involved in the Ukrainian community in Canada for over forty years.
In preparation for this Sobor, I have been delving into the history of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Canada (UOCC), as well as talking to people that have attended previous Sobors and who have been active in the Church for a long time. What I have learned is not particularly comforting.
The UOCC was formed in 1918 in Western Canada as a result of the dissatisfaction of Ukrainians living on the prairies with the actions of both the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church as well as the Russian Orthodox Church, both of whom were actively seeking to bring the large Ukrainian immigrant population there under their denominational control. A group of concerned activists instead got together in Saskatoon and organized the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church of Canada, as it was then called. The first few decades were quite difficult, but eventually the church stabilized and experienced fairly rapid growth, eventually reaching some one hundred twenty thousand in membership. Regrettably, the past few decades have seen a radical change of fortune that has seen membership plummet to fewer than ten thousand parishioners, and that downward trend is continuing. If this decline continues, it is more than likely that there will be no UOCC within the next two or three decades.
One would think that such a drastic downturn would lead the church leadership to recognize that the church is experiencing an existential crisis, and that all of its priorities would be focused on developing strategies and programs to reverse this trend and get the church back on the road to renewal and growth. Sadly, I see no sign of any such thing. If you examine the program or agenda for the upcoming Sobor, you will not see anything that specifically relates to rescuing the future, or how to deal with the current membership crisis. It is mostly business as usual and there is a lot of time dedicated to a large number of proposed resolutions, very few of which speak to the major issue of survival at hand. Most are focused on tinkering with peripheral issues on the church’s operations or with canonical matters that are mostly of little relevance to the majority of current or potentially future Orthodox faithful.
It is true that I am no expert on church dogma or on theological matters. However, I am more than conversant with organizational dynamics and development, the workings of contemporary society, leadership, change management and strategic thinking. I have built a successful career around these abilities and based on that, I would offer a few suggestions to the Sobor and the church leadership.
The first and most important, is to make reviving and reforming the church to make it more accessible and relevant to today’s young people the church’s No. 1 priority. To that end, the Church should organize a task force of both secular and clerical experts who have some experience and expertise in doing this to come up with a new vision and strategy for the UOCC to restore its membership to its former levels, if not greater.=
The church should also consider similar task forces focusing on how to modernize the language, format and content of the church services to make them more relevant and understandable to today’s young people, those who represent the future of our church. I would suggest that to continue using a fifteen hundred year old script for the liturgy that is full of language, references and forms (synaxis, catechumens, antiphons, anaphora, etc. etc.) just doesn’t resonate with our young people anymore. The current liturgy may be beautiful and traditional and we should continue to use it on occasion because of its esthetic, artistic and spiritual beauty, but it should not be the primary form of communicating the Christian message to contemporary society, which is what church services should be aiming to do. Similarly, the clergy of all ranks might consider doing away with some of the ostentatious trappings (vestments, gold and silver ornaments, rituals of homage) that are more leftovers of the feudal aristocracy than the practices of the original Apostles. They create an unnecessary psychological barrier between the clergy and the people.
I would add to this that we should take a look at revising and/or adding to the Bible in the light of all the additional knowledge, both scientific and otherwise, that mankind has acquired in the past two thousand years. Surely, all religious truth and teaching did not stop and become cast in stone fifteen hundred years ago.
These are but a few of the many things that the UOCC should start seriously looking into. As I have stated on many occasion, significant change has to come soon; not in a matter of generations or centuries, but in the next decade or two. Failure to come to terms with this grim reality will end in the UOCC disappearing within our lifetimes.