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I recently read a talk given by Dr. Constance Tarasar in Cyprus in 1994 and was discussing it with some friends afterwards. She is regarded as one of the most extensive writers on the topic of Orthodox Christian education, although much of her works are unpublished.  The following is a brief summary of the eight page presentation I read, given by Dr. Tarasar many years ago, for those of you who asked me to share a bit more about it with you.

Dr. Tarasar broke up her presentation into three sections:

  1. Initial efforts in religious education in North America: 1824-1956
  2. The work of the Orthodox Christian Education Commission: 1956-1980
  3. An assessment of where we are today

She talks briefly about the development of religious education in North America – schools throughout what is now the United States.  These schools ranged from simple parish schools to formal centers of learning for future clergy.  From around 1900-1956, there was a large push to establish church schools in every parish.  Most parishes during this time provided weekly religious education along with instruction in the foreign language spoken in that particular community.  The time and length of this instruction varied from parish to parish.

During the post-war years, especially after World War II, we started seeing a generation of Orthodox Christians in the United States who identified themselves as American Orthodox because they had been born here and fought for this country.  They found themselves wanting to worship in the English language now instead of the language their parents or grandparents spoke from their native countries.  During this time as well, we see a greater influence of the Protestant model of Sunday School emerging in our Orthodox parishes.  It was during this time that we adopted this model of Sunday morning religious education primarily during Liturgy because it was seen as a solution for the children (and many of the parents) because quite a few of them no longer understood the native language being used in the parish.  The idea behind adopting the Protestant approach to Sunday School was that at least the kids could receive religious education in English and could understand something about the faith while the adults attended the Divine Liturgy.

Since neither they nor their children received Holy Communion except during the period of Great Lent, parents and many priests never stopped to think about the fact that they were educating their children in a non-liturgical context, nor the consequences of this pattern for the future.  – Tarasar, Experiences in Orthodox Religious Education, The North American Experience

This situation was not unique to just one Orthodox jurisdiction.  It was found in most of them.  It’s not to say that there wasn’t some effort to address the educational needs of the parish – because there were efforts made in various forms.  There were Orthodox leaflets and books published by many of the jurisdictions.  However, it was also not uncommon during this time to use non-denominational materials produced by Protestant groups as well as supplements to the few Orthodox resources available.

The primary form of curriculum at the time was “subject-oriented” – meaning that topics relating to Orthodoxy were chosen to be taught to the students.  Many of the teachers did not know much about the topics they were teaching since they grew up not understanding the services and were not given any formal religious education themselves.  In addition, many of the priests did not attend a seminary either and had very little formal education themselves due to the circumstances of the time period.

In the 1950’s, several individuals – including Sophie Koulomzin and Fr. Alexander Schmemann – came together to discuss the needs for a more structured educational approach in the parishes.  The results of this pan-Orthodox meeting was the formation of Orthodox Christian Education Commission.

There were several goals of the OCEC.  Some of them included, but were not limited to, creating additional Orthodox education resources so parishes would discontinue using Protestant resources (“which, in spite of its usefulness, was felt to be inadequate and, in some respects, inapplicable and even contradictory to the Orthodox understanding of religious education”) as well as seek out an Orthodox approach to education.

Where are we today?  Many of you can answer this question for yourself as you reflect on the approach of religious education used at your parish.  The fact of the matter is that it’s going to be different for each parish. The situation depends on if you are attending an ethnic parish or a parish of primarily newly illumined individuals and families, where you’re located in the country, the size of your parish, along with many other factors.

The model Dr. Tarasar presents for use as an approach to Orthodox education in this presentation (as well as in her doctoral dissertation) is:

  • Worship (attendance and participation in services)
  • Formal Teaching (church school, retreats, Bible studies, etc.)
  • Praxis (home and community life which includes an informal “curriculum” that follows the feast and fasts of the Church, traditions, as well as constantly striving to emulate Christ in our daily lives)

She goes into further detail about how there’s a synergy between all three of these areas.

*If you would like to read this presentation (“Experiences in Orthodox Religious Education, The North American Experience” by Dr. Constance Tarasar) yourself, it is available in the library at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.