Again we pray Thee, look down with mercy upon our Church, do Thou strengthen, establish and increase her, and evermore defend her against the wiles of her enemies. Do Thou cast down all dissension, schism, heresy, apostasy, and unbelief, and spread abroad in our land, and in every place, piety, devotion and zeal for Orthodoxy; illumine those in ignorance and error, and those enslaved unto sin, and soften the hardness of their hearts, that they may come to know Thee; help them and us to live holy and blameless lives, and root the saving Faith firmly and make it to bear fruit in our hearts; we fervently entreat Thee, hearken and have mercy.The above is one of the supplementary petitions customarily included in the Litany of Fervent Supplication at the Divine Liturgy. It is called the Litany of Fervent Supplication because, having just been nourished by the readings of the Holy Scriptures and having them expounded, we are called to implore God for his mercy in even greater earnest, with our whole being. The deacon exhorts us with the words, 'Let us all say with our whole soul and our whole mind; let us say:', and the next two petitions are, 'O Lord Almighty, God of our Fathers, we pray Thee, hearken and have mercy', 'Have mercy upon us, O God, according to thy great mercy; we pray Thee, hearken and have mercy'. The people respond with a threefold, 'Lord, have mercy'.
Yet it is also called the Augmented Litany, and the reason for this is that the service books provide a number of additional petitions to be added to the litany at the discretion of the deacon for the various needs of the people. In his excellent piece on the diaconate, Archdeacon Photios Touloumes writes:
The deacons also led the people in prayer, standing in their midst, asking for the peace of the world, for the union of all and for whatever other petitions or needs the faithful requested. In our liturgy today, the litanies (ektenias) have become standardised but are still called the deacon’s litany/ektenia. Originally, in addition to the standard petitions, the deacon also “composed” other petitions to express what the immediate, changing needs of the people were thereby bringing these needs to the Church for their help and prayers. Because he worked so closely with the faithful and dispensed the charity of the church, he knew who was sick, who had died, who was travelling, who was out of work or whose crops had failed, and included these needs in his litany. In this way, by announcing the “daily news and needs” of the faithful during the litanies, the deacon informed the faithful who needed help and for whom prayers were needed.In this way, the deacon's practical service is united with the eucharistic assembly of the people of God, where these concerns are offered to the people for their prayers along with the eucharistic offering.
In our missionary situation in Britain, how can this diaconal service be geared towards mission and evangelism? Most parishes do not have a deacon, which is a severe impoverishment as far as parish life goes. Perhaps we do not realise this because we have become so accustomed to it but the practical and spiritual functioning of a parish, and its liturgical offering as part of that, is impaired in the absence of a deacon. Some aspects of the deacon's role get assumed by the priest, (who is then stretched further than he ought to be at the expense of some of his priestly duties), while others simply fade away. There are different historical reasons for this shortage of deacons and it is now accepted as the norm in many places, so how do we compensate for this?
Well, the obvious answer is to persuade our bishops that we need more deacons. However, in the meanwhile, there is nothing to prevent a parish exercising something of its diakoné through its people. One of the most important elements of this is the teaching of the Faith to others but also ensuring that there are others to whom we can teach this Faith.
I was once told of a Continuing Anglican parish in Florida that was started in a most unusual way. Florida is, it seems, the place in the USA where people go to live after retirement, and has a number of what are called retirement villages. These are estates that were built specifically for the purpose of housing retired people who have moved there. However, most of them were built without churches. Two retired Anglican clergymen, having moved there and encountered this problem, began to meet on Sundays for prayer.
Having thought of what they could do to help others, they came up with an imaginative idea. They set up a telephone line with an answering machine and leafletted the neighbourhood. However, these leaflets were not intrusive, did not ask people to give anything or commit to anything, but simply offered them something: prayer. In a culture where many people's immediate response to anything religious is skepticism at best, this is very important. The town was simply informed that a small number of Christians gathered for prayer and worship at a certain time each week, and that, if they wished, people could telephone the phone number, with the assurance that it was fully automated and that they would not have to speak with anybody. They could then leave a message on the machine with requests for prayer for various concerns, which would be offered at the next prayer service. In time, some of the messages contained requests for details of the place and time of the services, and the numbers began to grow, until today, there is a thriving parish.
This does not seem to me to be beyond the ability of most Orthodox parishes and missions in this country. Really, according to Orthodox praxis, this bringing of the prayer concerns of the community to the Church's corporate worship is a diaconal ministry, to be exercised by the deacon and his team of assistants, yet it is not beyond the scope of what we could do in most communities, even without a deacon. We could leaflet a few streets each week with details of how to ask for prayers. Perhaps in our times, in addition to a telephone line, we could offer an e-mail address, or the wall of a parish Facebook group, (although really this effort would best be kept local). A Moleben, (or maybe, occasionally, a Panykhida), could be served once a week/fortnight so that these prayers could be offered, perhaps timed so that it finishes a half hour before Saturday Vespers. This way, first-timers could come to something that isn't a regular service with a full congregation, which they might find intimidating. They could have an opportunity to talk to somebody afterwards then they could go home or, if they wished, they could stay for Vespers and see some more of the life of the church.
What would need to be in place from that point in order to nurture these people would depend on the nature and resources of the parish/mission, and the individuals concerned but this is a start, and something that does not require a vast amount of money or co-ordinated effort, which is important for many communities which have very little money and whose people do not live close to church but travel many miles to get to services. There is also something about it that seems in keeping with the gentleness for which Orthodox evangelism has come to be known, while rooted in prayer and the services of the Church.
With a small core group of dedicated people involved, with perseverance, and with prayer, perhaps something like this could indeed bring people to Christ.
Help them and us to live holy and blameless lives, and root the saving Faith firmly and make it to bear fruit in our hearts; we fervently entreat Thee, hearken and have mercy!