Though statistics released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate that Australians, especially the young and educated, are moving away from religion, Father George Frangos’ experience at The Dormition of our Lady in Altona North is bucking the trend and can in part be attributed to his open and welcoming approach.
“People that know me personally and are parishioners at Altona North know my style and they know the type of person that I am. I’m very approachable and the kind of person that will have a discussion, have a chat; it doesn’t always have to be religious, we can talk about anything. I’m just a normal person, but [one who] wears a black robe,” Fr Frangos told Neos Kosmos.
Now he’s decided to take it one step further, by opening up the church for an open forum Q&A session on Tuesday 9 May in a bid to re-engage, namely with the community’s youth.
“What I find is, when [I am] out there conducting various tasks [like] baptisms, and weddings, and funerals, and things like that, there’s always a plethora of questions that are being asked all the time, ‘We’re doing this, is that right?’ or ‘We’re doing this, is that right?’ So it’s a matter of giving people the opportunity to ask questions and offer some clarity where we can . . . like I said in [Tuesday’s] event description, there’s no such thing as a stupid question,” he said.
People are welcome to go along and ask questions about the doctrine, theology, and the church’s position on certain issues, though Fr Frangos clarifies the idea is not for the forum to turn into a debate.
“I don’t want it to turn into a controversial political discussion about the wrongs or rights about the church. It’s more of an engaging event and something for people to take something out of it and learn,” he explained.
“Everything will be answered in my capacity of course; if something can’t be answered we’ll swap email addresses and [I’ll] give a decent answer for a more involving kind of question or something that’s beyond my scope.”
While a forum of this kind may not be a common occurrence, Fr Frangos says he will very much be in his comfort zone as encountering inqusitiveness is part and parcel of life as a priest.
Altona North is the first posting for the 36-year-old priest, where he has been leading the way for just over four years.
Though he admits that attendance was initially quite low, he largely puts it down to the church being in its construction phase and services being held in a hall on site, but says numbers are now steadily increasing.
“The dynamics changed once we got into the new church and we are seeing an increase in younger people, especially young families, attending because we’re taking almost a progressive approach.”
While services are run exactly as they always have been, he has consciously increased inclusion of the English language and hosts a Tuesday night fellowship group and a Wednesday night bible study group.
“These days, most of the youths are second-generation, third-generation people of Greek background and don’t really have a basic understanding of Greek. So that’s why we try to use the English language a little bit more within the services, so people can understand the words that we’re saying because it’s very meaningful, they’re very beautiful the words, especially in divine liturgy,” Fr Frangos said.
Beyond that, the parish has also set up a designated mother and children’s area to accommodate young families.
While Fr Frangos is apart of a cohort of priests taking a more open approach, for him it is a natural way to carry on the role of the church and one that he says has remained the same over the centuries; to provide people a space where they feel welcome, a sense of community, and belonging.
“I think the biggest misconception has always been that the church is a closed space; that it’s only there for members and only there for saints. We’re a church; we don’t have the right to discriminate against people no matter their lifestyle or their choices in life. The church is a space for sinners basically – so call it a hospital for sinners. Nobody’s perfect within the church,” said Fr Frangos.
“So definitely, the church is open to everybody. And I’m not talking [just] about this Tuesday specifically. The church is an open space for anybody that needs to find an exit from their daily life so to speak, [to] find a place for a bit of quiet.”
The forum will be the first event of its kind to be held at the parish, and is open to everyone.
“It’s designed to bring people in so they can ask [the] questions they’ve always wanted an answer to. But also it’s seen as an opportunity by me to engage basically with the youth and to offer the limited wisdom that I may have to others.”
The forum will be held at the Greek Orthodox Church of North Altona & Districts (272 Millers Rd, Altona North, VIC) on Tuesday 9 May at 7.00 pm.