Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Americanization of Orthodoxy

Much is said, year after year, about the process of making the numerous jurisdictions now working independently of one another in the New World into an "American Church." Inculturation will eventually move, as if by a force as relentless as gravity, the clergy and laity of this country into a unified and distinct Orthodoxy body.

I travel a bit and make a point of visiting whatever parishes my schedule allows throughout the days I'm journeying about. What I've found is that time is different from ambition. Simply existing as a parish in America is no guarantee that it will become more "American"... ever.

Case in point: I just returned from a business trip where I attended Sunday Orthros and Liturgy at the nearest available parish. It didn't reside in an ethnic area nor was it in such a heavily Orthodox-laden city that the landscape was dotted with golden domes. From the moment I walked in the front door to my eventual stepping out of the fellowship hall almost no English was spoken. Besides those few times where I needed directions or when people wondered after who I was, everything was said in the jurisdictional tongue. The church was well over a hundred years old.

Time does a lot of things, but in the parish setting anecdotal data tells me that the run-of-the-mill parish is more likely to remain insular than it is to choose to do things to make it more accessible to outsiders. It is the ambition of the parishioners that determines which route a given church will take. The soft phyletism of a parish that doesn't announce its service times online (or in English), that performs those services almost entirely in another language, etc. has no methodology for taking in new members and few parishes have enough young children in attendance that they can replace their aging members as they pass on much less grow. Oddly, the same people who acknowledge they have something wonderful (e.g. the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church) are also befuddled by visitors.

Let me recount an experience I had some years ago while visiting a Greek parish during coffee hour (though this could and has happened in non-Hellenic settings as well):

Yiayia: Hello. How do you like our church?

Me: Thanks for having me. Great coffee and I liked those sweet things [pointing at tray].

Yiayia: You are not Greek. Why did you come here?

Me: I'm on a business trip and your church was close to my hotel.

Yiayia: Since you not Greek, maybe next time you can go to OCA church?

Me: Ok. Maybe I will. I've never been there before either.

She was at once proud of her church and confused as to why I had come. This is not rare.

We as a people united in faith will not become more visibly and meaningfully unified in a shared life as one Church by time alone. This will only happen if there is pressure from the top-down and action from the bottom-up. As a Southerner currently living in the North (Prayers, please.) there are several things I think the South is better at than their Yankee counterparts, but I cannot say that this problem is a distinctly Northern one. Missions are being planted all over the South and Southwest, but that has little bearing on the many existing parishes that function in the isolation I've described above.

So a plan sounds good, right? Plans always sound good, but when not paired with verve and actual action, plans differ not an iota from what you line your hamster cages with. I once wanted to start a mission near me and called a well-known mission-planting priest for pointers. His advice: "Plans are fine. Everyone has them. But boots on the ground actually gets things done." The sentiment holds true here as well. If you want to build an "American Church," you have to get out there and do things and you have to get other people excited about doing things as well. Time is wonderful for wearing things down. If you want sharp edges softened or holes slowly bored into huge rocks, time is your tool. But, if you want to build something and work against the momentum of decades, ambition is the implement of choice.


  1. We have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the proverbial bath water. I have normally shared the sentiments above, but having now spent a decent amount of time in a Greek parish (after moving), my attitude has been re-adjusted.

    Sure, there are "bad ones" out there; ethnic ghettos, so to speak, that serve Greek culture, and not the Body of Christ. This is a tragedy, and must be corrected. Perhaps shutting them down after all their children leave the faith as adults will do it?

    Nevertheless, there are many bi-lingual or even tri-lingual parishes (such as the one I attend) that are using a mixture of language not out of nostalgia, but out of both necessity and charity.

    During coffee hour one morning, a Greek man around 80 years old came up to me to warmly greet me and thank me for my service in the parish (as a subdeacon). He spoke barely any English, and has been in the US for over 40 years. Were it not for the fact that we used 30-40% Greek in our services, mixed with English and Arabic, he would not be able to follow along at all. Surely doing the Gospel and Epistles in the language of your people is fitting, at the very least?

    This encounter helped me realize that many parishes hold onto Greek or other languages for the sake of their local people, and not any other un-holy reason. For these people, until they have reposed in faith, we should continue to show them love by presenting the Gospel to them in their own language.

    Honestly, I think we're in the last generation of this in America. The next ones will only know English, with "liturgical" Greek or Slavonic (or Arabic) being less-and-less common.

  2. Here, Here, Subd Vincent! I agree wholeheartedly. As someone chrismated in a Western Rite Antiochian parish, attending an English-language Antiochian parish now ... and who spent 5 years in a Slavonic-only ROCOR parish, I'm rather pro-native on the language issue.

  3. There's quite a difference between having some litanies and readings in the tongue(s) of the people - which I fully support. It is another to have the only discernible word from beginning to end be "Amen."

    1. I agree.

      UNLESS, the entire congregation doesn't speak English.

      I should note that I don't necessarily enjoy the fact that so much of our service is in Greek (it has helped me with my understanding of the Greek language a great deal, however). But I no longer find it to be completely unnecessary or unacceptable. It is something I deal with out of love. The whole "long-suffering" thing.

      Either way, I think this will be a thing of the past in another 10 years.

  4. Here there sounds to be a difference between wanting to evangelize America and wanting to feed our people... the people we have. Yet I'd suggest there is less in this than it sounds.

    And fairly we have to do both. And to give her credit, perhaps what the hostess noted in the visitor's comments was a focus on the coffee and "sweet things" as if the sweetest sacrifice on the altar hadn't happened. And perhaps in this she was a tad offended. "Did you not come to worship?" may have passed through her brain.

    Fact is... surely you came precisely for that reason. But no indication of that is given in the remarks and no indication of personal piety or thanksgiving prayers... which for most would remain silent anyway. And I don't say this to be harsh, but as long as we're judging our hosts, she's not a mind reader either... and likely makes few presumptions of good will among her peers and family as well. Her remarks may be simply treating you with the same..."love and 'tude" she in fact gives to them. A Yiayia is a YiaYia (see the commercials). And if perhaps she sees herself as one of the "guardians" in charge of doubting the modernists and their "I take communion everywhere all the time" attitude... I'm sure the more time we converts spend in this church, the more sympathy we have with her. Who doesn't doubt their approach to the cup?

    So sure as we see this, and when it's us, we're put off... but shouldn't it be because we've failed to communicate why in fact we really did come? If I had the presence of mind - which I don't btw - I'd have wished to have said something like: "Thank you for letting me witness your love for Jesus Christ both in worship... and here in your gathering and warm welcome for a visiting stranger like me... up here in the cold blue north... all the way from Texas." And she might have agreed with you, laughed and said, "Honey, you think that's far? I'm here all the way from Thesalonika... and I agree with you about the cold."

  5. We went to a.... let's just call it a "Russian" parish for years. It was a parish founded almost entirely by converts. But the priest wanted the parish to literally be Russian. He increasingly added in Slavonic till after a few years there was pretty much no English left. Even sermons were in Russian! There were also only 2 American families left at that point. It was such a bad experience because he clearly treated the parishioners differently. If you were Russian you could show up and go to confession in the middle of Divine Liturgy. The Paschal Liturgy would be postponed for hours to accommodate Russians wanting to confess then. But converts? Converts were required to attend Vigil the evening before and confess then. We also had a giant list of prayers for confession and for communion as well. Obviously that doesn't entirely apply to people who just show up late for confession in the middle of Liturgy.

    1. I should clarify the priest was a priest who came after the parish was started and then proceeded to mold it in his own image.