Observers say Eastern Orthodoxy is becoming part of the American religious mainstream — not a difficult thing to believe judging by the growing number of church splits and divisions among these churches.
New conflicts between ethnic members and converts, and activists and traditionalists are likely to intensify the fragmentation of Orthodoxy in the U.S., according to Eye on the Commonwealth (Winter), a newsletter of Orthodox Christian Laity, an independent church organization. Events in 1997 were enough to indicate such troubles: such mainstream Orthodox denominations as the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and the Antiochian Archdiocese (AA) lost parishes and clergy to more traditionalist Orthodox groups; Greek Orthodox were protesting the old world management style of the newly enthroned Archbishop Spyridon; and SCOBA, the council attempting to unite the various jurisdictions, and other pan-Orthodox groups working for unity, were and continue to be in limbo, writes Nicholas Gvosdev.
Fanning the flames of such divisions are the formation of new pressure groups and a “veritable explosion of alternative media sources within the church apart from the `official’ publications, including magazines, web sites, newsletters and conferences,” writes Nicholas Gvosdev.
He takes a critical look at four major groups within Orthodoxy that will clash in the future.
01: “Ethnic Protestants” have their primary tie to Orthodoxy through their ethnicity rather than through assent to doctrine or practices. They are primarily in the “Mediterranean” communities (Greeks and Arabs) and are strong supporters of the practical nature of the church — charities, schools, fraternal groups. They accept many American innovations (such as organs), though not an English liturgy.
02: “Chauvinists” can be either cradle Orthodox or converts who disapprove of any plans for unity and mixing of traditions, such as using Russian traditions in Greek parishes.
03: The “Reformers” want a united and de-ethnicized Orthodox church, while pressing for such changes as the diaconate for men and women and many want greater contact with Western Christianity.
04: The “traditionalists,” once largely confined to declining ethnic Greek and Russian parishes, are newly visible and even burgeoning.
A growing number of converts are entering such traditionalist bodies as the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, broadening their approach and visibility. These groups, “unlike more mainstream Orthodox bodies, present a very consistent, sometimes fundamentalist approach to Orthodox belief and tradition . . . ecumenism is shunned . . . [they] feel that any change in the fabric of Church life . . . will weaken its witness.” Gvosdev adds that “some traditionalists display an almost Protestant attitude in terms of Church authority, bolting from jurisdiction [an Orthodox denomination] to jurisdiction should a bishop of a diocese not `live up’ to self-created standards of Orthodox purity.”
The growth of traditionalism is also taking place within the mainstream Orthodox bodies, such as the Orthodox Church in America. “There’s a rise of a new breed of traditional priest” in the OCA, says Fr. Christopher Calin of the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection in New York. The cathedral has become a magnet for converts in the city. Those who have joined most recently (young adults in their 20s and 30s) have enthusiastically embraced traditional practices — such as women wearing head coverings during liturgy and an emphasis on ascetic practices, such as fasting. “They don’t want compromised, easy listening stuff. That’s why we succeed. We don’t water it down, we offer them everything Orthodoxy has to offer,” Calin told RW in an interview.
When a stream of converts started coming into Orthodoxy in the 1980s, some church leaders feared that these newcomers might “Americanize” the faith.The patterns of switching churches to find the most pure expression of Orthodoxy does resemble the consumeristic church shopping of many Americans. Yet a conflict taking place at St. Peter’s and Paul’s Orthodox Church, Ben Lomond, Calif., shows how the concern with recovering “authentic” Orthodoxy has collided with American Orthodox leadership and structures.
St. Peter’s and Paul’s originated from the movement of evangelicals (formerly with Campus Crusade for Christ) that converted en masse to Orthodoxy in the late 1980s, and has since become a center for American converts. In February, leaders of the Antiochian Archdiocese expelled over 20 priests and deacons associated with the parish for “defiance of the Holy Canons.”
Shocked members of the Orthodox Christianity computer discussion group, where the letter from Antiochian leader Metropolitan Philip and subsequent letters from Ben Lomond clergy were posted, viewed the incident as having as much to do with Orthodox identity as leadership problems. It seems the parish was attempting to transfer its membership from the Antiochians to the Orthodox Church in America, after a long period of turmoil with church leaders over their liturgical practices.
The parish was restoring rituals that had been modernized and “abbreviated” by the AA, borrowing chanting practices from the Russian Orthodox, and resisting the installation of a parish lay council. The resistance of the Ben Lomond parish and other Orthodox converts to these “American” innovations (such as the parish lay council) puts a new twist on the question of who is Americanizing Eastern Orthodoxy.
(Eye on the Commonwealth, 2001 North Andrews Ave., Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33311; Orthodox Christianity, e-mail: ORTHODOX@LISTSERV.INDIANA.EDU.