During the last two decades, there were flurries of reports of new converts moving into Eastern Orthodoxy and changing these churches in the process.
But an article in the current issue of the journal Nova Religio (November) finds that these new Orthodox converts — often coming from Protestant backgrounds — are discovering as many obstacles as opportunities in their new religion. Phillip Charles Lucas focuses on two case studies of convert movements which have had difficulty finding a place in Orthodoxy in the U.S. The most well-known is the 2,000 former evangelical Protestants who shocked many in 1987 by converting en masse to the Antiochian Orthodox Church.
Just as surprising to many was the news in the late 1990s that many in this group of converts were being disciplined or expelled by a Antiochian bishop for insubordination. A large group of the converts in California had angered church officials by insisting on keeping their traditions, music and leadership style rather than submitting to the rules of the Antiochian church. Many of these converts next tried to find a home in the more Americanized Orthodox Church in America, but they again were charged with insubordination by a bishop, and now are in a state of ecclesiastical limbo.
A similar scenario played itself out in the case of the former Christ The Savior Brotherhood, a group making the journey from esoteric mysticism to Orthodoxy in the 1980s. Because of the group’s background and connection with two defrocked priests, as well as their racial diversity, members were greeted with suspicion by ethnic members even when they were officially accepted by the Orthodox Church in America in 2000.
Lucas writes that the converts have often retained a Protestant tendency to question church authority if it conflicts with their vision of an ideal Orthodoxy. Tensions between ethnic members and converts are likely to continue in the near future due to the waves of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Prospective converts to Orthodoxy may choose to steer clear of the ethnic and political nature of Orthodox churches and opt for the more independent church movements such as the Charismatic Episcopal Church, concludes Lucas.
However, the converts’ increasing numbers and influence in Orthodox churches (as well as assimilation) may eventually tone down the ethnic factor and lead to a more united, de-ethnicized Orthodox church, Lucas concludes.
(Nova Religio, University of California Press, Journals Division, 2000 Center St., Suite 303. Berkeley, CA 94704-1223)