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What Makes the Orthodox Churches Strangers to American Mainstream Christianity

an article by Alexey D. Krindatch(Krindach)
Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute
Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA

The history of Eastern Christianity in North America traces back into the end of the 18th century, when the first Greek settlement was founded in New Smyrna, FL (1768) and when the Russian Orthodox monks began their selfless missionary work among the native peoples in Alaska (1794). Yet, it was not until WWI that several waves of immigration from the Middle East, the Southern and the Eastern Europe have made the Orthodox (Eastern Christian) Churches a permanently growing and an increasingly visible component of the American religious landscape. 

During 20th century the total number of the Orthodox Christians in this country increased from about 50,000 to at least 1,2 million (most expert estimates agree with even more impressive 2 million figure). From the geographically limited territory of Alaska (Russian colonists, native Alaskan converts), some areas in California (Russians in San Francisco, Serbs in Jackson, Armenians in Fresno) and Massachusetts (Armenian communities in Cambridge, Watertown, Worcester), the coal mines and steel centers of Pennsylvania (Serbs, Carpatho-Russians) and the few urban centers (Greeks in New York, Chicago, Boston; Orthodox Arabs in New York, Romanians in Cleveland, Albanians in Boston), the Eastern Christians have spread today all across the country.  These geographic changes can be attributed both to continuing immigration from the Old World and to the new patterns of settlement of children and grandchildren of the “old” Orthodox immigrants. In fact, today, some of the Orthodox Churches are among the fastest growing American religious organizations. For instance, whereas in 1971, there were only three Coptic communities (Arabic speaking Orthodox Christians from Egypt), by the beginning of the third millennium, more than 115 parishes of the Coptic Orthodox Church have been organized all across the country.

The Eastern Christianity in the USA is represented by more than 20 various Churches (the Orthodox Christians themselves tend to speak about “Orthodox jurisdictions”), which belong to two major ecclesiastical families: the so-called Orthodox Oriental (Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, etc.) and the Orthodox Byzantine Churches (Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian, etc.). They number total about 2,400 local parochial communities, but vary greatly in size. Whereas the Greek Archdiocese of North America has more than 530 parishes, the tiny Albanian Orthodox Diocese consists of two parishes only.

Two circumstances are essential for understanding the nature of the Orthodox Christian Churches in North America:

1. Historically, the notion “one state – one people – one Church” was quite characteristic of Eastern Christianity. Therefore, when Orthodox Christians are asked about religious affiliation, they normally add an ethnic qualifier to identify their membership in a particular Orthodox Church: Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, etc. Accordingly,  the Eastern Christians in America share the same faith and sacraments, but the Orthodox Churches as institutions have been historically organized in this country as independent from each other and ethnically-based jurisdictions.

2. Most American Orthodox Churches remain the subdivisions of and subordinate (though with the various levels of autonomy) to one of the Mother Orthodox Churches in the Old World.

Such inseparable integrity of religion and ethnicity combined with the administrative linkage to the Mother Churches overseas resulted in a situation, when the Orthodox Churches and the Eastern Christians in the United States have been always affected by political, religious and social transformations occurring back in the Old World.

For example, the establishment of the Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and later in the Eastern Europe has caused the internal confrontation and the political breaks among the Russian (1920s), Armenian (1933), Serbian (1963), Bulgarian (1963) and Romanian (1951) Orthodox parishes in America. Each of these groups has been split into two hostile factions: those remaining true to the Church headquarters abroad and the others, which have maintained that the Mother Church and its leaders were manipulated by the new Communist authority and which have formed more or less independent Church-jurisdictions. As a result, today there exist several “duplicated” American Orthodox Churches, which share the same historic origin, ethnic ancestry and cultural heritage, yet being separated from each other by inveterate political divisions.

In spite of their long historic presence in the USA – a nation that has perfectly accommodated the Roman Catholics and the countless Protestant denominations, Jews and Mormons - the Eastern Christians are still frequently perceived as an alienated element in the country’  pluralistic religious landscape.

This perception cannot be explained by the actual social position of Eastern Christians in the USA. There is no doubt, for instance, that Greeks are among the most wealthiest and better educated segments of American society or that Armenians form an influential political lobby in the national Capitol. Neither can this stereotype be attributed to the participation of the Orthodox Churches in the American ecumenical organizations. Today, most of them are the full members of National Council of Churches. In fact, comparing with their modest size, the American Orthodox Churches have a significant impact on decision making within NCC. For example, out of about 40 members of NCC executive board, 5-6 places are normally occupied by Eastern Christians. The Eastern Christians have been always especially vocal in the NCC “Faith and Order Commission.” Fr. Leonid Kishkovskij (Orthodox Church in America) served as NCC president in 1988-1998, whereas Mrs.Eleni Huszagh (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese) is the current NCC president and Dr. Tony Kireopoulos (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese) holds the position of the NCC Associate General Secretary.

The question “Why the Eastern Christian Churches are still perceived by many as the strangers to American society” is a controversial one. Several circumstances must be taken into account to respond it adequately.

1) Traditionally, in these Churches, a high priority has been given to the preservation of the ethnic heritage and identity of their members. This has been done in several ways: by retaining in the Church the language of the mother country; by the establishment of parochial all-day schools as a substitute for the regular American public schools; by organizing a network of one-day schools (that exist separately from religious Sunday schools with the purpose to teach the language, geography, literature and history of the mother country); by establishing nationwide Orthodox “ethnic” women and youth organizations, etc.

As a result, the Eastern Christians in the USA remain to a significant extent in the self-isolated ethnic communities in spite of the gradual disappearance of what used to be known as “traditional urban ethnic neighborhoods.” According, to the results of author’s survey, which investigated the parishes of six various American Orthodox jurisdictions:  (view the questionnaire or the paper "Eastern Christianity in North American Religious Landscape"),  today, less than one fifth of Orthodox Christians live in a walking-distance from their church-buildings and more than two fifth commute for at least 30 minutes to come to the church. Yet, the statement “Our parish has a strong ethnic heritage and identity that we are trying to preserve” describes “quite well” the situation in 47% of Orthodox parishes participating in the survey. Only 27% of parishes have indicated that they are trying “to increase their ethnic and cultural diversity.”

2) Though to the different extent, but in comparison with the Roman Catholic and the mainstream Protestant Churches the Orthodox Churches can be defined as rather exclusive than inclusive religious organizations. This is especially obvious in their internal policies with regard to the inter-Christian (Orthodox-Not-Orthodox) marriages and future religion of children born in these mixed families.

In most extreme cases some of the Orthodox Churches (for instance, Coptic Orthodox Church or the Old Calendarist “Holy Orthodox Church in North America”) require Roman Catholics or mainstream Protestants to become first Orthodox in order to be married canonically (lawfully) with their own members. The other Orthodox Churches, while allowing “de-jure” their members to be married with the Not-Orthodox Christians, still require future spouses to first sign an agreement to baptize the future children in the Orthodox Church.

In general, most of Orthodox Churches try to avoid having mixed families among their members. This is achieved either by the discouraging of the inter-Christian and inter-ethnic marriages (which is the case of the Oriental Orthodox Churches), or, to the contrary, by the encouraging conversion to Orthodoxy of the Not-Orthodox part of a couple.

As a result, today the proportion of mixed inter-Christian (“Orthodox-Not Orthodox”) marriages is below 20% in almost half and it is below 5% in one third of the North American Orthodox parishes which have participated in author’s survey.

3) A very characteristic feature of American religious life is the fact that church participation serves normally also as a gateway to other forms of civic engagements. In the other words, the abundance of diverse social and charity programs affiliated with local religious congregations is almost “a must” in this country. Not so in the case of the American Orthodox Churches.

In all measures, the parishes of Eastern Christian Churches demonstrate a rather low level of the interest to active civic  participation in the lives of the local communities, where they are situated.  Also the social services sponsored by the parishes of Orthodox Churches are frequently offered exclusively to the members of the parish and not to all inhabitants of the local territorial communities.

True, a certain proportion of the Orthodox Christians in the USA (especially the so-called “new immigrants”) do not identify themselves with the wider American society, because of linguistic and cultural differences. Yet, this fact itself is insufficient to explain the reluctant attitude of the Eastern Christian Churches towards church-based social activities..

It must be pointed out that the relationship between two notions , “vitality of congregational/parochial life” and “active social service for community”, which is characteristic for the Orthodox Christians is distinctly different in comparison with their Western Christian counterparts. For instance, in the Orthodox parishes participating in author’s survey, the optimistic self-estimation “Our parish is active and alive” (reported by 63% parishes) has had very little correlation with the statement “Our parish has various well organized social programs and activities” (reported by 23% parishes).  

The Orthodox Christians view the church as a place for worship, for unity with God and for Holy Communion, but the very American notion of “church as a social club” is rather strange for them. As a result, the liturgical functions exceed by far the social ones in the case of the American Orthodox Churches.

4) The Eastern Christians in America differ essentially from the Roman Catholics and Protestants by the role and position of clergy in organizing lives of their local religious communities. Some scholars even use the term “ethnarcy” in order to describe the strong combination of the priestly vocation with the socio-ethnic leadership of clergy in the American Orthodox parishes. Our survey, for instance, demonstrated that 3/4 of Orthodox parishes consider the “guidance of the ruling bishop” as “very important source of spiritual authority” in the daily life of a parish. Much smaller proportion of surveyed parishes view “human reason and understanding” (39%) or “historic and ethnic tradition and culture” (35%) as the equally important sources of spiritual authority.

The powerful definition “ethnarcy” might be a certain overstatement, or, at least, not applicable to all American Orthodox Churches. The fact is, however, that the whole life of the Orthodox parish is much more centered around the priest’ personality than it is the case in the American Roman Catholic parishes or in the Protestant congregations, where the priest is frequently seen simply as an “employee” and the process of decision making is largely in the hands of the members of the congregational board or council.

A few above examples demonstrate that the visible estrangement of the Orthodox Churches from the American mainstream Christianity is largely based on the style of life in their parishes and on the vision of their mission (for whom and in what way to serve), both of which are in many aspects distinct from the Roman Catholic and the Protestant Churches.    

This situation, however, must be interpreted neither as the deliberate creation of the barriers by the Orthodox Churches nor as their “us versus them” approach. The Orthodox Churches are not “against”, but simply (as of now, at least) “not particularly interested” in becoming an integral part of American religious establishment.

Furthermore, the ethnically based distinctions divide the Orthodox Churches among themselves to the extent that there is almost no any practical co-operation between them in America. The “Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in Americas” (SCOBA) – a permanent  association of the hierarchs of all major American Orthodox Churches founded in 1960 – functions barely as a rather formal deliberative body. Two major American inter-Orthodox co-operative organizations – “International Orthodox Christian Charity” and “Orthodox Christian Mission Center” – run 99 % of their programs outside of the country and not in the USA.

In fact, some examples suggest that in the communities of Eastern Christians the “ethnic loyalty” is even above “religious” one. For instance, among Armenians and Ukrainians living in the USA there are not only Orthodox, but also Catholics and Protestants. Yet the uniting factor of the common ethnic identity, culture and heritage is immeasurably stronger than the formal  religious differences inside these communities in the case of making choices “whom to marry,” “to which school to send the children,” etc.  

Today, various Christian Churches in American pluralistic and increasingly secular society are in the competition with other religious and secular options that strive to interpret reality. They have responded differently to this challenge of modernity. The success of their interaction with the social realm requires sensitivity to their public image and development of conversational skills, and, yet, adherence to their particularity and the catholicity of the Christian story. In the other words, the Church is challenged to find the ways to be simultaneously mystical and prophetic, spiritual and social active, uniting liturgy with life.

Perhaps, the major challenge facing the Orthodox Churches in this country is a temptation of the mere emphasis on the only Church’s function and exclusively for the “own flock.” It carries the danger of social isolationism and would (comfortably?) locate the Orthodox Churches in the private sphere of their adherents while excluding them from the participation in the civic society. Accordingly, the fundamental dilemma that Eastern Christian Churches are facing as they try to find their place in the American public life is not whether they should witness their moral tradition and faith, but how this can be done in the unprecedented for them American pluralistic context.




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