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Every once in a while I have an idea for something and mean to write about it, and then other things get in the way and I forget all about it.  I don’t know what brought this back to my mind.   It’s not like there’s anything about today that’s conducive to thinking about anything.  It’s Friday, the last formal day of classes.  It’s going to thunderstorm right and proper in a few minutes.  I’ve got frantic students everywhere, most of whom haven’t bothered to hand in any work for weeks and are now panicking. 

I mean, for God’s sake.

But for whatever reason, I am thinking about this, so I figured I’d have a go.

A few weeks ago–it might be months–I posted a bit on a book by an Eastern Orthodox theologian named David Bentley Hart, and commented in passing how interesting it was to see such an Anglo-Saxon name attached to an Orthodox Church.

Somebody responded by saying that there were now quite a few such names attached to Orthodox churches, that a lot of evangelicals have been converting to the Orthodox churches in recent decades, and that Orthodox churches in the US these days often call themselves “American” Orthodox instead of Greek or Russian or whatever, and have their liturgies in English.

I’ve got a rather complicated relationship to the Orthodox Churches, but before I get there, let me give a few pieces of information for people who don’t know much about them.  And especially for people who are used to the Roman Catholic way of operating things.

As Christianity spread north from Jerusalem in the decades and later centuries after the death of Jesus Christ,  not only churches, but Churches, were founded in cities like Alexandria, Damascus, Antioch and Athens.

These churches were headed by bishops, and they were what is called “autochthonous,” meaning freestanding or self-governing.  That is, the Church at Antioch might send out a mission to Athens and establish a church there–but once it did, the Church at Athens would be independent of the control of any other Christian Church.

The Romans did it differently–when they founded a church in a different place, it was just a church, and bishop or not, it remained under the control of Rome.  The Roman model was therefore universalizing.  It demanded a common language (Latin) in all its churches, as well as common rituals and common disciplines.

The rest of the Churches, though, decided these things for themselves, and although they might adopt something another Church did (say, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom), but they might develop their own.

And there was no common language.  The Greek Orthodox Church conducted its liturgies and its business in Greek.  The Russian Orthodox Church conducted its liturgies and its business in Russian. 

Add this to the fact that the Eastern Churches–which is what these are called–were always more closely allied to the political power of their native countries than the Roman Church ever was or could be,  and by the time you hit the 20th century, what you have are Churches strongly identified with their home countries.

Well into my young adulthood, Greek Orthodox Churches in the United States conducted their services in Greek, Russian Orthodox churches conducted theirs in Russian, and even more obscure smaller churches conducted theirs in even more obscure languages.

When I first left graduate school, I worked for a while at a small magazine called Greek Accent, which was a project of the Ethniko Kirix (the “National Herald”), the largest Greek-language daily newspaper in America. 

We covered the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, and it was definitely Greek.  Its Archbishop had, as all the Archbishops of North and South America, been sent out from Greece to run the Church here.

What’s more, the Archdiocese was insistent that “Greek” was a necessary part of being Orthodox–that ethnic identity was an important part of the religious identity of church members.  And it violently opposed the few member churches who were trying to call themselves “American.”

I went looking around on the web and found a site for the Orthodox Church in America, but ended up being confused–the church in Danbury, CT, out of which my father was buried, although it calls itself an “American Orthodox Church,” isn’t listed as one of its parishes, and seems to be still a Greek Orthodox Church in everything but the name on its church sign. 

It’s hard to determine if this is a legitimate Orthodox Church or not, since there is nothing like a Pope or a Vatican to give it a stamp of approval.  It also seems to be an outgrowth of the Russian Orthodox Church, and to have, at least at one point,  been part of that organization.

What I’m getting at here, I think, is that, for most of my growing up, and well into it, Orthodoxy was a statement of one’s ethnicity as well as a statement of one’s religion, and it both offered and in some ways required a whole list of customs that were distinctly tied to a particular country and culture.

The Greek Orthodox Church, when I was growing up, was more Greek than Orthodox, and the impression the priest gave when I asked was that a Greek Orthodox communicant would not be allowed to receive Communion in a Russian Orthodox Church, or vice versa.

This information might have been wrong, or even a lie, but if so, it is even more telling than it would be otherwise. 

It also meant that the Church was, in my mind and the minds of plenty of people whose families were more religious than mine, tied inexorably to “Greekness,” by which I mean new and recent immigrants from Greece. 

Which, as you may imagine, was not a positive thing for adolescents already second or third generation American.  We liked the food well enough, but we didn’t want to be associated with the old lady from Lesbos who got in trouble with the town for keeping a goat in the garage of her son’s house in a tightly-packed little subdivision.

All of that said, I can see the attraction of Orthodoxy to evangelicals. 

I’ve always thought Protestantism carried the seeds of its own self-destruction.  For one thing, sola scriptura only remains credible as long as you know little or nothing about the history of Christianity.  For another, the clear line of descent from Christ through the Apostles through the Bishops–which the Orthodox Churches claim as fully as does Rome–makes the foundation of those Churches look more stable than that of any Protestant Church.  For a third, a Patriarch is at least a stab at setting up something in the way of maintaining doctrinal purity, or even coherence.

Orthodoxy is, in its way, more Catholic than the Pope–a form of Christianity that can claim everything Rome does about being a direct connection to Christ through the legitimacy of Bishops, but without the baggage of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and the Reformation.

Of course, when it comes to pomp and circumstance, the Greeks can outdo Rome any day of the week, and my guess is that the Russians probably can, too–but maybe pomp and circumstance matters less when  your denomination has just declared the virgin birth to be a metaphor.

One way or the other, I’d be interested to know how things are now in the various Orthodox Churches in America.

The Greek Orthodox Archbishop of North and South America is still from Greece, and the Orthodox Church in America does not have its own Patriarch.

Written by janeh

May 14th, 2010 at 10:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Orthodoxy'

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  1. We have no history of Orthodoxy in my province and I think you’re mostly right about it’s appeals to disaffected Protestants. I think myself that the RC church, in spite of the scandals, would be an obvious resort, and it is for some, but fewer than I would have expected. I’m leery about the close ties in orthodoxy to the national or ethic societies – every time the western churches, Roman Catholic and Protestant, start that sort of thing, they seem to become corrupted. In the world, but not of it is I think supposed to be the standard advice.

    In my part of Canada we have almost no exposure to any Orthodox church at all. A couple small groups meet in rooms attached to at least two of the local churches, and one of the visiting priests, whose ‘parish’ I think included all of the Atlantic provinces, held a service to which anyone could come (although not take Communion), followed by a talk. I found it quite interesting. He was definitely an immigrant although his wife (a convert) wasn’t.

    I was a bit surprised to find, when a Russian ship visited and was thrown open to the public, that it was equipped with a chapel, surely a fairly recent addition! That’s where I learned that you don’ go past the barrier in front of the altar, as two children and their mother who hadn’t read the posted instructions about appropriate behaviour in Orthodox churches tried to do, until they were stopped by the young man on duty there.


    14 May 10 at 11:02 am

  2. Short answer seems to be that most Orthodox in the US belong to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, whose Archbishop answers to and I believe is appointed by the Patriarch of Constantinople. This group is largely of ethnic Greeks, though one doubts the Bishop of San Francisco, whose surname is Pissare, is of unmixed Greek descent.

    The second largest Orthodox denomination in the US is the Orthodox Church in America “Granted Autocephaly 1970” and headed by a Metropolitan. Organizationally, it’s descended from Russian Orthodoxy, but the Metropolitan Joseph Paffhausen is, again, probably not of unmixed slavic ancestry, and this is probably also true of Bishop Fitzgerald. Others in the Hierarchy appear to be Greek or Russian.

    After those two, you’re into small fry.

    I note my best Orthodox friend is named Hamilton, attends Russian Orthodox for first choice and Greek Orthodox for second, but never mentions any difficulty over communion, and that Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology trains seminarians for all the Orthodox churches in the United States.

    Give it time. As late as the American Revolution, Lutherans had to be sent back to Germany just to be ordained, and it’s after the Revolution before the Methodists and Episcopals establish an American hierarchy. As for language, The big downtown Lutheran church in my home town is Trinity English Lutheran–not because there were any Englishmen available, but because it was once the only Lutheran church in those parts to have a sermon in English. Catholic Irish and Germans spent most of the 19th Century fighting one another for shares of the RC Church in the United States.

    After a time, the usual will happen: Greek Orthodox girls will marry Irish or German boys. They’ll take their husbands’ names, and the husbands will attend the wives’ church, and to the eventual Bishops O’Bannon and Dietrich, “Greek” Orthodox will indicate heritage more than ethnicity.


    14 May 10 at 5:48 pm

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