April 20, 2014

The Orthodox Church of Tomorrow – Revisted

Four years ago Fr. John Peck published the essay below and boy did he get hammered. Creativity, a characteristic you would want to see in priests, is feared because sometimes it gets too close to exposing the sheer paucity of substantive ideas and compelling engagement with the larger culture that the Church, in order to be Church, should cultivate in their leaders. The truth is we have got some very fine men serving as priests. The other truth is that those who bring the most to the table are often the first to get their hands slapped, and if that doesn’t work their livelihoods threatened and sometimes taken away.

It’s time to revisit the essay. You will find I think that it is a prescient today as when Fr. John first wrote it. As always, comments are welcome.

First Published: September 16, 2008

There is an interesting phenomenon occurring in Orthodox Christianity in America today, and reflected powerfully in our seminaries. Seminaries are loaded almost exclusively with converts, reverts (cradle Orthodox who left the faith, and were re-converted to it again), and the sons and grandsons of clergy.

I believe we are looking at the future of the American Orthodox Church — today.

The notion that traditionally Orthodox ethnic groups (the group of ‘our people’ we hear so much about from our primates and hierarchs) are going to populate the ranks of the clergy, and therefore, the Church in the future is, frankly, a pipe dream. Orthodoxy, despite the failings of its leadership, has actually lived up to its own press. The truth of the Orthodox faith, as presented on paper, is actually being believed – by those who have no familial or historical connection with the Orthodox. These poor deluded souls (of which I count myself) actually believe what they are reading about the Orthodox faith, and expect the Church to act like, well, the Church. They refuse to accept the Church as a club of any kind, or closed circle kaffeeklatsch. No old world embassies will be tolerated for much longer – they will go the way of the dodo. No one will have to work against them; they will simply die from atrophy and neglect. The passing away of the Orthodox Church as ethnic club is already taking place. It will come to fruition in a short 10 years, 15 years in larger parishes.

This is a well known problem. Statistical studies taken a mere seven years ago predicted that within 10 years the Orthodox Church in the United States would for all practical purposes, no longer be viable. If nothing was done within five years (that’s two years ago) the decline would be irreversible. Demographics determine destiny, as they say. As you may have imagined, not only was “nothing done,” such reports were surreptitiously filed away, while the calls for a solution from clergy and laity alike only increased. Larger jurisdictions will, of course, have a little more time, but not a different result.

What we are looking at, of course, is of the highest concern to the hierarchy. They know, in their heart of hearts, that they cannot reverse this trend. Yet they fight a rearguard action, hoping against hope to forestall the historically inevitable movement toward an American Orthodox Church.

Statistical studies taken a mere seven years ago predicted that within 10 years the Orthodox Church in the United States would for all practical purposes, no longer be viable.

The laity has already moved on. Americans, generally, don’t fall for very much strong arm intimidation or brow beating, don’t go for bullying by insecure leaders, and certainly don’t see the value of taking on and promoting someone else’s ethnic culture. They care about the Gospel, and the Gospel does not require Slavonic or Koine Greek, or even English for that matter. The Gospel requires context, which is why it cannot be transmitted in any language unknown to the listener.

When we look at our seminaries, we are looking at the Church of Tomorrow, the Church twenty years from now. Indeed, this is the Church we are building today.

Twenty years from now, I anticipate we will see the following:

  • Vastly diminished parishes, both in size and number. There will be a few exceptions, (and they will be exceptional!) but for the most part, most current Orthodox parishioners will age and die, and have no one to replace them. Why? Because as they have taught the context of their culture, instead teaching the context of their faith. Some parishes will simply be merged with others. Many will close outright. A few will change how they do ministry, with a new vision of parochial ecclesiology. These newer parishes will be lighthouses of genuine Orthodox piety and experience. Some parishes, I believe, will actually be formed specifically, in the old fashion, by purchasing land, building a chapel or Temple in the midst of it, and parishioners building or buying homes around it. The Church will be the center of their lives, and many will come from far and wide to experience their way of life.
  • Publicly renowned Orthodox media and apologetic ministries. These ministries are the ones providing a living and powerful apologetic for the Orthodox faith in our culture (that is, our 21st Century life in the United States), and actually providing the Gospel in its proper context – engaged in society and the public arena. These will succeed in visibility and public awareness more than all the speeches before the U.N. and odd newspaper stories about Orthodox Easter or Folk Dance Festivals could ever do. In other words, the Orthodox Christian faith will become that most dangerous of all things – relevant to the lives of Americans, and known to all Americans as a genuinely American Christian entity.
  • More (and younger) bishops. If our current slate of bishops has been mostly a disappointment, reducing their number will only tighten this closed circle, making the hierarchy less and less accessible, and more and more immune to things like, oh, the needs and concerns of their flock. The process of selection for the episcopacy will contain a far more thorough investigation, and men with active homosexual tendencies, psychological problems, insecurities, or addictions will simply not make the cut. We aren’t far from open persecution of Christians by secularists in this country, and we need bishops who know the score. With better bishops, no one will be able to ‘buy’ a priest out of a parish with a gift of cash. Conversely, parish councils will no longer be able to bully priests into staying out of their affairs, and will be required to get out of the restaurant/festival business and get into the soul saving business.
  • A very different demographic of clergy. Our priests will be composed of converts, reverts, and the sons and grandsons of venerable, long-suffering clergy. These men all know the score. They won’t tolerate nonsense like homosexual clergy (especially bishops), women’s ordination, or financial corruption. They will not tolerate the Church being regularly and unapologetically dishonored by her own clergy. Twenty years from now, these convert and revert priests will be sending life-long Orthodox men, a new cradle generation, en masse to our seminaries. They will be white, black, Asian, Polynesian, Hispanic, and everything in between. Fewer will be Russian, Greek, or any other traditionally Orthodox background.
  • Orthodox Biblical Studies. Orthodox Biblical scholarship will flourish, and will actually advance Biblical Studies, rather than tag along for the latest trends, staying a minimum safe distance back in case the latest theory tanks unexpectedly. Septuagint studies are already on the rise and Orthodox scholars will usurp the lead in this arena, establishing a powerful and lasting influence in Biblical Studies for decades to come. Orthodox higher education — specifically in Biblical Studies in the Orthodox tradition — will finally have a place at the doctoral level in the Western hemisphere, and it will become a thriving academic entity. The whole Church will feed on the gleanings of this new scholarship and Scriptural knowledge, preaching, and Biblical morality will invigorate the Church for generations.
  • A much higher moral standard from all clergy. The next twenty years will see a revival of practical ethics. Instead of trailing military or business ethics, the Church will, once again, require the highest standard of ethical and professional behavior from her clergy — and they will respond! The clergy will not tolerate lying, cheating, or stealing and hold to account those who practice these vices. They will vigorously defend the honor of Christ’s priesthood, and Christ’s Church. I dare say, even the clergy will finally respect their own priesthood.
  • Vocations will explode. As a result of the elevated ethical standard publicly expected from the clergy, candidates in far greater numbers will flock to the priesthood. There will be very full classes, distance education, self-study and continuing education going on in every location. Education at a basal level will disappear, except in introductory parish classes. Clergy will powerfully articulate Orthodoxy to the faithful and to the culture around them. Personal opinion will no longer be the standard for clergy when articulating Orthodox ethics and morality. Our seminaries must become beacons for this teaching, and give up “training culture” once and for all. We will finally begin to penetrate our society, rather than go along for the ride like a tick on a dog’s back.
  • Philanthropy will flow like the floodgates of heaven. Finally, the many Orthodox Christian philanthropists who annually give millions of dollars to secular institutions will finally find their own Church completely transparent, completely accountable, and worthy of their faith-building support. Let’s face it, there is more than enough money in Orthodoxy right now to build hospitals, clinics, schools, colleges, universities, and a new Hagia Sophia right here in the United States. The reason this is not being done is because these philanthropists are intelligent men and women who do not trust the hierarchy to do the right thing with their millions. This will change in short order once it is shown that transparency doesn’t destroy the Church, but strengthens it immeasurably. Frankly, I don’t anticipate every jurisdiction to do this in the next twenty years, but those that are practicing transparency will emerge as the leaders in every arena of Church existence.

Hope

This all may seem unlikely today, but it is coming.

How do I know this? For one thing, the last holdouts of corruption, Byzantine intrigue and phyletism (a fancy theological term for ethnic preference) are clinging desperately to a vision of the Church that is, quite frankly, dying fast. Oh, they are doing everything to shore up their power and influence, and busy serving their own needs, but their vision is dying. And where there is no vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18).

As frightening and disconcerting as it may seem to our leaders, they will learn that emerging from a cocoon, even a Byzantine cocoon, is not a bad thing. Orthodoxy is about to take flight on new beautiful wings. These are the birth pangs of a new era for Orthodoxy. God is giving us a time of freedom and light.

This new Orthodox Church will have a different face, will be ready for contemporary challenges, and will have begun to penetrate American society at every stage and on every level. This Church is the one that will be ready for the challenges of open persecution, fighting for the soul of every American, regardless of their genetic affiliation. This Church will be the one our grandchildren and great grandchildren will grow up in, looking back on the late 20th-early 21st century as a time of sentimental darkness from which burst forth the light of the Gospel. Let it begin.


Comments

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    Hi Father!

    One thing I have been thinking here about Orthodoxy in the U.S. I understand I speak as an outsider so I may be very wrong, but I was considering the issue of more than one bishop in certain big cities.

    I know that ancient tradition is only one bishop per city, but I wonder: in ancient times most cities were comparatively very small. Few cities – Rome, Bagdad and Tokyo – exceeded more than 1 million before the 19th century. Constantinople was ever just below the 1M figure. Many cities today, specially in the U.S. has far more than 1 million people. Although the Orthodox in the city are a very small number, in a missionary context such as in the article above, one must account not only the current Orthodox, but the complexity of social relations in that environment as well as the potential for growth.

    I completely agree with the concept of many small churches instead of few large ones. A recent study has shown that people’s participation is far greater in smaller churches and that creates a real sense of community.

    I don’t know if you have ever heard of Dunbar’s Number. Basically Dunbar is a sociologist who posits from his researches that the number of people with whom an individual can keep stable social relationships is somewhere between 100 and 230 ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar's_number ).

    It means, to me, that ideally parishes would better have up to 100 something faithful, which a number the priest would be able to handle in a optimal way, plus having social relations with other people from outside the parish.

    Likewise, Bishop could be allocated geographically and by population. Modern large cities are far bigger than the largest capitals of ancient times. Cities like Chicago or New York could well have several bishops, assigned to certain regions of the city, and the city would have an Archbishop or Metropolitan of its own. These would not be assistant-bishops. And the Archbishop would have his own region of the city, probably the central one. He would be a “first among equals” and not a regionless leader over the other bishops. This arrangement, I think, would keep the spirit of the intention of the ancient solutions – that is, to make feasible the supervising duties of the Bishop while also making him accessible locally – while adapting to modern global realities.

    In this model, we would have *more* bishops, with less power concentrated on them and nearer to their flock. I think it would be an ideal arrangement.

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      Fr. Johannes Jacobse says:

      Hi Fabio,

      I didn’t know the principle was called “Dunbar’s Number,” but I came to the same conclusion through my own experience. Once my parishes grew beyond 150 I began to lose track of people. That’s not a good situation but it proved the principle.

      One of my parishes grew from about 150 people to over 500 and there was simply no way to keep up with people in what I called a “substantively humane” way. Lots of good pastoral work — for both the priest (who learns a great deal from his encounters with parishioners) and parishioner — takes time. You can’t rush these things and sometimes two or three hours with a person or family is needful, appropriate, and also very rewarding. When you have more people however, that time disappears and encounters become more perfunctory.

      I’ve been thinking a lot lately that parishes may have to become what I am calling “intentional communities.” By this I mean much more locally focused and ideally smaller, say 100 to 150 people or so. It may be better for priests to provide for their own incomes too, perhaps take a small stipend from their parish but also have other work alongside their pastoral responsibilities.

      This way too bishops can pastor their priests which is their primary responsibility anyway, and the relentless pressure of maintaining the operations of the machine can be mitigated, humanized actually, in ways that are lacking today.

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        Michael Bauman says:

        Ah, the tent-maker priest. What a concept. Still I wonder what kind of job would work well and inable the priest to maintain a realively full liturgical cycle? Some kind of self-employment or independent contracting would fit best I think. That would be more portable and less constrained by an employers demands and requirements.

        At what size point do you see breaking up a parish to start a new mission?

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          Michael,

          We really don’t know which point will be optimal for each parish. If I were to coordinate such an effort, I would suggest that after the parish gets past 100 faithful and before they get to 200 they should split in half, raising a new priest from their all ranks to take care of the new group.

          I have a small pet project here (not implemmented yet, just planned) for sowing parishes and that is the recommendation I make. :)

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          Fr. Hans Jacobse says:

          Hard to say. When my former parish grew to that size, I started talking about a second parish. Some on the Parish Council wanted two liturgies, a move I opposed because two liturgies means two churches. I think taking in questions of financial viability, perhaps a new parish should be started when the first one reaches 200 people or so.

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        Greetings!

        Just got a link to this on FB; a good article, one I hadn’t read in a while. I’d just like to comment (late to the party though I may be) on Fr. Hans’ tent-maker comment.

        I think that, ideally, a priest should be full time, especially if one is developing a mission or a small church. Anyone who’s worked to develop their own business will tell you that you’re looking at 55-60 hours a week on average just working. A parish has much that needs tending to, and if a priest is working 30-40 hours, AND has a parish, AND has a wife and kids (!)…something’s got to give.

        I can see a parish providing a half-salary wage for the priest, and the priest could make up the rest (or perhaps the Matushka, though that would need to be HER choice, in a job she WANTS to devote herself to via her education, etc). If the job requires lots of work outside the office, that’s bad. Teaching comes to mind. Michael’s comment about self-employment is even trickier, because unless someone is already established in some sort of field and already has a clientele when starting at a parish, developing that kind of business takes months, and you’re basically putting those 55-60 hours a week into THAT, and the Church (not to mention your family) gets what’s left. On the other hand, if it’s something like, say, Starbucks, where 20 hours a week gets you something to take home plus GREAT medical/dental/vision insurance, and you can leave that work at work, then that’s better. A great part-time situation can give a mission priest the security he needs to grow the mission slowly; an involved, full-time job can suck the life out of a parish priest and, by extension, the parish.

        It all depends on the cost of living where the church is, what kind of jobs are available, and what the needs of the parish are. St. Paul’s question to the Corinthians — “If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” (1 Cor. 9.11, but read vv. 4-11) — should be considered deeply by the parish; the people of God need to really ask themselves if what they’re receiving on Sundays (and hopefully throughout the week) is really worth something to them, and if so, what can they do to support that?

        Along with that, the priest should say, “Here is my plan for ministry; we will have services at x times during the week, pastoral visits will be these days, classes will be on x and x evenings, I will be doing this, this, and this for attempts to get the word out about us in the community during the week, etc.” The priest needs to show transparency in what he will be doing to honor the gifts of the people of God so that the people know the answer to that question most priests hate: “What do you *do* all week, anyway, Father?”

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    I looking at the maps of New York here to see its subdivisions.

    The Synod of New York would be composed of:
    The Bishop of Staten Island (470,467)
    The Bishop of Queens (2,247,848)
    The Bishop of Brooklyn (2,532,645)
    The Bishop of Bronx (1,392,002)
    and the Archbishop of Manhantan (1,601,948)

    lest anyone say that the subdivisions render them just symbolic, I also added the population they would have under them. With the exception of Staten Island, all the other bishops would still be in charge of populations far larger than the largest ones of ancient times. Actually for any standard of the 1st millenium, even the Bishop of Staten Island would be the head of an unimaginably large city of dreams only.

    Now, I am sure the number of Orthodox is irrelevant in some, if not all, of these. But there are Orthodox there, and each bishop would be able to concentrate in missionizing for their areas. They would not be richly paid, and would not be considered wealthy for any standard, although I think they would still have enough to have a rather unworried life from the financial perspective.

    We could divide even more, with bishops taking care of populations of at most 100,000 people, which would lead to even less concentration of power and increased proximity. NY with a population of 8.3 million would have 83 bishops! If we get less optmistic and assign a bishop for every 500 thousand, NY would still have 16 bishops, what I think is quite a reasonable number for such a large amount of people.

    What I mean is that maybe the solution for the problem of having 5 or 6 bishops in the same city is not having less bishops, but having more. The large number in those cities is natural and desirable because each one has more population than most countries in ancient times.

    In small town areas, bishops could also be assigned to specific regions that add up to near 500K. Maybe the threshold for the countryside should be less to spare the bishop from having to travel long distances which is costly and breaks the proximity with the faithful. Areas with no bishop would be a put under the first to succesfully missionize there, which seems to me to be the tradition of the Church, although to become a full diocese it would need to require authorization of the presiding metropolitan or Archbishop.

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      Geo Michalopulos says:

      Fabio, you are on to something. Several years ago I published an essay in which NYC for example would have the five dioceses you mention.

  3. Back to Recent Comments list  Back to top

    We need many more brave priests like Fr. John. Priests who are not afraid to say what needs to be said. God bless him for his words.

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      Dean Calvert says:

      Dear Fr Peter,

      Correction – we need more courageous clergy AND laity “who are not afraid to say what needs to be said.”

      Personally, i’ve been in many situations where the clergy simply CANNOT say what needs to be said…the retribution would simply be too great. As I told one priest, “Father, you stay out of this…you have two kids in college, and if you’re not careful, you’ll be the next priest at Iron Mountain Michigan..let us take care of this.” You can imagine the response I grateful response I received.

      In an earlier life, as a more active member of OCL (and webmaster of their site) i was emailed by priests from all over the country, asking for my discretion, but telling me “please don’t ever stop! bless you!” The names were never disclosed, but would shock many.

      best regards,
      dean

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    cynthia curran says:

    Fabio is correct on anicent cities, personality the city of Constantinpole itself was probably no more than a little over 300,000. He is considering the population of the suburbs and other surrounding cities. Probably after the Justinian Plague it took centuries.

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    M. Stankovich says:

    Several memories immediately came to mind while reading this essay.

    When I was a teen, we had several parish retreats led by Archimandrite Eusebius Stephanou, who later became known for the Orthodox Charismatic Movement. To this day there is controversy about him and his teachings, and it is not my point to raise them, but I have never forgotten his enthusiasm for Orthodoxy in America. Apparently he experienced great difficulty with his ethnic culture and native ethnic church, and he said extraordinarily bold statements for the time: “Our churches are full of dead wood, and outside are people yearning for life. We must open the entrances and the exits, sweeping out the dead by force and welcoming the living. We will all die if we do not.” He was quite manic as a speaker, so it was both intriguing and scary at the same time; like being in the presence of a prophet. But it certainly was inspiring.

    Several years later, in my ROC parish, my parish priest, a very Irish convert, a tenured university professor who was the editor of the monthly news magazine of the Moscow Patriarchate in the US, gave a running commentary of the process, leading to April 12, 1970, when Archbishop Valarian (Trifa) came to celebrate vespers in a church packed with clergy and laity, and formally read the Tomos of Autocephaly, creating an American Orthodox Church. I was an altar server that night, and while I could not grasp the entirety of the event, it was joyful. At the reception following, the “speeches” focused on the future and what was to come.

    Then I arrived at SVS when there was an undergraduate program, from my all-English, new-calendar parish, 18 years old, standing with the architects of the OCA, and they are singing in Church Slavonic! Now, coming from the “parish ordo” to extended services with Vigils every Saturday night and before Feasts, I am experiencing more of the full services, but understanding nothing. The greater the Feast, the more Slavonic, and Holy Week and Pascha were easily 50% in Slavonic! A few years down the line, some of us volunteered to form a choir to sing in Philadelphia at the liturgy celebrating the (I believe 50th) anniversary of Fr. Georges Florovsky’s ordination to the priesthood. As we went to receive the blessing of Met. Ireney (Bekish) at the end of the liturgy, he took the opportunity to scold us: “The people complain to me that seminarians cannot speak Russian and won’t be able to serve in Slavonic. You must learn Russian and Slavonic!” Ironically, the impact of the message was lost on the 90% of us who did not speak Russian. Fr. Schmemann later explained, kissed each of us, and told us we were the “future of the Church.”

    All of this is to say, the groundwork for Fr. John’s essay was laid by priests who were castigated mercilessly and tirelessly, yet somehow never seem to be included in the “reconciliations” and apologies for historical errors. I, for one, have waited a long time (worse in dog years), and I am impatient. For this reason, having been profoundly impacted by the conceivers of what an American Orthodox Church might be from my youngest days, I am not struck by Fr. John’s “boldness,” but simply admire what appears to be his innate sense of the “tradition” prepared for him, and the imperative to continue.

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      Geo Michalopulos says:

      Thank you MS for this wonderful history. I pray that we can recapture the spirit of the excitement you describe. As for Fr Eusebius, I believe he was on to something.

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        Michael Bauman says:

        I believe it was St. John Chrysostom who said something like: the vast majority of the people in the Church are like a stone around her neck.

        That will never change, IMO, nor do I think it should. One never knows when those loathsome pieces of dead wood will spring to life. A case in point: there was a man, now reposed, in my parish (been there all his life) who was widely known for being an unpleasant and demanding person in everyway. I’d see him at Liturgy in his later hears, but I never knew him until on the first day of our annual big dinner he parked in a parking space that was reserved for our guests. I was asked to politely remind him to move his car. His reponse was an abrupt: “I’ll park wherever I want” and he walked off. That’s when I learned his reputation from some of the other folks. That was on a Saturday. The next morning, he sought me out before Liturgy and humbly begged my forgiveness for any offense he had given me. When I related the story to some folks later, they were astounded. When the man died a few months later, the bishop came and conducted his funeral and praised him for his holiness. It appears that in the last months of his life, the man had been going to the bishop on at least a weekly basis for confession. No one except our priest, the bishop and the man knew.

        So, how do we identify the ‘dead wood’? No way I know. If we have the life of Christ, no amount of dead wood can disturb it anyway, even the dead wood of our own souls. Without Christ, we are all dead wood and nothing but dead wood. If people are really looking for the life, nothing will keep them away because it is Christ calling them.

        Searching for the ‘dead wood’ is the surest way to kill a community and, to me, the surest sign that Fr Eusebius was not on the right track at all.

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          M. Stankovich says:

          Mr. Bauman,

          Caveats and cautions. I honestly have not thought of Archimandrite Eusebius in decades, and I was an adolescent when I met him, so I am certainly a poor historian for his teachings.

          My interpretation of his talk, however, was that the “force” driving out the dead wood would be the energy and revitalization that “seekers,” converts to the Faith, would bring to a parish. The challenge – which Fr. Schmemann described as “No to ‘religion’ and ‘Yes’ to the Church” – would be intolerable in an ethnic enclave. They would move or destroy. As I recall, in Fr. Eusebius’ case, they chose to abandon a consecrated church (and him) in a “bad” neighborhood, rather than remain and evangelize. I would cite this as a “proof” of Fr. John’s point, “vastly diminished parishes,” but they had money and built a new church elsewhere, without Fr. Eusebius. How they fare(d)? I have no clue.

          In any case, I did not intend to distract from Fr. John’s essay by introducing distraction. For me, Archimandrite Eusebius was a small, but powerful contributor to my sense of hope for a truly American Orthodox Church.

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            Michael Bauman says:

            Ok, the is a good distinction. Thanks for the clarification. You really can’t serve two masters.

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    Orthodox America says:

    It is wonderful-and proper-that so many Americans of non-Orthodox ethnicities are realizing the truth of Orthodox Christianity. So many are coming into the Church, and it is receiving them with services and publications in their own native language. The Church is also responding to and utilizing modern forms of communication such as the internet. These are all good things.

    Having said that, there are still those of us who belong to an Orthodox ethnic tradition. In the Orthodox World (the geographic areas which are primarily populated by Orthodox Christians), our faith is tied to the culture. The Orthodox Church is understood as being the basis of ethics, culture, and the traditional worldview of those societies. This is a hard fact to be excepted by American people reacting to inhospitable behavior by some ethnic Orthodox (some groups more than others). It is a fact that we often react with vigor to injustices which we experience. Our speech often dwells on the immediate problems we face.

    Overall, I would agree with Fr. John’s article. It illustrates the proper movement of the Church: the movement towards an organic Church entity growing in this North American soil. However, there is a certain spirit, a certain hyper-focus that has emerged amongst Orthodox clergy and laity on the internet over the past 5 to 10 years. We are very focused on the issue of ethnicity getting in the way of the Church’s mission. I will be the first to say that nothing should be allowed to hamper the development of the Church, of which the reception of converts is a vital component. No ethnic tradition should be allowed to become an anchor. But the question I pose is a new one: Do ethnic traditions actually hamper the Church?

    My answer is no. First, the Tradition of the Church is to receive converts. The Tradition of the Church is to be hospitable and non-Phyletistic. The things which cause inhospitality are not traditions of the Church, and certainly not ethnic traditions. The things which hamper the Church’s progress and mission have nothing to do with the old country, or with festivals, or Slavonic, or Koine Greek. The things which hamper the Church’s progress and mission are errors on the part of individuals: laypeople who are not outgoing in their treatment of visitors, hierarchs who do not respond to local issues, parishes that focus more on social events than salvation and the proclamation of the Gospel.

    Secondly, Phyletism must be correctly understood. As of late, American Orthodox (both those of ethnic Orthodox descent as well as converts) are quick to call anything ethnic “Phyletism” and thus heretical. Heresy is a heavy charge to lay, and one should be careful before throwing that label around with such carelessness.

    The fact of the matter is, that those of us who celebrate an ethnic tradition hold Orthodoxy dear to us. It is indeed so dear to us, that we allow it to be our culture, our identity. Another fact is that we do not live in an Orthodox society. It is true that there are many converts to the faith in this country, and they are no less Orthodox than any Russian or Greek. But the mainstream society in this land is not Orthodox. This is a fact. The popular culture is at best Protestant (perhaps specifically Calvinistic) and at worst it is Post-Modern and Nihilistic. For those of us fortunate enough to be born into a Russian or Greek Orthodox family, it seems the proper reaction would be to celebrate (and live) that culture versus the alternative.

    All I would ask of Orthodox Christians who do not belong to an ethnic tradition is this: I never forced you to learn Slavonic or Koine Greek, I do not ask you to become Russian or Greek as a prerequisite to conversion; please don’t try and force me to give up my culture, my ORTHODOX heritage, that brought Orthodoxy here and shared it with you in the first place; the culture that shaped my Orthodox worldview and taught me to celebrate the traditions of the Church. In the meantime, I will do all I can to catechize the converts in this land, and to assist the Church so that Orthodox Christianity is something indigenous (local) and not perceived as something distant and unattainable. Orthodoxy must be something that responds to this society and these people, whatever their background. This is the way Orthodoxy always was, and will be. Anything less is heterodox.

    Perhaps my words have offended some of you, and for that I am sorry, it was not my intention. But one thing is for sure, Orthodoxy is indeed foreign to this culture. If we truly want to establish a local Church, one jurisdiction in America, we need to admit that this culture is not Orthodox, and that our mission to spread Christ’s Gospel hinges on this fact. Please do not despise those of us who celebrate an ethnic tradition, we are only preserving an Orthodox culture in which to live, one that we were blessed with at birth, not to our own credit.

    Hopefully, in time, an Orthodox culture will be established here. Centuries from now our posterity will look back at the various American saints and theologians, the councils, the conversions, the building of churches and cathedrals, the propagation of Christ’s Church throughout the world. There will be an American Orthodox tradition, just like there is already a centuries old Russian Orthodox tradition, a Greek Orthodox tradition, a Serbian Orthodox tradition, and the list goes on. When that day comes, should people in other lands who receive American Orthodox missionaries and immigrants despise their tradition and force them give it up? No. They should remember the past and celebrate it. They should look to their ancestors in the faith for guidance and learn from their lessons, just as St. Sergi of Radonezh or St. Sava or St. Nino (saints who never set foot in America) are revered by American Orthodox converts. They should seek to live an Orthodox lifestyle, within an Orthodox culture. That is all that we “ethnic” Orthodox seek after.

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      Will Harrington says:

      You are right. the problem isn’t ethnic traditions, it is more the failure of “ethnic” orthodox and converts both to recognize that everyone is from an ethnic culture, even white Anglo Saxon protestants. Myself, I come from a rural Irish and German cultural tradition. I have students who, when asked to identify their ethnicity, say they don’t have one. The Orthodox are proud to say that they baptize the good things in the cultures they evangelize. This seems to be hard to do in America when so many people are completely unaware that they have cultural and ethnic traditions. I think this is why so many converts fall in love with the traditional ethnic culture of the parish or jurisdiction they own and try to fit into that culture. Somehow we need to take the next step of making the culture and traditions of us converts Orthodox instead of making converts Russian or Greek or Arab. I think we converts need to take the lead in this, but we surely need the help of cradle Orthodox to figure out what in our native culture is, or can be made, Orthodox and what needs to be changed. This is what the Ethnic orthodox and the people who evangelized them had to do a long time ago.

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      Fr. Peter Dubinin says:

      The objection I think is not so much to “ethnic” culture, but rather to nationalism, mistakenly spoken of as “ethnic” culture. Ethnic culture often expressed in dance, folk music, song, poetry, history, etc., is often a very beautiful thing in which and through which we can experience a bit of the divine. The problem arises, I think, when ethnicity is wrapped in the flag of a nation and proclaimed to be superior to other cultures/peoples/nations and indispensible to the evangelizing and living of Orthodoxy in another country. Some have observed that Orthodoxy seeks elements within culture to baptize – transfigures certain elements to remain within the experience of Orthodox Christians in this new place and discarding other elements as opposed to the Gospel; I agree with this. However, I would submit for consideration the following – the more time, effort and energy we expend attempting to keep a foreign culture afloat in a place within which it is alien (though some may not want to admit it, as soon as a “culture” is transported from its natural context, it is changed and to some measure, no longer the same “culture”), is time, effort and energy we loose working to be agents of transfiguration within our own culture.

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    Mike Cook says:

    Fr. Johannes thank you for the wisdom to re-post this… and Fr. John Peck – thank you for the courage and conviction to have written it. Now may the Orthodox act upon it.

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    Kevin Allen says:

    Amazing how prescient this essay was (is). And sadly Fr John paid a heavy price for publishing it.

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    cynthia curran says:

    A new Hagia Sophia in the new world, great idea, a way of showing what the mind that God gives us can achieved. The old Hagia Sophia which is number 3 was built after a nasty riot that killed thousands of people. But it has stood for over 1500 years and several Earthquakes.

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    macedonianReader says:

    I’m tired of long-winded responses utilized to soften the accusations and truth behind nationalism in the Orthodox Church. It’s as bad as Fr. John says and worse.

    Who has spoken up in their communities? I’m interested to know of all our ethnic friends on the internet who “talk a good fight” on the internet and forums, have they made it known to their communities, their Bishops that they won’t stand for nationalism?

    Has anyone passed this essay on to their local Ethnic Bishop?

    It’s time we speak up, and take responsibility and be accountable for the Diocese we leave for our kids. And the change from our Bishops is few and far between.

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    Juliana says:

    I was chrismated three years ago and prior to becoming a catechumen I wrestled with these ethnic struggles and the seeming obliviousness of the Orthodox bishops. But, thanks be to God there are three Orthodox parishes in my town and one serves services entirely in English, and despite having many cradle Orthodox, has been able to attract numerous amounts of converts. I visited Fr John’s former parish in Prescott, AZ, last year and was delighted to be in a GOA parish that celebrated services in English. Thank you Fr John Peck for all you do for the building up of God’s kingdom on earth.

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      Fr. Johannes Jacobse says:

      Your were fortunate to see Fr. John when he was still in Prescott. He proves what a good priest can do with and in a parish.

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  1. [...] Toward … »See All Of This Item By Clicking Here!« ☆ ☆ ☆ 7) The Orthodox Church of Tomorrow – Revistedhttp://www.aoiusa.org/blog/the-orthodox-church-of-tomorrow-revisted-2/By Fr. Johannes Jacobse on [...]

  2. [...] this article (if you dare) from Fr. John Peck about the future of the Orthodox Faith in America…  So [...]

  3. [...] Source: American Orthodox Institute Blog [...]

  4. […] a burning love and drive in his soul to which I can relate. Father Johannes Jacobse, who runs the American Orthodox Institute, said this concerning Father John’s […]

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