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Reform and the Orthodox Church in America

In ORI on October 30, 2010 at 7:35 am

I believe that it is necessary for me to include a disclaimer right from the beginning of this blog. My wife and I chose to become Orthodox Christians as adults; therefore, I do not have the experience of growing up in the Orthodox Church as a first-, second- or third-generation immigrant (although I have that experience from a completely different perspective). When we became Orthodox, we did so deliberately, fully understanding the choice that we were making and everything that came with it. What we did not account for was the social aspect, the desire for reform (whether stated specifically as that or not) and the ‘Americanization’ of the Church.

When most American sthink of an ‘Eastern’ religion, they think of Buddhism, mystic religions, maybe even Islam. Very rarely (if ever) do they think about Eastern Christianity, which is manifested primarily through the Orthodox Church but also through other Eastern Churches, such as the Coptic Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, etc. For those who do think of the Orthodox Church, they usually think of it in an ethnic aspect — the ‘Greek’ Church, the ‘Russian’ Church, and so on. Then there are the rest of us (who did not grow up as members of the Orthodox Church) who think of the Orthodox Church as the Church as the Church that was create by Jesus Christ through His Apostles and their disciples, the Church Fathers and all those who have followed since. Although I definitely was in one of the former categories prior to my search for a Church to call my own.

Having grown up in a family that occasionally practiced its Roman Catholic faith, I tried to return to this Church when I was older. However, there was not a warm welcome awaiting me. This led me to begin to search for a new ‘home’. I attended many different Protest churches with friends, family members and even by myself. For me, however, there was always something missing. Where was the structure, the tradition, the dogma? While I was studying Russian at the Unviersity of New Hampshire, I became more exposed to the concept of the Orthodox Church. Growing up I had a very limited exposure (but mostly from the ethnic aspect), as we had family friends that were Greek Orthodox. The husband in the family was named Ernie (Anastasios), so we would always be invited to his name day celebration which occurred on Orthodox Easter every year. However, I knew nothing about the Faith at that time. My studies provided me the impetus to learn more, and thus began the true journey.

One of the first books I read was the book Becoming Orthodox by Fr. Peter Gillquist. This book tells the story of Fr. Peter’s and a Protest community’s journey from their Protestant beliefs into the bosom of the Orthodox Church. In many ways, this story sounded like my search and journey (other than the fact that I was Roman Catholic and not Protestant). I read more, and I had the good fortune to speak with an open and accepting Orthodox priest while attending a festival at one of the local Greek Orthodox parishes. This encounter led to my wife and I becoming Orthodox. I even went on to attend seminary to become a Greek Orthodox priest, although I later decided to end my studies and pursue other avenues of ministry within the Church.

Now that I have provided this disclaimer and very basic background. Let’s discuss the issue at hand. Within the Church, there are elements and movements that talk about the need to reform it — from liturgical practices to clergy dress to the administrative structure. The Orthodox Church is a hierarchical and dogmatic Church. It has an established belief system and established administrative structure. Does this mean that the Church cannot change? No. Does this mean that the Church has not changed over time? No. Does this mean that the change will continue to change over time? Yes. But does this mean that there needs to be a concentrated, focused effort to make changes to it to ‘adapt’ it to ‘modern’ society? Absolutely not. The Church is not a democracy that changes based on a major vote nor should it be.

For most of us who have chosen to become Orthodox (especially those of us who did so not simply because we married someone who was already Orthodox), we chose to become Orthodox because of the reasons that I have stated above. The Church is an established Church. It is faithful to the original beliefs of the Church, and it has a clearly defined set of beliefs. (Although this does not mean that everyone always agrees on what this means.) You can read the writings of Church Fathers from the 4th and 5th centuries and still see these beliefs and practices today. You can go to any Orthodox Church in the world, and your experience will be nearly identical (other than the liturgical language and some basic differences in the liturgical tradition).

What I have found in the seminary and many parishes, however, is a desire to ‘Americanize’ the Church. What is being implied is that the Church is too Eastern and does not fit into the American norms of a ‘modern’ and ‘civilized’ society. These forces within the Church believe that the Church must be ‘of the world’ and simply ‘in the world’, which is actually contrary to our Faith. Unfortunately, this is also happening among converts to the Church (especially those from Protestant traditions). There is a thought process that these Orthodox Christians became Orthodox because of the dogmas and beliefs and the ‘externalities’ do not matter. There is, for the lack of a better word, a disregard for the brilliant manner in which the Orthodox Church has brought together all the elements of worship over the centuries to create a unique environment where we worship and come to understand the Faith better through hearing (the liturgical music), smelling (the incense), seeing (the icons, the vestments, the liturgical movements) and tasting (the Eucharist). This synergy allows the entire body to worship.

What many of these reformers are saying is that in the American context these things do not matter. The problem is that many of us Americans that have entered into the Orthodox Faith have done so because we were seeking a faith that is ‘in the world’ but not ‘of the world’. There may be some things that would superficially ‘Americanize’ the Church, which I believe could open the Church to more Americans without changing or minimalizing the Church. For example, using English as the liturgical language would create greater access to the Orthdoox Church for Americans while allowing Orthodox Christians who do not understand one of the liturgical languages currently being used to understand better the beauty and message of the hymnography and the dogmas of the Church. Changes such as these are part ofto  the Orthodox Tradition, and they do not require overturning the norms of our Faith.

I challenge those people who grew up as Orthodox Christians or have since become Orthodox that believe that the Church needs to be reformed to begin an open and frank dialogue with other Orthodox Christians that may not share their views. The goal of any advocate for reform should not be to Protestantize the Church so that it fits in better in American society. Changes to the Church will happen naturally, gradually and organically if there is truly a need. Large-scale reforms imposed upon the Church will lead to a fracture, as did the Protest Reformation.

One final though: any reform (whether for a Church, a country or some other type of an organization) should be need-based and not simply opinion-based.

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