A myth needs to be debunked. It goes like this: Orthodox unity is years away because there is no such thing as "American Orthodoxy". Call it an ecclesiastical instead of urban legend if you want. It's been in circulation for at least two decades among the Orthodox Christians of the United States and it keeps us frozen in a state of tribalism and territorialism that prevents us from planting Orthodoxy more firmly in America.
This myth is advanced by people who focus on what the Church in the United States is not. Ok, so we don't have a 1500 year-old monastic tradition. It's also true that most of our people have never been to a vigil. And yes, the typical American churchgoer doesn't know Seraphim Rose from Pete Rose.
But to say that these "shortcomings" imply that there is no American Orthodox identity is like saying there is no such thing as American soccer because our fans don't pummel one another and our announcers don't scream "G-O-O-O-A-A-L!"
Two decades of involvement with the Church in the United States have convinced me that Orthodox unity is closer than we think. There is such a thing as American Orthodoxy. Here are some characteristics:
A Eucharistic Church Decades of preaching and teaching aimed at recovering the ancient Tradition of frequent Communion have paid off. America's faithful understand that the central element of Liturgy (and life itself) is Holy Communion. They receive often. This differentiates New World Orthodox from most of their Old World cousins.
Where do we go from here?
Now that we have people coming often to the Chalice, we need to spend some time emphasizing the need to prepare oneself adequately for the Eucharist. Communing regularly presupposes a piety and sobriety emanating from time-tested practices. Fasting, prayer, good deeds, and confession need to become habitual elements of the life of every believer who approaches the Gifts -- not that we can be "more Orthodox" or "more worthy," but that we become more aware of God's presence among us.
A Parish Based Church Unlike other places in the world, the Orthodox faithful in the United States strongly identify themselves as members of a particular parish. They worship at the same church every Sunday. They engage in community activities and programs. They feel a responsibility to their local church and support her with their money and energy. It is true that being parish based can lead to a stifling parochialism, but second only to our Eucharistic focus our congregationally based identity is also our greatest strength.
A Sunday Morning Church The American Orthodox might be busy with work and activities during the week but on Sunday the faithful pack their churches. I'd love to see 200 people at a Wednesday evening Unction service or Saturday Vespers, but I'm raising a family in America too and know first hand how schedules work in our culture.
Embracing the Sunday morning identity means a few things. Our sermons must be well prepared and effectively delivered -- people come to Sunday Liturgy expecting nourishment for the soul. Our church musicians must see themselves as serving a ministry and not members of a club by singing music that stirs the heart, lifts the soul, and engages the mind. Let them lead the worshippers instead of performing for them. While we're at it, why not cultivate Sunday School teachers that sound less like Ferris Bueller's history teacher and do more than have kids color line-art icons.
An English Speaking Church I'm not foolish enough to enter the take-no-prisoners debate of Greek, Slavonic (or even Slobovian) vs. English in the Liturgy. Enough people write about it in other places. My only point is this: Walk into the after Liturgy coffee hour anywhere in almost any Church in the country and you will hear English spoken almost exclusively. Our people use English in their day-to-day public life. How we settle this question will greatly affect our viability as a Church in America in the future.
No State Identity Yankees might take the First Amendment for granted, but they shouldn't. Because the Church in America is not identified with the State, she is protected from being compromised by nationalism, bigotry, or fascism. We enjoy a liberty that is relatively unique in world Orthodoxy.
A Political Big Tent Among America's Orthodox faithful you will find political conservatives, liberals, centrists, and the totally apolitical. From time to time some of us will embrace an agenda set by a fringe political group, but persons who do this marginalize themselves by the momentum of the mainstream.
Formality, Not Imperialism The Orthodox embrace liturgical structure and order. We value and protect it. However, we also embrace the independent spirit that is uniquely American and thus become uncomfortable when pomp and circumstance give way to pomposity, pretension, and pontification. Leadership through service and by example means more to our people than the words "Because I said so."
Simple, Participatory Worship People in our pews want to sing along. They desire to pray together. They long to be the Body of Christ, not mere spectators in an audience. They tune out when the music is so rarified and the ritual so formalized that it becomes nearly incomprehensible.
Pious, Not Pietistic I know that some American Orthodox think that we should be observing Great Lent by eating dried chickpeas once a day at sunset, but for every congregation of 50 persons that operates at 1000/pph (prostrations per hour) there are 10 sanctuaries filled with hundreds of people who do not regard the existence of pews as a heresy. Our Church has been established on American shores for at least five generations. Our people are comfortable being the Church and most don't feel any need to play church.
Power to the Programs America's Orthodox Christians live in a pluralistic world where other churches offer retreats, summer camps, small groups, and Bible studies. They understand the role of programmed ministries and expect their own parish to organize and conduct these types of activities as well. The well-intentioned Orthodox who want to "save" the Church by doing paraklesis (liturgical prayer services) five times a week are trying to create a Church disconnected from her congregants.
The Role of the Laity Whether you want to blame it on the congregationalism of America's early settlers or prefer to invent a concept like "syndiakonia", the fact remains that America's laity wants a say in Church governance. That's great as long as that same laity is praying, fasting, tithing, confessing, and communing. The Church can be led correctly only when the persons who sit on her councils and vote at parish assemblies are doing those things that open their hearts to God's grace.
It's not all peaches and cream for America's lovers of smells and bells. If it were we wouldn't still be talking about unity, we'd be doing something about it. Following are some points that paint a picture of the dark side of Orthodoxy in the United States.
A Profound Inferiority Complex I don't know why but Orthodox Christians in the United States love to beat up on themselves. We compare ourselves with non-Orthodox churches and feel inadequate -- as if praise bands and vacation bible schools with themes like "Jesus of the Jungle" could somehow hold a match to the Divine Liturgy and the Eucharist.
Or we want to be like our sister Churches in indigenously Orthodox Countries. Without question, the depth and breath of Old World piety is impressive. Every American who can make a pilgrimage to one of these countries will be forever changed. But keep your eyes open, because you'll see that these Churches have their problems, too.
Christianity is an incarnational religion. Jesus Christ took on flesh at a specific point in time and space. Similarly each parish (as the Body of Christ) lives in its own geographical and cultural reality. Old-World believers and New-World believers can learn from each other but America will never be Greece, Russia, Romania, or even Slobovia.
American and European Churches are different. But diversity is part of God's plan -- just ask St. Paul. Instead of feeling self-conscious about our lack of monasteries and second-rate eggplant salad, why not rejoice in our organized building programs, well-run camps and retreats, and the extraordinary generosity of our faithful?
Arrogantly Ignorant I'm a patriot, but I'll admit that Americans can suffer from hubris. American Orthodox Christians are drowning in it. Most of us know it all -- just ask us!
A choir member of forty years laughs openly at a priest that tries to explain what the "first tone" is not realizing that if she had even the smallest grasp of the relationship between the notes in the ecclesiastical modes, it would take her choir just ten minutes instead of an hour to learn a simple hymn.
A longtime member of the Ladies' group stands up at a meeting and asks, "Where the h--- did Father come up with this fast before Christmas?"
A Sunday School teacher fails to take advantage of a seminar offered at a neighboring parish because she "already knows it all."
A businessman is asked to run for Parish Council because "he has so much to offer the Church" even though he attends Liturgy sporadically, doesn't participate in the sacraments, has no consistent prayer life, and doesn't give sacrificially.
Knowing that you don't know much is a sign of maturity. Do we want to move from adolescence into adulthood? Then we need to swallow our pride and admit that the first step in acquiring an adult faith is authentically uttering, "I don't know."
Pathological Parochialism Most faithful in the United States have never experienced Orthodoxy outside the confines of their local congregation. How else could we explain the various parishes, persons, and jurisdictions that have set themselves up to be the "real Orthodox?"
To illustrate, consider the non-issue of whether one should kneel on Sundays. We all know that the canons forbid kneeling on Sundays. Most of us are also aware that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has a long-standing practice of kneeling during Sunday's epiclesis (where the Holy Spirit is invoked during the consecration of the bread and wine). This is a point of great contention for the hyper-orthodox and guardians of truth among us.
Five years ago I was fortunate to concelebrate the Sunday Divine Liturgy at the monastery of Putna, one of the most important monasteries in Romania. During the Liturgy the thousands of faithful attending knelt not one, but three times. The fire that consumed the prophets of Baal did not descend upon these non-canonical kneelers, but the presence of the Holy Spirit was so strong it was almost palpable.
In short, the self-appointed arbiters of "true faith" need to put away their copy of Orthodoxy for Dummies and get out and see the world.
The next time someone dismisses your cries for Orthodox unity with the condescending words "Orthodox unity is years away because there is no such thing as 'American Orthodoxy,'" remind him that there is a vibrant American brand of Orthodoxy being practiced on these shores, sometimes right in their own neighborhood. It's a faith centered on the Eucharist and parish-life washed with a Red, White, and Blue spirit. Sure we've got some kinks to work out, but if we get past our inferiority complex, arrogant ignorance, and parochialism, establishing Orthodox even more firmly in America is inevitable.
Rev. Aris P. Metrakos is the pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He is frequent retreat leader and speaker for both teens and adults. Prior to attending seminary, Fr. Aris was an aviator for the US Navy. He travels annually to Romania to help the Romanian Orthodox Church establish ministries for Romanian youth. You can contact Fr. Aris at FrMetrakos@orthodoxytoday.org.