Another Sunday of Orthodoxy has come and gone. Anyone who bothered to attend a Pan-Orthodox vesperal celebration of the final victory over iconoclasm and the accomplishments of the seven Ecumenical Councils -- and by all accounts, most American Orthodox stayed home -- was treated to the standard Lenten fare: a group of clergy that looked more like they were ready to saddle up and rescue Frodo Baggins than they were to follow in the footsteps of the Apostles, a congregation that resembled a Fellini film, and a sermon filled with self-aggrandizing rhetoric.
After the obligatory pot-luck reception, the ethnic Orthodox packed-up their "Lenten cheese-pies" and climbed into their luxury sedans and SUV's so that they could go out for some "real food." Some converts wondered why they gave up Amazing Grace for the Dismissal Hymn of St. Mark (aren't they both in third tone, after all?). Other converts dutifully wrapped-up their head coverings before scarfing down the remaining strawberries dipped in dairy-free chocolate. Everyone felt a little-bit better about the "Triumph of Orthodoxy", the prospects for Orthodox unity, and the inevitability of "Making America Orthodox."
But what is it all for?
Over two centuries after the first Orthodox came to America and four generations after the immigration of the Great Unwashed who established the majority of this country's parishes, the prospects for an indigenous American Orthodoxy seem more incense-clouded than ever. People on both side of the argument are still pumping out opinion pieces and quasi-academic articles about the role of language and culture in American Orthodoxy (yawn!). The secularists among us are still trying to convince us that God is pro-choice (huh?). The most visible sign of an emerging American Orthodoxy is that another major jurisdiction now has its own set of controversies and accompanying scandal-mongering website (this is the faith of the Apostles?)
Those of us who pray for a unified American Orthodoxy and who are truly convicted that America needs a powerful Orthodox witness need not lose heart. We've been beating the wind for so long debating the role of language and the respective virtues of beeswax versus paraffin candles that we have made ourselves raw and more than a little-bit seasick.
I propose that if we want to make it to the distant shores of American Orthodoxy that we change the tack of the Ark of Salvation in the following three ways.
No matter how many times I try to convince myself otherwise, I can only find two biblical reasons for the Church's existence: The Great Commission and helping the "Least of our brethren." If we were to read the gazillions of words our jurisdictional headquarters and parishes churn out daily, we would be hard pressed to conclude that the Church's divine vocation is to make new Christians and to help those in need. This is not to imply that our clergy and lay-leaders are not faithful, intelligent and well-intentioned. We've just forgotten why we set sail in the first place.
Everyone is guilty of this mission creep. Some Orthodox want to preserve their ethnic identity, others the glory of Byzantium or Mother Russia. There is the pietism of prostrating super-Orthodox and the petulance of the president of the parish organization who has been told by the priest that there really is a Nativity Fast. We produce DVD's, CD-ROM's and Websites with ease. In all of our busyness, we forget that Jesus Christ called us to "make disciples of all nations" and to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
Some might argue that the Church exists to impart God's grace through the sacraments. Obviously! But what are we to do with that grace? Feel really good about ourselves so that the "Triumph of Orthodoxy" can become the "Triumphalism of Orthodoxy?"
Please do not think that I am advocating the abolition of parish basketball leagues or that I am denigrating the importance of the sacraments. My plea is this: Can't we all agree that every Orthodox jurisdiction in America, every diocese, archdiocese, metropolis and every parish exists principally to convert people to Jesus Christ and to help the needy? The day that we adopt this biblical vision of Church is the day when we will find ourselves less than a generation away from Orthodoxy unity.
Sheep and Goats
Ask a priest the following: "Father, how many families are there in your parish?" You'll probably get an answer like this: "We have 525 families on our mailing list, 350 that participate in the parish, and 325 that support the Church." These aren't useless numbers; we just don't know how to use them.
This hypothetical parish is probably wasting a lot of time going after the 175 "lost sheep" families (525-350=175) Every year there will be phone campaigns, adjustments in schedules, and linguistic concessions made specifically with the hopes of bringing home the "lost sheep." If we were honest with ourselves, we'd recognize that these 175 aren't lost sheep. They are goats.
Sheep are part of a flock that follows the Shepherd. Goats are cranky loners that eat garbage and want to do their own thing. Those 175 families know where the church is; they choose not to be one of the flock. So why not just say, "My parish has 350 families, and we're trying to get them all as involved as possible. There are another 175 Orthodox families out there whom we visit if they're in the hospital, but they have chosen not to be members of the Church."
Why is this shift in perspectives so important? Once we know the real membership of a parish, we can get a better handle on that community's make-up. Not all churches are the same. Some are composed principally of recent immigrants, others of American-born. Some are mainly college-educated, others blue-collar. Some think that non-dairy coffee creamer is "Pharisee powder," others think that chicken is "Lenten" because it's not beef or pork.
Now that the parish knows who it is, that flock can go out and do what God has called it to do: Make disciples and help people. An ethnic blue-collar parish will approach evangelism and outreach differently than a suburban convert church. But both must be engaged in this activity. Regardless of a community's demographics, once her members make a commitment to adhering to the Great Commission and helping the least among us, God will bless that church greatly.
This paring down of membership lists would provide as much clarity for national jurisdictional offices as it would for local parishes. Count the number of Orthodox parishes in the US and do some multiplication. It is mathematically impossible for there to be more than a few hundred thousand faithful Orthodox Christians in America. If we would stop saying that there are 3 million or 5 million (or whatever the number du jour is) American Orthodox, then we could begin to shape a Church that serves her members and that is dedicated to meeting the needs of Americans.
While the future of American Orthodoxy is up to God, He has entrusted that future to His Priests. The prospect for an American Orthodoxy's success depends greatly upon the way that our priests do Church, and the way that our people treat their priests.
Most everyone would agree that it is a blessing that we are seeing the end of the "professional" cleric: the hale and hearty good-fellow that chomps cigars, hits golf-balls, and sips Courvoisier with the boys. At the same time, the new model of priest being churned out of our seminaries might need to go back to the drawing board.
There is an emerging perception among young clergy that if we only did more vespers and parakleses that we would "save the Church." First, the Church doesn't need saving, Jesus already did that. Second, anyone who thinks that a plentitude of long services is a panacea need only look at the plight of Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe and the Balkans: by following exclusively this paradigm in parish life, the Church is slowly bleeding to death at the hands of the Evangelicals and secularists.
The Church in America needs priests who are themselves repenting; Priests that know that the sacraments and the services are the beginning and the end of what we do, but that in between that Alpha and Omega, there is a whole lot of visiting, teaching, and developing of programs and strategies aimed at proclaiming the Good News; Priests that remember that Jesus spent more time with harlots and tax-collectors than He did in the Temple.
American Orthodoxy needs mission priests, not married monastics.
For their own part, when it comes to the way priests in America are treated, the laity needs to wake up and smell the incense. During the course of his ministry, every priest will suffer withering attacks from people who "do not like him." These assaults will take the form of phone calls to hierarchs, anonymous letter-writing campaigns, and petition drives.
To anyone among our laity that wants a unified American Orthodox Church but insists on using your parish priest to play out your unresolved feelings about your own father, please ask yourself the following before calling your next "secret" meeting. Is your priest essentially moral (not an adulterer, drunk, or child-molester)? Has he followed the teachings of Scripture and the mandates of the Canons? Does he foster a liturgical and sacramental life in the parish? Does he preach and teach? Does he visit the sick?
If the answer to all of the above is "yes", then instead of calling a secret meeting, why not sit down with your priest and resolve your problems like two Christians? After all, don't you both want the same things: to make new Christians and to help the afflicted? (If the two of you don't want these things, don't waste your time sitting down together, just go to the driving range and then have a brandy and a smoke.)
The next Sunday of Orthodoxy is a year away. What will be the subtext of next year's icon procession? Will the clergy be looking forward to Pan-Orthodox vespers about as much as they look forward to removal of polyps from their lower alimentary canal? Will the laity be judging their sisters and brothers by the length of their head coverings or the depth of their prostrations?
More importantly, what will Sunday of Orthodoxy 2057 be like? If we can all agree to a common biblical vision for the Church based on the Great Commission and the care of "the least of our brethren"; if we can stop wasting our time going after the goats; if we can get the parish clergy to stop playing monk and start being mission priests, while convincing the laity that "pinata" is not Spanish for priest, then maybe future generations will celebrate the triumphs of Third Millennium America Orthodoxy with the same vigor that we rejoice in Byzantine Orthodoxy's victories during the First Millennium.
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.