Orthodoxy's Modern Appeal
American converts flock to its ceremony and unchanging message
NEW YORK — It is Pentecost Sunday at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The sumptuous cathedral is filled with icons worthy of Byzantium itself. A hidden choir sings of an apostolic tradition that has remained virtually unchanged since the foundations of Christianity.
Yet despite the tradition-bound message, the church is almost full. Orthodox Christianity, while rooted in a nearly 2,000-year-old practice, is finding a new surge of believers among modern Americans - as the ethnic diversity of the congregation and the half-Greek, half-English service demonstrates.
Now numbering about 4 million - out of approximately 300 million worldwide - Orthodox Christians in America cite the religion's tradition and ceremonial beauty as a reason for its swift, silent growth across the United States. It has increased over the past five years at the rate of some 50 new parishes per day nationwide, according to estimates by the National Council of Churches (NCC) in New York.
Despite the "Eastern" stamp to Orthodoxy, converts stress their attraction to the "purity" of the faith in contrast to Western denominations, which they say have changed too much with the times.
"I was frustrated with Protestantism. I was looking for the apostolic, universal church in the truest sense," says the Rev. Basil Summer, archbishop of St. Sergius Russian Orthodox Church in White Stone, N.Y., and a former Evangelical Lutheran. "There is a fullness to Orthodoxy that is lost in modern Roman Catholicism and Protestantism - a total commitment to holy tradition and Holy Scripture."
Converts to Orthodoxy are not limited to priests. Frank Schaeffer, a novelist and film producer in Newburyport, Mass., is one of Orthodoxy's more prominent lay spokesmen. The son of a well-known evangelical Protestant pastor from Switzerland, Mr. Schaeffer criticizes what he and many Orthodox see as the strong influence of feminism, homosexuality, and cultural trends on Western Christianity.
"What I found disturbing in Protestantism and Roman Catholicism was this growing idea that religion could and should be changed to suit the temper of the times," he says of his conversion in 1990. "If I want knowledge of social trends, I can go to the editorial pages of a paper. Orthodoxy isn't out to market itself; it is about tradition and continuity."
Church attendance grows
While the exact number of converts is not officially registered, Orthodox priests nationwide speak of "explosions" in church attendance.
"From the 1950s through the '70s, Orthodox Christianity grew in this country through immigration. But that is no longer the case," says the Rev. Robert Stephanopoulos, a priest at the Greek Archdiocese in New York and father of former Clinton adviser George. "Mixed marriages are a factor, but more and more it's conversions...."
At St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church in Norcross, Ga., for example, one-third of the congregation's 450 members are converts. Sixty percent of the priests in the Antiochean Archdiocese in Spokane, Wash., are converts.
Conversions of entire non-Orthodox parishes are also contributing to the religion's growth. "It's not happening on a massive scale, but it is something new," says the Rev. Gregory Havrilack, of the Orthodox Church in America. "We've been getting recent reports of these parish conversions in Connecticut, Indiana, and Washington state, for example."
While there are no official figures of such parishes, Fr. Gregory estimates up to 30 such conversions in the past year. Most of these are small congregations of Protestant denominations.
American awareness of Orthodox Christianity generally seems to be on the rise. The legendary beauty of the faith, expressed primarily in the iconographic tradition, has accounted for the roaring success of the "Glory of Byzantium" exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, a show that attracted in excess of 350,000 viewers before closing in early July.
"Something like this finally puts to rest the idea that Orthodox Christianity is some mystical, far-out Eastern religion," says one of the exhibit's curators, Helen Evans, a scholar of Byzantium. "The comments we get describing the spiritual experience of the show has been tremendous."
The Orthodox Church, formally known as the Holy Orthodox Catholic Apostolic Eastern Church, takes its name from the Greek "ortho," meaning correct or true, and "doxa," meaning belief. The claim to represent "true" Christianity dates from the Great Schism of the 11th century, when the church in Rome and the principal churches of the East separated. The churches of the East rejected such things as Rome's ecclesiastical hierarchy and the concept of the infallibility of what would become the pope. They expanded their base among 15 self-governing but doctrinally unified churches - including Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Cypriot, Bulgarian, and Ukranian.
But the biggest challenge to the idea of a fully non-national "American" church has been the turbulent political histories of many individual national churches.
Nationalism has found itself inevitably mixed with the religion and its branches in America. The Russian Archdiocese in America split along communist and anticommunist lines. The Serbian Orthodox church came under scrutiny for its strong ties to the Serbian government during the war in Bosnia. Recently, relations cooled between the Patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople over control of a resurgent Orthodox Church of Estonia.
Still, the goal of a fully pan-Orthodox church is something many Orthodox see in America's future.
"Orthodoxy by its very nature emphasizes the unity of the faith, and not the ethnic background at all, except in language," says Fr. Stephanopoulos. "In a way, this is what makes this old, traditional religion very modern. It is also what makes it very American."