Digging deeper on the Orthodox story

Palm Sunday 2.jpgI hope everyone had a blessed Palm Sunday. Now it’s time for Holy Week.

Which is another way of saying that the Eastern Orthodox celebration of Pascha and the Western church’s date for Easter are about as far apart this year as they can possibly get, once again underlining the ancient clashes between the Julian and modern (yes, the 16th century is modern for the Orthodox) Gregorian calendars. This is a very complicated subject and, frankly, I still get confused about some of the lunar angles. But if you want to know more, click here.

In the days ahead, you can expect to see more than a few news reports linked to the novelty of “Orthodox Easter” and the chance to photograph the outdoor processions that are one of the most beautiful parts of the Eastern liturgies for this week. News photographers just love gold robes, incense, candles, flowers and men with long beards. If you try hard enough, you can even get the photos framed just right and capture the stunned faces of ordinary people driving past as the singing faithful head down the sidewalks of city or suburban neighborhoods.

This is also a favorite time of the year for journalists to write about the steady growth of Eastern Orthodoxy in North America, due, in large part, to a stream of coverts from evangelicalism, oldline Protestantism and even a few from Rome. The evangelicals are the sexy angle to the story, of course. There is a kind of exotic National Geographic quality to writing about scores of people from Campus Crusade for Christ, Oral Roberts University, Baylor, Wheaton, the Moody Bible Institute and lots of other strange places ending up in domed churches chanting the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

The Dallas Morning News ventured into this territory this past weekend with religion-page feature that covered most of the familiar bases, including a sidebar on the “trophy convert” Frank Schaeffer, the outspoken son of the famous evangelical theologian and philosopher Francis Schaeffer. The mainbar offers lots of good information, starting with this opening statement of the Dallas “trend” behind this story:

The Eastern Orthodox Church, as far removed from a nondenominational or evangelical congregation as you can get, is nevertheless attracting a growing number of converts who are drawn by the tug of an ancient faith.

Converts are trading in their PowerPoint sermons and praise bands for the ancient rhythms of a liturgy that hasn’t changed in thousands of years –­ a pendulum swing from the casual, seeker-friendly services that have dominated contemporary evangelicalism.

Their numbers are still small compared to megachurch growth patterns, with 1.2 million Eastern Orthodox Christians in America and an estimated 10,000 in the Dallas area. But adherents say there’s been a surge in people drawn to the faith.

It’s also had to knock a story that includes quotations from the unofficial grandmother of this blog, Frederica Mathewes-Green of Beliefnet, NPR and lots of other places. Take this, for example:

Frederica Mathewes-Green, a former Episcopalian and author of Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy, said the experience of Orthodoxy was “startlingly different” from anything she’d known in Western churches. But it clicked when she saw it was directed toward God rather than her own emotional needs.

“It called us to fall on our faces before God in worship and to be filled with awe at his glory. I could never go back. I now find Western worship tedious and sentimental. To me, the contrast is jolting.”

The feature story, written by News “special contributor” Robin Galiano Russell, is very, very positive about this whole trend, so positive that one would expect the Orthodox to print up copies and hand them out on street corners. However, I would like — as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid turned Orthodox convert — to pause for a moment and argue that this newspaper story is way too positive.

The main thrust of the story is that some evangelical Protestants, apparently smart ones who like beautiful worship, are fleeing all of those giant suburban megachurches and hiding out from the modern world in Orthodox sanctuaries.

I cannot deny that some of that is true. That being the case, it would have been good to have included some quotes from evangelicals who think this is a bad thing. In other words, there are evangelicals who are, as we like to say, “Romeaphobic” and see the “evangelical Orthodox” trend as a bad thing, a drift into dead ritual. If would have added balance, and a zing of tension, to have talked to some of them. There are a few large evangelical Protestant churches in Dallas, even if they do not receive large amounts of coverage in the News. Trust me on this.

Meanwhile, I would also assume that there are leaders in the progressive oldline Protestant churches in Dallas who are — it’s a pretty conservative city, after all — seeing some of their more orthodox members convert to Orthodoxy. Some progressive Protestants like to hang out at Southern Methodist University. It would have been interesting to hear from them. Even the Roman Catholic heirarchy in Dallas has a bit of a progressive streak on liturgy and other issues. It would have been edgy to have called the archdiocesan spokesman for a reaction.

In other words, there are two or more sides to this story. Orthodoxy has its own internal struggles in North America, as its ethnic era fades and the emphasis moves to blending the converts into a larger, more complex body. There is more to this than bookish people escaping all those evil megachurches. I hope the News revisits the story.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • jjayson

    When mentioning the large number of convert priests, I want to know how it has had a doctrinal impact on the Orthodox Church. I’m sure many of them are bringing their Western views on sin, salvation, evangelism, and other topics. I’m sure you can even find some cradle Orthodox that think this influx of convert priests is a bad thing.

  • Mark

    As a cradle Orthodox, I think the influx of convert priests has been a blessing. Certainly, much progress in the American Orthodox Churches was made by crade clergy, bishops, and theologians such as Archbishop Iakovos (GOA), Fr. Schmemann (OCA), Fr. Meyendorff (OCA), Fr. Hopko (OCA), and Metropolitan Philip (AOA). However, many converts and second and third generation Orthodox were the ones that really took this progressive outlook to heart. This is very evident from the quality and quantity of work being published by St. Valdimir’s Seminary Press. The thirst to learn about Orthodoxy allowed these people to get beyond calcified customs and explore the ancient Tradition. This way, a return to more ancient liturgical practices was possible along with the willingness to adapt to the new environment. Jurisdictions like the Greeks, at least in heavy immigrant areas like New York, have been uneasy with convert priests and are thus stuck in a backward-looking mode still nostalgic about the village and the Byzantine Empire. This really drove my decision to switch from the GOA to the OCA.

  • http://www.renewal-1.com Dale R. Evans

    A group of “rich kids” in our area were caught up in the “Jesus Movement” back in the 70′s and became very passionate for Christ. So passionate they wanted to begin ministering immediately. Local Evangelical churches insisted they first attend a Bible College and become “known” in the community. Given their social stature, the requisite delay was unacceptable. They later connected with the Orthodox Bishop for the U.S. who offered to ordain them immediately. Thus a new Orthodox Church was planted here. It reflected a unique blend of the Evangelical and the Orthodox that thrived for a period time and then diminished. That same motivation is the driving force behind the fragmentation of Protestant Christianity. Individual Americans expecially want to assert their presumed authority . . . and so the pastors of small evangelical churches often demand authority equal to, or even more strident, then PopeBenedict XVI. But that really is an intrusion of secular value of the “divine right of the indivual” into the sacred. Though Vatican conservatives discern clearly the corrupting influence of individual stature in America, they appear incapable of understanding that their historical imbrace of the “divine right of kings,” allowed the corruption of Catholicism, and the loss of Europe to the resulting secular ideologies. The competing secular absolutes of Western Civilization . . . the “divine right of the individual,” and the “divine right of kings,” . . . will both inevitably degenerate into chaos. Can Christianity free itself of secular corruption? . . . or will it degenerate with the secular ideologies it spawned?