The Orthodox come to Opryland

nm IMG 1280Many Orthodox Christians, at some point in their lives, claim a particular priest as their “spiritual father” and as a special source of inspiration in the faith. When my family converted to Orthodoxy, it was very much under the spiritual leadership of a gentle Southern Baptist turned archpriest named Father Gordon Walker, now the retired — a meaningless word in his case — leader of St. Ignatius Orthodox Church in Franklin, Tenn.

I bring this up just to say that I know a little bit about Orthodoxy in Guitar Town and the unique culture that is Nashville, one of the buckles of the Bible Belt. And last week, a friend there sent me some links to the short — but interesting — stories about one of those bizarre events that happen every now and then in religion news. To make a long story short, a national convention of Greek Orthodox clergy and laity met in the — brace yourselves — kingdom of deep-fried culture known as the Gaylord Opryland resort. Now that must have been a sight.

Like I said, it helps to know that there are some very strong Orthodox parishes in Nashville and the region around it. Most of these parishes are packed with converts, many of whom are survivors of the wars in the Southern Baptist Convention and/or the world of liberal mainline Protestantism. The GetReligion reader who sent me the clips from The Tennessean thought it was interesting that reporter Anita Wadhwani included the following material in the story, but with very limited commentary — from herself or from participants.

Here is a lengthy chunk of Wadhwani’s main article. The Greeks have their problems, but they are not the ones that have been making headlines lately:

“We’re concerned that many young people are engaged in trying to professionally do as much as they can and might not be directly involved with the church,” said His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, 78, of New York City, the chief spiritual leader of about 2 million Greek Orthodox church members living in the United States. At the same time, he said, “we have many new members who have been attracted to Orthodoxy in the past decade.” The number of new converts baptized — most not of Greek heritage — has increased about 12% or 13% each year, he said.

Unlike other similar national gatherings of Christian denominations that have grabbed headlines this summer — Episcopalians, Southern Baptists and Presbyterians, for example — the Greek Orthodox Church’s 2006 Clergy Laity Congress will include no heated debates over thorny social issues such as gay marriage and women in leadership positions. There are no women clergy and no plans to recognize or perform same-sex weddings.

And unlike those denominations, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is not grappling with stalled membership growth or declining numbers of clergy members. While the church is always in need of new priests, there has not been any decline in the number of clergy members, also because of a large number of converts to the faith, the archbishop said. About 20% of the church’s priests and seminary students are converts to the faith, he said.

In other words, the Greeks have young people leaving the church as they assimilate into American culture in the generations after the arrival of their ethnic families on these shores. At the same time, they have Americans entering the church who are, to one degree or another, seeking to live a more countercultural life — even if that means leaving their “Americanized” churches. This is a trend that is affecting other Orthodox flocks in the United States even more than the Greeks. In some parts of the nation, 70 to 80 percent of the Orthodox clergy are converts. My own parish is about 90-plus percent convert.

But there is a story here, a kind of “The Greeks Come to Opryland” trend that deserves more attention. Click here if you want to read a column I wrote about a small slice of that bigger story.

Or click here if you want to wade into an issue of Again magazine — a publication that began with the trend of evangelicals converting to Orthodoxy — dedicated to the big, big issue of whether there can be one Orthodox church in the United States, as opposed to overlapping ethnic jurisdictions.

Note, in particular, the blunt (and I do mean blunt) sermon delivered two decades ago on this topic by Metropolitan Philip Saliba, the longtime leader of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese in North America. Ironically, if he delivered this sermon today it would almost certainly cause more heat and controversy than it did long ago.

Why? Because today the topic is getting more and more newsworthy. Greeks at Opryland?

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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.

  • Alexei

    The jurisdictional problem here in American is certainly a sin. Epecially now that the spectre of Communism is gone, the Russian/Eastern European/Balkan churches should be more united.

    I dare say that the Greeks, however, are the most isolated. They seem to be allergic to English, and wonder why their church is used to preserve their cultural heritage more than anything else. Please forgive me if this is unfair or uncharitable, but it does reflect my limited personal experience in Philadelphia.

  • Bob K.

    Would that Met. Philip had meant more of the words he said. As a member of a parish that was received in 1987 or so, I actually thought it was understood that we were *Americans* becoming Orthodox. It was a couple of years before it became very, very clear that we were expected to embrace a certain form of political opinion, and adjust understanding of history to include something briefly (mercifully) known as the “Spirit of Antioch”. THe idea of the Antiochian Archdiocese started well. It has degenerated into trying to get Americans to fit an Arab shaped agenda, even as fewer and fewer cradle born Orthodox “Antiochians” go to seminary. Some time ago Fr. Peter Gilquist noted something like 70% of the clergy in the archdiocese are converts. It isn’t always a *good* sign.

  • Stolzi

    I had to laugh at one sentence in the article.

    ‘Individual Greek Orthodox churches operate independently…’

    Individual bishops would be surprised to hear this.

  • Michele Hagerman

    Alexei, your limited experience in Philadelphia matches mine in Chicago (I’m a convert 2.5 years ago in the Antiochian Archdiocese).

    God forgive me, but I laughed when I saw an article about the Clergy Laity Congress online. There was mention about the GOA seeing Orthodox-non Orthodox marriages as a mission field or something like it. Why – so they can get a non-Greek speaker into a parish that possibly has services 75% in Greek?

    Some folks might have a talent for foreign languages – my convert priest does. Thus, a parish with services primarily in another language might be a challenge and a joy to them. I do not have a talent for foreign languages. It is not spiritually edifying to me to attend services that are not in my native tongue. Needless to say, I tend to avoid Greek parishes like the plague.

    I even have a first-generation Greek friend who is sick of the ethnic club atmosphere at her Greek parish in the Northeast and is looking for an OCA parish to transfer to.

    Sorry, I try not to “Greek bash” but my experiences have been overwhelmingly unpositive.

    “You not Greek. Why you here? Why you Orthodox? You not Greek.”

  • Alexei


    I understand that you’re not trying to bash anyone.

    I went with a group of Russian students to Liturgy at a ROCOR church here that still uses Old Church Slavonic. Even though my name is Russian, I’m not–in fact, my Russian is quite poor. I can’t tell you how much harder it was to stand through the whole thing and pay attention when I couldn’t understand what was being said. And I was in a better position to understand than most–being a Reader, and an acolyte, I have a good feel for the structure of the service.

    But what is much more interesting is that, according to my girlfriend (a genuine Russian), most of the Russian people don’t understand Slavonic either.

    What is there to do? We have a great challenge before us–deciding what is idolatry and what is tradition. The history of the mission in the Orthodox Church attests to the fact that She wants Her people to understand Her. Of course, with language constantly evolving, how often would we need to revise the translations?

    Господи, помилоий!

    In Christ,

  • Aaron Chupp

    I am not Greek, but I am a member of a Greek Orthodox Church. I am of typical
    American heritage. Our services are 50 % Greek, but we have an English translation to follow.

    For me the start, or transition was slow (converting from a tradtional protestant denomination to Orthodoxy) but I am very greatful for the tradition that is well preserved in the my Greek church.

    Its connection with monastisim, and unbending stance on Holy Tradition I felt was what Orthodoxy is.

    It was almost helpful for me, that I had to make an effort to purse this faith. I did not feel a rejection. Instead I am just like every other member Greek or not. I have a great reverance and respect for my spirtual father, my priest. As I was reborn in Orthodoxy, he is truely my father and guide.

    I am comforted that the tradition is held, to keep the faith in check. All of our teaching is in English, but the divine litergy is unchanged in Greek.

  • Parker S

    After watching my former denomination, the Episcopalians, self destruct this summer,I think that jurisdictionalism is a good theng. Why? Because with no leader there can be no “innovations” in worship. I have become perturbed that our priest, a former byzantine, demands that we sit like protestants during much of the service. With a church under one administration innovations can become law overnightbecause the church administratin orders it. Just look at the episcopalians. In less than 30 years they have gone form a traditional service to allowing priestesses to say anything they please and call it worship (hership?). With no central authority, there is no one that can enforce innovations. I am sure that if we had a central authority in America there would be lots of “progresive” bishops correcting “injustices” in the “text” of the liturgy. Instead of the church of now and forever and for ages of ages, we could easily become the church of the last 15 minutes. Let’s keep our 15 jusridictions that act as a brake on “progressive” thinking and keep the church centered on worship

  • David Palmer

    As someone standing in the reformed confessional tradition and belonging to a denomination that is thoroughly orthodox, I feel zero attraction to converting to Orthodoxy. However I have a dear Orthodox brother in Christ (Armenian), a priest as I am a pastor, and I value the fact that my brother and his fellow Orthodox are unswerving in their devotion to Christ and the (honourable) tradition of their Church.

    Thank God for the Orthodox even as we say shame to those in Protestantism and Catholicism who have departed from the faith yet occupy positions of power within the church.

  • Matt

    Well, there are at least two key issues, as I see it, regarding unity among Orthodox in America:

    1. I suspect part of the reason the “extra” jurisdictions exist is that a substantial amount of money flows back to the “old countries,” who may have a shortage of worshippers (only 2,000 or so in Istanbul nee Constantinople; the Ecumenical Patriarchate would be much reduced by the loss of the GOA.)

    2. Before there were “jurisdictions” we had parishes reflecting various traditions. Assuming in a united church in America we could sort out who would be bishop over whom, could we then keep the bishops from messing up the parishes, by trying to change them (add pews, remove pews, add or remove organs, change liturgical practices/translations, etc., etc.). The turmoil some felt over the calendar change could end up being a molehill be comparison.

    I also must agree with the concern of Parker S above, not so much about “progressive” bishops, but the fact that so many American churches are using really awful translations of the services. Until after WWII there hadn’t been much call for translations into English; when it started happening in the 60s/70s the work was often infected by that same spirit that caused such a mess for the Catholics after Vatican II. And some of it was done by gentlemen not terribly well qualified (which, given the state of public education with respect to English, both literature and grammar, is hardly surprising). And some of it was done in a tearing hurry. I would hate to have someone jam some of that stuff down my throat because “we must use *modern* English.” It’s not nearly as bad as the junk put out by ICEL for the Catholics, but maybe Church Slavonic wouldn’t be that bad by comparison. ;-)

    Regarding changing the Church Slavonic material to a more modern Russian version, who would you trust? The folks most likely to do a good job are the ones least likely to take up the work, while the folks most wanting to do it are likely those least qualified.

  • Alexei


    I’ve been to a parish around here that uses an organ. It’s taking all of my wonderful, ascetic self-restrain to keep from typing more. ;) Forgive me, though, if this offends you.

    I don’t know who I would trust to do a Russian translation, mostly because I’m unfamiliar with the state of the Church in Russia. According the my zhenshina, however, it’s not so good–many of the hierarchy were former KGB, and much of the theology has become downright reactionary. Perhaps someone could give me a different perspective on the matter…

    In Christ,

  • Glenn

    Sorry, a little late on this, but my thoughts:

    I live in a Canadian city with a pretty significant Ukrainian-descended population.

    As a result there are many Ukrainian Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic (Uniate) churches here.

    However, most of them are “ethnic ghettos” – they advertise “bilingual” services, which basically means the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and a version of the sermon are said in English and Ukrainian, which means that well over 50% of each service is still in Ukrainian exclusively (although there are bilingual service books available, but they were published in the 1960′s and some of the service order/specific phrases have changed).

    What this means is that the churches are full for (Old Calendar) Easter and Christmas, and pretty much devoid of anyone younger than 55 the rest of the time (I’m in my late 20′s, so there is really no one remotely my age to associate or fellowship with).

    I am partially ethnically Ukrainian, and some of my family are still Orthodox, so my mother likes to go sometimes and I join her, but I can’t in good conscience join a church so isolated – how is doing no outreach (other than visiting a couple of nursing homes a couple of times a month) the mission of the Church?

    There is 1 much smaller OCA church in the area, haven’t been there yet, but am planning on going soon. Even then, I only know about them because I specifically went looking for them, not because they did any outreach/advertising, which concerns me a bit. Unfortunately, no Antiochian parishes in my area (which in my reading seem to be fairly seeker-friendly).

    So, ultimately, it would be ideal to have a unified Orthodox structure, but from what I’ve seen as an interested outsider, in North America there is still a considerable amount of “ethnic resistance” that makes this unlikely to happen anytime soon.

    Secondly, specifically re: Alexei’s comment on the state of the Russian church – after the revolution and the establishment of the USSR the Moscow Patriarchate basically coerced the national churches of the “republics” into becoming subservient to the MP, where previously some had ties to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Officially it was structured like the political USSR – technically independent churches, but ultimately controlled by Moscow (which, incidentally, is why statistics keep showing that the MP has either the most or almost the most parishioners in Orthodoxy – most of them aren’t actually members of the ROC proper, but of the national churches that “report” to the MP).

    This has been a matter of considerable debate in the Ukrainian diaspora, and in Ukraine itself. The MP steadfastly refuses to relinquish it’s grip on the satellite national churches, and Ukrainians in general are getting annoyed with the MP’s foray into politics (eg, some ROC hierarchs publicly favoured the pro-Moscow candidate in the Ukrainian presidential elections a couple of years ago). This has led to the establishment of an “autocephalous” Ukrainian Orthodox Church inside the Ukraine in parallel with the “official” church (still in league with the MP).

    So, in short, I personally wouldn’t be willing to trust much that comes out of the MP until it’s willing to correct it’s blatantly un-Christian historical wrongs in full. To it’s credit, it has moved to recognize some of the “new martyrs” (those killed under Communism for their faith), but the rest of it seems to be a long way coming.