A wave of OrthoNews, without the news

herman1A strange thing happened on Sunday as I cruised around the online newspaper world. I ran into a mini-wave of coverage of Eastern Orthodoxy.

When I hit the first story, in The Washington Post, I thought to myself: “Behold! Someone in this newsroom has timed this local story about Orthodox converts for this date, knowing that there is a national or even international Orthodox news hook available to make it timely.”

And what is that news hook? Well, here is the top of the Associated Press report by Rachel Zoll that has run in many newspapers during the past few days.

American Orthodox Christian leaders will hold their third joint meeting this week, a gathering aimed at strengthening ties among their churches, which began splintering along ethnic lines a century ago.

But the chance is small to nonexistent that the movement will take up unifying into one U.S. church — the dream of some laity and clergy — at the meeting of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas.

This Chicago conference is a rather big deal, even if it does not lead directly to the creation of one united Eastern Orthodox flock in North America. What it might do is show which churches truly want this step to take place and which do not. It may also lead to some of the Orthodox bodies working harder on united projects in missions, education and evangelism.

So I was thinking that the Post mini-feature by Timothy Wilson about the local St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral must be linked to this highly symbolic moment, seeing as how this is the national cathedral of the Orthodox Church in America.

As it turned out, the story contained some nice details about architecture and iconography, but not a single word about the Chicago meeting. It was a nice little story, but it did not contain the news of the day.

A few minutes later, I ran into a much more ambitious story in the Los Angeles Times — dateline Tatitlek, Alaska — by Sam Howe Verhovek. The headline proclaimed: “In Alaska, a Tradition of Russian Faith: Those who brought the Orthodox church here are long gone, but the diocese is thriving.”

Well now, I thought, what an interesting way to approach the story. To put a frame around the importance of the Chicago meetings, the paper of record on the West Coast has elected to dig all the way back to the birth of the Orthodox faith in this land (set aside the trailblazing work of St. Brendan of Ireland for a moment).

Alas, no — writers and editors behind this story also seem to have had no idea that the Chicago meeting was about to take place. This is a crying shame, since the Verhovek piece contains so many fine details about the past. It would have been nice to see this story linked to the future.

In nearly 100 villages and towns along the Alaskan coast, from the tip of the Aleutian Islands to the onetime Russian-American capital of Sitka, the Russian Orthodox churches remain the most visible — often the most colorful — man-made landmarks. … Although many of the people who care for the churches have names like Totemoff, Kompkoff, Gregoriev and Vlasoff, they do so with a curious distinction: They have little or no Russian blood.

“Many of us have never even seen a Russian,” says Gary Kompkoff, the elected village chief in Tatitlek, letting out a small laugh. “Most of us are full-blooded Aleut. It was very long ago that the Russians were here, of course.”

The diocese’s modest growth is almost all in the Anchorage area, where it has opened five new churches in the last decade as well as a museum that tells the tale of the faith in Alaska. The church’s leader here is the Right Rev. Bishop Nikolai, the bishop of Sitka, Anchorage and Alaska. …

The bishop, who formally uses just one name, says the Alaska diocese has also invested in its St. Herman seminary on Kodiak Island. It is named for a man who was among the first 10 Russian monks to come to Alaska, in 1794, and who became North America’s first Orthodox saint.

Like I said, this is a story that could have had a strong news hook — only it does not appear the anyone in the newsroom knew that.

Image: St. Herman of Alaska

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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.

  • Mark V.

    Tmatt states that the Chicago conference “…might do is show which churches truly want this step to take place and which do not”. It has been long apparent that the GOA clergy and laity have no intention of joining any united church lest their ethnic identity be diluted. Constantinople has always pushed those buttons in order not to lose its cash cow. It’s a shame since a stronger Orthodox Christian mission will only strengthen one’s cultural identity. Moreover, the mission of the Church is to proclaim the Gospel, not to maintain a certain language or ethnic culture. The Ottoman occupation was such a shock to the Greek identity that the Greeks will never able to bring forth another Cyril and Methodius. I left the GOA many years ago and haven’t looked back; I don’t need a dead parish to bolster my identity. I believe the OCA and AOA, once they resolve their administrative problems, are the only hope for a united North American Orthodox Church with an evangelistic mindset.

  • Alyssa

    Fr. White would know better, but I was told by Timothy Wilson that his piece this Sunday was supposed to have run on Sept. 1st, but got bumped back a month as another story took priority. And his was less of a “news of the day story” than it was part of a monthly religion series that the Post does called “Open House” which is why there is no reference to the SCOBA meetings this week.

  • http://janvbear.blogspot.com Jan Bear

    I don’t dispute Mark V.’s experience, but I say that in Portland, Oregon, the Greek parishes are vibrant communities, reaching out to new members, with sizable numbers of converts and doing much good work for the community. (And I’m in an OCA parish.)

    But that doesn’t change the fact that the Patriarch of Constantinople apparently sees his American flock as a buffer against the Turks.

  • Alexei

    Well, tmatt, at least they didn’t go on about chiregi recipes or Easter eggs.

  • Dominic Glisinski

    The L.A.Times article on the Russian Orthodox in Alaska contains what I think is the universal survivability of Eastern Orthodoxy. The “synthesis” mentioned seems to indicate that the Faith is not some foreign add-on to native culture, but actually something that is internalised, embraced, and made one’s own. It is precisely why typical pietistic fundamentalism of the Bible thumper charismatic strain is so demonstrably “affluent Westerner” oriented,it can survive only in a culture that soothes, nurtures, and coddles the prosperous protestant dreams of a lazy race.

  • Mark V.

    I agree with Jan Bear on both points. Several people have told me that the Pacific Northwest has de facto unity with respect to significant coordination and fellowship among parishes regardless of jurisdiction. The New York metropolitan area is a different story since it is dominated by immigrants. The GOA parishes here consist of “yia-yia-ology” (grandma theology), laundered diner owner money, and ethnic festivals. Converts in NY Metro GOA parishes are almost all spouses, but Hellenization is really the goal.

  • http://www.orthodoxdetroit.com Dean C

    Mark V is exactly right…Hellenization is absolutely the mission of the GOA – at a minimum it has become a co-mission. Ironic since for the first 1500 years of the Church, to be called a “Hellene” was actually an insult (ie pagan).

    I also left the GOA a few years ago, once I realized that things like spiritual growth and certainly unity were way down the list of priorities for that jurisdiction. The AOCA and the OCA are absolutely the hope for the future. The GOA will wind up as curators of 535 Byzantine museums.

    Someone tell them we’re not getting Hagia Sophia back!!!

  • CG

    Orthodox unity in America really doesn’t depend on working with the GOA, anyway. The Greek Orthodox Church in the U.S. will be gone in 25 years, give or take a few years. Why? Consider the current trends in the GOA: most of the older folks are dying off; the younger folks are leaving the GOA in droves; and the few converts they tolerate don’t make up for the number of people leaving the church. If these trends continue (which they likely will), in about 20 years there won’t be much of a Greek Orthodox presence in America. The Antiochians and the OCA are the only game in town.

    I’m not saying that any effort toward unity should close the door to the Greeks. The door should always stay open, but we must leave it to the Greeks to enter the door. In the meantime, the OCA and Antiochians should just work together as much as possible, and not worry too much about what the GOA has to say about it. Whatever happens, the GOA’s days are numbered.

  • MattK

    Ummmm, I know St. Herman was officially canonized first, but St. Peter the Aleut actually attained sainthood via martydom (in San Francisco) long long before St. Herman’s canonization? It would, I think, be more correct to refer to St. Peter as “North America’s first Orthodox saint.”

    (Also, let’s be nice to and pray for the GOA.)

  • Mark V.

    I agree again with both CG and MattK. We need to move ahead with unity and evangelism, but have constructive discussions with the GOA. As the demographic trends cited by CG affect the GOA, it will become possible to get beyond the ethnic distractions. However, those discussions should exclude Hellenism as the dominant theme and mission. All ethnic activity should be moved out of the Church proper into organizations similar to the Sons of Italy or the Order of Hibernians, although they should maintain affiliations with the united church.

  • http://eorthodox.blogspot.com/ Leo Peter O’Filon

    Actually St. Juvenaly of Iliamna and his companion whose name is known to God, were martyred by the Yup’ik Eskimos 15-20 years before my namesake, St. Peter the Aleut. The Yup’ik are now great Orthodox, and may be about to give us a recognized Saint of their own in Matushka Olga Michael.