These were the sad, sobering conversations that priests have when no one else is listening.
Father John Peck kept hearing other priests pour out their frustrations on the telephone. Some, like Peck, were part of the Orthodox Church in America, a church with Russian roots that has been rocked by years of high-level scandals. But others were active in churches with “old country” ties back to other Eastern Orthodox lands.
“These men really felt that their churches weren’t getting anywhere,” he said. “They kept saying, ‘What am I giving my life for? What have I accomplished?’ I kept trying to cheer them up, telling them to look 20 years down the road. … I told them to try to see the bigger picture.”
Eventually, the 46-year-old priest wrote an article about the positive Orthodox trends in America, as well as offering candid talk about the problems faced by some of his friends. He finished “The Orthodox Church of Tomorrow” soon after arriving at the Greek Orthodox mission in Prescott, Ariz., and sent it to the American Orthodox Institute — which published the article in late September on its website.
Bishops, priests and laypeople — some pleased, some furious — immediately began forwarding Peck’s article from one end of Orthodox cyberspace to the other. I received some of these urgent emails, since I am an Orthodox convert whose name is on several public websites.
After a few days, Peck asked that his article be pulled offline. Now the question is whether, after a scheduled Oct. 16 conference with his bishop, he will still have a job.
While his article addressed several hot-button topics — from fundraising to sexual ethics — Peck said it was clear which theme caused the firestorm.
“The notion that traditionally Orthodox ethnic groups (the group of ‘our people’ we hear so much about from our primates and hierarchs) are going to populate the ranks of the clergy, and therefore, the Church in the future is, frankly, a pipe dream,” he wrote. The reality is that many American clergy and laity — some converts, but many ethnic leaders as well — refuse to “accept the Church as a club of any kind, or closed circle kaffeeklatsch. No old world embassies will be tolerated for much longer. …“The passing away of the Orthodox Church as ethnic club is already taking place. It will come to fruition in a short 10 years, 15 years in larger parishes.”
Church statistics are, as a rule, almost impossible to verify. However, experts think there are 250 million Orthodox believers worldwide — the second largest Christian flock — and somewhere between 1.2 and 5 million worshipping in the 22 ethnic jurisdictions in North America. That huge statistical gap is crucial.
The problem is that Orthodoxy is experiencing two conflicting trends in America. Some parishes and missions are growing, primarily due to an influx of converts — especially evangelicals — from other churches. Meanwhile, many larger congregations are getting older, while watching the children and grandchildren of their ethnic founders assimilate into the American mainstream.
Thus, many Orthodox leaders are excited about the future. Others are just as frustrated about their problems in the here and now.
Thriving American parishes, said Peck, are finding ways to blend some of the traditions of the old world with strong efforts to build churches that welcome newcomers, whether they are converts or the so-called ethnic “reverts” who rediscover the church traditions of earlier generations.
The best place to see the big picture, he said, is in America’s Orthodox seminaries. One study found that nearly half of the future priests are converts and that percentage is sure to be higher in the evangelistic churches that emphasize worship and education in English.
“When I talk about the churches of the future, I’m not talking about churches without ethnic roots,” said Peck. “What I’m talking about are churches in which there are no barriers to prevent people from working and living and worshipping together. It doesn’t matter whether the people inside are Greek or Hispanic or Arab or Asian or Russian or Polynesian or anything else.
“All of these people are supposed to be in our churches, together, if we are going to get serious about building Orthodoxy in America. It’s no longer enough to have folk dancing and big ethnic festivals. Those days are over.”