Week after week, Eastern Orthodox hierarchs guide their flocks through the incense-shrouded rites that define their ancient faith.
Bishops also become experts at another intricate ritual -- banquets.
So Metropolitan Philip, the Antiochian Orthodox archbishop of North America, was not surprised when he was asked to make a few remarks at the final banquet of the 2004 Clergy-Laity Congress of the Greek Orthodox Church in New York City. He was surprised when Greek Archbishop Demetrios indicated that this was more than a polite request.
"I reminded him that when I speak, I tell it like it is," said Philip.
What happened next caused shock waves that reached all the way to Istanbul, even if the archbishop's words would have seemed mild to outsiders who could not break the Byzantine code.
Philip addressed the delegates as Americans -- not Greeks.
The Lebanese-born archbishop said it was time to challenge the ties that bind the new world to the old. He said what he has been saying since 1966, when he assumed control of a diocese that has grown from 66 to 250 parishes on his watch.
Philip brought greetings from Patriarch Ignatius IV in Damascus and his ancient church founded by Peter and Paul. Then he ventured into an ecclesiastical minefield, offering greetings from the 1000 Antiochian Orthodox delegates who, days earlier, had voted unanimously to approve what many Greek lay people have long demanded -- a constitution granting them control of their own church in North America.
The delegates burst into applause. Philip plunged on.
"I told them that if I could sum up this new constitution, I would begin with the words, 'We the people,' " he said. "The hall erupted again. I told them we cannot ignore this truth -- Americans are infested with freedom. We cannot ignore that our churches are in America and we are here to stay."
That was all Philip needed to say. Nikki Stephanopoulos, the veteran press officer for the Greek archdiocese, described the scene this way: "It would be accurate to say that he received an enthusiastic response."
The response was different in Istanbul. According to the National Herald, the Greek-American daily newspaper, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew criticized Demetrios for allowing Philip to "spread his propaganda in favor of establishing an autocephalous," or independent, "Orthodox Church in America!" When Demetrios said that Philip spoke as vice president of the Standing Council of Canonical Bishops in the Americas, Bartholomew reportedly exclaimed: "You should have stopped him!"
Months later, Metropolitan Philip continues to travel from altar to altar and banquet to banquet, offering his own people an even blunter version of the sermon he preached to the Greeks. This past week he was in West Palm Beach, Fla.
The archbishop continues to tell familiar stories about life in the Middle East. He still asks second- and third-generation Arab children if they can speak Arabic.
But Philip said Eastern Orthodox Christians must embrace Americans who seek ancient roots in the confusion of modern times. This will mean learning from converts who are not afraid to use words like "missions," "tithing" and even "evangelism." A symbolic sign of change: One of his newly consecrated bishops once taught biblical studies at Oral Roberts University.
Change will be difficult, but bishops must realize that they are called to spread their faith to others, not just to "to preserve it for ourselves," he said. The heart of Orthodoxy must stay the same, but it is not enough to "put our faith into pickle jar and preserve it. We have enough pickles in America already."
Orthodox leaders will find a way to save the traditions of their homelands, said Philip. But the clergy and laity must realize that their own children and grandchildren are Americans who need a faith that is stronger than old music, familiar foods, folk dancing and traces of an ancient language.
"I believe in Orthodox unity, with diversity," he stressed. "We will not melt into the Greek archdiocese and the Greeks will not melt into our archdiocese. ... But we must have a united synod that speaks to this country. We must speak to America, not as Arabs and Greeks and Russians and Romanians and Bulgarians. We need to speak with one Orthodox voice on the issues that affect our country and our country is America."