Beyond Orthodox folk dancing

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."

After the Iakovos earthquake

When Archbishop Iakovos first became America's Greek Orthodox shepherd, he spent most of his time helping immigrants follow a familiar faith in a strange land.

That was in 1959. By the time he finished his 37-year reign, the Turkish-born archbishop faced a different challenge -- helping American converts find their place in the unfamiliar sanctuaries of Eastern Christianity.

Iakovos knew that America would change the Greeks, challenging their faith and traditions. He also knew that Americans would change his church, in ways that would help an ancient faith reach modern America. He spent the final decades of his long life wrestling with both sides of that equation.

"I cannot visualize what an American Orthodoxy would look like. ... But I believe that it will exist. I know that it must be born," said Iakovos, while visiting Denver's Assumption Greek Orthodox Cathedral in 1992.

"I do know this for sure. The essential elements of the Orthodox tradition will have to remain at the heart of whatever grows in this land. The heart has to remain the same, or it will not touch peoples' souls. It will not be truly Orthodox. I know that this will happen here, but I do not know when it will happen or how."

The 93-year-old archbishop died on April 10 without fanfare, although he was an almost mythic figure among Greek Americans and mainline ecumenical leaders.

Soon after becoming archbishop, Iakovos met with Pope John XXIII, the first formal meeting between an Orthodox leader and a pope in 350 years. This opened a door for later reconciliation efforts between the ancient churches of east and west.

The archbishop marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, Ala., and then appeared -- in his flowing black robes -- with King and other civil rights activists on the cover of Time magazine. It was an early glimpse of Orthodoxy on the main stage of American public life.

Iakovos met with presidents, earned a Harvard Divinity School degree, led interfaith dialogues, asked Arab Christians to seek peace, lobbied for human rights and, in 1980, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The official church obituary hailed him as a "role model for American Greek Orthodox Christians, thoroughly committed to the vital democracy of his adopted country without forfeiting the ageless values of Greek culture or abandoning Greek Orthodoxy's spiritual and ecclesiastical roots in the Church of Constantinople."

Nevertheless, it was a showdown with the hierarchy in Turkey that forced his exit.

In 1960, Iakovos pushed to create the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas to promote cooperation between Greeks, Arabs, Russians, Romanians, Serbians and other Orthodox believers.

Then in 1994, he dared to chair a summit for bishops committed to "bringing our household into order" and seeking a plan for Orthodox unity in America.

The document released after that Ligonier, Pa., meeting boldly said: "We commit ourselves to avoiding the creation of parallel and competitive Orthodox parishes, missions, and mission programs. We commit ourselves to common efforts and programs to do mission, leaving behind piecemeal, independent, and spontaneous efforts, ... moving forward towards a concerted, formal, and united mission program in order to make a real impact on North America through Orthodox mission and evangelism."

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was furious, seeing this as an effort to weaken ecclesiastical and financial ties with Istanbul. Then Iakovos retired, stunning Orthodox leaders in America. His exit was an earthquake and the aftershocks have not stopped.

Today, Orthodox unity here remains a dream. But it's impossible to study the media, education and missions work that Orthodox churches are now doing together without seeing signs of the changes that Iakovos believed were coming. The problem is finding a way to express centuries of Orthodox tradition in such a pluralistic, intensely Protestant land.

"Orthodoxy still has not found its niche yet in American life," said Father Christopher Metropulos, executive director of the multi-ethnic, convert-friendly Orthodox Christian Network based in Ford Lauderdale, Fla. "It hasn't found its unique voice for speaking to this culture. I think the archbishop knew that. ...

"But it is too late to stop the changes. We are working together. We are starting to do mission work together. We are Orthodox and we are in America. That's the reality."

No need for Orthodox pickles

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."