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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