Anyone who has, for the past 20 years or so, followed the joys and sorrows of Eastern Orthodoxy in the United States knows that at least two important trends can be seen, all at the same time. The story that has received the most media attention is the rise of the "evangelical Orthodox" and others who are converting into this ancient faith. I have been part of that story, of course, on both sides of the notebook. This is a story of the slow growth of an American expression of Orthodoxy, a process both painful and encouraging.
The other trend, however, is linked to the struggles of many -- but not all -- Orthodox parishes in the United States that are defined, for the most part, in terms of ethnicity and their ties to the "old country," whatever that old country might be. This story has received little media attention.
But if you want to start somewhere to understand this second, painful, trend -- click here, sit down and read. This will take you to a news feature in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the struggles of several Eastern Christian churches, not all of them Orthodox, in the old, hip, resurgent neighborhood known as Northern Liberties. The writing by David O'Reilly is quite good and I only have one major complaint about the reporting, which I will mention later. You must read the whole story.
Let it sink in, in all of its sadness. Here's a crucial chunk of this long feature, near the top:
The ages-old glow of Christendom's most elaborate, enigmatic liturgy no longer is a guiding light for the community. But inside St. Andrew's Russian Orthodox Cathedral, beneath four blue onion domes, the sanctuary is as luminous as the day it opened in 1902, if not nearly as brimful of youth and hope.
The Rev. Mark Shinn, bearded and gold-caped, appears through the "royal door" before the altar, an ornate chalice in each hand. Murmuring a prayer, he raises the goblets toward the worshipers, who bow and make the sign of the cross under the wide-eyed gaze of saintly icons. In a gesture of humility, some sweep their fingertips across the oak floor. A few prostrate themselves to kiss it.
They do not retake their seats. There aren't any. The congregants stand for a candlelit service lasting at least two hours and celebrated almost wholly in Old Church Slavonic, an archaic Eastern European tongue.
On a typical Sunday, about 80 people attend. For that, the archpriest is grateful.
"We keep no rolls and collect no dues," Shinn said. "If you come, you're a member."
If you come.
The neighborhood used to be the safe, transforming landing place for immigrants. Now it is emerging as the spiritual home of young urbanites who define themselves as, yes, "spiritual," but not "religious." Who wants to go to church, let alone one in an ancient tongue? This is life in the post-denominational, post-doctrinal world. The only creed is that there are no creeds, unless they focus on the environment or other worthwhile causes.
One pastor sadly quips, "We'd probably do better if we had a doggy day care."
O'Reilly does a stunning job of painting the historic context for what is happening now, flashing back into the good old days when the churches were full and pastors knew that their mission was to provide a home to those who were settling so far from home.
So what is missing?
What is missing is the broader picture of what is happening in Orthodoxy elsewhere in greater Philadelphia, in areas where multi-ethnic and pan-Orthodox parishes are greeting newcomers with open arms, when, of course, the newcomers come seeking a place to practice the faith of Eastern Orthodoxy.
There is one nod to small changes in a few of the Northern Liberties parishes. At least two Russian heritage churches switched to English liturgies and some new members arrived. However, the older members of the parish are not sure that they want to allow these newcomers to threaten what one pastor calls "their authority, their prestige."
It's a sad story, but an important story. A few years ago, I was invited to speak to a national assembly of Orthodox laypeople on this topic -- "What do the converts want?" Here is one pivotal part of my address, which may or may not be linked to what is happening in this one corner of Philadelphia.
America is all about assimilation. But I need to stress that Orthodox believers face two different forms of assimilation. One asks them to assimilate into America at the level of culture and language. The other tempts them to assimilate on the level of doctrine and practice.
I believe that Orthodox Christians have divided into two different camps, whether this choice is conscious or unconscious. In many parishes, we see people who are struggling to assimilate into American culture, but don't know what parts to accept. They are struggling to retain their language and to some extent their art. But on the level of faith and practice, they have already assimilated and their children have as well. You walk into their homes and you see little or no iconography. Yet when you walk into their church, they are not speaking English.
It's an interesting mix of what they've given up and what they've chosen to cling to. As an Orthodox priest of an ethnic parish once told me: "Most of the members of my congregation have never been to confession in their lives. They have no idea that this even exists as a part of our church. They see no connection between confession and the life of our parish and the sacramental reality of our parish."
So, let me offer some sad, but sincere, applause for O'Reilly and the team that produced this deep, vivid story. I hope they explore some other sanctuaries, looking for the other side of the Orthodox equation here in the "new country."
Top photo: From the "Weekend in Philadephia" page at Cgunson.com.