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The American Orthodox Challenge: Some Transatlantic Notes

This is the greatness and misery of modern civilization - that it has conquered the world by losing its own soul, and that when its soul is lost, it must lose the whole world as well.

Christopher Dawson, The Judgement of the Nation (1943), p.68


Today I write what I have not wanted to write. Having visited the United States only twice and Canada never, I feel unqualified to write about Orthodoxy in North America. In other words, I am reluctant to write anything, because I know the situation in North America less well than in Western Europe. However, again and again over the last two years, I have received messages from members of many different jurisdictions asking me to write something and sending me factual information. If any suggest that I am being overly critical of one jurisdiction in particular, I would like to say that the most virulent critics of Orthodox jurisdictions in the USA seem to me to be their own members. Thus, OCA clergy seem to be the most critical of the OCA, Antiochian of the Antiochian jurisdiction, Greeks of the Greek Archdiocese and so on.

I must add that my reluctance to say anything about the American religious scene is all the greater, in that I write from Western Europe, now the most irreligious place on earth. Americans (I speak of the people, not necessarily their governments) are well-known for their religiosity, generosity, warm-heartedness, openness and support. Western Europeans (especially, alas!, the English) are well-known for their hypocrisy and mass indifference, if not open hostility, to religion. Whereas 50% of Americans practise, only 5% of Western Europeans do. And I am well aware that the faults that exist in North America were all imported from Western Europe. As my title says, these are only notes.

Introduction: American Culture

Two elements appear to dominate American culture. The first is money, symbolized by the Almighty Dollar. The second is Puritanism, symbolized by the Pilgrim Fathers, and their Congregationalist Calvinism of New England. Both currents are the interlinked results of sectarian Protestantism, born in north-western Europe in the sixteenth century, persecuted there for its intolerance and extremism, and afterwards exiled to North America.

On the one hand, the Protestant world believed in the illusion that God had created it to grow rich by exploiting the despised material world. It thought that only sinners are poor, for money is God's blessing. In this way, the Protestant movement gave birth to Capitalism and modern materialism. The $ sign, a barred eight (from pieces of eight), has become the international logo for mammon: 'In gold we trust'.

On the other hand, the Protestant world at the same time despised matter and material things, because its faith was anti-sacramental. Thus, they did not believe that bread and wine could be transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, they did not believe that the material world could be an outward sign of inward spiritual content. Thus, they rejected the veneration of the cross, of holy images and of saints' relics. They did not believe that the material world could convey spiritual values, that it could be a vehicle of the Holy Spirit. Although they did not realize this at that time, they were as a result to become the fathers of secularization, for the implications of their beliefs went much further than they had thought.

Firstly, contempt for matter, material things, also meant contempt for human things. It meant contempt for the human body, everything physical. This belief, known as Puritanism, led directly to contempt for women. Later, by the nineteenth century, it would also lead to the incineration of the bodies of the departed - always so shocking for Orthodox Christians. When economic conditions allowed, it would also lead to obesity - the neglect of the human body. However, if there was contempt for matter, this also meant that the material world could be ruthlessly exploited. This led to massive environmental damage with its ‘Edge Cities’, developed in North America as a consequence of Protestant-based Capitalism.

In fact, we see that this contempt for materialism leads to the exploitation and abuse of material things. Thus, since the main value was the Protestant ideology, there grew up a contempt for those of Non-Protestant origin, Non-north-west Europeans, 'Non-WASPS', Non-White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, became second-class citizens. Whether contemptuously called 'Latinos', ‘Slavics’, ‘Yellows’, ‘Browns’, ‘Blacks’, or just, in general, 'ethnics', these were second-class citizens, 'material beings' to be exploited. It comes as no surprise to learn that many on the Mayflower were not actually 'Pilgrim Fathers', persecuted Puritans, but traders. Moreover, the second and third voyages of the Mayflower itself carried not 'pilgrims', but slaves.

Of course, it is true that in recent decades, there has been a reaction to the old Puritanism. It has in fact been replaced with new forms of Puritanism, fanatical feminist or anti-tobacco or environmental lobbies. Thus, we understand something of the cultural background that was encountered by waves of Orthodox immigration into North America. Exactly how numerous are those waves of immigrants in Church terms today?

Orthodox Church Statistics in North America

In order to answer this question, I will quote from the recent study by Alexei Krindach (Moscow Institute of Geography) of 22 major Orthodox and Monophysite jurisdictions in the USA. The study was sponsored by the 'Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies', as part of the nationwide 'Religious Congregations Membership Study 2000'. The data were obtained directly from the diocesan offices of Orthodox jurisdictions by personal visits and interviews with bishops or chancellors.

According to this, the real membership of all the Orthodox Churches in the USA is about 1,200,000. This figure is much less than the commonly accepted figure, which is well over four million. The greatest 'discrepancies' between claimed and actual memberships were found in the two largest Orthodox jurisdictions. Thus, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese claimed 1,954,500 members, versus 440,000 actual adherents. (The claimed Greek membership is from the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, National Council of Churches, 2000). However, the most extreme case of exaggeration was that of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) - 2,000,000, as quoted in its 2006 Court case, versus 115,000 actual adherents! The most likely reason for such 'discrepancies' is the practice of equating Church membership with the total number of representatives of a corresponding ethnic group, including second and third American generations of original immigrants, independent of their actual relationship to the jurisdiction.

In these statistics 'Membership' is defined as full members aged over 18, paying regular annual membership fees and officially recorded as members by the jurisdiction. 'Adherents 'are generally defined as all those baptized Orthodox, who are well known to the local parish and attend church services several times a year (at least, major celebrations such as Easter etc) and their children. Here is the breakdown of the 14 main Orthodox jurisdictions in order of numbers of parishes:

1. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Parishes: 525 Membership: No data. Adherents: 440,000.
2. Orthodox Church in America (OCA). (Figures include Canada). Parishes: 456. Membership: 39,400. Adherents: 115,100.
3. Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese. Parishes: 206. Membership: 41,840 Adherents: 83,700.
4. Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. Parishes. 128. Membership: No data. Adherents: No data.
5. Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA. Parishes: 106. Membership: 9,200. Adherents: 30,000.
6. Serbian Orthodox Church in the USA. Parishes: 78. Membership: No data. Adherents: 57,500.
7. American Carpatho-Russian Greek Catholic Diocese of USA. Parishes: 76. Membership: 11,753. Adherents: 20,000.
8. Serbian Orthodox Church. Parishes: 40. Membership: No data. Adherents: No data.
9. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Vasiloupolis. Parishes: 39. Membership: 5,000. Adherents: 28,500
10. Patriarchal Russian Orthodox Church. Parishes: 33. Membership: No data. Adherents: No data.
11. Holy Orthodox Church in North America (HOCNA). Parishes: 25. Membership: No data. Adherents: 1,900.
12. Macedonian Orthodox Church in USA. Parishes: 16. Membership: Not available. Adherents: 14,500.
13. Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese in America and Canada. Parishes: 14. Membership: No data. Adherents: 6,200.
14. Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Diocese of the USA. Parishes: 9. Membership: No data. Adherents: 4,340.

Three Types of Jurisdiction

Looking at the above statistics, we can see three types of jurisdiction. First of all, there are what we would call 'National Jurisdictions'. Secondly, there are ‘Ethnic Jurisdictions’. Thirdly, there are 'Old Calendarist Jurisdictions’.

a) 'National Jurisdictions'

It should be borne in mind that all of the above jurisdictions contain minorities. However, in most cases, as with the largest, the Greek jurisdiction, these minorities are generally tiny. The former is basically an ethnic Greek jurisdiction. On the other hand, jurisdictions Nos 2 and 3, the OCA and the Antiochian jurisdictions, can to some extent claim to be ‘National Jurisdictions’. For example, in the OCA there is a very large minority of Romanians, Bulgarians, Albanians, as well as Anglo-Americans. Also the Antiochian jurisdiction has many former conservative evangelical members, many of WASP origin.

These two 'National Jurisdictions', the OCA and Antioch, have made conscious efforts to become 'National Churches', especially in the USA. These two jurisdictions have developed this ethos, because those who founded them did not come from an established State and only wanted to merge with the American mainstream, either not wishing to keep their own culture or simply unable to keep it, because of illiteracy. Thus, the OCA was built on impoverished and oppressed Carpatho-Russian immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, many of them Uniats hoodwinked by Vatican fraudulence. And those who founded the Antiochian jurisdiction were composed of Middle Eastern Arabs, who belonged to a variety of weak States or Protectorates, with little national tradition.

b) The Ethnic Jurisdictions

As regards ethnic jurisdictions, some are more 'ethnic' than others. This particularly concerns the Greek jurisdictions and to some extent ROCOR, though there are several exceptions of Non-Greek and Russian parishes and especially Non-Greek and Russian clergy within both these jurisdictions. However, it is also true of most of the smaller jurisdictions, between Nos. 5 and 14, including Nos 5 and 12, the non-canonical Ukrainian and Macedonian Orthodox Churches. There are also even smaller such jurisdictions, not mentioned above, like the tiny Albanian jurisdiction, which only has two parishes in North America.

These jurisdictions are largely dependent for growth on immigration, by far the largest source of increase within them. With some exceptions, especially ROCOR, they generally have little outreach to citizens outside their own ethnic group and indeed, sometimes do not wish to reach out to others. For many of them, their nationality, or 'blood', is their main raison d'etre, however strange that might seem from an Orthodox Christian, Biblical and Patristic viewpoint.

c) 'Old Calendarist' Jurisdictions

Finally, there are the very small 'Old Calendarist' jurisdictions. A good example is No 11, HOCNA. This is an uncanonical jurisdiction, with several unexplained scandals, which established itself, and is therefore recognized by no-one else and in fact wishes to recognize no-one else. In other words, it is in fact a sect of the 'One True Church' variety. Though claiming 25 parishes, it only has 1,900 adherents. This suggests that its parishes are small and that its actual membership may be well under 1,000. Interestingly, it is based in Boston, and so reflects much of the New England Puritan sectarian (therefore secular) mentality, though ironically claiming to be ultra-Orthodox.

These sects, though usually hiding behind the camouflage of Orthodox Tradition, symbolized by the 'Old' Calendar, are generally based on reactions to the secularism of ‘National Jurisdictions’, with their persecutions of the Orthodox Calendar, and on the ego-trips and mental empires of individual gurus. In this way, they reflect the profound Puritanism and sectarianism of American Protestant culture, and not at all of the Orthodox Church. Many of the tiniest such sects, not listed above because they are too small, are composed purely of an exotic ethnic guru and naive Anglo-American neophytes. They reflect the pathological American search for sectarian 'purity', which exploits Orthodox Christianity for its own unhealthy and sometimes sinister purposes.

Anecdotally, we recall an incident in May this year in San Francisco. An American layman, belonging to one of these tiny 'Orthodox' sects that seem to thrive there, was protesting outside the ROCOR Cathedral and disrupting the solemn services inside. Having decided to appoint himself a monk, he had dressed himself in Orthodox monastic headware, a cross and an ill-fitting cassock and trainers (!), he had various placards, shouting out the most absurd accusations against bishops. When I pointed out to him that his protest was typically Protestant, and that Orthodox do not protest in such a way, but instead pray, he informed me that he was 'a fool-in-Christ'. I was about to reply that genuine fools-in-Christ never claim to be fools-in-Christ, but at that moment he was led away by police.

The Secular and the Spiritual

It seems clear from the above that the Orthodox situation in North America very much reflects North America. In other words, there is a mixture of the secular and the spiritual (Orthodoxy).

'National Jurisdictions' can very easily slip into American secularism because of their desire to be national, that is inclusive of all Americans and therefore all things to all men. This desire to be seen as 'American Orthodox' can mean emphasizing secular values at the expense of Orthodox values. Thus, at one Antiochian parish in California, the 'Christmas Liturgy' was stopped at the Trisagion to sing 'Jingle Bells'. At one OCA parish, they set the Divine Liturgy to guitar music and sang one of the Antiphons to the tune of the cowboy film 'Shenandoah'. The appearance of clean-shaven, clerical-collared clergy dressed in lounge suits and smoking cigarettes (and I have met some of them), so common until recently, symbolizes this secularization.

'Ethnic Jurisdictions' certainly can sometimes keep the spiritual, though of course, they can also just become racial ghettoes, which worship not God, but a nationality and its corresponding folklore. Sometime it is difficult to say whether this is any better than what can happen in some parishes of 'National Jurisdictions'. Frankly, the worship of a nationality cannot seriously be called Christianity.

As regards 'Old Calendarist Jurisdictions’, they too are profoundly secular (though their delusions blind them to it), inasmuch as they merely reflect American Protestant sectarianism. They exist only as a reaction to the secularism of the ‘National Jurisdictions’. For instance, we well recall being told how, in the 60s and 70s, authorities at the largest Greek Theological School in the USA used to pour olive oil on the food of seminarians on fasting days, in order to prevent them from fasting or eating (presumably in order to show that their 'jurisdictional leaders' agreed with the trendy modernism of the Second Vatican Council). And this in the country which, since abandoning fasting, has become the most obese nation on earth, dying in its millions from heart disease and diabetes.

On the negative side, ‘National Jurisdictions’, with their American conformist tendencies, also have a secular basis and little spiritual future. This has been shown in the profoundly secular financial and moral scandals now rocking the OCA. A struggle to achieve a secular status, social and national prestige, ‘a Cathedral in Washington’, with large doses of money, is simply not what the Church is about. As regards the Antiochian jurisdiction, the conformist tendencies of its Arab members seem to have fallen under the influence of conservative evangelicals. Though these are fine and sincere people, many of them appear to have little idea of what the Orthodox Tradition really is. These jurisdictions risk becoming mere Eastern-rite Protestant denominations.

We also have to say that ‘Ethnic Jurisdictions’ which appear to worship the nationality of their own members, instead of the Holy Trinity, have no future. They may have leaves, but inside they are no more than withered fig-trees. They will eventually die out when the waves of immigration that feed them cease. The maintenance of ethnic myths is of no spiritual help.

As regards the tiny sectarian ‘Old Calendarist Jurisdictions’, hiding behind their camouflage of the Tradition and the Old Calendar, they have no part in the long-term future of the Orthodox Church, having deliberately cut themselves off from Her.

But let us not all be European and negative, let us be American and positive also. ‘National Jurisdictions’ have a sense of outreach which is essential if Orthodoxy is to affect mainstream North America, outside folksy ethnic ghettos. ‘Ethnic Jurisdictions’ have a sense of Orthodox Tradition, which is simply missing elsewhere. Anyone who has seen even the crude and stereotypical comedy film ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’, set in Canada, will understand the importance for ethnic Orthodox of family, friendship, community and tradition, as portrayed in it. As regards the ‘Old Calendarist Jurisdictions’, they exist only because of the persecution they have undergone by ‘National Jurisdictions’. Even they bear witness to Orthodox values.

The fact is that those who have controlled most Orthodox jurisdictions in North America since the late 1960s are largely representatives of the second generation of immigrants. They are unlike the first generation, who refusing the melting pot and preferring the ghetto, were profoundly ‘ethnic’, looking back to ‘the old country’. This American-born generation, often born between 1920 and 1945, is either profoundly conformist, with the inferiority complex of all immigrants’ children and desperate to gain acceptance from other Americans, or else more 'ethnic' (but falsely and artificially so) than their parents, and even downright fanatical, unlike their parents. It is this generation which has founded ‘National Jurisdictions’, imposed the ‘new’ calendar, persecuted the faithful and, in so doing, by reaction set up 'Old Calendarist Jurisdictions', with their sectarian and fanatical overtones.

In recent times we in England have seen a parallel to this. Thus, also on a Feast of the Forerunner and Prophet, the Feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist 7 July 2005, some fifty people were killed by terrorist bombs in London. Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, who settled here 40 and more years ago, many of whom never even managed to master English, never caused any problems. However, some of their children, English-born and with a poor or even non-existent command of their parents’ language, have turned into fanatics – joined by English neophytes. These are the ones who set off or plan to set off bombs in London. This is only another example, albeit an extreme one, of the same secular sociological and psychological (and not theological) conditioning that we see within the Orthodox jurisdictions in North America.

Conclusion: American and Orthodox?

It is the second generation, which has lived well beyond the life expectancy of its parents, which has blocked access to control of the third generation. This is unfortunate, because it is a victim of social manipulation, the pressure to integrate. It is the third generation which is usually possessed of some sense of balance. It is this third generation which generally has no complexes about using English – or any other language - in services. And it is this generation which has no complexes either about conserving the spiritual aspects of the heritage of their grandparents, especially promoting monasticism. In other words, it is this third generation which has no complexes in overcoming the polarization between ‘Ethnic’ and ‘National’. They have realized that a language in itself is simply a glass with which to hold the liquid of Orthodoxy. Naturally, the glass should be as worthy, elegant, fine and strong as possible: but it is ultimately only a glass. This is the generation which may yet show that to be American and truly Orthodox is, of course, possible.

It is this third generation which, though perhaps quantitatively small, may prove itself qualitatively large. This is because, it is willing to take on all the positive aspects present on the Orthodox scene in North America, leaving the secular deadwood to be cleared away by the movement of history. In other words, they are willing, sometimes for the first time, to put the spiritual first, leaving the ethnic and secular trappings of their Orthodox jurisdictions behind. The Saturday evening bingo sessions are to die; let them be replaced by Vigil Services. It is this third generation which may yet show the way, avoiding the false problems and pitfalls of the past, uniting all those who are primarily interested in the Orthodox Tradition, Orthodox values and the Orthodox way of life, whatever their background, leaving the American civil religion of secularism and politics to be forgotten in the dust of the past.

Although this may seem like science fiction to some, we can see concrete potential in three jurisdictions, Nos 4, 10 and 2. Nos 4 and 10, ROCOR and the Patriarchal Russian parishes, are about to enter into communion with one another. Although it is true that they are both to a large extent 'Ethnic Jurisdictions', they also have a certain outreach, especially ROCOR. It indeed produced an American ascetic, the ever-memorable Fr Seraphim Rose. In the longer term, they could even combine with spiritually healthy and pro-monastic elements of jurisdiction No 2, the OCA. This still has over a hundred parishes which have kept the Orthodox calendar and not only in Alaska. Together, these jurisdictions could come to form the kernel of a future North American Orthodox Church. It may be that those who belong to 'Ethnic Jurisdictions' would then want to join it, forming their own ethnic Diocese and Deaneries in one united structure.

In other words, it is not impossible that, in the long term, after the false and premature dawns of the past, members of the above jurisdictions, together with future third and fourth generation members of other jurisdictions, as well as new Orthodox, largely of Anglo-American background, and also members of ethnic jurisdictions, would one day wish for the formation of a genuine and united North American Orthodox Church.

Some five hundred years ago, an Italian called Christopher Columbus set out to find his way back to the old world by a new route. Instead, he found a new world. It may yet be that many inhabitants of that new world are destined to find their way back to the old world, the Church of God, by what for them is a new route, that of Orthodoxy. And in finding their way back to the old world, they will discover a new one. Then we shall talk about American and Orthodox.

Fr Andrew

29 August/11 September 2006
Beheading of St John the Baptist

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