Toward an American Orthodox historical narrative

On December 30, we published an article by Daniel Silliman on the search for a narrative for Orthodoxy in America. As Daniel observed, mainstream religious scholars have paid precious little attention to Orthodoxy, and even we Orthodox haven’t done much to flesh out the narratives that shape our history.

I’ve done a fair bit of thinking over the years about overarching historical narratives. While I tend to prefer individual stories, I realize that those stories acquire much of their meaning as part of a broader narrative. And, as I believe I’ve said elsewhere, if American Orthodoxy could be summed up in one word, that word is encounter. Encounter between Orthodoxy and the West; encounter between long-isolated Orthodox ethnic groups; and encounter between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox.

At the top, there have always been encounters. What makes American Orthodoxy unique is that, for the first time, regular laypeople from all the different Orthodox countries were thrown together in the same place. And what they discovered, back at the turn of the last century, was that they were not so very different from one another. That sentence may seem a bit odd in light of what happened afterwards — the ethnic fragmentation of American Orthodoxy. But in the beginning, there weren’t enough of any one ethnic group to justify forming a separate ethnic church. The Orthodox in America had to work together, to band together to preserve their faith in a foreign land. The seeds of fragmentation were present from the beginning, but so too were the seeds of unity. Ultimately, all of American Orthodox history seems, in my interpretation, to be converging on a point — a point which probably will never be fully realized. And that point is our unity as neither Russian nor Greek, Serb nor Arab, but one Church of Jesus Christ. In America, more than any other place or time in history, we are in a position to live out that unity. We’re all under the same roof, here. And resist it though we may, in the end, we will either come together in diverse unity, or we will marginalize ourselves and become a mere cultural museum piece.

So that’s one narrative. And as I said, “encounter” includes other factors. That obnoxious buzzword — “ecumenism” — has been a part of American Orthodoxy from Day 1. From the founding of Nicholas Bjerring’s New York chapel in 1870, to St. Tikhon’s friendship with the Episcopalian Bishop Grafton at the turn of the 20th century, to the Episcopal Church financing the Russian Metropolia during its time of troubles, to the World Council of Churches and the “Sorrowful Epistles” of ROCOR Metropolitan Philaret, to the present dialogues between the OCA and conservative Anglicans, American Orthodoxy has always engaged the non-Orthodox. Some of this engagement has led to conversions, from Bjerring and Irvine to the Evangelical Orthodox to the people who are about to be baptized this coming Theophany.

Those conversions are yet another piece of the narrative. My recent research on Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine has led me to revisit the problem — and it is a problem — of converts in American Orthodoxy. Don’t misunderstand me; I don’t mean that converts are a problem. But there is most definitely a convert problem, and particularly (but definitely not only) a convert clergy problem. Beginning with Bjerring and James Chrystal in 1869-70, converts have been received by the Orthodox with great enthusiasm. They’ve received minimal catechesis; they’ve been ordained almost immediately; and in far too many cases, they’ve caused major problems and/or left the Church entirely. This isn’t really the fault of the converts themselves. Bjerring, Chrystal, Irvine, Morgan, Mythen and his circle, Fr. Boris Burden… the list goes on and on. Even the “good” early converts were, almost to a man, deeply flawed in their personal lives. And if you’ve been Orthodox for very long at all, you’ve no doubt known one (and probably many) convert clergymen who came in with a burst of energy and productivity, only to reveal themselves to be erratic (or even corrupt) men who eventually left the priesthood and/or the Church itself.

It is the oldest problem in American Orthodoxy, and I hope that we can eventually develop standards at the national level to combat it. But really, it’s tied for the oldest problem: the other big issue is the problem of the youth.

There’s nothing terribly exciting about this one. From the beginning, American Orthodoxy has struggled to retain its young people. It didn’t help that, for decades (and in some churches, up to the present) Orthodoxy was treated as more of a cultural artifact than a living faith. Old languages were preserved, and English was resisted, and most young people didn’t care about the misguided justifications for using only Greek or Slavonic or Arabic or what have you. Who wants to worship in a language they can’t understand? And no matter how beautiful a language is, if the people can’t understand it, it has failed in its fundamental purpose: to communicate meaning. We’ve been losing our youth for more than a century. Irvine railed against the resistance to English and against the indifference of nominal parents. But equally problematic is the fact that we, as a Church, have failed to communicate the essence of Orthodoxy to our children. Too often, Sunday Schools teach Orthodoxy like you’d teach Episcopalianism or Roman Catholicism — systematically, like a subject in school. Which has its place, but — as a dear friend recently put it — they teach the “what,” but they fail to teach the “why.” And this is not a new problem.

But all of this, I think, is encapsulated in the concept of “encounter.” We encountered the West, and we didn’t know what in the heck to do with it. We weren’t prepared. We flailed about, dancing with the Anglicans, wallowing in our nominalism, ordaining every male American convert who expressed the faintest interest in the priesthood. All too often, we have lacked a vision for our mission in America, and even our identity as the Apostolic Church — the Church. Sentimentalism, ethnic pride, a desire for acceptance, a pleasant feeling of surprise when we are accepted — these things all can be good, and they can have their place. But they can also be our downfall. My mentor, Bill James, has said, “Nostalgia is the greatest enemy of the truth.” And speaking as a historian of the historical Church, I share that opinion. We must always be on our guard against that passion.

But I don’t mean to be negative; I’m actually one of the most optimistic people you’ll meet regarding the prospects of American Orthodoxy. All historical narratives are ultimately incomplete and uncompleteable, but ours is particularly so. In twenty years, we will have a much clearer understanding of that narrative. If our Assembly of Bishops succeeds in creating a unified American Orthodox Church, then the circle of encounter, from the early multiethnic parishes to a single pan-Orthodox Local Church, will be, in one sense, complete. And we will look back and see that all of our history led us to this point, where we as a Church were ready to unite and, together, to engage our fellow Americans. But if the Assembly fails, we will interpret it as the greatest of many failures, and perhaps the last in any of our lifetimes, to come together as one American Church. In this way, the past depends upon the future for its ultimate meaning.

That’s not to say that the past is relative; it’s not. Past events are not relative. But our interpretation of those events is entirely dependent upon what follows them. We in the 21st century are, in a sense, still making — to say nothing of writing — the history of Orthodoxy at the turn of the 20th century. We will determine how that past is viewed by future generations.

I’m not an academic, so I’ve probably failed to address any number of issues a good academic historian would cover. But as one who spends an inordinate amount of time wandering around in the American Orthodox past, these are some of the things I’ve noticed. I would love to hear what others think.

This article was written by Matthew Namee.

9 Replies to “Toward an American Orthodox historical narrative”

  1. The various groups working together early on is quite early on. Really, it seems that once you had a decent group of more than one ethnicity, they split. I don’t see that cooperation as really, honestly being much except in isolated cases (Galveston, TX or WA or very briefly in Chicago). Of course, the Serbs and Arabs stayed in the Russian Archdiocese, but there had been talk of the former separating for some time and the latter did separate before Red October’s effect could be felt over here. Perhaps the examples of cooperation should be highlighted but it seems fleeting to me, when I look at the history.

    All of this is to say that although I think you have your eye on a key word–encounter, the narrative of that encounter still needs to be written. There’s much more work to do.

    And on that note, I truly appreciate the two problems you’ve highlighted. Both are real–all too real. Concerning clergy, I once told a friend that in Orthodoxy, I see both the best pastors I’ve ever seen and the worst I’ve ever seen (in comparison to my experiences and observations across American Christianity). We’ll never eliminate sin, but I agree that we need some better steps in place. For instance, to get into Luther Seminary, I had to go through psychological screening. For SVS? Nope. Not a hint of such analysis. There really are some basic things we could do. With youth, the same applies. Keep an active Sunday/church school. Of course, there one has parents who treat Orthodoxy as a neat cultural relic and do keep that in mind. Priests and teachers can only work with the students who attend, but that said, work we must!

  2. Regarding the early multiethnic parishes — I don’t see any conflict between what you and I are saying. If you set aside the ex-Uniate parishes, the other early parishes featured a great deal of inter-ethnic cooperation:

    New Orleans
    San Francisco
    New York

    All those parishes were founded in the 1890s, and all originally were multiethnic. Yes, of course they broke apart into ethnic parishes as soon as the numbers permitted, but that was sort of my point: in the beginning, there was a recognition that we’re all Orthodox and we need to cooperate. As the numbers for each ethnic group increased, the need for cooperation became less acute, and ethnic fragmentation began. But that original idea — we’re fundamentally the same, and we need each other — is the same idea that we must promote today if we’re ever to have a unified American Church.

  3. Very true. That IS the idea we must promote and I think we’re writing things in full concord. I just didn’t want people thinking it lasted too long or that there was some conscious fracturing. That’s all. The fracturing just seemed “natural” to a lot of immigrants once the numbers increased. I see us Orthodox, now, as needing to uphold the exception that proved the rule. The rule is ethnic jurisdictions. The exception, however, must now become the rule. Can it? I don’t know, but I would agree that the Assembly of Bishops gives us the best shot we’ve had yet. I also think that the Assembly, as it progresses, can address the problems you noted, especially the first (bizarre clergy). One thing worth noting, perhaps, for the clergy, is not only bizarre convert priests, which is a real problem, all too real, but even odd “cradle” priests. In general, we need better screening and catechesis for all clergy candidates.

  4. That’s right — it didn’t last very long. San Francisco did have a strong multiethnic community from its founding the 1860s into the very early 20th century (when the Greeks started their own church). Seattle lasted about 20 years. Portland had a multiethnic chapel for a decade or so, after which the Greeks founded a church. But for a long time after that, the other Orthodox people seem to have attended the Greek church, so I’d say the multiethnic element persisted to some degree there.

    New York split up very quickly. Chicago too. But New Orleans and Galveston seem to have remained pretty diverse for a long time.

    Some of this depends on how you pick your dates. Galveston didn’t get a formal church until the mid-1890s, but there was a self-conscious Orthodox community there beginning in the 1860s. The New Orleans church started in either 1865 or ’67, but the community predated it by a decade or more.

    See, the problem with the “myth of unity” is that it’s one-sided. It ignores the very real disunity that existed from the beginning. But in the past, I worry that I’ve pushed back so hard against that myth that I’ve discounted the actual unity that coexisted alongside the disunity. The fact is that, just as today, there was a mix of unity and disunity, of cooperation and separation.

    1. The narrative of the American Orthodox Church must include the fact that the People of God who make up this community labored in American with the hope of a unified Church and that this church was built up from a grass roots level. The early leaders including St Tikon, St Raphael Hawaweeny and even Patriarch Meletios Metaxakis concluded from working in the vineyard of the New World that Orthodoxy must be unified in this geographical area. While researching the history of the development of the Greek Orthodox Community in West Palm Beach I learned that this church was encouraged and developed by the 25 founding families which included Orthodox Christians of other jurisdictions who had no Church in the area. AHEPA members were the patron. They were integrated into the community, had the contacts with local bankers, builders, county engineers and the greater non-Orthodox Community including Christians and Jews who contributed time and talent and resources to building a Greek Orthodox Church. How many other churches experienced their development in this way?

      The foundation of our church building development took place before the 1960’s and were grassroots and local enterprises. Indeed many were built before ethnic archdioceses came into existence. The church here was organized to be autonomous as the early charters indicate. Since the 1920’s the ancient Patriarchates have done all they can do to erode the autonomy of the American church. The great example is the development of the latest charter imposed upon the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese by the Patriarch of Constantinople despite the arguments and petitions presented to it by participants of the Los Angles Clergy Laity Congress at the end of the 1990’s and the over 4,000 names gathered and sent by Orthodox Christian Laity.

      During this same time period American Orthodox Christians helped preserve Orthodoxy in Europe. Cold War politics enabled Archbishop Athenagoras to become Patriarch in Turkey and he flew back to his homeland in the airplane of the U.S. President. Orthodox faithful who came from what were to become communist dominated lands kept the faith alive by sending and carrying books into those lands. They participated in the American political system as citizens and voters and were able to influence foreign policy. This history of American Orthodoxy needs to include that history in its narrative. The fact that the autonomy of the American Church was negated after the fall of communism is part of the story.

      The new waves of immigrants after the 1960’s took what they found and insisted on adhering to their ethnicity. The parish of St Catherine in West Palm Beach is now very ethnic and has become a destination Church for those interested in holding receptions in Palm Beach. The new wave of immigrants from the former communist dominated lands are influencing the OCA, Romanian and other jurisdictions. The Church has also developed to accept converts and seekers that find the Historical and Apostolic Church. These faithful are helping us better communicate with the general Christian public. But I see that how they have been brought into the Church is creating a separate entity. They seem to write and print information that stresses differences between cradle and convert Orthodox. We also have the rise of monasticism in the United States. In the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese these institutions insist on using Greek and are almost hostile to the use of English. It behooves them to teach and demonstrate the great gift of Orthodox spirituality in English. All these recent trends are regressive. We wonder where is the leadership within the Church to bring about unity- – -which is the roots of Orthodoxy in America.

      Orthodox Christians living the faith for the last 110 years in America have at grass roots levels worked together to build and to do the work of the church. The laity formed what were formerly SCOBA Agencies such as IOCC, Orthodox Christian Fellowship, Senior Housing, Children Care and Adoption Centers and outreach to Feed the Poor Hungry and Homeless. In nineteen sixty three the Triumph of Orthodoxy in America was the organizing, hosting and successful presentation of unity at the Eastern Orthodox Religious Cultural Festival presented by the Council of Eastern Orthodox Youth Leaders of the Americas CEOYLA. Orthodox Christian veterans returning from World War Two were the catalysts of this grass roots movement. By mid-1960’s CEOYLA had a membership of over 50,000 individuals. How and why was this movement allowed to dissipate? Why has not Orthodox Christian Fellowship – the program for youth on college campuses been a priority by the hierarchy? It lacks funding and organization. At the 20th Anniversary Meeting of Orthodox Christian Laity it was made known to us that youth on are college campuses seek to be unified so that they can remain Orthodox. Where will all these flowers go if we maintain fragmentation and promote counterproductive trends.

      In 2008 the hierarchy worldwide came to the realization that Orthodoxy in lands outside of the Roman Empire – the so called diaspora need to be regularized. Assemblies of Bishops have been moving very slowly since then on matters of administration. Old world patriarchs cannot agree on how to work with the diaspora. The concept is alien to Christianity. The real issue before them is to decide when the New World Churches – all those outside of the Roman Empire will be autocephalous. The dependence on forces whether they be foreign or national interests, ancient patriarchates, global interests, internal appointed leadership dedicated to preserve the status quo, archons and awards, do not serve Orthodoxy in America. Our Church is where our bishops are in specific geographic areas and we strive to live sacramental lives within our churches in order to prepare for a state of theosis-being one with God. Our narrative needs to address all these issues.

  5. When it comes to multiple jurisdictions, North America does not differ much from much of the Mother Churches over the same period of time. Indeed, such disputes continue in the Mother Churches, as the struggle over Estonia, for instance, demonstrates.

  6. I just read this post (and comments 1-6) and must say you all make some great points here. The work of your society is very important. You bring to life some of the most important issues that impact us all. Through my research, I can say with confidence that Christos Yannaras also uses similar language when generally describing the life and thought of Orthodox Christians during the twentieth century.

Leave a Reply