There is a bit of a crisis that is rising in the American Orthodox churches. Those who have been a part of the church for some time are now leaving. They are joining other Christian churches, or they are just plain leaving.
To my understanding, this problem is not limited to one person or group. It’s not just the priests, nor is it just the parishioners. It is not just the “converts”, nor is it just the “cradles”.
So here are several different issues, each presenting problems of their own.
Convertitis – Here are some symptoms: Do you have baggage from your old ways? Do you react violently when you hear something that sounds loosely (or not so loosely) like what you fled? Do you put your hand to the plow and look back? Do you hold after-Liturgy breakfasts with fellow converts and discuss the horrible things in the place you used to call home? Do you know how to be Orthodox better than the people in your church who have been Orthodox all their lives? Can you recite the Trisagion in seven different languages? Are you a grateful resident alien, thankful that you have been received into a new home by gracious albeit, well, alien people, or are you just biding your time waiting for your opportunity to bring them around to your (orthodox) way of seeing things?
These questions are important to ask. The Church in the American Orthodox context is (mostly) a by-product of eastern European and Mediterranean migration. History has shown the cultural struggles that have occurred in the US as a result of the clash between the entrenched western-Europeans and the new migrators. Now we live it almost every week in our pews.
I know someone who converted with young children, only to have all of those children re-convert when they grew up. The reason? They were not included in the decision process and never wanted to leave what they saw as home.
Cradleitis – The counterpart to convertitis is cradleitis. Here you have symptoms like this: I was baptized Orthodox, so what an Orthodox believes is what I believe and what I believe is what an Orthodox believes. A priest 50 years ago taught me that confession was a group process so I don’t need to go to a priest for confession. I tell my sins to God when I go to bed at night, and then I gather with the rest of my church and we get our absolution en masse. This one-on-one confession thing is an innovation that I plain do not believe in. Also, Communion should be open to everyone. It’s neither fair nor right to deny my friend. Jesus wouldn’t have, and neither should my priest.
The problems here are legion. Many priests were never formally trained. Moreover, many of these people were at least catechized at some point in their lives or better still attended Sunday School. This shows that our Sunday Schools are not effective in the least. We have an education problem.
Phyletism (Orthodox) – Confusing “Greek” and “Orthodox” or “Russian” and “Orthodox” or “Elbonian” and “Orthodox”. More in a second, but the upshot here is that “little ‘t'” traditions are given too much priority and the “big ‘T'” traditions are given too little.
Phyletism (American) – Confusing “neo-conservative” and “Orthodox” or “Obama Democrat” and “Orthodox”. The tendency to be oblivious that the American political system and the Orthodox Church are oftentimes at cross-purposes. The church in Russia right now is not helping this matter at all. Nope, I don’t believe in women priests; I also think the war in Iraq was a sin of egregious scale.
Clericalism – You didn’t think I would overlook this one, did you? This has many forms: I know more than you do, because I went to seminary; I like the props I get from being an important figure in the community (free meals! A country club membership!); You have to obey me because I am a priest: obey the office, man.
I’ll make it simple: if you are a priest because you like the perks, man, you are in the wrong profession. To be a priest, paraphrasing Elder Sophrony, means you die daily; to serve rather than to be served; to pick up that cross and follow Him. Prepare your family.
Congregationalism – The penultimate issue. With money comes power, right? That means since the congregation pays you they should be able to control you. And the Bishop. That always goes over well during his annual visit. It’s a shame that the priest usually gets the brunt of the hostility. Like grist in a mill. And that Bishop… Who made him the boss (I wish I has a penny for every time I’ve heard that. I’d actually have money for retirement…)?
Organizational disunity – How many flavors of Orthodoxy are there now? 31? 57? 666? To make matters worse, if you don’t like someone’s point of view, you church hop. How Protestant. I know someone who wanted a blessing to do something (no, not Peter Gillquist – memory eternal), and he was turned down by three different jurisdictions until he found one who would do what he wanted. How nice and how unfortunate all at the same time.
So we ask why people are leaving. The reasons include some or all of the reasons mentioned above. True, Orthodoxy is not a religion for slackers. It is also not a religion where converts should rule the roost. I have learned much from cradles and from converts, from priests and from laypeople (men and women). Our paths must be forged with humility and compassion; with a willingness to let others hold divergent opinions about some things; with a desire to love God and to love one another – face to face, not just keyboard to keyboard.