“Taking Orthodoxy to America” – Thirty Years Later

by Fr. Marc Dunaway

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Thirty years ago this month, Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Archdiocese began the process of bringing into the Orthodox Church seventeen “Evangelical Orthodox” communities from across America. At that time, he declared Orthodoxy to be “America’s best kept secret,” and he urged us as new converts to do something about this. “Take Orthodoxy to America,” he said.  This is surely a work that will continue for many generations, and I am grateful that on this anniversary our Metropolitan Joseph has pledged to carry on this task. Thirty years later, however, I would offer a few suggestions to consider from our experience so far.

  • The worship of the Church must clearly be a common, corporate act where everyone participates according to his role, whether as priest or deacon, reader or lay person, man or woman. Practically this means we need to encourage congregational singing of the main, regular hymns in every service. This is something many Americans expect when they “go to Church.” They want to sing, and there are plenty of beautiful Orthodox hymns that will make this possible.
  • The prayers of the priest, especially those in the Divine Liturgy, need to be said aloud so that all can hear and knowledgeably give their assent with a meaningful “Amen.” Happily, this same exhortation is also put forth in the recent book, The Heavenly Banquet by Fr. Emmanuel Hatzidakis, a priest from the Greek tradition, and by many other respected liturgists and teachers as well.
  • The Kiss of Peace (whether as a hand-shake or an embrace) in the Divine Liturgy should be exchanged among the people and not just by the concelebrating clergy at the altar. This is a custom stemming from biblical times, and its falling into dis-use may have weakened the participation of the people and undermined their identity as the people of God, united to one another in Christian love. A few may frown at the bustle this causes, but for the laity it is meaningful, as long as the dialogue is kept to the liturgical greeting, “Christ is in our midst. He is and ever shall be.”
  • The language of the Liturgy has to be the language of the people. The language of modern America is not Shakespearean English, and it makes little sense to perpetuate “Thee’s” and “Thou’s” and archaic verb forms in our prayers. If we do, we may eventually end up in the same situation as the modern Russians and Greeks, who use a liturgical language that is incomprehensible to the common people.
  • Feast day liturgies need to be done at a time when working people can attend. This means either Vesperal-Liturgies in the early evening on the Eve of a Feast or else, on some occasions, an evening Liturgy on the Day of the Feast itself. Rigidly insisting that weekday Liturgies be done in the mid-morning while most people have to work deprives sincere Christians of an essential part the liturgical life of the Church.
  • The Iconostasis of the Church needs to be open enough to give a view of the Altar and to let the people know they are co-celebrants of the Liturgy and not passive spectators to something performed for them by the clergy.
  • A super-size Icon of the Mother of God in the apse of the Church may be a beautiful liturgical statement about how she is a picture of the praying Church, but it will confuse most people in America. There are other legitimate Icons that can be put in this location, such as the Mystical Supper or the Ascension, and we would be wise to draw from these, if we do not want some people to walk into the Church and walk right out even before they hear an explanation.
  • Every parish should have a deacon or two and the vision of multiple clergy in a parish needs to become standard. This is an important way we can energize the lay people to use their own gifts and accomplish all the work of the Church that needs done. (And perhaps the emerging movement to restore deaconesses will find traction and someday be blessed as well.)
  • Converts should not be required to change their names when they are baptized, chrismated or ordained. Of course, every Orthodox Christian should have a patron saint, but here in a new, Orthodox land, we need to sanctify new names just as happened in other lands in times past. Orthodoxy is the universal Church, embracing all cultures and all people, including their names.
  • Finally, Orthodox clergy should consider whether it is wise to routinely dress in cassocks, vests and traditional hats “around town.” The ancient “Epistle to Diognetus” says early Christians were distinguished by their piety not their dress. Perhaps someday we will have an attire for American Orthodox clergy that does not stand out as strange and at the same time distinguishes us from Roman Catholic clergy.

I realize that in offering these suggestions some may find them objectionable, as they prefer older customs from other cultures. Nevertheless, for the sake of my own kinsmen, my own countrymen and all my non-Orthodox friends, I believe that the the light of Orthodox Christianity should not be hidden under any kind of a bushel and that it is our duty to let this light shine in our land brightly and unobscured.

Fr. Marc Dunaway is the pastor of Saint John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska.