'More Orthodox' than the Orthodox
- Published by The Christian Century, December 2004
'More Orthodox' than the Orthodox
by John Dart
It's commonly observed that converts to a faith are the most ardent
defenders of it. That seems to be the case with American converts to
Orthodoxy. The large number of converts attending Orthodox seminaries
prompted Alexey D. Krindatch, a sociologist of religion, to wonder whether
an "Americanization" of Eastern Orthodoxy might lie ahead. His conclusion:
Responses from students at three seminaries of the Greek Orthodox
Archdiocese and the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) - the two largest
Orthodox bodies in the U.S. - confirmed, he said, "the widespread notion
that Protestant and Catholic converts tend to be 'more Orthodox' than
persons who were born and raised" as Orthodox.
The converts expressed more conservative attitudes than Orthodox-born
seminarians did on, for instance, accepting the authority of bishops and
discouraging ecumenical worship and religiously mixed marriages. Krindatch
reported his findings at the annual meeting of the Society for the
Scientific Study of Religion.
Asked why the tradition-bound, liturgically intricate Orthodox churches are
attracting converts, Krindatch suggested in an interview that many of the
former evangelical Protestants studying for the Orthodox priesthood see a
"discrepancy" between their strong personal faith "and the fact that their
churches have no historical roots in original Christianity, no apostolic
succession and no liturgical atmosphere."
In the case of former Catholics and Episcopalians, however, converts are
attempting to "return to their churches" religious experiences of 20 to 30
years ago, when their churches were more "traditional."
While both Orthodox-born seminarians and the converts were relatively
similar in religious upbringing, education and family income level, the
former evangelicals "come from much wealthier families" that were very
active churchgoers. The ex-evangelicals were more likely to have a higher
level of secular education as well as businessmen fathers, and they "were
more definite in their plans to be ordained and serve as priests" than were
Krindatch surveyed seminarians at Holy Cross (Greek Orthodox) Seminary in
the Boston suburb of Brookline, where 25 percent of the students are
converts, and at two OCA seminaries, St. Vladimir's in Crestwood, New York,
and St. Tikhon's in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. The majority of the students
at the latter two are converts, he said.
Krindatch recently was named director for campus ministry and church growth
at the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute, which is part of the
Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Krindatch, a faculty
member at the Institute of Geography in Moscow, had been doing his research
as a visiting scholar at the Institute for the Study of American Religion in
Santa Barbara, California.
The institute in Berkeley previously has dealt mainly with theological and
historical issues, said Krindatch, but it "hopes to concentrate its future
studies more on the contemporary situation and social changes within various
American Orthodox churches."
Change has been slow by Western standards. In his survey, Krindatch found
that 57 to 64 percent of convert seminarians agree that while most Orthodox
Christians "are socially integrated into American society, the Orthodox
churches as institutions are still perceived by the vast majority of
Americans as 'immigrant communities'," compared to 46 percent of
Orthodox-born who say that. At the same time, the proportion of the most
pessimistic seminarians - those who say "the Orthodox churches still are and
will remain 'strangers' to American society" - is higher among "cradle
Orthodox" than among convert seminarians.
Cradle Orthodox students are also more pessimistic than the converts that
the ethnically oriented Orthodox churches eventually will gain autonomy from
mother churches abroad, or that a unified American Eastern Orthodox Church
will emerge in decades to come.
Ex-Protestant seminarians may hope for ecumenical progress within Orthodoxy,
but they tend to reject joint ecumenical prayers or services with
non-Orthodox. Also, a significant proportion of both ex-Catholic (34
percent) and ex-Protestant (36 percent of ex-mainliners and 52 percent of
ex-evangelicals) seminarians say that Orthodox priests should try hard to
discourage mixed marriages. Seminarians raised in Orthodox churches are
somewhat more lenient on the issue, though not as accommodating as current
priests in Orthodox parishes.
A separate survey of priests in Greek and OCA parishes found that two-thirds
take a more liberal position on mixed marriages, but stay within church
guidelines. In other words, priests would conduct such weddings when they
are held in the Orthodox Church, and would encourage the non-Orthodox
partner to join the church. "Only a minority of all seminarians (31 percent
of OCA seminarians, 48 percent of Greek Orthodox seminarians) share the same
view," Krindatch said.
Krindatch acknowledged that the seminarians' conservative stances, even if
reflective of a generational trend, may evolve during "actual work in the