It’s been hard for Orthodox immigrants, as outsiders, to know which aspects of American culture are most important to adopt. For example, for the first hundred years or so Orthodox immigrants to America took the presence of pews and organs in churches as significant cultural clues. Though in the “old country” churches usually have no pews (just some benches and seats for the infirm), and all music was done a capella, new churches built in American included pews and organs. In retrospect, perhaps that wasn’t the most important feature to copy, though I expect they made the church interior look a bit more familiar to visitors.
In my view, the most important thing is English language. I understand that immigrants cherish their heritage and fear that it will get lost in the new land, but it’s not effective to keep worship in another language. Young people end up leaving and going to churches where they can understand worship. It has been the tradition through history in Orthodox missions to translate the worship and Scriptures into the local language right away (as opposed to Western missions, which kept everything in Latin). Missionaries to Alaska 200 years ago created 6 alphabets for unwritten Native Alaskan languages, so that they could have the Bible and worship in their own language. If the worship is not in English, church membership will decline.
A major difference with the US, in Orthodox history, is that in previous instances Orthodox people went to new lands as missionaries, with faith uppermost in mind. In America, Orthodox people came seeking a new life, rather than as emissaries of their faith. They set up churches in order to have the worship they were familiar with at home, so the process was kind of backwards. As time passes, though, and there is increasing interest in Orthodoxy from outsiders (well over half of Orthodox clergy are now converts, which is creating wonderful revival), these things need to be thought through.
I should add that Orthodoxy has gone into many different cultures, of course, from Finland to Alaska, and remained pretty much the same, because it is a program of spiritual transformation and the program works, no matter who or where you are. The inner heart of Orthodoxy is culture-transcending. It’s a pattern of healing that works for humans everywhere, like vitamins do. It also stays the same over time; I was told early on that Orthodox devotional writings from every time and place sound alike, and have found that to be true. So in adapting to a new culture there is partly the problem of determining which elements are changeable, and which are not.
I read an interview with a Romanian monk, now living in America, in which he said that Orthodoxy would need to adapt to America, and in particular accommodate the characteristic desire to explore things intellectually. I’m not sure that’s the case, though, because I think the things we think we have figured out intellectually are likely to be wrong. When it comes to theology, we just don’t have enough underlying information to be able to construct accurate theories, or even accurate questions. I think we Americans have a whole lot of remedial and humbling direct-experience-of-God to go through. But he’s certainly right in noting intellectuality as a strong national characteristic. I hope that Orthodox churches will emphasize hospitality and welcoming newcomers, and helping newcomers to find a place in worship; that is most important.
From Elizabeth: What does Orthodoxy have to say on women's role in the Church -- both big "C" and little "c" church? Also, within this, what exactly is a Khouria's role? Is it different from the "pastor's wife" role in Protestant churches?
It was a surprise for me that, when I left a liberal-progressive mainline denomination and became Orthodox, my scope of ministry in the church became much larger. In the Episcopal Church, there wasn’t a lot of interest in my speaking and writing, but as soon as I became Orthodox I was in demand everywhere. In terms of “supporting women’s gifts and ministries”, the Orthodox Church has been much more welcoming.
The difference you ask about is probably better understood as between lay people’s ministry and ordained ministry, rather than between male and female. But I should say first that you discern what Orthodox “policy” is on one topic or another by looking at what Orthodox people actually do, rather than by consulting official statements. There are no official statements, for a great many things. So you look at what is expressed in worship and practice. (To comprehend the Orthodox teaching on the Resurrection, for example, you would look at icons and hymns about the Resurrection.) What we see in practice is that women do nearly everything that men do, in terms of lay ministry. That would also be most of what ordained people do, in non-liturgical churches.
For example, the Orthodox Church has always had woman preachers and evangelists; no problem with women preaching, and I have preached in the pulpit of Orthodox churches all over the country. For example, St. Nina of Georgia was a 14 year old Cappadocian girl when she was abducted and sold as a slave in Georgia. She had an opportunity to preach to the king and queen, though, and in the end converted the entire nation. Such women are given the title “Equal to the Apostles” (eg, St. Mary Magdalene, Equal to the Apostles).
St. Cassiane shows us that women can be theologians and write hymns that become part of the Liturgy. St. Perpetua, St. Catherine and others show us that women can be brilliant debaters and defend the faith eloquently. Empress St. Theodora shows us that women can rule over both men and women, and call a council that establishes church doctrine. In short, lay women do almost everything lay men do.
Women are not ordained priests, however. There has never been a reason spelled out for this. Orthodox do theology on a need-to-know basis (for the reason above, that the real purpose of life is union with God, not analyzing him), and spell things out when controversy arises and peace in the church is threatened. But male-only priesthood has just never been controversial before. (There is past precedent for women deacons.)
If the Holy Spirit wanted to, he could bring to Church to agreement that women should begin being ordained priests; that is always possible. The Orthodox way is to make decisions by consensus, with all bishops holding equal standing in the decision, rather than by top-down decision-making. What’s more, the decision does not become official policy until the lay people accept and affirm it. There are cases where the laity defeated a decision a council had made.
I don’t know whether the laity would accept women’s ordination to the priesthood. I don’t sense a very widespread desire for that. Women as deacons was an ancient practice and some recent councils have recommended that the practice begin again, but so far there has not been much interest in actually doing so. Historically there has not been a sense of deprivation in the Orthodox Church because of the lack of women priests. Perhaps this is because there is a high expectation of what lay people can do, and not as strong a distinction between clergy and laity as there historically was in the West, where clergy were separated both by education and an ability to understand Latin, and by being celibate. (Orthodox priests can be married, which is humanizing.)
“Khouria” is the Arabic term for the priest’s wife (“priest” is “Khoury,” which you sometimes see as a surname). Every culture has its own term for this role (“Presbytera” in Greek, “Matushka” in Russian) since there is no English equivalent. Of course the khouria is the pastor’s wife, but the role holds greater honor in the East, as the wife is understood as “one flesh” with her husband, and thus shares his spiritual authority in an organic way.
From Donald: What do Orthodox believers think of non-Orthodox believers, like Catholics and protestants and Messianics?
There is no blanket condemnation, as if to say anyone outside the Orthodox Church is damned. There is, though, increasing awareness that non-Orthodox Christians do and believe many things that Orthodox consider counter-productive, if the goal is assimilation of Christ. Since rank-and-file Orthodox have not historically had much interaction with Christians who were not Orthodox (much more experience with Muslims, for example), I think among immigrants to America there was first an assumption that all Christians have the same beliefs they do. There have been many surprises, as they find out how varied and, from their perspective strange, Western beliefs can be. (I was the first person to explain the Substitutionary Atonement theory to one of our bishops, and at first he couldn’t believe anyone could possibly believe that, and once convinced was appalled.)
Given that the Orthodox impetus is to be seeking union with Christ, some of the things Western Christians believe or do are regarded as negative or harmful, and some doctrines seen as insulting to our Lord. For example, in Orthodox spirituality you aim at holding your mind attentively open to the presence of God. To instead send your mind through imaginary scenes with Jesus, as Ignatian meditation and some other devotional paths do, is seen as not only a waste of time (why imagine he’s here, when he really is here?) but also holding a potential of great spiritual danger. So there are aspects of Western Christianity that Orthodox, if they know about them, would regard as negative or dangerous.
Since the process of theosis is very challenging, requiring a great deal of resistance to pride and constant prayer, some Orthodox would worry that those who are not even trying to follow the ancient path, don’t even know about it, may not reach salvation. But Orthodox would not say that any particular person was not saved (except for Arius; they seem to be pretty sure about him). No one looking from the outside could say how God might have dealt with someone internally, even during the last minutes of life. The saying is, “We know where God is, but not where he is not.”
From Karl: As someone who submitted as an adult to an ancient branch of the Christian faith, what do you make of the "emerging church" movement within (primarily) American evangelical and post-evangelical protestantism?
I haven’t kept up much with the emerging church. I think it has an inherent structural weakness, that it is defined more by what it is not than what it is.
I have known many emerging-church leaders who have been interested in taking aspects of Orthodox spirituality into their churches, and I have encouraged that, of course. But I think the drawback will always be that their people are not experiencing the faith of the early church itself, intact, but rather the selections from the early church that fit the taste of this particular contemporary leader. It’s being filtered through that person. There is still some benefit in that, of course, but it is like flowers in a vase. You can go to the garden of the ancient church and cut some flowers, and bring them into the worship space in a vase, and they will do much good, providing beauty and fresh life. But they are going to die. They have been cut off from their roots.
For me, when I realized that there was a spirituality that was developed by the early church—by the same community that wrote the New Testament and would naturally understand it best—and that this spirituality had been practiced unchanged by believers in every culture and time, I had to be there. I wanted to take it on its own terms, because I can’t trust my enculturated taste and preferences to know what’s actually best for me. It was, “If this still exists, why am I not there?” But not everybody feels that way.