I have very slightly paraphrased—left out a “the”—an essay by Terry Mattingly on the sometimes tense relationship between ethnic Orthodox (Eastern Orthodox Christian) and converts (mostly from evangelical and mainstream Protestant churches). The tendrils of the story are long and twisted: start with the discussion here on the media (non-) coverage at GetReligion.com of the current crisis in the Antiochian Orthodox Church, and lose yourself in the links. I did, for at least 45 minutes, and I barely got started.
In the posting I first cite, Mattingly (who left the Southern Baptist Church) writes movingly of the struggle to enter into a tradition dominated by immigrants who wanted to preserve an ethnic heritage.
When we were seeking Orthodoxy in the hills of Tennessee, we tried to attend the local Greek Orthodox parish — the only parish within a one- or two-hour drive. When we called, they would — literally — not give us the times of the services. We came to Orthodoxy in spite of them, not because of them. We ended up starting a mission.
So why do they come—or go, as the case may be? Here Mattingly describes the flight from the banal, pop-culture worship of evangelical churches and the “demographic suicide” of mainstream Protestantism. Converts to Orthodoxy want a “non-fundamentalist” faith, but one still rich in mystery.
They are looking for beauty. They are looking for a life that can give them some degree of stability and peace, while helping them face the realities of the world around them. They want Orthodoxy. And it is crucial to know that the converts want more Orthodoxy, not less.
Acccording to Mattingly’s experience ethnic parishes tend to Americanize the venerable liturgy of eastern Christianity: make it shorter, cater to the alleged short-attention spans of American youth, skim off the top, ignore the spiritual depths. The ones desiring to dive into the spiritual deep, to swim in the perilous, life-giving ocean of Orthodoxy are the converts and so-called “reverts” (ethnics returning to the depths of Tradition).
The ethnic parish I attended in West Palm Beach could get the PASCHA liturgy down to about 1 hour and 45 minutes. At our convert-friendly parish here in Maryland, that service is 3 hours and 45 minutes or longer.
The reflective reader knows that I am not merely—or primarily—describing the growing pains of a relatively tiny outpost of ethnic eastern Christianity in our secular melting pot. No, I am examining a key spiritual problem of faithfulness in our pagan world. It is easy to whine about the limitations put on the expression of our convictions and practice. But these very limitations call us out of our ethnic complacency. We have not been converted to live in comfort of our various cultures, eastern or western, Oriental or American, pre-modern or post-modern. We have been converted to learn fidelity to the God who calls us.
In my experience of Orthodoxy, I have found nothing more poignant or more painful than talking to ethnic parents and grandparents whose children have left the faith. They can’t understand. They thought America was going to be a wonderful place. They thought America was going to be a place that would make them feel at home. They thought they were offering their children a better life. Now, in some sense, America has taken away their children.
Here is that hard truth again. If their children are to practice Orthodoxy, they will have to believe it, they will have to want to practice it. The faith will have to be their own. (emphasis added)
What do converts want? To always be converted.