Turning to Tradition
by d. oliver herbel
oxford, 256 pages, $27.95

In 2010, Eastern Orthodox Christians in America awoke to a painful realization—there aren’t very many of us. Since the 1920s, various prelates and the pages of archdiocesan yearbooks have claimed that there were as many as seven million Orthodox Americans, yet that number never seemed to change over the decades that followed, even while the American population tripled. The number we awoke to, thanks to the first demographic study of all our parishes, conducted by researcher Alexei ­Krindatch, was less than one million. It’s little wonder that Krindatch’s website detailing this census is named OrthodoxReality.org.

The census’s publication sparked reflection in the Orthodox-convert blogosphere as to what, exactly, American Orthodoxy really was. It turns out, for instance, that more than half of us belong to the Greek Archdiocese. So much for “moving forward without the Greeks” when it came to pursuing long-overdue administrative unity. It also turns out that we are small, that we aren’t having many children who stay in the Church, and that conversions are not a major factor in population growth. Trying to define, both for now and also as a roadmap for the future, what exactly it means to be both American and Orthodox Christian is something that we’ve been stewing on for nearly a century.

Rising from the murk of that contradictory stew comes D. Oliver ­Herbel’s Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church. It is the first scholarly monograph on historical conversions to Orthodoxy in America, making some historical material available for the first time.

The work is a series of four case studies on convert clergy from ­other churches to Orthodoxy—Alexis Toth, Raphael Morgan, Moses ­Berry, and Peter Gillquist, who “acted as exemplars, leading and inspiring whole groups of people,” and were “inspirational examples to thousands of fellow converts who followed them into the Orthodox Church.”

These stories raise two questions. First, why do people convert to Orthodox Christianity? There is often the suspicion that most conversions are for something other than genuinely theological reasons. There is some truth to that—though no thorough study has been published on this, most American Orthodox converts probably married someone who was Orthodox and joined their spouse’s church in the process (a narrative common in American Christianity). But the conversions that Herbel examines are self-consciously theological and historical.

I recently read the account that Robert Louis Wilken—a convert from Lutheranism to Rome—gives of the conversion of his friend, the late historian Jaroslav Pelikan, to Orthodoxy (also from Lutheranism). I was struck by reading how a man who was so deep in history finally converted to Orthodoxy on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1998. If John Henry Newman’s dictum is true—“to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant”—why had Pelikan not converted years before? Was there some piece of data he had been missing? Did something happen? How does a man who knows so much about the history of Christianity take decades to make up his mind? Wilken doesn’t answer these questions directly, though he does affirm that Pelikan’s reasons “were theological, but also very personal, made in the depth of his soul.”

I was received into Orthodoxy a month after Pelikan, and while my own reasons were also both theological and personal, my fairly quick journey into Orthodoxy when I was a student in my early twenties was quite different from Pelikan’s ­decades-long and much better-informed courtship with the Church. People become Orthodox for a variety of reasons. I was probably more like Gillquist in that I became convinced that Orthodoxy was uniquely the true Church of Christ (as detailed in his Becoming Orthodox). But is that what Pelikan believed? I’m not sure.

I could wish that all conversions to Orthodoxy were on that basis, but I also can’t discount the many that happen for other reasons. Aren’t those people also just as much part of the Orthodox Church? Am I more Orthodox because I read the second century martyr Ignatius of Antioch and wanted to be part of his church—which I identified with Orthodoxy—than the man who marries a Greek woman and decides he’s fine with ­going to her church?

Here is the second question raised by Herbel: How is conversion affecting the making of an American Orthodox Church? The biggest conversion story in statistical terms is the high rate of marriages between Orthodox and non-­Orthodox Christians, many of whom eventually convert to Orthodoxy. Another story is the effect that converts have had on the public face of Orthodoxy in America. Many of the most high-profile Orthodox ministries are run by converts or strongly influenced by them—such as Ancient Faith Radio and even the seminaries, where perhaps a majority of seminarians are now converts. In some jurisdictions, the same is already true of priests. How is that ­affecting parish life?

Has the “marketing” genius of Evangelicalism been imported with the conversion of Evangelicals? And is that approach a threat to Orthodoxy’s authenticity? While we scramble to get ourselves online to connect with an increasingly digital world, both to pastor and inform our current parishioners and to seek out new ones, some of us are worried about the commodification of our traditions. Can streaming audio of Byzantine chant be true to the spirit of our musical tradition? Is it proper to have digital copies of iconography? And while we Orthodox venerate our sainted missionaries, we are not so great at funding new ones. Some even ask: Is evangelism really Orthodox? The introduction of converts into Orthodoxy, many of whom are now finding the Church via the Internet, makes all these issues press the more intensely. Can an ancient, dogmatic religion rich with complex traditions of asceticism and liturgical worship translate well into the Internet age, and are converts the right people to be guiding that transition?

These changes in the face of Orthodoxy in America have picked up speed in recent decades, and we are not generally a religious community that likes things to pick up speed. Conversion itself is paradoxically both a boon and a threat. It is a boon because much of the vitality of Orthodox parish life in America is being driven undeniably by converts—if you find a highly active parish with lots of liturgical services, a strong education program and openness to new faces, you will likely find a convert at the helm. The threat comes in that Orthodoxy’s inherent conservatism about nearly everything can be disrupted by the presence of those who have not been raised to feel its rhythms and spirituality in their very bones, the kind of stability that—like it or not—comes only from living in your spiritual hometown your entire life. Will a synthesis be possible? As with all the other questions raised here, it’s still quite early to tell.

One of the first things new Orthodox seminarians are often told is that they are not there to change the Church. Rather, the Church is there to change them. Many of these same seminarians, when they become priests, tell this to their converts. And while we accept that as axiomatic—that coming into this Church means being converted—some of these converts are also awakening within their communities an awareness of what has always been present in the Church but has sometimes been forgotten, timeless, unchanging truths that are ready to be expressed in new ways.  

Andrew Stephen Damick is pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, and author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy.