One Visit To A Russian Parish

I had the pleasure of reading a very detailed and fascinating account of a Roman Catholic couple’s first visit to an Orthodox parish.  It happened to be a Russian parish, which for reasons mentioned in the article was of particular interest to the couple.  The author, James, goes into some detail about the experience, and I recommend reading through it if you have 15 minutes.  It seems that James and his girlfriend are in a period of searching.   That’s a tough place to be, but very exciting.  I wish them the best, and I hope that they give Orthodoxy some additional time.

I was particularly interested in his summation of his visit.  Despite a very positive experience there was one nagging concern that stopped them (seemingly) from considering Orthodoxy as a viable alternative to Catholicism.  If you read the article you’ll see how much the parish they went to seemed to push the right buttons, but they still walked away saying “no thanks.”  Painful.  What was the issue?  The killer for them was ethnicity in the parish.  I think it’d be fair to say that the sister issue of perceived unity is also to blame.

Allow me to quote a bit from the post:

Lauren enjoyed the Liturgy quite a bit, and I had a very positive experience about it and the community myself. In fact, if you’ve read up to this point, you might be wondering if I’ve thought of “going Dox” by the end of it all. In a word, no. And although I mused that I unwittingly tossed Lauren headfirst into Patriarch Kirill’s clutches by indulging her with this visit, she actually came through it more comfortable with her Catholic identity. Although our proverbial pilgrimage to Moscow affirmed in both us everything we disliked about western spirituality, there was still something missing. Lauren iterated the four marks of the Church (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic) and said she believed the Orthodox came up short on the “catholic” part. After all, we visited a Russian Orthodox church, as distinct from a Greek or Serbian one. While it’s true that the Roman Church also has eastern rites, and in the not-too-distant past also had ethnic Irish, Italian, Polish, and Korean parishes in America, these are all window dressing by comparison to the distinct ethnic character of the various Orthodox churches out there.

An Orthodox reading this will quickly object by saying that there’s no ethnic requirement to joining the church. Indeed, I believe the priest at the church I visited was of Irish descent (just based on name and appearance; I didn’t talk to him), and I’m led to believe that it’s quite normal for Orthodox clergy in America to be of Anglo, Irish, German, or otherwise non-Eastern European origin. But still, just speaking personally as a non-Slav, I feel like even if I did have the urge to convert to Orthodoxy, I wouldn’t feel completely integrated into the Orthodox world unless I went above and beyond, and became a cleric in the faith. Otherwise, I’d perpetually be a hanger-on, a token half-Anglo, half-Indonesian guy (if not the only half-Anglo, half-Indonesian guy in all of Orthodoxy). As a convert to the Roman church, while I do still feel like a bit of an outsider, this is more because I’m just a single person going to church without any family ties or little ones trailing behind me, rather than because of ethnicity.

In spite of all the eye-rolling induced whenever I read about the latest media stunt or soundbite surrounding Pope Francis, or my general cynicism about anything related to Vatican politics, I have to admit that the bishop of Rome somehow still supports a unity and catholicity you just can’t find anywhere else in Christianity. I can look at photos of Japanese people attending Mass in Nagasaki after the bombs fell and think it makes sense, but think it would be bizarre if it were a Divine Liturgy instead. I can be irritated as hell looking over photos of the Eucharist being tossed like candy at World Youth Day in Brazil, but still feel the event is somehow relevant to me because I’m Catholic. I can have absolutely nothing in common with the average pew-warmer at the Catholic parish down the street, but what happens at his Novus Ordo Mass still matters to me more than what happens at an aesthetically perfect solemn Mass at Saint Clement’s Episcopal in downtown Philly (though they are more Tridentine than Puginesque, but I digress). Much as I’d like to ignore the daily doings of Francis, his office somehow ties the ordinary Joe Catholic pew-warmer’s fate to mine more than that of the most zealous Anglo-Catholic medievalist. [emphasis added]

I have no intention of jumping all over James.  I think he raises very common concerns.  Their validity is somewhat questionable, but if nothing else this is something that the Orthodox diaspora (I’m looking at you North and South America) have got to find a way to move beyond.  Unfortunately the perception of the outsider or first time seeker is that ethnicity is way more of an issue than it really is.  I faced this when I first looked into Orthodoxy, and I know of many other converts who would confirm a similar event.  Because we in America have a lot of flava going on, it magnifies the issue of ethnicity way beyond the reality.

The truth is quite different, as James will discover if he pushes on.  Once you come and see a few times you get a chance to really encounter people, and not just ethnicity.  You find that the alternative cultures you encounter do present some cultural issues, but they are hardly insurmountable, and despite what you might think, you don’t have to become Russian or Greek or Middle Eastern to be Orthodox.  Many of the people in that “ethnic” parish will be American.  Their parents will be American.  Their grand-parents will be American.  Their ethnicity is American.  Surprise surprise.

However, let’s be candid.  When I go to my parish the sign out front says “Greek Orthodox”.  On the wall beside the door it says “Hellenic Orthodox”.  How are people supposed to know that this information, while useful, doesn’t mean go away.  The other 99% of Americans who don’t know Orthodoxy exists, have their first encounter be a sign that says “Russian Orthodox.”  What are they supposed to think?  If they come inside and hear slavonic throughout, do you really expect that they will take the time to understand the historical loop-de-loops we’ve gone through to get where we are?  Maybe they should.  But they probably won’t.  You and I know there’s a really good reason for this diversity.  You and I know that the diversity is mostly a good thing.  BUT we also know that a lot of it is getting in the way for no good reason.

OK, that being said, I would like to say to James that your impression of Orthodox diversity and ethnicity is a mirage.  That Russian church may do the liturgy in a different language than a serbian one, but it is the same liturgy.  A mass said in spanish is the same mass as that said in English.  Don’t get too hung up on that language, or small differences in custom.  Take some time to get comfortable with what they are doing, and if the service was entirely in slavonic please look for a parish that embraces english.  They are very common.  I’d daresay they are the majority as the church here in America grows into its own culture and begins to come together.

I can say from personal experience that it was the “greekness” of the culture that was difficult to grasp, but rather the “orthodoxness” of the culture that was tough.  The Church is so different, so radically other than our American normal that it can be quite a slap in the face.  This is a good thing, so turn the other cheek.  Let the church be different and join it in being called out.

You are correct James in that there is a wrongful diversity here, but it’s not in the liturgy.  It’s in the episcopal structure here in the States.  You didn’t touch on that in your article, but there is a valid criticism there.  The situation is canonically wrong.  It is recognized by everyone as canonically wrong.  It is not acceptable and it is being fixed.  However, there will probably always be various languages used in liturgies here in the States because we are a multi-lingual melting pot of enormous proportions.  It’s not a bad thing for us to have influence from the other cultures that melded here.  This is exactly the case in ancient Rome that made it such a good model for Orthodox belief.  That diversity that meets here is healthy.  Embrace it!  You don’t have to become Russian.  Just love the Russians.  You don’t have to become Greek.  Just accept that they will never be on time and you’ll be fine.

I did want to note that the other big reason you (James) didn’t connect with Orthodoxy was because of the disunity you perceived.  Despite all the craziness you mention that has frustrated you in Catholicism, you’re willing to put up with it because you see everyone connected through the Pope.  I’d suggest that you at least consider that the unity of submission to the Pope is a superficial one, perhaps the weakest form of unity that exists.  It’s similar to the unity you find in Americans that you might attribute to having a single President.  It’s pretty weak.  That isn’t what makes a nation hold together, nor is it the kind of unity you’ll find in Orthodoxy.  The Orthodox Church finds unity in common worship, common dogma, the Eucharist, and the bonds between Bishops.  This is the same unity found and described in the early church.  It suffers from not having a great visible point of unity like the Pope.  We have the ecumenical patriarch, of course, but he’s never served the same role for us that the Pope has for Catholicism.  This doesn’t make it better or worse.  It’s just different.  Please give Orthodoxy a chance to demonstrate a different sort of unity that is less visible, but stronger!

If you read this please consider taking a break from mass and give the divine liturgy some time.  A month or two out of your life won’t be that great of a sacrifice, but you might find that a lot of your questions or concerns get answered when you start experiencing Orthodoxy on a longer time scale.  I enjoyed your blog post.  I hope to see more on a similar topic.

Oh, and btw, there’s a Japanese Orthodox church.  You didn’t see pictures of their divine liturgy, but it was going on!


About mark

Orthodox convert, writer, podcaster, husband, and father of six.

One thought on “One Visit To A Russian Parish

  1. Connie Shinn

    This “ethnicity, or cultural thing,” is also difficult for the Orthodox adult who has grown up in the faith to go to another Orthodox Church of a different jurisdiction. It isn’t just a thing for an inquirer to get over; it is what all of us Orthodox here in the US have to get over; a difficult barrier. The liturgical typicon isn’t yet “American,” but the slavic Orthodox Churches use the Russian typicon, and the Syrian/Lebanese/Palestianian and Greek use the Greek typicon. The chants are different too. I don’t believe it is the people as much as the liturgical is not what the Western Christian is use to. I grew up with the Russian typicon and chants. Also perhaps James and his friend were encountering a “close family worshipping together,” and they weren’t a part of the “family” because they weren’t baptised and chrismated Orthodox Christians at the time.

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