by Andrew Stephen Damick
First Things

Are you Greek?” This is the question I get asked the most when I tell someone that I am an Orthodox Christian. At first, this question rankled, because I am not Greek. (I am, among other things, Lithuanian.) Mind you, I would have no problem being Greek. It’s a wonderful, ancient culture with much to recommend it. But what rankled was the sense that being Orthodox means being Greek.

It is a touchy subject for many Orthodox Christians in America, especially those who converted to the faith, because the implication of such a close identification of culture with faith implies that the faith is not really for people who aren’t from that culture. And no doubt it can also be touchy for the many Orthodox Christians in America who are from traditionally Orthodox cultures who are not Greeks. There are actually quite a lot of them—in America, there are Orthodox churches representing the Albanian, Antiochian, Bulgarian, Carpatho-Russian, Georgian (the Caucasian republic, not the southern state), Romanian, Russian, Serbian and Ukrainian traditions.

But I’ve come to see the question as mostly the fault of the Orthodox themselves, who have not quite figured out how to convey that Orthodoxy—being Christianity—is for everyone and doesn’t require a particular cultural identification. We eventually will figure it out, I think. Roman Catholics in America for a long time were pretty ethnicity-bound, as well (everyone knew which was the Polish church and which the Irish), but now hardly anyone expects a Roman Catholic to be from Rome. And it’s less than a century since the average American Lutheran church conducted services in German, Swedish, or Norwegian.

I also can’t blame the asker of that question too much, because recent demographic studies have shown that some 60 percent of Orthodox in America belong to the Greek Archdiocese of America. So, statistically speaking, “Are you Greek?” is a pretty decent guess, even if I wish it were irrelevant.

That the question is a viable one points to something that may be less obvious to those outside of Orthodoxy’s circle, and that is that the Orthodox in America are in the process of figuring out just who we are. It’s not a doctrinal issue—we do not, for instance, vote every few years on moral standards or doctrines. We are also free of the churning wars of worship innovation that seem to keep Evangelical blogdom busy and inspire laments among traditional Catholics. For better or for worse (depending on one’s view), the Orthodox aren’t going to be giving up on our dogmatic ecumenical councils or revising our Divine Liturgy. Neither new morality nor Novus Ordo for us.

But we do have an identity problem, nonetheless, namely, that Orthodoxy is divided into roughly a dozen “jurisdictions” in America. This administrative division is wholly against our canonical tradition, which stipulates that for any given piece of real estate there should only be one bishop who has territorial authority—that’s been our standard for about 1,700 years or so. But that’s not how things work for the Orthodox in America, where we have overlapping territories. In the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania where I live, for instance, there are nine Orthodox parishes with six bishops governing them, none of whom live anywhere near here.

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