Saturday, May 17, 2008

Seminary dean sees future for American Orthodoxy

The Rev. John Behr, dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y., says the majority of seminary students today are converts from other traditions, including Southern Baptists, Catholics and Pentecostals.
Posted by David Briggs/Plain Dealer Religion Reporter May 16, 2008 08:29AM
Categories: Faith on the Fly, Religion
Eastern Orthodoxy in the United States has long faced challenges in moving beyond ethnic politics to enter the mainstream of American religious life.

St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y., which has trained several Northeast Ohio clergy, has been a leading institution working toward an Orthodox Church in the United States that can transcend historic ties to mother churches in Greece, Serbia, Russia and other nations. The Rev. John Behr, the new dean of the seminary, says developing an American Orthodoxy is essential to foster growth and to reach out to younger generations and their non-Orthodox spouses. He discussed issues facing the church in the United States during a recent visit to alumni in Cleveland.
Q. When the average American thinks of Orthodox Christianity, what do you think is the first thing that comes to mind?

A. Probably nothing much. Or, if anything, it's going to be something very exotic, something romantic, Eastern, Oriental -- something you might have heard about or seen glimpses of, "The Deer Hunter," or whatever it might be.

Q. If there was one thing you would like to come to mind, what would it be?

A. I would say what I think is particular about the Orthodox church is its worship. ... We have this worship and this continuity of worship from before there even was a New Testament.

Q. In contrast to some other religious groups, why do many Orthodox churches in the United States continue to emphasize their ethnic backgrounds?
A. What is very particular about the immigration patterns of Eastern Europe is the different waves that happened. Nobody in 1970 ever imagined that there would be another wave of Russian immigration. There have been many waves of immigration with the Slavics, Greeks and people from the Middle East. This immigration has tended to reinforce the connections with the mother country at periodic intervals, and that's kind of kept that going.
But it's also been very, very intrinsic to Orthodoxy from the beginning that it becomes inculturated in the country in which it finds itself. It takes time, and it will take time for a fully, really indigenous Orthodox Church in America to find its full expression gathering together all those from all the different ethnic traditions over generations.

Q. How do you prepare people for change?

A. You've got evangelism within the ethnic church, and that's to get people to think about their religion more than simply in ethnic terms -- this is what we do as Serbian, as Greek, as Russian -- but to actually begin to understand what particular witness to Christianity and the Christian faith the Orthodox Church is to preserve and to proclaim.

Q. Are St. Vladimir seminarians today more open to an American church?

A. Even within my time [15 years], it's changed dramatically. Until 20, 30 years ago, almost all our students were what we would call cradle Orthodox, born in the church, brought up in the church. Now, I would say that well over half ... [maybe] two-thirds of our students, are converts.

Q. Will the presence of more clergy raised outside the ethnic traditions lead to an Orthodox Church more at home in America?

A. Absolutely. Going back to the question of immigration, what is very striking is that the more recent immigrants tend to become Americanized much more quickly than previous immigrants in the 19th and early 20th century. So they're already speaking English, their children are born and brought up here, going to school here. It's already happening very, very quickly. With regard to the students that we are training and forming as priests to go out and serve, it is striking how many of them come from a very strong missionary-minded type of Christianity. So they've got much more concern about going out and spreading the word about Orthodoxy.

Q. Throughout Eastern Europe, but particularly in Russia, there are concerns over religious freedom as governments and Orthodox leaders seek to form alliances. What do you think of these efforts to give the Orthodox Church a privileged position?

A. It's a major issue in Orthodox countries like Greece. In Russia, it's one of the most significant developments in the world religious scene, what will happen between the Russian church and state leadership. ... It seems to me that once you have established the principle of the separation of church and state, there's no going back on it. And I think that is for the good.

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