Orthodox Christians in U.S. face obstacles before unifying
Sister Sara Elisabet Oftedal, the co-founder and Housemother of Martha and Mary House, an Orthodox Christian Maternity Home for pregnant women choosing life and adoption in Escondido, Calif., participates in the panel discussion on the "New Face of American Orthodox Christianity in the 21st Century," at the Orthodox Christianity in North America conference at the Antiochian Village Retreat Center in Lionier.
From left, His Eminence Archbishop Nathaniel, Archbishop of the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America, and The Most Blessed Jonah, Metropolitan of All America and Canada, listen to the discussion on the "New Face of American Orthodox Christianity in the 21st Century," at the Orthodox Christianity in North America conference at the Antiochian Village Retreat Center in Lionier.
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As Orthodox Christians in the United States seek a new unity out of ethnic fragmentation, they must grapple with the fact that many who say they cherish the faith nevertheless ignore its teachings and practices.
"They see the Orthodox Church in an unorthodox way," said Alexei Krindatch, research director of the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute at the University of California-Berkeley, who conducted an in-depth study of Orthodox Christians in the United States.
He spoke in Ligonier at a national conference of Orthodox Christian Laity, church activists from across all ethnic jurisdictions. They welcomed this year's call from the patriarchs of all of the Eastern European and Middle Eastern Orthodox churches to begin forming united Orthodox churches in places such as North America and Australia. The patriarchs instructed all Orthodox bishops in North America to begin meeting together to deal with the issues of their own regions. Groups such as Orthodox Christian Laity want to help the bishops along that path.
Orthodox Christians have a high sense of identification with their faith, Mr. Krindatch said. Eighty-seven percent said they couldn't imagine being anything but Orthodox, compared to 70 percent of Catholics who felt the same way about their church. But although more than 70 percent of Orthodox identify themselves as conservative or traditional -- wanting no or slow change -- many also consider key teachings of the faith optional.
Mr. Krindatch found that 60 percent believed they could be good Orthodox Christians without going to church every Sunday -- and they attended less frequently than Catholics or evangelical Protestants.
More than a quarter believed it was unnecessary to give time and money to either the church or to help the poor. Another study found that 62 percent of Orthodox Christians believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Metropolitan Jonah, national leader of the Russian-rooted Orthodox Church in America, reacted strongly to the abortion findings, telling the assembly, "If 60 percent of our people support abortion, then we have failed miserably in our teaching."
But he praised a panel of speakers who he said were laying the practical groundwork for unity by bringing people from all jurisdictions together to aid women in crisis pregnancies, assist the poor and start schools.
Sister Sara Elisabet Oftedal, co-founder of Martha and Mary House in Escondido, Calif., a small home for women who choose adoption over abortion, said her board has members from the Serbian, Antiochian, and Greek jurisdictions and is incorporated in the Orthodox Church in America.
"As a convert, I'm blind to the differences. But I do think it would be wonderful if we were all together because it would be a much more powerful witness," she said.
The Rev. Justin Mathews, director of FOCUS North America, a pan-Orthodox ministry to aid poor Americans with food, shelter and employment, said global Orthodoxy has a long tradition of social service, but it has been neglected in America.
Ministry to the poor "is the responsibility of our church and perhaps the beginning of the tangible fabric of unity," he said. Paying homage to food festivals, he said Orthodox churches in America are ideally suited for soup kitchens because "our churches are full of these commercial kitchens that are used primarily to serve ourselves."
Achieving administrative unity would benefit social service ministries because they wouldn't have to approach a half-dozen ethnic bishops for permission each time they wanted to start a project in a given city, he said.
Right now "it's just difficult to access the faithful. I can't get the names of everybody. They don't all subscribe to the same magazines. So just in the area of being able to reach people with a vital message, there would be an economy of communication that would be greatly effective," he said.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Oct. 31, 2009) Sister Sara Elisabet Oftedal spoke Oct. 29, 2009 at a meeting of Orthodox Christian Laity in Ligonier. Her name was misspelled in this story as originally published Oct. 30, 2009.
First Published October 30, 2009 12:00 am