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Converts Boost Ranks, Future of Orthodox Christians
by Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer.
Source:Pittsburgh Post Gazette - Date: May 5th, 2002

Today, when Orthodox Christians worldwide celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the Rev. Thomas Hopko sees a church that is emerging from generations of repression and a corps of new converts who are eager to carry the faith into the future. But just as there can be no resurrection without crucifixion, the good news in Orthodoxy includes painful realities, said Hopko, one of America's leading Orthodox churchmen. He has spent the past 34 years at St. Vladimir's Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y., the last decade as dean. Now 63, he will move in July to Ellwood City to spend two years writing and speaking before he retires. His daughter lives near an Orthodox monastery there and he is moving to be near her.

St. Vladimir's serves the Orthodox Church in America, the self-governing daughter of the Russian Orthodox Church. It has about 100 students, but few of them were raised Orthodox in the United States. The majority are either converts, foreign-born or both. Most of the remainder are the sons of priests. "If we didn't have those three groups , there would be very few students," Hopko said. "Among the Orthodox in America, the young people are not coming to serve the church." Noting that there also has been a decline in the number of people entering ministry in many of the mainline Protestant churches -- especially among white males -- Hopko believes this is a trend that transcends Orthodoxy. The clergy is no longer viewed as a prestigious profession, he said.

Estimates of Orthodox in the United States vary widely -- Hopko says the statistics are often inflated by counting every baptized person of Greek, Slavic or Arab descent. A Gallup poll estimates that there are about 2.7 million. Whatever the true number, it has declined significantly from a generation ago, Hopko said. The converts do not make up for that decline, but they are providing a new generation of leaders, he said. They include former Roman Catholics who prefer Orthodox church government, mainline Protestants who want historic theology, Protestant evangelicals in search of mysticism and Pentecostals who want liturgy to support religious experience, Hopko said. Many of the foreign-born students were raised as atheists under communism in the former Soviet empire.

"Worship, a clear theology and a sense of historic Christianity are the three things that draw people," Hopko said. "It's a very Christian church, but without a lot of the problems that took place in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, where western Europeans struggled with the Bible as the word of God and with biblical criticism." Orthodoxy doesn't care whether all of the Gospel accounts of a certain event precisely match each other, because the religious meaning of those accounts is more important than the details, he said. "I believe we are beyond a very silly clash in my youth between mindless fundamentalists and hypercritics who practically claimed that not a word in the Bible is true," he said. Some overseas students come to study in the United States with the intention of returning to Eastern Europe. But they may be viewed with extreme suspicion when they go home, Hopko said. "In places like Russia and Bulgaria they are extremely xenophobic right now. They are not interested in Western things," Hopko said. A decade ago when Hopko spoke in Moscow, the event was picketed by some Russians who said that the Russian church did not need Americans to tell it what to do. "They see the West as the great threat and enemy," he said. But the Orthodox overseas need to learn how to be a Christian witness in a pluralistic culture, he said. They have no historic experience of that because either they spent centuries as a state church or centuries under Muslim rule before being driven underground by the communists.

He hopes his foreign students can take back the message that: "Christianity has to be critically studied and debated. You can't keep giving simplistic 19 th-century answers to very, very difficult questions," Hopko said. Because Orthodoxy worldwide is necessarily preoccupied with the difficulties of re-emerging in a complicated modern world, Hopko does not expect the churches overseas to help Orthodox Americans resolve their own difficulties any time soon. Although Orthodox canon law says there should be only one Orthodox bishop for any given territory, the New World is a crazy-quilt of overlapping ethnic Orthodox dioceses.

Many American-born Orthodox would like to see one, united American Orthodox Church take its place alongside the Orthodox churches of the Old World. But that would be a tremendous trauma for the mother churches overseas, Hopko said. For instance, the spiritual center of Orthodoxy is Constantinople -- modern day Istanbul, Turkey -- where only a tiny minority of Christians now live. Most of its real influence is over the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in the United States, Hopko said. "There are fewer Orthodox Christians in the Diocese of Constantinople than in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, but it remains the primatial see," Hopko said. If Istanbul gives up its influence in the United States, its influence within worldwide Orthodoxy will be more difficult to justify, he said. There are millions of Orthodox in the former Soviet Union, but they are fighting battles with nationalists in places such as Ukraine and Estonia, which do not want a church governed from Moscow. "While that is going on, they are not about to care too much about what is going on in North America, except to make sure that their interests here will remain with them," he said.

In the meantime, Hopko sees signs of spiritual revival in American Orthodoxy. There is a tremendous new interest in monasticism, with monks coming from Old World spiritual centers such as Mount Athos, Greece, to found monasteries here. The monks are helping Orthodox laity to form a deep, traditional piety, he said. "Back in the 1950s when everyone went to church because that was the thing to do, our numbers looked good -- but we saw the fruit of that level of shallow commitment when the '60s hit," he said. "While the numbers of Orthodox in this country are smaller than they were, our spiritual life is more intense."

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