Front Page News About the Newest Western Rite Mission
Ancient ways entice Detroit Christians
January 21, 2007
BY DAVID CRUMM
FREE PRESS RELIGION WRITER
The Rev. John Fenton is betting his life on the growing popularity of Orthodox Christianity across the country.
He and his wife have packed up their six children from the rectory of a Detroit church where he was a Lutheran pastor until late October. They've moved into a small home in Allen Park, leaving behind Fenton's clergy salary and, soon, his health insurance.
On Feb. 10 and Feb. 11 in Troy he plans to join a small but growing number of clergy nationwide choosing ordination as Orthodox priests. Fenton has lined up 16 [actually, 26] former Lutherans as charter members of a new Orthodox parish he plans to open Downriver.
They'll be joining an ancient branch of Christianity that's famous for engaging worshippers' senses, from the scent of incense and sound of chanting to prayerful reflection on colorful icons.
Detroit is emerging as a national center for the rebirth of these churches, which have deep ethnic roots in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Many split formally with the larger Catholic Church in the 11th Century. [Of course, Orthodox would say the "larger Catholic Church" -- consisting of one ancient patriarchate, Rome -- broke from our Church, consisting of four.] They've had their own parishes in North America for more than a century, mostly serving as ethnic enclaves.
Not anymore. Social scholars say the churches are growing in the United States through immigration and conversion. Next week, many of Detroit's Orthodox leaders will host the first in a series of conferences planned nationwide for non-Orthodox clergy who want to explore conversion.
Why the fresh interest? Fenton said many Christians feel battered by storms of theological controversy in their own churches over issues as basic as the divinity of Jesus. In contrast, he said, Orthodoxy represents an oasis of Christian tradition with its centuries-old style of worship and timeless celebration of the mysterious power of saints.
"So many people feel that the world is constantly changing all around them, and they want to find something that's so deeply rooted that it won't change on them," Fenton said. "I think that's the biggest thing that Orthodoxy brings to the American table."
Since the mid-1990s, about 850,000 Americans have been drawn to more than a dozen different divisions of Orthodoxy that have congregations in the United States.
"One thing that's difficult for people to appreciate is that the Orthodox world is very, very complicated with all of our different divisions," said Archbishop Nathaniel, who is based in Grass Lake near Jackson and oversees 90 Orthodox churches with roots in Romania. His churches are affiliated with the U.S.-based Orthodox Church in America.
Two dozen of those 90 churches have opened since 1990, [His Eminence] Nathaniel said, and his overall membership is about 50,000.
Converting to Orthodoxy is "not like trading in your Ford car one day for a General Motors car the next day," he said. "There's a long process."
Like a long journey home
For Jane and Dan Hinshaw of Ann Arbor, both doctors who teach at the University of Michigan, the journey that led them to join the Orthodox Church in the mid-1990s took them decades to complete. As children in the 1950s and '60s, their families belonged to what they describe as fundamentalist churches. Later, the Hinshaws moved to the Episcopal Church.
"But a major theme for us all the way along this journey was trying to find a home in a historic Christian church," Dan Hinshaw said last week. "It wasn't until we found the Orthodox Church that we finally felt we had reached that kind of a home."
A common assumption about Orthodox converts is that many are fleeing the ordination of women and debates over gay rights in other Christian churches. Orthodox leaders don't ordain women and condemn gay relationships.
But the Hinshaws argue that these issues were not a part of their decision and aren't a big factor for many converts they've known. Jane Hinshaw is a psychiatrist with many clients who are gay. As a professional, she also supports women's rights.
The Hinshaws converted to find "this much greater appreciation for the mystery of the faith," said Dan Hinshaw, a surgeon.
His wife added, "For years, we had approached our religion as intellectuals. And what we discovered in the Orthodox Church was that there are ultimate mysteries that we can't explain. ... For us, finding out that we don't have to know all the answers about the world was a big relief."
[His Eminence] Nathaniel said in his conversations with converts, the strongest appeal of Orthodoxy "is that people feel there's a questioning of some of the traditional beliefs about Jesus Christ in many of the other churches these days. Some Christian clergy even question Christ's divinity."
An awkward welcome
Trying to welcome prospective converts is tricky, especially if they are clergy in other denominations. [His Eminence] Nathaniel acknowledged that the recent invitation to Episcopal clergy to attend next week's conference in Detroit may have been awkward.
The letter from [His Eminence] Nathaniel and other Orthodox leaders affiliated with the St. Andrew House Center for Orthodox Christian Studies in Detroit mentioned that they believe Episcopal priests are going through "a time of trial" because of theological debates in their church.
"That may not have been the best phrase to use, but we know that there are debates going on about core beliefs in a number of denominations," [His Eminence] Nathaniel said. "And we want people to know that we're not trying to focus only on the Episcopal Church. We're hoping that these conferences will become an ongoing program, and we will welcome clergy from other denominations at future conferences."
Detroit's Episcopal Bishop Wendell Gibbs said last week that he was annoyed when he found out about the conference. Over the years, he has befriended local Orthodox leaders through ecumenical organizations, so it was "surprising to discover third-hand from one of my clergy that the Orthodox were inviting our priests to this.
"I wasn't angry about it, but anyone who knows me will tell you that I don't like surprises," [Bp.] Gibbs said. "I wish they'd simply made a phone call to tell me about it, because I actually don't object to having a conference to talk about our two traditions. There's a lot that Western churches can learn from the Orthodox."
Popularity of incense, icons
That's a realization dawning on religious leaders nationwide, said Phyllis Tickle, author of books about changing religious life in the United States. Even beyond the 6 million Orthodox church members in the United States, Tickle has written about the widespread popularity of Orthodox-inspired art and traditions.
Walk through Christian bookstores, religious gift shops or even the religion sections of stores such as Borders and shoppers are likely to find recordings of choirs chanting ancient Orthodox hymns and even greeting cards featuring icons of saints.
"There's no question that Orthodox traditions are very popular and these churches are having a huge influence on the rest of us," Tickle said.
The biggest example is the explosion of interest in icons, paintings of saints designed as an aid to prayer, she said.
"That's absolutely startling to me," she said. "I'm 73 and was raised Presbyterian, and I can tell you that the idea of icons as tools for prayer was regarded as a heresy by a lot of Americans for many years.
"Now, I'm amazed at how many people just love icons and think they're so helpful in their prayer life."
A challenging conversion
For clergy, the transition into Orthodox churches is an enormous challenge.
When Fenton left the Lutheran Church, he put his family's income at peril. He has taken part-time teaching jobs to keep creditors at bay until a new Downriver church, which he expects to call Holy Incarnation Orthodox Church, grows large enough to support his family.
"I have to admit there is some real anxiety about this," Fenton said last week. "I even applied at Starbucks recently, because I was anxious about losing our health insurance, and I heard there was an option to get insurance there. But I didn't find a job there." There also are huge ethnic and language barriers. He has been welcomed into the Antiochian Orthodox Church, which has roots in the 1st Century city of Antioch, where St. Peter is believed to have established a church. That ancient town is in Turkey and the church's worldwide headquarters is in Syria.
Fenton speaks no Arabic, a traditional language in his new denomination. Instead, he'll be ordained into a Western Rite division and will use English in his new parish. The worship will resemble a Catholic mass from before the 1960s, he said. [But it is not the same, he undoubtedly added.]
"But this Western Rite goes back many centuries, and we're part of a church that goes back thousands of years," he said. "That's the appeal for me."
Despite the huge challenges, he is hopeful.
"My wife and I have spent a lot of time in prayer about this whole move, and it is difficult, but we do believe that God is leading us."
Contact DAVID CRUMM at 313-223-4526 or firstname.lastname@example.org..
John Fenton, 45, of Allen Park left the Lutheran Church to be an Orthodox priest. After he's ordained, he plans to open a church Downriver.
A closer look at Orthodox Christianity
• What are Orthodox churches? The word "orthodox" means "of the right opinion" ["Right faith" and "Offering right worship"] and the word is becoming popular in many evangelical Protestant churches to describe a commitment to Christian tradition. More commonly, the word refers to churches with ethnic roots in countries across Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The history of division and union among these churches is long and complex. The biggest single split in Christianity was in 1054, separating Orthodox and Catholic churches.
• How many members are there? The church has about 220 million worldwide and nearly 6 million in the United States.
• What are the biggest Orthodox groups locally? Accurate membership isn't known because there is no regional church office that keeps a tally. Many people retain strong ethnic ties to these churches, even if they are not active in a parish. The latest U.S. Census data for 11 counties in southeast Michigan indicates there are close to 200,000 people here from countries with an Orthodox background. Among those groups are: 53,000 Russians, 36,000 Ukrainians, 33,000 Greeks, 23,000 Romanians, 14,000 Armenians [who would be part of the "Oriental Orthodox," not Byzantine Orthodox], 7,000 Serbians, 7,000 Macedonians and 1,800 Bulgarians. It's not clear how many are Orthodox Christians.
• Is Orthodox membership growing? Yes. Local Orthodox leaders say they've seen steady growth, though they have not done a census. Experts who produce the World Christian Encyclopedia, published by Oxford University Press, say Orthodox membership in the United States has jumped to nearly 6 million from 5.1 million since the mid-1990s.
• Why are Orthodox churches growing? After the fall of communism in Eastern Europe nearly two decades ago, many Orthodox churches awakened from decades of oppression. In this country, many Americans searching for churches with deep theological roots are attracted to the history, music and art in Orthodox churches.
DAVID CRUMM and VICTORIA TURK
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