Visit to OCA

Last Sunday, I was able to visit a parish of the Orthodox Church of America.  It was wonderful to hear all the Slavic languages afterwards during the fellowship time, a reminder that the Church encompasses all nations.  But, it was also a reminder of the “ethnic problem” in some Orthodox churches.  I’m no expert, but it seems that the Orthodox churches are still tied up too much with ethnic heritage.  One source I read said there was tension between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church because the Russians “validated” the OCA, without consulting the Patriarch of Constantinople.  Another reminder that not even the “catholic” churches are completely unified.  May the Lord bring increasing unity to All His Church!

On a more practical note, this was the first Divine Liturgy I’ve participated in.  I like the standing (a Biblical posture for prayer), the incense (it’s in Revelation, so why not use it?), and all the vestments.  Sometimes Anglican and Roman Catholic vestments just look gay.  (My apologies to any RC or Anglican readers, but what’s with the lace, anyway???).  The Orthodox vestments were royal and priestly (kinda like 1 Pt. 2:9), and I liked the icon of Christ on the back of the priest’s robe.  It was a visual reminder that the priest represents Christ to us.  The priest prayed for long stretches of time with his hands raised to heaven (also Biblical).  But, I don’t know why they closed up the iconostasis while the priest and clergy partook of the Eucharist.  Can anyone enlighten me? 

The singing was a bit lacking.  As a Protestant who has been taught the “priesthood of all believers,” I think everyone in the congregation should sing.  I couldn’t quite figure out who was singing and who wasn’t, since it wasn’t very vigorous.  I also didn’t hear many men singing.  Is this normal in Orthodox churches?

Of course, we couldn’t receive the Eucharist, but it was a profoundly moving experience, nonetheless.  Although I’m not at all sure about the propriety of the spoon thing, it was a moving picture of our total dependence on Christ for our spiritual nourishment.  We are like babies, coming to him for our food.  I was also moved, almost to tears, by a little girl and the elderly ladies bringing the Blessed Bread (Antidoron?) to us.  It was a wonderful experience of the Church as a family, each serving the other.  The clinking of the spoon and the chalice also made it sound like a meal. 

There’s definitely much we can learn from the Orthodox, and I’m thankful for the opportunity we had to participate in that service. 



  1. “Sometimes Anglican and Roman Catholic vestments just look gay. ” – LOL!

    We visited an OCA church in our area a couple times, and it was great. Different from your experience, this was a very multiethnic congregation — ukrainians, germans, poles, africans, russians, and former baptists. We also did a *lot* of congregational singing — it was the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, and we sang pretty much the whole thing (I don’t know if the DLofStJC allows for variations from church to church…).

  2. I found your blog yesterday and have added it to my bloglines. Your honesty in dealing with these issues is refreshing. I spent a short time in the reformed world (CREC), but quickly moved to the RCC. I promise not to be a troll.

    We visited a Greek Orthodox church some time back and were also impressed with the beauty of the church, the liturgy (St. John of Chrysostom), and the general atmosphere of reverence.

    Lace was originally not reserved only for women. It is one of those textiles that, without machines, takes a lot of time and skill to make, so was very expensive. It was used by royalty and by the super-rich as a show of splendor. I’m sure you’re already aware of the arguments for and against the propriety of the church deliberately showing splendor through vestments, etc. So I won’t go into that. But that’s where the use of lace came from.

  3. Thanks, Sarah:

    That was helpful! Makes sense, especially when you think of paintings of English kings in Reformation and post-Reformation period.

  4. I reckon that the problem with Orthodox Churches looking ethnic is twofold.

    First of all, the people who left their country in hope of a better life and came to countries like the US see in the church the mother they lost. So, they use the church to deal with their insecurities and maintain a connection with home. Their drama is great, because on the one hand they do not integrate in their host-country, and on the other hand their home country changed so much in their absence that they can no longer feel at home there.

    Secondly, Western Europe and America has churches. Those living there were Catholics or Protestants before the Orthodox increased. It’s up to the already existing churches to discover Orthodoxy (with the help of the Orthodox, no doubt!) but it’s not up to the Orthodox to create separate churches… This means that churches were created by necessity to cater for the needs of the non-native immigrants who were Orthodox before they first came to the new lands.

    Take England for example. I think that from an ecclesiological point of view it’s the Church of England that needs to become Orthodox and not the Orthodox to create a new church of England. The Church in England made her decision, that’s history. The history can be undone if the people decide to undo what their fathers did, not if the Orthodox come and create a new church…

    To conclude, while the Orthodox need to face their own problems and see way beyond their nationality and the bonds they have with their country of origin, the non-Orthodox also need to understand their historic responsibility. But because this is not something realistic, we end up with accepting people who want to worship the Orthodox way and catering for the Orthodox immigrants at the same time.

  5. I belong to a quite ethnic Byzantine Catholic parish. And I am definitely not of that ethnicity. The people sing much lounder when parts of the liturgy are in Church Slavonic., which they are rather unpredictably. I have tried to pick up a little bit of it,so I can participate those times also. Usually the participation level is not great, or people participate but at a very low volume so mostly you hear the choir or the cantors. Also, although there are some young people and children, the elderly are a the majority of the parish. I joined this parish because the liturgy (of St. John C, just as in an Orthodox church) is so beautiful and reverent, which could not be said for my local Latin rite parish. I also attend, whenever I am in Maryland, an almost all convert Antiochian Orthodox parish where the participation is intense, it is not ethnic etc.
    (Of course I don’t take communion there. But my son became Orthodox there and I consider myself a friend of the parish.) Of course the Liturgy of St. John C will be different in different places; slightly different translations, the iconostasis open or shut during the actual canon, variations in how much of the “Grant it Oh Lord” prayers are said, or sung. The music is different and congregations will participate more or less. I think you know all Presbyterian churches are alike. The liturgy is a uniting factor in Orhtodoxy and Catholicism, but there is no way you could make groups of human beings behave identically. There are always alll of those scoiological factors involved..

    The “spoon thing” has been going on for a long time. To be honest I feel myself bristle when Ihear you say you are not so sure of its propriety. From my point of view, the church does it and has done it for a long time and that by itself is a complete assurance of its propriety. Still, I know you are looking in from the outside and are giving us your genuine first impressions. I myself have never gotten really comfortable with communion in one kind only which is still practiced in some Roman Catholic churches, and often in ones in which I otherwise am more happy with because they have a more traditional celebration of the mass. Yet I could say the same thing to myself about that: the church did it for a long time, who am I to say it is wrong? For me, the spoon is a way to receive in both kinds which is reverent to the presence of Christ and allows the priest only (or priest and deacon) to give out Holy Communion, which makes it impossible for anyone to recieve with outward signs of irreverence or to take a host back to his seat as I have seen happen with communion in the hand in Latin rite Catholic churches. I like your comment that receovomg on a spoon-like a baby- is a picture of our total dependence on Christ. In my parish , although it is not small, the priest knows everyone’s name, and says “The servant of God, Suan, receives the Body and Blood of Christ.” Some places they use servant for men and handmaid for women, which would be fine with me.

    Of course, besides experiencing the celebration of the liturgy, you have to consider if you believe the doctrines of each church. But I think you are doiing that.

    Susan Peterson

  6. The Royal Doors being closed during the communion of the clergy is one of those small “t” tradition things as best I can tell. Our OCA parish closes the doors and pulls the curtain; the Antiochian parish in town doesn’t. The level of congregational involvement in singing the Liturgy varies as well. As a very rough rule of thumb, you can expect more congregational participation in parishes that are more convert than cradle. Exceptions abound. Welcome! Come back in a couple of weeks during Great Lent for a Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts; attributed to Pope St. Gregory the Dialogist, it is hauntingly beautiful and hearkens back to the undivided catholic Church. May God guide you.

  7. Susan:

    I meant to add something about, “Who cares if I like it!” Americans are too individualistic in their worship, treating it like going to a restaurant rather than the Temple of God. My concern is with what is Biblical as well as consistent with the Tradition of the Church. I haven’t studied the theology/history of the Eastern mode of adminstering the sacrament enough, obviously.

  8. I have been attending a amall Orthodox mission for a few months now, though still just inquiring. The toughest part in the hymn singing for me is the tones. I don’t know them, so it is hard to participate confidently. One thing that stands out is the fact that no part of the service is dependent on the performance of a preacher, or worship team, or musicians. Though so much is going on, I never feel that sense of being entertained that often comes up in Protestant churches. You can focus on Christ and on the words you are hearing and saying. Also, there is much more scripture read here than in the typical Protestant church and when it is read, it isn’t just intendedfor the mind like I am accustomed to in Protestantism, but it seems to go right for the heart. Not only is the worship beautiful and majestic, the ancient theology undergirding all of it is immensely compelling. I can’t wait to plunge into my first season of Lent!

  9. Thanks for writing about your inaugural experience. I too was struck by many of the things you mentioned when I attended my first Divine Liturgy. Another element at the service that reminded me (and still reminds me) of the Book of Revelation was the multiplicity of things that were happening at the same time! Somehow, the “swirl” of actions–incensing, bowing, singing, crossing–didn’t seem chaotic but strangely harmonious. At any rate, I hope you’ll go back!

  10. More corrections… which I am sure people figured out…lounder not lounder…and..all Presby churches are NOT allike…of course.

    I haven’t studied the history of the goldern spoon either. But I have seen it at all Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches I have attended.

    It is true that Jesus said “whenever you drinik this cup” which would be an argument for drinking from the cup, for me, if one were going to start de novo to plan a ritual. But we don’t start de novo. I am content with what the Church does, here.

    Susan Peterson

  11. I think it is best for those who are visiting an Orthodox Church for the first time to simply take it all in. Do not try to follow the liturgy in a book. Following a book will only get you lost. Just smell the incense, look at the icons, listen to the words being sung and pray a simple “Lord have mercy”.

  12. Antidoron is indeed blessed bread given to those unable to receive the Sacrament.

    The purpose of the iconostasis is to separate the sanctuary from the assembly. The reason that the sanctuary is separated is to emphasis that the worship which is taking place is heavenly and to emphasis the ministerial nature of the presbyterate. The icon screen tells us that the worship that we are undertaking is divine, sacred and, as such, must be set apart and it tells us that we as a priestly people are being ministered to by men set apart, sent and sanctified by God.

    The OCA started as the first Eastern Orthodox jurisdiction in North America. Began as the Russian Orthodox diocese in Sitka, Alaska in 1840 the diocese was enlarged and moved to New York in 1905. The diocese incorporated all Eastern Orthodox immigrants to North America at the time including Russians, Ukrainians, Arabs, Ruthenian Eastern Catholics (who were prevented from establishing their parishes by hostile Roman bishops in the US and Canada), Greeks, Albanians, Bulgarians and Romanians. Greeks soon formed their own jurisdiction dependent on their mother Church (variously Athens and Constantinople) shattering Eastern Orthodox jurisdictional unity. Others would leave as well.

    In 1935, the diocese became a Metropolia that recognized Moscow but would have functional autonomy. A separate “district” was created for those that refused to acknowledge Moscow leadership. This “district” would be called the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. In 1970, Moscow granted the Metropolia autocephaly (complete independence) and the name was changed to Orthodox Church in America. Unfortunately, because the Ecumenical Patriarch wasn’t consulted, he refused to recognize this new independent Eastern Orthodox Church. Because of this refusal, most of the other independent Eastern Orthodox Churches have also refused to recognize the OCA. The OCA does participate in Inter-Orthodox affairs in North America; however, because of this participation the Ecumenical Patriarch has refused all efforts to resolve long standing canonical and jurisdictional conflicts between Churches in North America.

    The OCA is presently in the midst of a severe financial crisis and sexual scandal on the part of its leadership that threatens to tear the Church apart.

  13. Although the icon screen never developed in the West, Rood Screens, Altar Rails, Baldachins and the ancient practice of using a low voice during the Eucharistic Prayer all serve the same purpose.

  14. Just to add to what Gil has said, if I’m not mistaken, the idea of the iconostasis and that what’s going on behind it is holy has its roots in the Temple and its services in Jerusalem, that God is in the Holy Place.

  15. “The OCA is presently in the midst of a severe financial crisis and sexual scandal on the part of its leadership that threatens to tear the Church apart.”

    The OCA has to deal with some serious issues but to claim that this will result in tearing the church apart is a little extreme. I am in the OCA and do not get the sense that this is happening. If you spend your time on a few discussion lists then you may get the idea that this is the case. The OCA Diocese of the South is actually very healthy and growing as far as I can discern.

    For what its worth, ” Currently, only the Russian, Bulgarian, Georgian, Polish, and Czech and Slovak Churches recognize the autocephaly of the OCA. Among the Churches that do not recognize it is the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which argues that the Russian Church did not have the authority to grant autocephaly. Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon, which asserted the jurisdiction of the bishop of Constantinople in dioceses located “among the barbarians,” is cited as proof of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s authority in the matter.

    Apologists for the OCA’s autocephaly claim that the decree did not need the approval of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as it was an internal matter for the Russian Orthodox Church to decide. Also cited is the fact that many autocephalous Churches, the Russian Church included, were not recognized as such for many years.”- Wikipedia

    The jurisdiction is not as important as simply finding an Orthodox parish that practices the Ancient Faith.

  16. Well, I definitely agree that we are “among the barbarians”!!!

  17. I attend a very large Greek parish, one of the largest in the country. I am well aware of the ethnic problem. Trust me, I am aware of it, not being Greek at all myself. My wife is Cuban to boot which is about as non-Greek as you can get! I’d offer the following to consider regarding it. While it is a genuine problem, Orthodoxy has officially condemned the idea that the Gospel is only for certain ethnicities. Secondly, even with the ethnic differences in the US for example, there is a good deal of overlap. When I visit a Serbian, Russian or Antiochian church, I am received seamlessly at the Eucharist and as a full member. This is so even with very conservative jurisdictions like ROCOR. I’d also suggest that what you identify as ethnic heritage might be in place for theological reasons, rather than cultural. I wouldn’t be hasty in making judgments about a tradition you are fairly newly acquainted with. And the incorporation of language and other parts of culture, I’d suggest that this is how Christianity should work by redeeming and transforming the culture. But that is part of the problem with the US. It isn’t just one culture. Another problem to consider is that it isn’t so much that we have a problem with “ethnicity” but with the church incorporating ethnicities other than our own. Protestants are often unaware of how Americanized, even conservative Lutherans and Presbyterians, they in fact are. Something else to consider is that the waves of ethnic immigration are pretty much done. The last gasp was when the Soviet Union collapsed. The bodies that are consequently growing are not the ones hanging on to the ethnicity. In the next fifty years, I suspect much of the “ethnicity” problem will vanish. Another piece of anecdotal experience, when I was received in a parish in Texas, the parish was mainly made up of Greeks, most of whom were refugees from Cyprus due to the Turkish invasion in the 1970’s and its continued subjugation. The liturgy was about 80% or more in Greek, but it wasn’t too bad since the little Green hymnal book was easy to follow. The people there were by far more FOBish (FOB=Fresh Off the Boat) but they were far more devout, to the point in some cases of being child like in belief. On the other hand, the parish I am at now is mostly made up of 2nd and 3rd generation Greek Americans who seem more worried that they might not be Greek anymore. They are far more secular and liberal. It’s like the difference between Irish Catholics and Italian Catholics. Italian Catholics know they are Catholic since they have the Pope in their backyard. “eh, shoore we are uh Catdwholick, da papa, he’a da right t’ere!” They have nothing to prove. Irish Catholics on the other hand are never quite sure that they are Catholic, so they have to compensate.

    Now disputes between bishops is nothing new as disputes even between the apostles occurred. The current fracas between Moscow and Constantinople notwithstanding, it is the case that both bodies still commune together and proclaim the same faith. This side of the grave no body will be without “tensions.” Apart from unified proclamation and full communion, what else would we need to have unity? What kind of unity beyond that do you wish to establish?

    As for closing of the Royal Doors, I don’t know why. I do know that the pathway from the altar through the Royal Doors is reserved for the priest and bishop alone. Acolytes have to use the Deacon doors on the sides. But I’ll ask around. Something to keep in mind is that many of the processions and recessions from the altar out to the nave represent the self revelation of the Trinity processing out and returning in the economy of salvation. I’d bet the closing of the doors has Trinitarian and/or revelatory content. And I don’t think I’d argue that the purpose of the Iconostasis is to essentially separate the nave and the sancturary. The Iconostasis began as an extension of the cult of relics, specifically in relation to martyrs. Pictures were placed at the foot of the altar to remember new martyrs. This eventually grew to the iconostasis that you see today. This is why earlier iconostasis in their original form are bare by comparison. Christ was placed on the iconostasis because he was the chief of all matyrs.
    Singing can vary and for different reasons. Some people are just lazy and that is as simple as it gets. With the Greeks, during Turkish domination Greeks were not permitted to sing in church, lest Muslims outside hear it. So it became customary, albeit a deviation, for laymen not to sing. I know many Greeks who think it is part of the tradition, but it isn’t. Something similar happened to the Russians under the Soviets.

    As for men/women singing, in my experience its usually a 50/50 deal going both in the direction of laziness and participation. As for the antidoron, it is permissible for you to receive it from the priest, but if I am not mistaken it is anomalous to receive it from someone else other than the priest.

    And Gil, thanks ever so much for the mention of the scandals in the OCA. People in glass (Roman) houses shouldn’t throw stones.

  18. For more on Communion spoons, I’d look at “Byzantine Communion Spoons: A Review of the Evidence” in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 50 (1996), pp. 209-38, by Robert Taft, S. J.

    In terms of singing — it will vary. There are some parishes that define “participation” as “everybody sings everything,” which sometimes means that certain festal hymns don’t get sung because the parish doesn’t know them collectively, and/or which sometimes means that the people say even the priest’s prayers with him, including the benedictions and doxologies. These parishes may have choirs and cantors who are officially there to “lead the worship of the people,” but who in practice are there to follow the worship of the people. At other parishes it may be far more defined — the priest does this, the choir/cantor does this, the people do this; everybody has their own job and they do it to the best of their ability. There can be some heated arguments about this, too — some who will claim that full-on congregational singing of absolutely everything is the standard, and that anything less is elitist nonsense that’s not keeping with the tradition of the church (what one might call, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the “Orthodoxy-as-populism” model), and some who will claim that the canons, councils, and rubrics assume and point out the existence of choirs and cantors in “set aside” roles for liturgical singing (the “Orthodoxy-as-the-ultimate-in-high-church” model). It’s a tension that isn’t likely to go away any time soon, particularly as more converts come from backgrounds in both extremes (say, Southern Baptism on one end, high-church Anglicanism on the other).

    Along similar lines, the closing of the Royal Doors and drawing of the curtain during the priests’ Communion is going to vary from place to place. There are those who think it a vital theological point that this happen and that those who would have it die out are godless modernist heretics; there are those who think it a vital theological point that it not happen, and that those who want to retain it are stick-in-the-mud ethnocentric polemicists. I hesitate to chalk it up to “small-t tradition,” but I do think that it is a legitimate point of liturgical diversity which should be tolerated one way or the other.

    Bottom line is that every parish will have its own character and peculiarities, and This is Okay. To this extent, it’s important (albeit difficult, sometimes) to be able to deal with a given community on its own terms.


  19. I attend a pan-ethnic OCA parish. Everything is in English, as it should be according to Orthodox tradition, and the parish is alive and growing. I certainly don’t get the impression that the OCA is about to be torn apart, particularly with our new Metropolitan at the helm. I think congregational singing varies from parish to parish; at ours, everyone sings, including (perhaps especially) the men.

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