Bishop Alexander Golitzin, speaking on the Americanization of the Orthodox Church, said adapting to U.S. culture carries both positives and negatives, but the overriding danger is unbridled nationalism.
“You may notice that American politicians can’t stop singing the praises of this country,” Bishop Alexander said in a talk Monday evening (May 13) at St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Rossford. “We keep hearing how wonderful we are, and one wonders: If we are so wonderful, why do they have to keep saying it?”
It is one thing to have pride in being American, the bishop said, but people should also be aware of their own heritage and history.
The Rev. Paul Gassios, pastor of St. George, said he grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church and has seen the impact of Americanization on the church through the years.
“Whether you’re Bulgarian or Greek or White Anglo-Saxon Protestant or German, everybody here is an American citizen. So the process of Americanization is going on, but is it a bad thing?” Gassios asked. “I will leave that open because it can go so many ways. The fact is there is a culture here in America that impacts our faith.”
The 5th Annual Ss. Cyril & Methodius Lecture on Growth and Evangelism is named for two 9th century missionary Byzantine brothers who spread Christianity to the Slavs.
Alexander called nationalism a “great evil” that poses a threat to Americans both spiritually and physically, and said it was responsible for the deaths of “tens of millions” of people in the 20th century.
The Toledo-based diocese has 16 parishes and 5,000 members in the United States and Canada, mostly in the Midwest but including parishes in Washington, D.C., and California.
Among the positive influences of Americanization is that English is now spoken in all the Orthodox churches in the United States, Alexander said, uniting people of diverse backgrounds through a common language.
“In the celebration of all the services in the local vernacular … we are following the Gospel and the Apostle Paul, who was the apostle to the gentiles,” he said.
Alexander said the United States has been “invincibly Protestant” since its founding and remains “a Protestant country in its blood and bone.”
American colonists “were full of suspicion of anything that had to do with Roman Catholics,” and “didn’t know about us [Orthodox Christians], of course, but if they had they wouldn’t have liked us.”
Such bias remains part of American society today “in spite of our secularization,” the bishop said.
But the Orthodox Church, as other faith groups, has benefited from the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.
“The great good is there – to live unmolested, to live with an opportunity to better oneself,” he said.
Alexander, 65, was born in Tarzana, Calif., and studied at the University of California at Berkeley. He earned a doctorate in Patristics (early church writers) from Oxford University, where he studied under renowned Orthodox scholar Kallistos Ware.
He also spent a year at Simonos Petras Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece, and taught theology at Marquette University from 1989 until his consecration as bishop in May, 2012.
Alexander’s uncle, Alexander Golitzen, was a renowned Hollywood art director who won three Academy Awards between 1943 and 1962.
In an interview after the lecture, Alexander said his transition from academia has been a smooth one.
“I have very good priests and, on the whole, happy parishes,” he said. “I don’t have any great worries.”
One of the major challenges facing the Orthodox Church in the United States is to “represent Christianity” and to make people aware that evangelicals do not speak for all Christians.
“The evangelicals as it were have kind of claimed a monopoly on that word [Christianity] and we’re different,” Alexander said.
The “popular notion” of Christianity gleaned from radio and TV talk shows is “a sort of stupid Christianity – stupid and without any social consciousness, as if it were just ‘me and Jesus’,” Alexander said. “It’s a Christianity without the Gospels and the prophets.”
He said he would like people to know of “the continuity of the Orthodox life over the millennia,” which the bishop believes is “our strongest selling point.”
The church must do better in addressing social equity and justice issues, he said, lauding U.S. Catholic bishops for making them priorities.
Another challenge to the church is the busyness of modern American life, he said, with children’s sports and other activities competing with worship and other church events.
“It’s a matter of priorities,” the bishop said. “Does your kid go to hockey on Sunday morning, or does he go to liturgy?”
He also believes the U.S. Orthodox Christian churches need to be united and not divided into ethnic dioceses such as Greek, Russian, Antiochian, and Bulgarian.
“It’s a great evil and prevents our working together and pooling our resources,” Alexander said. “If this kind of thing continues, we’re doomed.”