BROOKLINE, Mass. — Twenty-five years ago, just about every seminarian on this campus was a young man who spoke such fluent Greek that he could pass for native in the cafes of Athens.
Today, more than 20% of students at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology have no Greek roots. Graduates include the spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America: a 34-year-old, blond former Southern Baptist preacher from Dallas who changed his name from Eric to Nektarios Morrow when baptized into Orthodoxy seven years ago.
Seen in such light, this sacred training ground for priests who would preserve Greek heritage through local churches has become instead a microcosm of the changing face of Orthodoxy. A wave of fresh interest in the ancient faith has begun to transform these church institutions from protective ethnic enclaves into relatively diverse centers to probe the essence of Christianity's longest-preserved tradition.
As congregations teem with converts in America and brace for the spread of MTV in the Old World, Holy Cross recently hosted a pioneering conference: "The Orthodox Churches in a Pluralistic World: An Ecumenical Conversation." Top scholars from various denominational backgrounds delved deeply into history, philosophy and theology with a common goal: to help Orthodoxy thrive as one of many voices in a changing world.
"In a period of rapid globalization, in a world community that is increasingly conscious of its pluralistic character, the Orthodox Churches meet a great challenge," Archbishop Demetrios, head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, said in his keynote address. "The word 'challenge,' however, is not to be understood with negative connotations, but rather in the most positive and optimistic sense. The pluralistic world is not an obstacle to Orthodoxy. It is rather an opportunity."
Parishes nationwide have already tasted some benefits of embracing those who don't speak Greek -- or any of Orthodoxy's historic languages. Since the early 1990s, "Introduction to Orthodoxy" courses increasingly have filled parish halls with everyone from spiritual seekers to newly married, interfaith couples to recent converts from evangelical Protestantism.
At Church of the Holy Resurrection in Allston, Mass., a flock of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church hears an English-language liturgy from the Rev. James Robinson, their Scotch Irish priest who converted from the Episcopal Church 18 years ago. Hardly anyone in the pews, he said, claims Bulgarian ancestry.
"They're mostly American kiddos like me," Robinson said. "In the past, it was almost impossible to separate what was Greek and what was Orthodox because the church promoted a connection between ethnicity and religion. But for us, we didn't grow up with the Orthodox Church, so we can ask what it really means to be Orthodox."
Successes with ethnic pluralism, however, have had a flip side in the annals of modern Orthodoxy. When Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic was purging Kosovo of ethnic Albanians in the 1990s, the Serbian Orthodox Church seldom protested or provided a safe haven for refugees. Archbishop Demetrios says the international press battered the Serbian church with "anti-Orthodox bias."
But World Council of Churches General Secretary Konrad Raiser said last week that the church fell silent because as the "guardian of national heritage and ethnic identity ....Orthodox churches have had, and still do have, great difficulty adjusting to a pluralistic context."
Without a lofty theological vision, many Orthodox communities have tried to avoid the modern world with a "retreat to the glorious past," said Petros Vassiliadis of the University of Thessalonike in Greece. When confronting the outside world that came to its doorstep on Sept. 11, 2001, or in 1989 when the Iron Curtain came down, for instance, many have revived ethnic nationalism beneath a garment of Orthodoxy.
Alternatives to ethnic backlash seem to be working in some pockets of Orthodoxy, at least in the American experience.
According to the Rev. James Katinas, co-director of admissions for Holy Cross and Hellenic College, Orthodox Christian Fellowship groups have become important sources of support across ethnic lines at Holy Cross and other seminaries.
Today, he said, Orthodoxy is being prepared to shine for a world in need of inspiration, but it first needs to shed a few layers of national and ethnic pride that got stuck to it over the years.
Orthodoxy is "the saber-toothed tiger that's been deep-freezed and preserved nicely over the centuries," Katinas said. "In speaking to the modern world, it has a lot to say. But it's also like a beautiful icon that's had soot all over it for years. To preserve that beauty, you have to carefully take that tarnish off. Very carefully, you have to take it off."