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For Us and the Church We Love: The Time is Now

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Peter S. Kehayes

INTRODUCTION

Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

I have been researching, writing and lecturing about intermarried couples and their families in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (GOA) for the last five years. After having interfaced with thousands of these individuals, couples and families, I have begun to understand many of the unique challenges this population faces in their efforts to worship God.

Since I also intermarried, in most instances many of my discoveries have simply served to confirm previous personal experiences, while others have at once, both disturbed me and given me reason for optimism. Speaking as a pastor who has served the GOA for nearly 25 years, for reasons that I’ve listed elsewhere, I believe this challenge is one of the most compelling and important that Orthodoxy faces in a pluralistic, postmodern, post-Christian society. The extent to which we embrace this challenge and celebrate the inherent opportunity for growth and vitality it affords the Church, will determine the religious and spiritual health and well-being of this population. Our success or failure in embracing this challenge will also have either a positive or negative impact on most of our churches in the very near future.

With that said, permit me to say that much of the contents of this article confirms my own research and experiences. However, what is different about this article is Mr. Kehayes’ astute analysis. A very talented engineer and dedicated churchman for many years, I believe his projections manage to capture and interpret much of the urgency behind this challenge in clear, succinct terms. I’m indebted to him for this work, and encourage its review: to God’s glory and our Church’s continued growth.


For Us And The Church We Love:
The Time Is Now

By Peter S. Kehayes

We Orthodox Christians are facing challenges that must not be ignored. The past sixty years have seen an assimilation of cultures and religions, along with a more sensitive understanding of our fellow man, in part due to intermarriages and their social acceptance. This situation is not unique to Orthodoxy. There are similar trends within other religions and this blending of traditions has become a part of the fabric of the open society that is America.

America has become home to the Greek Orthodox family as it joined with other ethnic peoples in a process of Americanization. World War II and the postwar period combined with the coming of age of first generation Greek Americans saw increased numbers of intercultural marriages and conversions. Socioeconomic changes along with an innate desire for improved neighborhoods catalyzed a move away from the inner city into suburban areas and into the mainstream.

With the narrowing of the cultural gap between Greek descendants, other ethnic Americans and American society at large, our Church in America has come to a crossroads and faces a critical challenge. Can it bridge the gap with interfaith marriages and create a closer union with the community and a pattern for future growth?

Inter-Christian Marriages

A USA Today cover story, titled “A Season for New Faiths,” reported a study by the Graduate Center, City University of New York, which found 30.3 million Americans have changed their religions. This particular study does not separate out the Greek Orthodox religion, but based on reported interfaith marriages, Greek Orthodox conversions may be above the national average. It goes on to say that only 1.5% of those who left their religion returned to it. In the same article Rabbi Wolpe offers: “When you join a faith and a community that reinforces it, this can be more powerful and lasting than purely an intellectual conversion. Citing Ruth in the Bible who tells Naomi (her Jewish mother-in–law), ‘Your people will be my people.’ Only then does she say, ‘Your God will be my God.’”

The current statistics and the trends they portend are very compelling. The Orthodox Yearbook (2003) statistics show that intermarriages comprise two of every three (65%) marriages that occur within the Church. Within the same report, adding those that occur outside its aegis, the estimate climbs to 75 - 80%. At this attrition rate, within three generations, less than 2% non-intermarried Greek Orthodox Christian families remain. With intermarriages becoming the norm, the need to address this concern becomes immediate.

If more evidence is needed, young families, the building blocks of the Church, are less prominent in our religious communities. Supporting organizations such as choirs, Sunday school teachers and parish councils are most often comprised of senior members of the community. The average age seems to be increasing disproportionately in established communities. In many, we see seniors the majority of active communicants, and though their presence is essential for stability, it is the young who assure its future. Yes, youth programs are effective in enabling the young to become active in church activities, but will they as adults, when it is their time, continue to grace the Church, bringing their own gifts while benefiting from its treasures twenty years hence? In a drastically decreasing Church population, one must question, Are we doing enough to ensure this legacy for
future generations?

Families that divide to attend separate churches create comprehension difficulties for the children and obstacles that confuse the family message on the importance of religion in their lives. Although some have made successful adjustments, many are unable to develop the religious and family ties that might otherwise occur. Often, one parent accepts a lesser role. It is true that in some instances the non-Orthodox partner converts to Orthodoxy, but the alternative is also there. Too often, for the sake of harmony, married couples put religious discussions aside, removing the Church from their lives. More and more worshiping as a family is becoming less and less a part of our lives.

The modern family has between one and three children and while this trend may change from one generation to the next, the current trend is for couples to marry later in life as women increasingly enter the professional work force. An analysis of the 2000 census points out that by age 34, 40% of the men and 30% of the women are unmarried, and although over 90% are expected to marry, this age at which marriages occur is at a record high. The result is fewer children and a leveling off of the population. If both marry within the faith, the community still experiences zero growth, in effect replacing the parents. But if the offspring intermarry and become an Orthodox family, we have a doubling in size and an increase in the number of Orthodox families in one generation and a revitalization of the community, an essential point to consider in contemplating the future of our Church here in America.

Conversely, if we have a loss in members as a result of our faithful intermarrying, then the community is not sustained. It is no revelation that the growth of the community can be seriously affected by the number of intermarriages and the direction they take. But regardless of the number of children in a family unit, clearly the Church’s survival relies directly on the assimilation of interfaith families into its community.

Statistically, if we begin a progression with 10,000 families and 20,000 children and apply the 75% interfaith marriage rate reported by the Yearbook, the first generation would yield 16,000 total marriages of which 12,000 would be with interfaith partners and 4,000 would be between Orthodox couples, or 25% in-faith marriages. With families of two children, the next generation would produce 1,000 such marriages from this group and by the third generation there would be 333, or 3.33%, of the original 10,000 families remaining Orthodox. Without assimilation, each generation has a potential 75% attrition rate.

Put in another way, the progression in three generations is from a community of 20 churches with 500 families to one of eight churches in the first generation with four thousand families to one church of 333 families by the third generation with statistical extinction by the fourth. It is a mathematical probability that within a period of 60 years or after three ensuing generations, if interfaith families are not assimilated into the church, the community virtually ceases to exist.

Now consider the growth that would accrue in three generations if intermarried couples and their families could be retained under the aegis of the Church. Ten thousand families averaging two children would add 16,000 families in the first generation, 22,600 families in the second generation and 40,960 in the third. With 500 families per community, 20 churches would result in 32 churches in the first generation, 45 in the second and 82 by the third. Such a total assimilation may be unlikely, but if the process is facilitated, a positive trend could develop, contributing to substantial growth and a revitalization of our Church.

Here in America, a nation founded on the principles of religious freedom and tolerance, the Church has a mandate. The issues are uniquely American. Those with a sensitivity to this developing situation must address it. Receiving people into the Church creates its own renewal, bringing new energy and vitality, augmenting its ministry in its service to our Lord. Just as each loss of a Christian weakens the community, so too does adding a Christian, enhance it. For the first 1000 years of Christianity the Church was one, and then, in the 11th century it began to divide. Intermarriages are bringing people together again providing a way to reunite Christians. The early Christian Church was known as h odoz — the way. Isn’t that what we must become?

Exploring Possible Methodologies

The Church acknowledges the validity of the union between intermarried couples by conferring the Holy Mystery of marriage and blessing the union. By so doing, it has taken the first step towards bringing the couple to Orthodox communion. Importantly, participation by the couple in an Orthodox marriage is a tacit acknowledgment of the sacred and legal authority of the Church. This seems a good place to begin the process of assimilation.

In practice, beyond the ritual of marriage, there is no formal introduction or follow up into the church community, leaving the couple to work out its own choices. This would seem to be a lost opportunity. As a procedural first step, an invitation to participate in the religious services and parish activities should be extended to the couple. In time, Chrismation could be bestowed upon interested and willing non-Orthodox partners as a matter of course with the community embracing the couple. It would seem that conversion to Orthodoxy must first be a conversion of the heart and need not be a rational or intellectual conversion.

The special dispensation that permits a marriage to occur within the Church requires that the non-Orthodox partner agrees to raise the children of the marriage as Orthodox Christians. In agreeing, there is an implied acceptance of the faith. Isn’t this a significant act of concession? Can this be a step toward full communion with the Church for the unity of the family?

A prevailing deterrent to many intermarried couples is the peer pressure that develops. These emotions run deep. To convert from one faith to another often means to separate oneself from family and friends. Such an act by an individual is often viewed as a betrayal of one’s faith and family values. Keeping the link with family can enhance an understanding and acceptance of the Orthodox Church. By not requiring complete separation, active participation in the Church might be a workable status for the non-Orthodox member.

There are many problems that the newly married couple faces in adjusting to their developing relationship. Nothing challenges the married couple or alienates them more than having to overcome obstacles to marital bliss. The Church must become proactive in identifying and avoiding negative influences. Its role must be to support the marriage. It must seek creative alternatives. Orthodoxy has always found a way to strengthen its presence. The questions warrant restating: Who will build and support our churches, perpetuate our faith, and provide our clergy of the future? And how will Orthodox Christianity be sustained for our children, our grandchildren and their children?

The Role of Seniors

With seniors becoming the majority, they must become active and in the forefront if changes for the better are to occur. They have a deep and abiding interest in their Church. They are its strongest assets. They must show the way. They have the experience, a more profound understanding of life, time, motivation, love of family, community and faith, energy and resources.

There is a ministry for retired clergy as well. In the main, they are the priests of this first generation. They performed the mixed marriages and understand the difficulties as both clergy and parents. They can be effective leaders in a move that could consolidate the faith, taking a proactive role and giving added purpose to this mission. This undertaking must be started while we are largely in the second generation and there are still close ties with the Church.

There may never be a better opportunity for Orthodoxy here in America. For us and for this Church we love, the time is now! Archbishop Iakovos’ clarion message in a 1991 commencement address declared, Answer the call that will bring all of us into the arms of Him, who died for the most sacred of all causes: unity, love, peace, and universal brotherhood.

“And you will hear a voice within you saying, this is the path. Follow in it.” Isaiah 30:21.


Endnotes:
In this projection, it is assumed that all couples will eventually marry whereas in actuality, statistically, 90+ % will marry. A seventy- five percent attrition rate means that twenty- five percent of the original group remains after one generation. In the second generations, that twenty-five percent is reduced by seventy-five percent to six and a quarter percent and by the third generation, it is reduced once more by seventy-five percent to less than two percent of the starting number. The urgency of the problem is such that every two to three years, depending on the number of years used to define a generation - twenty to thirty years; ten percent of the original population is potentially lost to the Church.

In showing growth by intermarriage assimilation, we infer the seventy -five percent that are intermarried are the growth segment since there are additional numbers of non-Orthodox that can be assimilated from this group. Of twenty thousand marrying offspring, eight thousand would be between Greek Orthodox partners, forming four thousand Orthodox families. Twelve thousand Orthodox would marry twelve thousand non-Orthodox producing twelve thousand interfaith marriages and sixteen thousand total marriages in the first generation or an increase of six thousand families in the first and proportionately increasing numbers into the second and third generations.

The attritional problems that we see in our church are made more severe when there is zero growth in population or when the family has two children or less. Doubling the number of children in a family will allow a 50% loss in adherents since there are still two children that will marry and replace their parents. To maintain the community size, with an attrition rate of seventy-five percent, the average family size must grow to eight children.

Families that are not accepted as a whole within the community will not donate generously.

References:

A Season for New Faiths. Graduate Center Study, CUNY. USA Today, April 16, 2003: 1.

Constantelos, Demetrios J. Paideia: Archbishop Iakovos Addresses to Young People.
Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998.

National Data Book of Statistical Abstracts. US Census. 2000.

Yearbook 2003. New York: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. 2003.