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Greek Orthodox Participants’ View of their Faith Tradition

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Orthodox participants’ perceptions of the Greek Orthodox Church they attended were both respectful and critical. Participants indicated that the bonds they made as children with their respective faith communities as children were essentially familial, social, and ethnic in character. They also repeatedly talked about how little they knew about their church’s liturgical and doctrinal traditions. This lack of knowledge was often described as a handicap that negatively impacted their efforts to help (a) their children develop an Orthodox identity, and (b) their non-Orthodox spouse develop a deeper appreciation of Orthodoxy.

The ethno religious character of the Greek Orthodox experience was also discussed. Both positive and negative comments were offered about this dimension of community life.

The type of attitude that both the priest and congregation have toward intermarried couples and their families was also discussed. Participants generally concurred that a welcoming, tolerant attitude on the part of the priest and congregation were closely related to their level of commitment and participation. Despite their many critical observations, most participants generally stated that the "Greek Orthodox experience" remained important to them because it serves to assist them in their efforts to communicate with God and their neighbors.

1. Childhood Impressions

  • Greek Orthodox participants born in this country suggested their childhood impressions of the religious dimension of Greek Orthodox Church were moderately to highly negative in character. They typically described memories of "long boring" services that were celebrated "in Greek rather than their own English language.” They also stated that while many of their parents extolled the virtues of being Greek Orthodox, they failed to explain the faith in understandable terms. Their parents' efforts to force and manipulate them into attending were also mentioned. Since many stopped attending church when they reached adolescence or went to college, many pointed out that their parents’ strategies were generally ineffective. Practicing their faith meant very little to them because they lacked a rudimentary understanding of their Orthodox faith background.
  • Many recalled how Sunday School lacked any depth and failed to be of much assistance in helping them understand Orthodoxy. Some stated that they obtained an understanding of Christianity when they attended non-Orthodox Bible studies and youth group activities later in life.
  • In several cases, the religious dimension of their faith community continued to mean very little to them as adults because they lacked a fundamental understanding of Orthodoxy. These participants continued to belong to their churches because of family and ethnic ties, and not because of religious connections.
  • Many Greek Orthodox participants' impressions of the social, ethnic, and family dimensions of Greek Orthodoxy were viewed in highly positive terms. They stated that their Sunday experiences allowed them to form many treasured memories with family and friends that served to make a positive impact on their sense of self and the world around them. They further stated that being part of a community of people who were at once socially and ethnically interconnected appeared to impact them in positive terms.
2. Adult Impressions and Experiences
  • While some participants stated they had engaged in some religious experimentation either as single young adults or newlyweds, they also stated this "was simply a phase that didn’t last long.” Most participants' observations indicated that the Orthodoxy was their preferred form of worship. Many also stated that they could not imagine worshiping in any other church because of their moderate to high attachment to the religious forms and rituals and their Hellenic background.
  • While many described a high attachment to their faith communities, they also perceived themselves as possessing a low to moderate understanding of their faith tradition. As a result, many participants stated that their lack of knowledge about their faith often made it difficult for them to explain many of the theological and liturgical subtleties of their faith to their spouses and children. This deficiency deeply frustrated and troubled them, and they often stated that they “wanted to address and correct this weakness.” Because of their busy schedules, many were never able to correct this deficiency. In a few instances, participants described a process whereby they became committed to developing a deeper understanding of their faith. They indicated that it was “hard work” and “ a real sacrifice.” They further suggested the motivating factor that compelled them to learn more about their faith was their concern for their children's religious and spiritual development and their spouse’s continued participation at liturgy.
  • Despite the fact that many Greek Orthodox participants lacked knowledge of their faith, most clearly indicated that the Greek Orthodox experience was important to their sense of identity. Their observations also pointed to the positive impact religion and culture had on their psychological and spiritual well-being.
  • Others pointed to the social benefits they derived from Greek Orthodoxy. They stated that Greek Orthodoxy facilitated and maintained a connection with their familial ancestors, extended family and others with whom they shared a common religious and cultural experience. When compared to other religious communities, Orthodox participants were also attracted to Greek Orthodoxy because their faith background placed an equal value on individuality and autonomy, as well as the group experience. In several instances, Greek Orthodox participants stated that when they visited other churches, they felt as if an inordinate amount of emphasis was placed on the individual, and social connections did not seem important.
  • Most Greek Orthodox participants believed that the Orthodox Church is an important part of the Christian Church. However, they did not espouse the view that the Orthodox Church is the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church of Christ. Respondents' remarks suggested that this perspective was "a sensible, fair and Christian way to view Greek Orthodoxy.” Participants also stated that a respect for other Christian traditions served to reduce conflict between Christians, and by extension, conflict within their inter-Christian households.
  • A few participants tended to view their Church as "the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church." They stated that they believed the Orthodox Church “has safeguarded Christ's full message.” Most participants espousing this view avoided making this an issue with their non-Orthodox spouse. They appeared to hold to this belief privately. They also appeared to reason that arguments around theological differences were counterproductive that could create marital conflict and family instability. They maintained that arguments caused by their theological differences were "against God's will." Marital rapport was clearly more important to them than theological agreement.
  • Many Greek Orthodox spouses felt that their non-Orthodox spouse was not receiving very much from his or her participation in the Divine Liturgy. Some observed that this might be the case because of their spouse's religious background. Greek Orthodox participants married to Protestant Christians were most likely to make this observation.
  • When comparing their Church with other faith communities, participants generally felt that their Greek Orthodox faith was too rigid on many subjects. Several comments indicated that their Church’s inflexibility made Greek Orthodox participants feel as if they were caught between (a) their church's teachings, (b) their spouse’s feelings and needs, and (c) their non-Orthodox partner’s extended family's feelings and needs. Their Church's rigid rules regarding participation in the sacraments compelled participants to infer that their Church may appear less welcoming to difference and diversity when compared to other churches. Numerous participants stated that their attendance and support of the Greek Orthodox Church depended on their non-Orthodox spouse’s perceptions of the Orthodox Church they attended. When the non-Orthodox partner felt welcomed in the Church, this increased Greek Orthodox participants' attendance and support of their Church.
3. Orthodoxy's Ethno Religious Character
  • Respondents repeatedly conceptualized Greek Orthodoxy in ethno religious terms, i.e., an experience that weaves ethnicity and religion into one.
  • This experience was generally characterized as "Greek-American" and "American-Orthodox" in nature, and depended on whether participants were immigrants or American born. Greek immigrants' comments attested to the "American" character of the church in this country, while Greek-American's described the distinct "Greek-American" character of the Church.
  • Many participants placed an equal value on ethnicity and religion, and asserted that ethnicity and religion were interconnected and interdependent spheres of experience. In other instances, religion or ethnicity was given more value. In these instances, comments inferred that they did not view religion and ethnicity as interdependent and interconnected spheres of experience, and either religion or culture was perceived to be of singular importance. The value of both spheres of experience varied from one respondent to the next depending on the level of each individual’s ethnic and religious attachments.
  • Many Greek Orthodox participants spoke in ambivalent terms about the ethnic side of their Churches. Participants stated that the inordinate emphasis on ethnicity in many of our Churches “tended to make their spouses, children, and in-laws feel like outsiders." All Greek Orthodox respondents in this study stated that it was very important to them that their non-Orthodox spouses feel accepted in their churches. They encouraged the Church to make some modifications and adjustments so that it could meet the needs of their spouses, children, and in-laws more effectively. Some participants who came from large urban areas observed that inner city churches tended to be especially ethnocentric
  • When asked what adjustments the local Greek Orthodox Church could make to reach out more effectively to intermarried couples, all participants felt that local churches needed to find ways of becoming "more inclusive" and “more accepting of non-Orthodox." They further stated that churches must strive to become more tolerant of the cultural and religious diversity in their congregations. Derogatory references to non-Orthodox religious groups, as well as disparaging stereotypical comments about other ethnic and racial groups were unacceptable and inappropriate. In short, increased respect for the cultural, religious, and racial diversity in our congregations should be aggressively promoted.
  • Numerous comments indicated that the church must find ways to (a) provide more opportunities for direct involvement to non-Orthodox, (b) use more English, (c) make non-Orthodox family members feel more welcome, (d) encourage more tolerance and respect for diversity, and (e) avoid making intermarried couples feel guilty about their decision to remain intermarried.
  • Some Greek Orthodox participants also suggested that an overemphasis on ethnicity had driven them from their childhood Churches and compelled them to look for a Greek Orthodox Church where their spouses could feel at home. Some of these participants also mused that if an “Americanized Greek Orthodox Church was not available, they do not know what they might have done.”
4. Impressions of the Priest and Congregation
  • Participants observed that the priest’s attitude towards them either encouraged or discouraged their participation. When the priest was perceived as assuming a dogmatic, rigid approach toward intermarried couples, and either overtly or covertly communicated disrespect for a couple's decision to remain intermarried, this pastoral approach tended to push couples away. Similarly, if a priest used derogatory, demeaning remarks to characterize non-Orthodox faith traditions, this behavior unsettled and offended Greek Orthodox participants.
  • In addition, when a congregation was perceived as overly ethnocentric, this tended to push intermarried couples away. Congregations who were also perceived as nationalistic made intermarried couples feel like outsiders.

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