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Non-Orthodox Participants' View of Greek Orthodoxy

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Most non-Orthodox Christians experience varying levels of culture shock when they encounter their spouse's Greek Orthodox faith background. The different rites, rituals, symbols, rules and language confuse and make them feel like “outsiders.” This seems to be especially true of non-Orthodox Christians who come from a non-liturgical, nonhierarchical, Protestant faith background. In time, many non-Orthodox report that these initial reactions become less intense. Some also indicate that they disappear. These participants are likely to attend and support a Greek Orthodox Church.

First Impressions

  • Before meeting and dating their Greek Orthodox spouse, many non-Orthodox participants stated that they were unfamiliar with Greek Orthodoxy. Some even wondered if their partner’s faith background was Christian.
  • Many non-Orthodox respondents expressed initial surprise at the level of importance that Greek Orthodox congregations place on culture. Many also felt that culture, rather than religion, was “the cement” that binds Greek Orthodox Churches together. These respondents frequently used the descriptor “the Greek Church,” rather than the Greek Orthodox Church, to refer to their partner’s faith background.
  • Most non-Orthodox described experiencing moderate to high amounts of culture shock when they first encountered Greek Orthodoxy. The Church's use of Greek, the more formal dress codes, the liturgical forms and practices, married priests, the pastoral rules and regulations, and the congregations' tardiness to services were some of the examples they used to describe their bewilderment.
  • Non-Orthodox participants also stated that they had considerable difficulty understanding and following the Divine Liturgy and other services. They described feeling discouraged and frustrated by some of the Orthodox Church's rules – especially as they applied to non-Orthodox. They frequently stated that the rules and regulations made them feel like "outsiders" and "second-class citizens" and "wayward children.”
  • While most of these participants generally respected the Orthodox Church's efforts to promote Greek culture, virtually all participants were critical of the ethnic dimension of the Church was perceived to be intolerant of religious and cultural diversity. They stated that they were more comfortable attending a Greek Orthodox Church that was tolerant and respectful of other cultures and religions.

Factors Impacting Non-Orthodox Participation

  • Non-Orthodox spouses indicated that when they felt pressured by their spouse, and his or her extended family, to attend the Greek Orthodox Church, this negatively impacted their participation.
  • When Greek Orthodox participants was perceived as being indifferent to the challenges the non-Orthodox partner encountered while trying to become part of their Greek Orthodox community, this had a negative impact on the non-Orthodox partner’s participation.
  • When a given congregation was perceived as being nationalistic and ethnocentric, non-Orthodox reported feeling less inclined to identify these churches as "my church." When non-Orthodox heard more English and perceived that the social environment was more inclusive and welcoming to non-Greeks and non-Orthodox, respondents tended to feel more apart of these churches, and in some cases identified them as "my church."
  • If non-Orthodox Christians do not hear liberal amounts of English during the services, and do not understand the rituals and symbols, it will be hard for them to be motivated to attend regularly. The lack of English and the unfamiliarity with the Orthodox Church's rituals make them feel like outsiders. Furthermore, when the Greek Orthodox partner is unable to explain Greek Orthodoxy to his or her partner, this further impedes the bonding process between non-Orthodox and the Greek Orthodox Church.
  • While some non-Orthodox were initially impressed by “mystical character of the Orthodox Church,” these same respondents stated that this would eventually “inhibit worship and prayer” because he or she “lacked the knowledge to appreciate and understand what they were observing.”
  • Participants also observed that because Greek Orthodox Churches tend to be very close-knit, family oriented communities, it was harder for them to become a part of the Greek Orthodox Church they attended.
  • Protestant participants whose faith backgrounds did not emphasize liturgy and the sacraments seemed to encounter more challenges than Christians from faith backgrounds that have a liturgical and sacramental tradition. These participants seemed to have fewer familiar reference points to help them follow the liturgy and other services. Many of these participants also stated that when they missed the sermon or found it "sub par," they felt as if they “had not been to church.”

Positive Factors Affecting Non-Orthodox Participation

  • While most non-Orthodox participants maintained that they felt like “outsiders” and “visitors” rather than members, many also agreed that time, and a genuine desire to learn more about Orthodoxy, were important factors in their efforts to acquire a better understanding, and a deeper appreciation and respect of Orthodoxy.
  • Many respondents observed that the more similarities that existed between their faith tradition and Orthodoxy, the easier it was for them to participate in the Greek Orthodox Church's worship services. Thus, Roman Catholics expressed fewer transitional challenges and difficulties when compared to Protestants participants.
  • Some participants observed that the quality and level of their participation made worship in the Orthodox Church more meaningful. The more effort they made to understand and participate in the services, the more spiritual fulfillment they received from the services.
  • Participants also suggested that when the Orthodox partner, and, or one of the members of the Orthodox partner's family were able to communicate Orthodoxy to the non-Orthodox partner, this facilitated the bonding process between non-Orthodox and the Orthodox Church they were attending.
  • Although non-Orthodox participants were often critical of the Orthodox Church’s ethnocentric character, they often spoke with high regard of the close-knit relationships that exist between parishioners and family members. This dimension of church and community life facilitated their participation.
  • Many respondents inferred that the priest and congregation's responses toward outsiders could have a positive or negative impact on the quality and frequency of their participation. If a priest and, or congregation were perceived as being respectful toward intermarried couple, this positively impacted the non-Orthodox partner’s attendance and support.
  • When non-Orthodox heard more English and perceived that the social environment was more inclusive and welcoming to non-Greek and non-Orthodox, respondents tended to feel more a part of these churches, and in some cases identified them as “my church.”
  • Some non-Orthodox participants suggested that they respected the Greek Orthodox Church's efforts to protect tradition and not change to suit popular opinion. However, when the Orthodox Church’s rules directly impacted them and their efforts to become more involved, their respect waned and they had some serious questions about the Greek Orthodox Church.

Reasons Why Non-Orthodox Attend Greek Orthodox Churches

  • Most non-Orthodox participants indicated that they attended the Greek Orthodox Church regularly because they valued the concept of praying together as a family.
  • Some participants stated that they come to the Orthodox Church so that their family could worship together. Many of these participants also attend their own faith communities to meet personal religious needs. Several Roman Catholic partners stated that they regularly attended a Roman Catholic Church to receive the Sacraments.
  • If non-Orthodox participants were from a Protestant background, they often identified themselves with one church - either with a Protestant Church or the Greek Orthodox Church. In addition, when Protestants chose to attend a Greek Orthodox Church, many indicated that they came to meet their family's needs, and were generally not getting their own religious and spiritual needs met.
  • A few participants stated that they attended because they liked the social and cultural life. These respondents generally tended to be nominally religious and rather indifferent to the religious dimensions of the Greek Orthodox Church. What appeared to be of interest to them, and facilitated their attendance, was their attraction to the social and cultural dimensions of their partner’s Greek American background.
  • Others indicated that they did not have a strong connection to another religious or cultural tradition. Their weak religious connections made it easier for them to attend and become involved in their spouses' Greek Orthodox Church.
  • Some non-Orthodox found it easier to attend the Greek Orthodox Church if they came from faith backgrounds that emphasizes liturgy. These respondents stated that they “felt more at home with the services” than other respondents from non-liturgical faith communities.
  • Non-Orthodox Christians from European and Mediterranean roots reported experiencing less culture shock than those who came from non-European cultural traditions. Non-Orthodox Christians who placed a high value on ethnicity and culture also encountered fewer challenges.
  • In relationships where the female partner was Greek Orthodox and the male partner was non-Orthodox, gender appeared to influence a couple's choice of worship site. The male non-Orthodox partner tended to defer to his Greek Orthodox spouse, and frequently gave her charge of the couple’s and family's religious well-being. In many of these instances, male non-Orthodox respondents frequently attended their spouses’ church.