Orthodoxy in America

This observation will probably interest no one but I feel compelled to share it.

It’s a lot harder to practice Orthodox Christianity in North America than where I’m from. What makes it harder is the influence of Protestantism on how the building of the church is organized on the inside.

Protestants expect pews, so Orthodox churches in North America tend to have pews. Pews work for a short, interactive Protestant service. But for a long, very scripted and repetitive Orthodox service, pews are a very bad idea. You end up stuck in a pew, standing and sitting in a confined space, with your face turned towards the altar where not much is happening.

To entertain themselves and make the three hours of this activity bearable, the faithful stick their noses into the brochures where the script of the service is printed. It’s like a weird reading room. Everybody is glued to the booklet. To make the reading possible, the lights are on at full blast. And guess what people aren’t looking at because they are looking into the brochures instead?

The holy icons. People spend practically no time, aside from when they first come in and before leaving, with the icons. It becomes unclear why the icons are there to begin with. My parish is getting a bunch of new holy icons written but what’s the point if nobody will spend any time with them?

This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.

A traditional Orthodox service has no pews. People aren’t supposed to stand in place and stare either at the priest’s back or into a brochure. There is no brochure.

Instead, people circulate. They move among the icons and commune with them in the semi-darkness while the service goes on around them. The music, the penumbra, the sweet smoke, and the repetitive cadences of the service put them in a highly relaxed state where the experience of talking to the holy icons becomes really intense. There’s a bench around the perimeter for the elderly who get tired but that’s it. And the priest doesn’t have to do the service feeling the stare of every parishioner honed in on his back.

This is a clear example of religious syncretism, and as every example of it, it’s not good.


17 thoughts on “Orthodoxy in America

  1. “the influence of Protestantism”

    As they say, culture influences religion more than religion influences culture….

    I think the same is largely true for catholicism… Polish protestants (a few local denominations, not recent US imporations) are more like catholics than American protestants and American catholicism (the little I know of it) seems a lot more protestant than like European catholicism…
    Years ago I went to a service of the Polish Orthodox church and it was… a lot like catholic mass. It was in the morning and the church was very bright inside and there were chairs (older people sat a lot of the time).

    ” in the semi-darkness ”

    I think Orthodoxy works best in a dark atmosphere (I noticed churches in Bulgaria and Romania tend to be very dingy inside even in the middle of the day) I think Greek orthodox goes for a bit brighter style…


  2. Participating in the Orthodox liturgy is a mystical experience: the candles, the icons, the cadences of the sung service, all help to transcend everyday material reality so that we can get a glimpse of the heavenly Fatherland that awaits us in the Afterlife and of which the earthly Church is but an imperfect image.

    A Protestant religious service is, at best, an intellectual activity and, in many instances, a virtue-signalling exercise.

    I’m surprised that in North America there are pews in Orthodox churches: is it because the church building is “borrowed” from another Christian denomination?

    In my parish (Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, Moscow Patriarchate, I’m afraid) there are no pews, even though we worship in a former church building ceded by the local Roman Catholic diocese.

    The much smaller Bulgarian Orthodox parish was not so lucky and has to make do with a borrowed church where every Sunday they set up an iconostasis before the liturgy which they take down at the end: there are pews which cannot be dismantled and put back every time, and it’s a totally different religious experience. Also, all those statues of Madonnas and saints do not help one bit, but the Bulgarians are still grateful because otherwise they’d have no venue for their liturgy.


    1. ” is it because the church building is “borrowed” from another Christian denomination?”

      There’s a general tendency in the US for other religions to… self-protestantize for lack of another word.
      I’ve heard of Synagogues and Mosques in the US that have services on Sunday because that’s ‘church day’ and easier for most than Saturday or Friday…


  3. “I’ve heard of Synagogues and Mosques in the US that have services on Sunday because that’s ‘church day’ and easier for most than Saturday or Friday…”

    I am, and have been for as long as I can remember, under a fascination with America and all things American, but I don’t think that I will ever understand American culture…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Our church building was built specifically for us in the 1980s but half of the parishioners, including the priest, are converts from Protestantism. So it seeps in.

      But I’ve been to a very large Greek Orthodox Church in town, and it’s the same thing. Pews, no interaction with the icons.


  4. Reply to “Orthodoxy in America”: This is fascinating, at least to me. What kinds of arrangements are available to people who are elderly or otherwise of limited ability, and cannot stand for hours?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is a bench going around the perimeter but people who sit there look at each other and the holy icons, not at the priest’s back, which is unnecessary.


  5. That’s very interesting. My nearest experience with the Eastern liturgy is the Ruthenian Greek Catholic liturgy, which sounds similar to what you are describing about your experience in the US. I did hear from others that the proper Orthodox liturgy is what you describe with a lot of standing and contemplating. I am personally partial to old Latin mass (pre-1962, people often call it Tridentine Mass). I have discovered it relatively recently and it is not easy to find, but it lends itself to more contemplation and praying. The post-1962 liturgy is more similar to a protestant service, with people actively responding and your prayer being constantly interrupted by talking/communal vocal prayer. In the Traditional Latin Mass, there is no pressure or need to follow exactly what priest says and does or say the responses aloud (although many people do follow along with their missals), you can simply pray and contemplate the way you like. Some people pray a rosary during the liturgy, or pray different meditative prayers that go with different parts of the liturgy, or simply just contemplate. The posture is more prescribed though (a lot of kneeling, standing, no walking around). It strikes me that the Orthodox liturgy is perhaps more child friendly, since what you describe allows people to move around the sanctuary, which I suspect is better for children than trying to sit still in a place.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I hear you. We used to belong to a church with no pews, and it was really nice, especially with the kids. They get restless when they feel confined. In that church, with the little ones, we could go around the walls and talk to the saints if they got antsy. They could go stand with their friends on the other side of the nave, and then come back a while later. No problem. The kids naturally accumulated up front, where they could see what was going on, and it wasn’t as important that they stay exactly with their parents.

    Since my husband and I are with the chanters, in our pewed church, we find a pew and use it as a place to drop our jackets and bags. Oldest kid reads with us. Middle kid serves at the altar. And 3yo perambulates. We occasionally get someone grumpy about that, the way he keeps migrating back and forth between “our pew” (just our jackets, really) and his friends and favorite old ladies, and the chanters’ stand, and back again. He’s an energetic three-year-old! He’s quiet, he’s paying attention, and he’s learning when to cross himself. He’s comically enthusiastic about prostrations. And people are still annoyed because they come pre-programmed with the “stay in your designated pew” idea– but we don’t sit in a pew so he can’t really sit with us. I respond politely and sympathetically, and then… don’t do anything about it. Because it’s not a problem. He loves being in church, he is not disruptive, and there’s no way I’m gonna mess with that. They can be cranky with me all they want, as long as they leave the kiddo alone. In four more years, he’ll be serving at the altar with brother (he tells us) and then it won’t be an issue.

    If it’s a problem, it’s the church’s problem for not ripping out the pews when they bought the place, and I will happily donate to the pew removal fund whenever someone starts it.


  7. I have seen, in various Orthodox parishes, all of these configurations:

    –pews because they purchased the building from a protestant church, the building was historic, and they weren’t allowed to change it that much.

    –pews because they purchased the building from a protestant church, the floor was gently sloped, and the logistics of leveling it were too complicated.

    –purchased the building from a protestant church and then ripped out all the pews, refinished the nice wood floor, and threw in a bunch of area rugs (which can be sent to the cleaners when they get too much candlewax on them).

    –built their own building, and installed catholic-style pews with kneelers.

    –built their own building, no pews, just sprinkled some convention-center style stacking chairs along the sides for the old folks.


  8. “Christianity in North America”

    Many here may have seen this already, but for those who haven’t, this video about how different types of Christianity are different from each other and what they have in common.
    Very superficial but it does lay out things in a very non-judgemental way (I haven’t heard anything but very trivial criticisms).
    It also bears up well in repeated listenings (the visuals are fun but not necessary).


  9. The words and actions of the service are also holy revelations from God, and the people should be participating in the service. You can commune with the holy icons, too, but you can also do that when the service is not going on.


  10. Maybe the US needs more Orthodox immigrants so that more traditional Orthodox churches can be built in the US? Just a thought.


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