tmatt on what converts want

I’d like to call your attention to an essay by Terry Mattingly which also appears in the current issue of AGAIN, entitled “What Do The Converts Want?” The Conciliar Press website, you will notice, still contains no reference to the new issue, but happily the piece has been posted online before — look for it here. It is very much worth reading, and I don’t wish to repost it here. That said, there are a few points I wish to engage — not disagree with, exactly, but which I think are worth further discussion, particularly in light of Fr. John Peck’s article and the spirited discussion surrounding it.

For example:

If you attend the Sunday night service at a typical Baptist church and look around at the 40 people there in comparison to the 200 or 300 in attendance on Sunday morning, you will find that about 80 percent of the church’s giving is accounted for in that group.

[...] The Sunday night experience in a Baptist church is very similar to that in Saturday evening Vespers services in an Orthodox church. As Bishop Antoun told me once, if you look at who attends Great Vespers and comes to confession, you are looking at about 80 percent of the service, the giving, and the energy in most parishes.

Who comes to Vespers? Who comes to confession? Who comes to the feasts, and why do they come?

I understand what Prof. Mattingly is getting at, but All Saints is the counterexample. The people who come to Vespers (both on Saturday night and during the week) represent a chunk of the service and the energy, to be sure, but on the whole, a very small portion of the giving. For the most part, the Vespers crowd, as well as the non-Sunday festal crowd, is made up of people who are some combination of college students, young married couples (some with kids, some without), and inquirers — all of that is to say, people who are on the whole very much willing to serve and are excited to do so, but who aren’t in a position to be substantial donors. There is, in fact, a very small number of parishioners who are long-term-to-permanent residents who come when it isn’t Sunday. Some of that is simple geography; we are the only Orthodox church for at least an hour in any direction (more like four depending on the direction), and we have a number of people who have at least a half hour drive to get to church. These are not folks who are going to make it more than once a week, at least not terribly often. In addition, a plurality of our parishioners are working-class people who work irregular hours; nurses, maintenance workers, restaurant managers, and so on. These are not people who are always going to be able to make it on Sunday, let alone Saturday or Wednesday or any other day. Finally, we’re in unincorporated Monroe county, not in the municipality of Bloomington, meaning we’re at a very inconvenient distance from the city center, and bus service does not come within two miles of us. This makes us hard to get to for a lot of the college students; if you want to come to Vespers but don’t have a ride, you’re out of luck. Again, the realities of what this particular college town are like make the situation at All Saints a significant variance from the model described here. We’ve talked any number of times about how best to solve this problem, but short of petitioning the city to redraw the boundaries so that we get bus service, operating a private bus ourselves, moving the church into city limits, planting new missions, or telling everybody to move closer, all of which carry some kind of a dealbreaker (invariably having to do with money), there’s just not a great solution.

That said –

I believe that most of these converts are coming out of that core 20 percent of their former churches. They are active, highly motivated people. They read, they think, they sing, and they serve.

Yes, indeed. Let me just offer a caveat, however:

That’s the approach of the converts. They are not looking for “Orthodoxy Lite.” They want more.

This is the approach of some converts, yes. Don’t, however, discount the converts who may have converted for basic theological, ecclesiological, or historical reasons who, a few years later, have to admit that they still find the Byzantine rite foreign and strange, or still are having trouble with some of the Marian doctrines or not ordaining women or this or that. These are converts who probably can be fairly described as wanting “Orthodoxy Lite,” because the “more” is ultimately more than they can take. These are generally not people who actively want to be “Eastern Rite Protestants,” but they might have thought that it would be okay, at least at first, if that’s what they were, and they’ve just never quite grown beyond it.

The American converts are not looking for some kind of post-Vatican II, carved-down liturgical experience. They have that all around them. They are not trying to cut the service down another 15 to 20 minutes so that more young people will hang around — as if that would work. [...] You see, the people who want to worship, want to worship.

Again, I have to hold up All Saints as the counterexample. Because of the various factors mentioned earlier, our parishioners tend to be very sensitive to the clock. My standing instructions as the cantor for Matins: no matter where you are or how much you have left, at 10am, call it good and start the Great Doxology. Matins just happens to be the service where length is going to be most variable, depending on the length of the Gospel reading or how many stichera we have at Lauds or which canon we’re singing and so on — but I’m told, “If Matins runs to 10:02, we get asked, ‘Does Liturgy start at 10:00 or 10:05?’” Another piece of the puzzle here is that because Sunday is the only day when attendance can be counted on, the time following Liturgy is highly prized by the various ministries — including my own, the choir — and a Liturgy ending at 11:30 rather than 11:20 means that’s either 10 minutes less a particular group will have or 10 minutes later they’ll have to stay. For people who may have to work at 2pm (which used to be the case for me when I first got here), that makes a big difference. Keeping services on the shorter end is the practical reality for this community for right now, for better or for worse.

Many Orthodox churches are having trouble retaining their young people, so they are seeking ways to stop the bleeding. But there’s the rub. If you are not creating new faith, you will not retain the children of those who had the faith in the first place.

Here’s where All Saints is a happier counterexample. We’ve got a lot of kids up through high school and a lot of college students.

I remember something that happened when my family was part of an ethnic parish that had installed pews in the sanctuary. During Great Lent, the number of people who came to church on Wednesday nights — for the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts — was small, so we could stand in the front of the church. Freed from the pews, all sorts of Orthodox things started happening again. Prostrations returned. People were bowing, people were worshiping with their whole bodies. It was a very moving experience.

I am fully in agreement with Prof. Mattingly on this point; the first several Orthodox churches I visited had no pews, and the experience was something very different from what I was used to as a Protestant. I’m always overjoyed and heartened to walk into a church and not see chairs or pews littering the floor. How can you even do a metania without bonking your head on the pew in front of you? How do you do prostrations during Lent? How do you even successfully have everybody gather around the priest during the Great Entrance, touching his vestments as he goes by with the Gifts?

The trouble with this particular example, however, is that he connects, intentionally or not, the issue of pews with “ethnic parishes.” It is true that a number of ethnic parishes, particularly Greek and Arab parishes, have pews, and they ain’t goin’ nowhere. Here in the Midwest, however, I’ve seen nice, neat rows of seating being the rule more often than not, even in the parishes where there are mostly converts, and it’s just not up for discussion whether or not they belong there, whether or not they’re actually a part of our tradition, etc. “This is America and Americans expect comfortable seating,” is what even the convert clergy say, some acknowledging in private that yes, it’s a concession, but it would otherwise be a losing battle and that those who prefer an open floor need to forget it. I’m familiar with one case where the priest one day said to his parish, “We’re going to take out the pews. Now. You will get used to it.” They did, and they got used to it — but as another priest pointed out, “He’s a monkpriest. He can do that.”

Americans who visit an Orthodox church will judge the vitality of that congregation based on how many people sing and take part in their worship. That is really unfair to many Orthodox who were raised to stand in quiet holiness, but it’s the truth.

Americans will want to take part in the service. If they have mustered up the courage to walk through the door of an Orthodox church in the first place, they’re not going to want to just sit or stand once they’re in there. They will feel left out, if there is no way for them to sing, if there is no way for them to take part in the service. The church will have just sent them back out the door. Let me repeat: Americans will judge the spiritual vitality of an Orthodox parish on whether or not the congregation is reverently and enthusiastically singing, praying, and participating in worship.

This is a point which is frequently asserted by all kinds of people. “Participation” seems to be defined as “everybody sings everything.” I really struggle with this.

Reality: there are so many moving parts in a Divine Liturgy, let alone most other services, that there is no way to keep everything you might sing in a compact little hymnal which lives in the pew in front of you. Even us cantors and choir directors don’t have everything readily available at any given moment. The refrain of the Second Antiphon, the various troparia and kontakia, the entrance hymn, the possible replacements of the Trisagion, the communion hymns which change throughout the year — it is just not reasonable for everybody to be able to sing everything. Even if you could have everything in a wieldy hymnal, at my parish, for example, just about everybody who could read the notes is in the choir anyway.

I’m familiar with one parish that solved this problem by saying, “Okay, then we don’t change any of the moving parts. We just sing the Liturgy congregationally with the parts we know, week in, week out, regardless of what’s actually appointed for the day.” That’s an extremely comprehensive solution (to say nothing of extremely, well, extreme), but it’s a very real problem, because our various liturgical texts are our theology.

Can we do a better job of coming up with congregational service books which actually correspond, at least by and large, to what a parish actually does? Yes, absolutely, and in this age of Microsoft Word, Sibelius, and cheap laser printers, there’s no reason we shouldn’t — it just takes time and a little know-how. I came up with congregational service books for the Divine Liturgy of St. James which contained every note sung and every word said (at least that wasn’t marked as one of the priest’s private prayers). However, only the readings, and the portions of the service connected to the readings (the prokeimenon and Alleluia), change in a St. James Liturgy, so it’s a lot more feasible. I can also tell you that while the visitors may have been following along with the books, I’m not sure the parishioners were (given instances such as a part clearly being marked as the deacon’s in the service book, and the entire congregation coming in for it because it’s something they’re used to saying on a Sunday Liturgy).

Participation is not necessarily singing along — it might very well be, but there is also the possibility that it might not be. Liturgical singing is a craft, one that has historically been very much valued as such, even as early as the fourth century, when the Council of Laodicea outright forbade singing in church except by those formally appointed to do so. I’m not advocating that by any means, don’t get me wrong, but I guess what I am saying is that we need to be clear on what we mean by “congregational singing” and “participation.” Do we mean “everybody sings everything”? Do we mean people sing the responses at various appropriate points? These are things we have to figure out. We also have to avoid the false dichotomy of “worship” and “performance.” “I’d rather hear the Liturgy sung badly and prayerfully than by the Metropolitan Opera Chorus,” somebody once told me. I’d never want to hear a Divine Liturgy sung by that particular ensemble, I guarantee you, but that doesn’t mean we should hold up some kind of aesthetic minimalism as a good thing. We don’t put up ugly icons, we don’t use bad-smelling incense, and by the same token it shouldn’t be acceptable that liturgical singing be an area where mediocrity is not only okay, it’s preferred, just because it means people are “participating.” To (almost) end this with an extreme example, if my participation is causing the person standing next to me to cover their ears, then I’m not worshipping — I’m calling attention to myself. By the same token, if my participation is causing people to gush and applaud, that’s equally problematic, because it is once again calling attention to itself rather than to the actual intended focus of the worship.

I recognize this is a topic where emotions tend to run hot and everybody’s opinion is strong. As a musician, somebody who has had years of training to do what I do, this is how I see it (which, some might argue, is exactly why we shouldn’t listen to musicians, because they think they know better than everybody else want to keep everything for themselves). My final thought here is that I’m not convinced that we Americans do “reverently and enthusiastically” well, at the very least not at the same time.

As threatening as it sounds, our goal — if there is to be a united Orthodoxy — is to be united in worship and sacramental practice. This unity will blend gifts from across our great ethnic traditions. However, it will be a vital, growing Orthodoxy that at the congregational level can welcome Americans with open arms. It will make them feel strange, but it will be a place they can become a part of and even help change over time. This Orthodoxy will assimilate on the level of culture and language, but it will not assimilate to America at the level of practice, sacrament, and doctrine. It will not compromise on the essentials. It will not compromise on what unites Orthodoxy around the world and through the millennia. It will create a worthy expression of Orthodoxy that will, over time, be unique to this culture.

Once again, I understand what Prof. Mattingly means (I think), but I very much struggle with how he puts it. When he says, “It will not compromise on the essentials,” what are the non-essentials on which he believes we will compromise? What does he mean that American unity “will blend gifts from across our great ethnic traditions”? Does he mean that churches might give out palms and pussy willows on Palm Sunday? Well, okay. Does he mean this liturgically, that we’ll pick and choose from various typika to create some kind of “blended” American typikon? If so, is that really a good idea? I keep coming back to the Greek parish in Krefeld, Germany that I visited last summer — the Liturgy was “of a piece.” It was a unified, centuries old knowledge of Tradition which guided how they celebrated the Liturgy, rather than a hodge-podge of this bit from the Russians and that bit from the Arabs and this other bit from the Greeks, and if you’ve got any special requests please see our liturgical committee. And yes, the Greeks were pretty much standing there in holy silence, and it was no less glorious than if they had all been singing along. Yes, Prof. Mattingly, meaning absolutely no disrespect, but what you say is quite unfair to those who have been raised to be that way. Their way is absolutely no less legitimate than our American tendency to want to have a hand in everything lest we feel excluded, take our ball and go home.

The reality is, all of these bits from various national traditions which developed with particular variations did so for a reason. The way the Russians do, say, the Beatitudes, isn’t meant to follow a Byzantine setting of the Entrance Hymn.

It seems to me that if we’re serious about wanting to be unified in worship and sacramental practice, the first step is to come up with a definitive English language version of the Liturgy and the Offices. I find it to be a terribly distracting problem that I can’t even visit another Antiochian parish, to say nothing of an OCA or GOArch parish, and count on being able to say the Creed with them without needing a cheat sheet. Once we have that, then perhaps we can put our minds to re-setting the hymns using these texts. Then we let a few generations just receive the Tradition and — as I have suggested before — let it change us for awhile before we start trying to change it.

The worship in these churches will be in English, and the people — all the people — will be singing.

Here is this point again. Again, I don’t know that I can completely go there without defining terms more particularly.

Some of these churches will have tight budgets, but they will be tight because they are struggling to cope with growth, not decline.

Amin, amin, lego imin. Here All Saints is the example, not the counterexample. “Strugging to cope with growth” is it exactly.

Yet, at the high point of that service, as a small choir entered the sanctuary singing, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,” the members of the congregation stood in silence — watching.

My friend saw this and, trust me, this was not what he was looking for. He wanted Orthodoxy, for himself and for his family. He wanted more, not less. He still does.

I have suggested before that, granted that it is the parish’s joyful responsibility to welcome the stranger, people who are new arrivals to a parish, particularly inquirers, might be well-served by a little humility and try to accept the parish for who they are, rather than judging them against what the inquirer might like them to be. When I first came to All Saints as a young inquirer, having spent a wonderful group of Sundays with a particular Seattle-area parish, I had a checklist of what I thought it should be like based on that other parish. Guess what? All Saints failed on virtually every count, and I wanted absolutely nothing more than to never darken their door again. Guess what? That checklist had a lot more to do with me and my not-inconsiderable baggage than anything All Saints was doing wrong. Each parish has its own ethos, its own set of strengths, and we’re going to be wasting our time — particularly as inquirers — if we take the attitude that somehow we’re getting “less” Orthodoxy because our laundry list isn’t getting ticked off the way we’d like it to be.

While I very much agree with the overall point and tone of Prof. Mattingly’s piece, I feel like I have to bring up the fact that we need not count our American pride as a Christian essential, much less an Orthodox Christian essential. We will ultimately be frustrated if we do so, and we will get, in fact, less Orthodoxy, not more. We’ve also got to be careful that we don’t overgeneralize the experience of the local parish (and Prof. Mattingly’s is an extraordinary and unusual one), or our own individual experience, and call that “what American Orthodoxy will be.” I would count myself among those whom he describes as wanting “more Orthodoxy, not less,” but I’ve seen a wide enough variety of converts and inquirers to know that this isn’t precisely the case with everybody, and certainly not to the same extent. Surely there are those who might see me as being at the “lukewarm” end of the spectrum, for various reasons. (I, of course, see myself as being perfectly in the middle, but I at least am aware that I am deluding myself in thinking that.)

Prof. Mattingly gets a lot of things right in this essay, and there are other things which I believe are worth discussing further. I’m glad he got the conversation going; let’s keep talking about it, by all means. It’s going to be centuries before the last word is had, more than likely.

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7 Responses to “tmatt on what converts want”


  1. 1 fatherjamesearly 29 October 2008 at 10:45 am

    Dr. Barrett,

    This was a great and well-thought-out response to Dr. Mattingly’s article, which I also thought was excellent. Certainly we need to continue discussing these issues, as we (God willing) move toward a unified American Orthodox Church.

    “it is the parish’s joyful responsibility to welcome the stranger, people who are new arrivals to a parish, particularly inquirers, might be well-served by a little humility and try to accept the parish for who they are, rather than judging them against what the inquirer might like them to be.” – Amen to that!

    By the way, what is the official definition of “Orthodoxy Lite?” I hear this term thrown around a lot, but I’m not always exactly sure what people mean by it. I often think it means something a little different to each person.

  2. 2 Richard Barrett 29 October 2008 at 10:56 am

    Bless, Father!

    Since I don’t yet even have a Masters, please don’t call me “Dr.” or even “Mr.” — “Richard” is perfectly fine, particularly from a priest!

    “Orthodoxy Lite,” as you say, is a term that gets a lot of play but isn’t defined very well. I suppose it can be understood to refer to people who just can’t quite enter into the fullness one way or the other — doctrinally, aesthetically, whatever. However, understood that way, I suppose that means we’re all “Orthodox Lite” — it’s only a matter of degree!

    Richard

  3. 3 fatherjamesearly 29 October 2008 at 11:36 am

    Richard,

    Your article on Mattingly’s piece in AGAIN was so good, I thought you deserved an honorary doctorate. But, since I have no power to bestow such an honor, Richard it shall be.

    I often think that for each person who uses the term “Orthodoxy Lite,” it means “a little less Orthodox than me.” I personally wish that people would quit judging other peoples’ level of Orthodoxy and just go about the business of the Kingdom. Probably a naive wish, but I wish it just the same.

    BTW, how do you find time to write so much (and so thoughtfully)? Do you not sleep?

    Please give my greetings to Fr. Peter Jon. He and I met several years ago at the Antiochian village. He was kind enough to write a blurb for my upcoming book (due out in January from Regina Orthodox Press).

    Your blog is outstanding. Keep up the good work!

  4. 4 Richard Barrett 29 October 2008 at 12:42 pm

    I often think that for each person who uses the term “Orthodoxy Lite,” it means “a little less Orthodox than me.”

    Probably true, much in the same way as how in colloquial use, “right-wing” and “left-wing” usually mean “more conservative/liberal than lil’ ol’ moderate me.”

    BTW, how do you find time to write so much (and so thoughtfully)? Do you not sleep?

    My wife is a Ph. D. student, Fr. James. Ain’t nobody sleeping in my house.

    I will most certainly pass on your greetings to Fr. Peter (did you know his dad is moving here next summer?), and thank you for the kind words!

  5. 5 Scott Pennington 3 November 2008 at 7:30 pm

    Mr. Barrett,

    I read your response to Terry Mattingly’s piece with great interest. While reading Mattingly’s piece, I found a few things to question as well. It seemed a little like cheerleading to me.

    One particular thing that I found strange was the assumption that American converts should get what they expect or are looking for when the look at an Orthodox church. It’s not about them. Hopefully they are seeking or can accept the fullness of Orthodoxy, but we really shouldn’t cater to their desires too much. So if, for example, they are put off that everybody doesn’t sing everything, or that besides Our Father or the Creed and the Lord have mercy’s, the choir and chanters do most of the singing, then that’s unfortunate but shouldn’t affect our practices.

    Bad singing by those who don’t know the melody is much worse than singing restricted to those who do. It’s like putting up a badly written icon. The “doxa” in Orthodoxy means “glory” as well as “belief”.

    In any case, I enjoyed your response.

    R. Scott Pennington

  6. 6 Richard Barrett 3 November 2008 at 8:39 pm

    One particular thing that I found strange was the assumption that American converts should get what they expect or are looking for when the look at an Orthodox church. It’s not about them.

    An excellent point, and one we should all remember — it’s not about us.

    Thanks for stopping by — hope you stick around!

    Richard

  7. 7 Vladimir 17 November 2010 at 8:27 pm

    “Can we do a better job of coming up with congregational service books which actually correspond, at least by and large, to what a parish actually does?” – Well, I’ve seen one (Catholic) church come up with a high-tech solution to the problem: a big projection screen at which the text of the hymn currently being sung was displayed in real-time, presumably from the priest’s laptop. (See photos here: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Seremban-Visitation-feast-3803.jpg ) I don’t know if I’d be comfortable with this in an Orthodox church, though.


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