The National Herald has been vigorously exposing the financial and organizational disarray in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese for months. These urgent concerns reflect the reality that Greek Orthodoxy in America is in decline and that the Archdiocese has no plans for dealing with the fundamental demographics reshaping Greek America. I address this crisis from the perspective of a historian of Greek America, not as a congregant with an agenda.
Although there are numerous Greek secularists, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, the backbone of Greek America to date has been the Greek Orthodox church.Church records, federal statistics, and research projects regarding Greek millennials reveal a multi-decade decline of 40% in the number of Orthodox marriages and baptisms and a similar multi-decade rise in the number of burials. In 1976, near the peak of the Second Wave of immigration (1965-1980), there were more than 250,000 Orthodox households. Today, the number is about 190,000, a decline of approximately 27%.
A handful of parishes have grown, but more churches had been closed than new parishes opened. The number of students in parochial schools has declined drastically. Aggravating the situation is a chronic shortage of priests.
A few years ago, Archbishop Demetrios declared the Greek Orthodox Church in America was no longer an immigrant church. Indeed, immigration over the past fifty years has been a scanty one-to-two thousand annually,an inflow negated by an equal number of repatriates. Despite the economic crisis in Greece that has resulted in half-a-million Greeks emigrating to the EU and Australia, only a few thousand have elected to come to America.
Most converts to Greek Orthodoxy are non-Greek spouses of Greek-Americans.The Church welcomes such converts, but it has no vigorous policy regarding converting non-Greeks.In that sense, the Church remains primarily an ethnic institution.
The current out marriages of Greeks to non-Greeks is at least 80%. That dynamic is not a reflection of Greek parental failings. Greek America is simply part of a demographic tide that is affecting all of American society. Over the next twenty years, this accelerating trend will result in the majority of Greeks living in multi-ethnic households with various religious traditions. About 10% of the households will involve non-European spouses. Young people maturing in these families will not privilege Orthodoxy as their spiritual option.They may not be sure if they even want to be considered Greek.
This new demographic reality is a threat to the Church, but it also is an opportunity for genuine growth. For that to happen, however, the Church needs activist rather than passive leadership. That activist brand of leadership has not been seen since Archbishop Iakovos was forced into retirement in 1996.
The consistent policy of Iakovos was to mainstream Orthodoxy without retreating from its Hellenism.He was active in national and international ecumenical circles. He also modified the organization of the Church to provide it with American-style social services. Another goal was to bring secular Greek organizations into the orbit of the Church.
Iakovos’ finest moment was when he marched with Martin Luther King in Selma. That action involved considerable personal courage. White activists associated with the march had been murdered and Alabama law enforcement officials and white supremacist groups vowed to stop the march with violence.As a tall man, wearing dark robes and a tall headdress, Iakovos would have been an ideal target for snipers. King, whom Iakovos had come to know at various ecumenical conferences, said he understood if Iakovos wanted to withdraw.
Iakovos believed that most Greek-Americans were not hostile to blacks demanding their full civil rights, but that Greek-Americans were reluctant to risk their own status in what seemed someone else’s war. Numerous colleagues advised Iakovos not to march, especially after he received death threats. What was decisive for him was that leadership meant forming and advancing positions on their merits, not on the degree of their popularity.
Rather than abstaining from marching, Iakovos chose to literally link arms with King in the first row of marchers. He was the highest ranking Christian official to do so as no Catholic or Episcopal prelates joined him. His presence was so dramatic that he was featured in a collage on the cover of Life magazine. Never before or since has an Orthodox leader been seen as an inspiring spiritual leader by the majority of Americans.
I disagreed with Iakovos’ conservative views more often than not, but his style of leadership is needed to revive Greek Orthodoxy in America. The financial scandal and egotistical Metropolitans must be dealt with forthrightly.Even more important is for the Church to devise a plan to attract the allegiance of the emerging generations of multi-ethnic Greek-Americans. New leadership must understand that policies that fostered survival and even growth in previous periods are not viable for twenty-first century America. Denial or indifference to the demographic changes engulfing the community could be suicidal.
The dominant pattern throughout the history of Greeks in America is that wherever a Greek community forms, it builds an Orthodox church. The relationship is symbiotic. The community sustains the church while the church provides a historical identity and memory. If that relationship continues to deteriorate, the very existence of a coherent Greek America is at risk.