What is the Orthodox Church? And why a field guide? Put simply: she is the world’s oldest Church, and as such, she has matured and grown over time in her daily practices and liturgical expression. Understanding how to navigate her services and daily life is an important issue for anyone in the Church; or those not yet Orthodox, who are exploring or making inquiry.
Come and See?
To those who have never been to an Orthodox worship service, the first few visits can be bewildering. Sometimes the services are conducted in strange languages a visitor may not understand. And sometimes, even those who feel at home in the Orthodox Church, having spent many years experiencing her faith and worship services, may not have reflected on the significance of this or that particular practice.
The Orthodox make the claim that the Church is unchanged in a very real sense—she has carefully preserved, promoted, and died for the faith entrusted her by Jesus Christ. But that does not mean that she didn’t have occasion to articulate the faith afresh, or that the outward expression of worship has always looked uniform.
A continual process of growth and maturation occurs in the life of the Church, and—not unlike life for any ordinary human being—we learn from our mistakes, grow from our trials, and try to find better ways to communicate.
The purpose of any “field guide” is to assist an observer in appreciating and understanding what may be seen. This blog is no different. Its goal is to be a practical help and handy reference, with easy to navigate answers about whatever a person may observe in a typical (what is that?) Orthodox parish.
About this Project
I am a layperson at St. Mark Greek Orthodox Church in Boca Raton, Florida. I’m just a guy who likes hip-hop, flip-flops, dogs, and tacos—and have been “ruined” by Christ and the Church. I have also been a communicate member of parishes in the Orthodox Church in America and the Moscow Patriarchate in other parts of the United States, and have visited churches of nearly every jurisdiction. I even got some sort of award (gramata) once from Metropolitan Hilarion of ROCOR—how fancy is that? As a convert, I have no particular bias for or against any ethnic expression of the faith—I simply desire to be an Orthodox Christian.
As a layperson, I am not an expert liturgist with special training, or an academic theologian with fancy credentials, though I am not without qualification. I have a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies, and I’m a Patristic Philosophy grad school dropout. In other words, I’m just an avid reader and a student of history and theology. In South Florida, I co-teach our Discover Orthodoxy catechism class and the St. Mark’s high school students’ Sunday Church School, and for a time I was systematically teaching Patristic studies to teenagers at an area classical school.
I started this blog while I lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where I was helping create the Orthodox Philly network, a pan-Orthodox website and social media project focused on the nearly three dozen parishes in the broader Philadelphia region. The habit I developed of taking mental notes everywhere I go, regardless of jurisdiction, informs the explanations given here.
How it Works
When I am sitting down to write these posts, I bear in mind our visitors and catechumens first, and those who are already Orthodox Christians, second. Any good field guide is written with the uninitiated in mind first. I take over-simplifications for granted at times—and, the reality is that I cannot cover everything.
I have a few pet peeves about irregular things I’ve seen or read, but I do my best to write in a neutral tone. This is a guide to the Orthodox Church, as is—saints and sinners, ideal practices and less ideal practices, side by side.
I do have a tendency to want to uproot the “tares” in our practices whenever I see them, but I am no reformer or revolutionary; and as such, I prefer to leave the wheat and the tares to grow together until the harvest, when they can be better separated by those more qualified than me.
I am interested first of all in accuracy, and if I can do better research on some issue, and provide a more accurate field guide in the future, then I most certainly will.
The great scandal of Orthodoxy is: It depends. Exceptions abound, and I am certain to make some mistakes. I can promise that there will be something for everyone to hate. Constructive comments, suggestions, citations, and even anecdotes are generally welcomed and appreciated.
The One Thing Needful
The most important thing I hope to communicate with these posts really isn’t the nuts and bolts of Orthodox worship and discipline, but the One who is the reason for our worship and discipline: Jesus Christ. The whole point of Orthodoxy is to live a Eucharistically oriented life in Christ—for our salvation and for the life of the whole world.
This field guide is not meant to replace the in-person, real life of a parish community, and the daily disciplines of Christian living. The prime directive of this guide is this: to direct you to a life in Christ within an Orthodox community in your area.
In many ways, this project has already been done in a different venue. A few years ago, author Frederica Mathewes-Green released a book entitled Welcome to the Orthodox Church, edited by my friend Joel J. Miller, and it is quite good. So good, in fact, that it was part of reason I paused work on this project. She had a similar idea on how to approach an introduction to the Orthodox Church, and she did a marvelous job. Go read that book!
Speaking of Joel, it was originally his idea to create a “field guide” to the Church. He graciously gave me permission to run with his idea and expand on it, and for that and more, I am grateful.
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Jamey (Athanasios) Bennett
P.S. Originally, my goal was to sound neutral and reduce the “volume” of my “voice” in the posts. I’m shifting the tone a bit to be more “me” for the time being.
P.P.S. Thanks also to Donna Albino, who has courteously allowed us to use her field guide image, asking only for a link back to her web page.