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Orthodox churches experiencing a resurgence
Source: Seattle Times By Janet I. Tu - Date: April 7th, 2007

Sean Dimond, a 39-year-old Seattleite who works for a nonprofit organization, grew up Southern Baptist and, through the years, has attended Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Catholic and evangelical churches.He sought personal, authentic ways to express his faith and integrate it more fully with his everyday life. But his method of picking and choosing from a variety of religious traditions began to feel unsatisfying.

"It began to feel self-referential. Like I was the sole determining factor of what was relevant for me," he said.

That season of discontent eventually led Dimond somewhere he'd never really considered before: the Orthodox Church.

"I thought I knew what Eastern Orthodoxy was: a more archaic version of Roman Catholicism but with cooler hats," he said. "I realized I didn't have a clue."

For nearly four years now, Dimond has been a member of St. Spiridon Orthodox Cathedral in Seattle.

The Orthodox Church

Numbers worldwide: 225 million (estimates vary). The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest Orthodox jurisdiction in the world.

Numbers in U.S.: 1.2 million (estimates vary). The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Orthodox Church in America claim the most members in the U.S.

Find out more

Washington Orthodox Clergy Association: www.orthodoxwashington.org or sites.silaspartners.com/partner/0,,88558,00.html

Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas: www.scoba.us

Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute: www.orthodoxinstitute.org

He found in the Orthodox Church a sense of deep history and tradition that he wanted to surrender to, a style of worship that engaged all his senses and made him feel the presence of God, he said. And he found structured practices that gave him a sense of "deep integration" of his faith and his life.

"For 2,000 years, community after community has worshipped in this way," he said.

Dimond is among what appears to be a sizable number of people nationally and locally who are converting to Orthodoxy.

In Washington state alone, the number of Orthodox churches has doubled from 13 in 1987 to 26 now. And while membership growth in some of them is still due to new immigrants, others are growing primarily because of converts.

Many are drawn by the church's long history; rituals that are filled with mystery; spiritual disciplines like rules for prayer that provide structure; and doctrines they say remain largely unchanged through the centuries.

At the same time, Orthodox churches in America have become more accessible as growth in some of them become fueled less by first-generation immigrants and more by children and grandchildren of the immigrants and by converts. Many more Orthodox churches offer services in English now, and the curious can readily find information from local churches on the Web.

Orthodoxy, which considers itself the inheritor of the original, early church, emerged from the Great Schism of 1054, in which the Christian Church split into Eastern and Western church traditions. The Western tradition became the Roman Catholic Church while the Eastern tradition became the Orthodox Church, which rejected the primacy and authority of the pope, among other differences.

The Orthodox Church follows a different calendar from the Western Christian church but, this year, Easter falls for both on the same day: this Sunday.

The Orthodox Church today is divided into autonomous churches largely along national and ethnic lines. There are about 225 million members worldwide, making it the second largest Christian grouping worldwide, behind Catholics.

In the United States, there are about 1.2 million Orthodox Christians, estimates Alexei Krindatch, research director at the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute, which is part of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

There's no overall number on how many Orthodox adherents are converts and the percentage of converts varies from one Orthodox jurisdiction to another, Krindatch said. But a survey last year of the four Orthodox seminaries in the United States showed that converts accounted for nearly half of all the students, he said.

Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church in Shoreline grew from about 40 members eight years ago to about 150 members now. The church, which conducts its services in English, is unusual for a Greek Orthodox church because it has so many converts -- perhaps half of the congregation, said member Martha Pavsidis.

Janell Gilmore, 54, an accountant from Kenmore, has attended various churches but wanted more than just going to church on Sundays.

A friend invited her to Holy Apostles. In services called the Divine Liturgy -- which feature candles, incense, icons and congregations chanting and mostly standing throughout -- Gilmore felt "much closer to God. It's like all your senses are permeated with God's presence."

Holy Apostles member Judy Bethea, 65, a retired therapist in Mill Creek, began her journey toward Orthodoxy four years ago when the turmoil in the Episcopal Church began reaching a crisis point after the election of an openly gay bishop.

"I was looking for something solid, steady, unchanging," she said. "What I found here is a rock-solid church that had not changed what it believes and what it preaches in 2,000 years."

Anne Dimond, 37, began exploring Orthodoxy when her husband, Sean, started attending St. Spiridon. She was happy with her Catholic faith and attended church regularly.

But she found the spiritual disciplines in Orthodoxy "grew my faith more," she said. Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays and having prayer rules -- and knowing she was practicing these things with her entire church -- provided a structure that helped her grow spiritually, she said.

At St. Andrew Antiochian Orthodox Church in Arlington, where the entire congregation converted from nondenominational evangelical 10 years ago, the Rev. David Hovik says a longing for something more and something deeper seems to be what draws people.

The congregation converted in 1997, he said, because members felt a lack of awe and reverence in worship. The church lost members when it converted, going from 110 families to 37. But it's grown steadily since and now has 75 families, most of them converts.

"The people who are converting are young families, evangelical Protestants that all in various ways come to the place where they say, 'This just can't be it,' " Hovik said.Hovik invites them to attend worship.

Once they show up, Hovik said, "it's not like we have to sell anything. It's simply we continue doing what the church has been doing for 2,000 years. I think it resonates with people."

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