Ancient ways entice… Christians

JWF The Rev. John Fenton is betting his life on the growing popularity of Orthodox Christianity across the country.

He and his wife have packed up their six children from the rectory of a Detroit church where he was a Lutheran pastor until late October. They’ve moved into a small home in Allen Park, leaving behind Fenton’s clergy salary and, soon, his health insurance.

On Feb. 10 and Feb. 11 in Troy he plans to join a small but growing number of clergy nationwide choosing ordination as Orthodox priests. Fenton has lined up 16 former Lutherans as charter members of a new Orthodox parish he plans to open Downriver. They’ll be joining an ancient branch of Christianity that’s famous for engaging worshippers’ senses, from the scent of incense and sound of chanting to prayerful reflection on colorful icons.

Detroit is emerging as a national center for the rebirth of these churches, which have deep ethnic roots in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Many split formally with the larger Catholic Church in the 11th Century. They’ve had their own parishes in North America for more than a century, mostly serving as ethnic enclaves.

Not anymore. Social scholars say the churches are growing in the United States through immigration and conversion. Next week, many of Detroit’s Orthodox leaders will host the first in a series of conferences planned nationwide for non-Orthodox clergy who want to explore conversion.

Why the fresh interest? Fenton said many Christians feel battered by storms of theological controversy in their own churches over issues as basic as the divinity of Jesus. In contrast, he said, Orthodoxy represents an oasis of Christian tradition with its centuries-old style of worship and timeless celebration of the mysterious power of saints.

“So many people feel that the world is constantly changing all around them, and they want to find something that’s so deeply rooted that it won’t change on them,” Fenton said. “I think that’s the biggest thing that Orthodoxy brings to the American table.”

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