By Kenneth Lowe
Ginny Bartges kissed one of the many holy icons at Holy Apostles Orthodox Church as she entered the chapel. Such prevalent icons are just one of the characteristics that distinguish the Orthodox church, which has had a building in Normal, at 1670 W. Hovey Ave., for a decade.
Though many in the United States are largely unfamiliar with the Orthodox faith, it’s the second-largest Christian religion in the world, second only to Catholicism. It is the dominant religion in Russia and much of Eastern Europe and has a significant presence in some Middle Eastern countries.
The church traces its roots to AD 33, and like Catholicism, it considers itself the oldest Christian tradition. The differences in the two traditions stem from the “Great Schism,” a dispute that historians say peaked around AD 1054 over the Roman pope’s role.
Today, the head of the Orthodox Church remains in Istanbul, Turkey — formerly Constantinople — and is led by the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople in much the same way that the Roman Catholic Church is led by the pope.
The geographical focal points are part of what separates the two churches, with Orthodox doctrine emerging through the Greek language and Roman Catholicism from Latin.
Joel Grigsby, 62, of Lincoln, was raised a Baptist. A semi-retired farmer, he said soul-searching and some research led him to the Orthodox faith five years ago, and he has been attending Holy Apostles since.
Father Danial Doss, who leads the church in Normal, said most Orthodox churches in the United States use the New King James Version of the New Testament, and the Septuagint version of the Bible’s Old Testament, a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek that Doss said is very similar to the Old Testament of the Catholic faith.
When Grigsby started his catechism, the reading seemed wordier and more flowery than Christian text that has come down from Latin, he said. But now he believes the Greek tradition of the Orthodox liturgy and catechism isn’t so much flowery as it is specific: “Great Lent” denotes one specific fast out of four different fasts throughout the year, for instance.
“As I adapted to it, I began to understand the nuance that the Greek language had imparted (to the text),” Grigsby said. “Even though it’s translated into English, it has a different feel from that which has descended to us from Latin.”
Both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches follow a liturgical style. Doss said the Orthodox church has largely rejected changes in its ceremonies over the centuries.
That constancy has drawn Bartges in. Even while traveling, other Orthodox services she attends perform the same ceremonies. Most chapels face eastward, and all have two doors at the front of the room from which enter the priest and the deacon at the beginning of each service.
“I’m busy through the week, but I always know that I can come to church on Sunday and we will have this beautiful worship that is unchanging,” Bartges said. “It’s something I hold onto.”
Bartges became a convert 11 years ago; her husband, Dean, is a “cradle” — a lifelong follower.
Like the larger institution of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Doss said Holy Apostles Church in Normal is very diverse.
“We are a mix of many cultures. I call it the real American melting pot,” Doss said. “We use English as the main language, and we are all of the same faith.”
About 40 people attend the church on an average Sunday, some coming from as far as Champaign, Doss said.
Grigsby, a native Tennessean, said he worships every Sunday alongside Eritreans, Greeks, Romanians, Georgians and Serbs.
“We understand that Christ came to Earth to allow men to strive toward holiness, and… as men and women become more like Christ, they are invited, as any friend would be, to participate in what he wants to share with us, and that’s creation,” Grigsby said. “We get to come to the party.”