Two Former Episcopalians Reflect on 15 Years in the Orthodox Christian Church
Fr. Gregory and Frederica Mathewes-Green
Frederica: After 15 years in Orthodoxy, we can reflect on how our journey in Christ has been shaped by the transition from the Episcopal Church. Our joint story began when we met in college as non-believers, contemptuous of Christianity; we were married and then came to the Lord in fairly miraculous ways. God has always kept us united in faith. We attended Episcopal seminary, and Fr. Gregory was ordained, while Frederica, raised the kids and taught childbirth classes. During these years, from the mid-seventies through the late eighties, we were happy in the Episcopal Church.
But then we began to be disturbed by what seemed to be a redefining of the faith at the upper levels of the church. We kept hearing bishops denying the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth. Fr. Gregory and five other Baltimore priests got together and wrote a document called “The Baltimore Declaration,” which was an attempt to reestablish theological orthodoxy in the Episcopal Church, but it had little impact.
The straw that broke the camel”s back, though, came during the 1991 General Convention of the Episcopal Church. I, Frederica, was present in the house of bishops when they voted on the Frey Resolution. It stated: “Episcopal clergy should abstain from sex outside of marriage.” (Sometimes I hear Orthodox gasp when I tell this story; they have no idea what things were like.) After the votes were counted we found that the resolution was defeated. I went out and found a pay phone and called my husband in tears. I said to him, “This is not a Church anymore. It may be some kind of social workers” organization with excellent aesthetics, but it is not a Church anymore, because it has no intention of obeying its Lord.”
That was when we began to talk seriously about leaving the church. We looked into alternatives like the “continuing” Anglican churches and the Catholic Church. The Orthodox Church never occurred to us; we thought of it as a church you had to be born into. But when Fr. Peter Gillquist came to town my husband went to hear him, and found Fr. Peter to be a very effective exponent and explainer of the Orthodox faith.
This led to the first real division in our marriage. He saw a beauty in Orthodoxy that I just did not get. He was pastoring a small church outside of Baltimore, and I kept saying, “God has placed you here. You can be like a mother hen for this parish, and ignore what”s going on in the national Church.” But he kept saying, “I am a man under authority, and I know what it means to be in a chain of command. I exercise authority because of authority over me, and I can no longer be in communion with my bishops.”
So we were at stalemate. “God needed chaplains on the Titanic,” I kept telling him. “I don”t know if the Episcopal Church is going to make it, but maybe we are placed here to go down with the ship. Maybe we should just be holding people”s hands, and praying with them as the ship goes down.” He would grumble, but he couldn”t think of any comeback.
Fr. Gregory: Finally, I came up with it! I told Frederica, “You know what God needed on the Titanic? Lifeboats! We know where there”s a ship that is not going down. I”m not obligated to this denomination; it”s the people in this parish who matter, and we need to help as many of them as possible get onto that ship that”s not sinking.” Frederica finally relented: “You got me. I give up.” She still didn”t really understand Orthodoxy, or particularly want to be Orthodox, not until the day of our chrismation. That is a powerful sacrament, and by the time that service was over, we all were in love with the beauty of Orthodox worship.
As a priest who has served the Eastern Rite Liturgy now for 14 years, I have a deep love for our Orthodox Christian worship. It is the central role of worship that I find most striking as I reflect on my movement into the fullness of Christ in Orthodoxy.
In the Orthodox Church, ever since the apostolic period worship has been an expression of thanksgiving to God that tends toward maximalism. We want our entire lives, everything we have and are, to show forth gratitude, and we want our worship to reflect that. Because we are creatures of united body and soul, we offer worship to God not only from the depths of our souls but also in our bodies. In our worship, there are things to taste, things to touch, fragrances to savor, beautiful things to see. There are the shape and lines of the temple and the presence of the saints visible through the iconography. We catch the fragrance of the Kingdom in the incense and sometimes also, miraculously, from relics or myrrh. And of course we hear music. We worship with our whole bodies and engage all of our senses.
There is a certain “given-ness” to our worship. As a former Episcopal priest, I am glad that in Orthodox worship we don”t have to pick and choose. If previously we were Episcopalian low- churchmen, we may have taken the Book of Common Prayer and cut it down; as high-churchmen, we may have taken the Book of Common Prayer and built it up with supplementary services like the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. In Orthodoxy, however, the Typicos is simply given. There is joy and freedom in this changelessness, this timelessness.
We pay great attention to the holiness of God in the service, and this affects, for example, how we conduct a procession. But there is also resistance to obsessive over-attention to detail. We ought to feel at home in our Father”s house. That doesn”t mean leisureliness, but an ability to stop obsessing before the big picture gets lost.
One of my mentors as I journeyed into Orthodoxy was another former Episcopalian, Fr. Bill Olnhausen. One time I asked him, “What”s the difference for you, between worship as an Episcopalian and worship as an Orthodox? From the standpoint of a priest, how does it feel different?” And he said, “Well, back when I was an Episcopalian, if I was standing one place in the sanctuary and I realized I”d left my prayer book on the other side, I didn”t know how to get it. There wasn”t a choreography for crossing the sanctuary at a non-liturgical time. But as an Orthodox, I felt much more comfortable. And I figured out how to get my prayer book if I”d put it down out of reach. I”d walk over and pick it up.” How eminently sensible and yet, ultimately, worshipful. In the Orthodox liturgy, worship is the point of everything that is going on. The intent is not to display perfectly staged enactment of something in a book. The intent is to explore together the glory of being in God”s house.
At the heart of Orthodoxy is worship. We”re not a group of theologians who also worship, or social activists who also worship. We”re worshipping creatures whose whole reason for being is to make a glorious act of self-offering to God, for all eternity. And we begin doing that now. We also do works of charity in the community, reach out pastorally to one another, we offer Christian education, and the whole gamut of activities that ought to happen in parishes. But this activity must spring from that central reason for our being, our reconnecting with our Father who is in heaven. This is the reason that He made us. This is the reason that we exist. And we will discover our destiny only when we open ourselves to true worship.
Keeping Body and Soul Together
Just as I was mentored by such people as Fr. Bill Olnhausen and Fr. Patrick Reardon, by the grace of God I have had the opportunity to help others making the journey from the Episcopal Church to the Orthodox Church. My first counsel to them is always that they pray for discernment. They must confront big questions like, “Where can I find God? Where do I believe the truth resides?” These fundamental questions must be wrestled with, and only with prayerful discernment can the answers be found.
And because worship is at the heart of life as an Orthodox Christian, when speaking with Episcopalians drawn towards Orthodoxy I encourage them to visit an Orthodox church and experience that worship. It”s important to connect on the local level. Books can be important; they”re the easiest way to get an overview. But Orthodoxy is ultimately a community of people who worship, so it is essential to know the local Orthodox priest, and even, if possible, a nearby bishop, or the monks and nuns at a monastery. Looking back on my “Titanic” debate with Frederica, I see now that the trip on the lifeboats starts with attending Orthodox services and forging a bond with local Orthodox clergy. Experiencing the local Orthodox life of worship is essential; mere intellectual study is not enough.
Frederica: I”ve also had many opportunities to continue to interact with members of the Episcopal Church. I know that not everyone is going to take our path, and that some will find everything they want in that denomination. There are parishes here and there all over the country where believers in classic Christianity can find a home. I know this because I”m asked to come and lead retreats at such parishes frequently, and I”ve seen the sincerity of their faith close up.
The one thing that I worry about is those people who get heavily invested in what I call the “stay and fight” position. I think there”s a negative side to that. Year after year of reinforcing the “stay and fight” identity can form you into the kind of person who loves to fight. The evil one can lure certain kinds of personalities into enjoyment of conflict itself, and into a love of playing for power. You can get addicted to saying the witty thing that slashes someone to ribbons. “You did not so learn Christ” (Eph 4:20). And there”s a potential for vanity, too, in the self-valorization as a courageous fighter. For people susceptible to these temptations, the alternative of being in a faithful church, working out one”s own salvation quietly, can look boring. They have come to love to fight.
Once Fr. Gregory and I had become Orthodox, we had some tough practical questions to work out. I”m sure there are many Episcopal clergy families like ours, in the same boat today. Our children were still at home, and we had many expenses. At that point, I still wasn”t doing much writing (it”s funny that the Episcopal Church didn”t “welcome my gifts” as much as Orthodoxy has.) We asked each other, How are we ever going to support ourselves? Where are we going to live? How will we keep body and soul together?
Questions like those cause some Episcopalian families to hesitate. Some decide to wait, for the sake of their children; perhaps the children love their Sunday school, or are strongly involved in the youth group. Some parents put off becoming Orthodox until their children are grown. I caution against that, though, because if the husband and wife become Orthodox but their grown children don”t it”s very painful. It”s hard when, for Christmas and Pascha, year after year, parents are no longer in communion with their children and grandchildren.
When people ask us if we regret anything, we always say our only regret is that we didn”t do it sooner. As it was, our children were 11, 13 and 16. They were at the point in life where kids can start to pull back from their parents. But they saw their father wrestling with a decision that felt very weighty to him, one which was very much a matter of principle, and they saw he was afraid. They saw that he knew that he was risking the financial health of our household. He didn”t know what was going to happen. But he trusted God, and he believed that he had to go ahead and enter the Orthodox Church. The children knew that their dad was worried, but despite that trusting God and moving ahead. And this made him a hero in their eyes.
The first Divine Liturgy after our chrismation, 14 years ago, happened to be on Valentine”s Day. We had a tradition in our household that each family member would hand-write Valentines to every other person of the family, and we”d open and read them at the dinner table. I”ll never forget the Valentine our 13-year-old son David wrote to his father: “I am very proud of you, Dad, and I want you to know that I”m behind you all the way.” We”ve always had that support from them.
Fr. Gregory: And as their father I appreciate how rooted they are in Orthodoxy, in part because of the entered the church when they were still young. It laid a firm foundation. All three are married and we now have eight grandchildren, and all of them were baptized in the Orthodox Church. They will know no other faith apart from the changeless truth of Orthodox Christianity.
Frederica: It is the changelessness and timelessness of Orthodoxy that stands out most as I think about our transition from the Episcopal Church. Once I was giving a speech once at an Orthodox church and said that the reason we came home to holy Orthodoxy was because of the chaos and disruption in the Episcopal Church; I kept saying, “We wanted a Church that doesn”t change.”
As I was leaving, an old priest came up to me and said, “That is not right. You must not say that anymore. Orthodoxy does change!” I was pretty surprised, and said, “Father, what do you mean?” He said, “You know that in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom we pray for those who travel by land, and sea, and air! Do you think St. John Chrysostom knew about air travel?”
All I could think was, “You have no idea what I am talking about. I hope you never find out.”
This article is based on talks given by Frederica and Fr. Gregory in January 2007, at “Faith of Our Fathers: A Colloquium on Orthodox for Anglicans.”
Fr. Gregory Mathewes-Green is founding pastor of Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church in Linthicum, MD, near Baltimore. Frederica Mathewes-Green is his “Khouria,” and a well-known writer and speaker, and author of eight books. They have three children and will soon have nine grandchildren.