by Stephen Brannen
Back in 2011 I started writing a series of posts entitled “According to the Whole” which was focused on exploring the issue of Christian disunity and where I was looking for possible solutions. The posts were personal and were informed by my own intellectual and experiential journey, but they weren’t overtly autobiographical. I used them to ask questions, make diagnoses, and offer prescriptions in a general sense, but I didn’t use them to tell much of my story. Now my story which spawned those questions and thoughts has reached a definitive point, even a conclusion of sorts, and I want to finally tell it.
I was born to and raised by Christian parents, God-fearing people who taught me to love God, taught me that God is good, that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They brought me to church every Sunday morning, most Sunday nights, and most Wednesday nights for youth group. This church was a Southern Baptist congregation where I attended from 0 to 18 years old, when I moved away for college. It would be impossible to overstate how formative growing up in that congregation was for me; it grounded me in a culture, a philosophy, and a faith. It grounded me so deeply in that faith that when I graduated high school I went on to a Southern Baptist college and earned a degree from a Baptist seminary.
That faith that I was so rooted in all my life stayed with me throughout college, but there for the first time I encountered questions that, while not necessarily challenging the essence of that faith, did introduce challenging nuances to it — questions about Bible manuscripts and translations, hermeneutics, theological paradigms, and spiritualities foreign to my upbringing (e.g. spiritual disciplines like fasting, meditative prayer, and confession). For the first time in my life I had to fully encounter and take seriously other Christian denominations and traditions. In college I read books by Puritans, Wesleyans, Quakers, and even St. Augustine. I took a “Reformation-to-present” history course that raised more questions in me than it answered and made me hungry to know what happened before the Reformation. I took a truly unfortunate Baptist history course that left me utterly unenthused about Baptist history, and it even confirmed my growing doubt that the Baptists could have, among all the Protestant groups, uniquely ascertained the truest way of interpreting the Bible and having faith. And at this center of Baptist higher education, for the most part, I found very little critical questioning of the historical context of the advent of the denomination. By the time I graduated I was disillusioned with my denomination, but I hadn’t abandoned my faith.
When I moved back to Atlanta I started attending a church with some friends that was affiliated with the Vineyard movement (a somewhat charismatic movement) but which, to my delight, was more informed by sobriety and clarity than by other characteristics you might expect to find in a charismatic church. The church was founded by what were then young adults, and they brought a high level of both skill and authenticity to everything they did, whether in preaching or music or teaching.
The congregation became a haven for other young adults who, like me, had become unmoored from their denominational harbors, or who were questioning the concept of denominations altogether. That church could have taken a very typical non-denominational route and continued developing itself only by reference to itself, but the leadership made what was then a very unusual move: they began dabbling in liturgy.
Weekly communion, preaching from a lectionary, and songs composed from and named after prayers of ancient Saints were some of the first encounters I had with worship mindfully drawing from a historic tradition distinct from most American Evangelicalism. I experienced this in a safe place among people I judged to be genuine lovers of Jesus, and it affected me. It effectively unlocked and cracked open whatever insulating prejudice I may have had against liturgical worship. It refreshed my curiosity about what Christianity was like before the 16th century reformers came on the scene. And maybe most importantly, it awakened in my soul the intuition that God could be experienced sacramentally — through place and action and object.
At the same time that my heart was warming to new ways of worship and my education had driven my mind toward Church history, I was serendipitously reconnected with an old friend who had found his way into the Anglican Communion (though he had grown up in the Church of God / Assemblies of God). My first visit with him to the congregation at which he was serving as a deacon unalterably shifted my religious course forever. I experienced an actual liturgy (from Greek leitourgia, meaning a public service, or a work of the people). There were set prayers prayed by a priest; there were Scripture readings from a lectionary; there was a Eucharistic prayer over bread and wine; there was an altar and a chalice and candles and vestments. What’s more — I participated in the liturgy. I responded “Thanks be to God” after the Scripture readings, I received Communion from the hand of the priest, and I diligently followed the liturgy as if I were an integral part of it because I was called upon to answer “Amen” to the prayers — not merely out of personal agreement or approval (as important as that is) but also as someone fulfilling a role. I learned that when attending a liturgy, one has a job to do.
I had to know everything about Anglicanism. I was a dry sponge, and the history of Anglicanism was an ocean before me. So I started researching. I learned a ton in just a few short weeks. But to be honest, equally as important as the head knowledge I gained at that early stage was probably the impression made on my imagination of an ancient ethos: stone archways and rows of prayer candles, gold-embroidered vestments and clouds of incense. Anglicanism was an open door to the past: there in its traditions were echos of centuries of Christian worship. I finally had access to what my birth denomination had written off as unimportant, superfluous, or even dangerous. But I found it to be beautiful.
What’s more, I learned that it was really old. Like, ancient — going all the way back to the time of the Apostles. My continued research in history and archaeology revealed a very liturgical New Testament Church (not just bible studies with a sermon as I had once thought), maintaining, as it were, the very liturgical life of synagogue and Temple worship. It was of course transformed by and re-centered on Jesus of Nazareth, but liturgical it remained nonetheless. Set prayers, chanting, processions, ranks of clergy, and sacramental actions were all part of the worshiping life of early Christians. These realities are recorded even more explicitly in the writings of 2nd century Christians like Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Irenaeus of Lyons. These men were only one or two generations removed from the Apostles themselves, some having known them personally and learned at their feet (like Ignatius and Polycarp). And they affirmed as normative and necessary certain ways of worship and church organization that have been utterly rejected or forgotten by many of today’s Protestant and Evangelical groups.
As an Anglican I could connect to those ancient realities, beliefs, and practices. So I was confirmed into that communion and even helped plant a new Anglican congregation in Atlanta, mostly comprised of people from that Vineyard church, funny enough. Because we were almost entirely made up of people from Evangelical Protestant backgrounds, we started out very “low church,” that is, we were minimally liturgical and very casual. And our Anglican Book of Common Prayer made every provision to accommodate such a style — designed with options for people on a sliding scale of liturgical preferences. But as our church leadership learned more and more about the early Church, became more and more convinced of the theological significance of sacraments, and understood better that the form of one’s prayer reflects and reinforces one’s faith (lex orandi, lex credendi), our worship began to catch up with our theology. It became important to us that our worship was elevated, set apart from the casualness of everyday life, adorned with beauty, made both spiritual and sensual. It became vital to us, in other words, that we worship like the ancient Church.
Not all Anglicans thought the same way about worship, though. Not all have the same robust sacramental theology or the same level of devotion to tradition and a continuity with the past. We discovered that often Anglicans differ wildly among themselves not just about liturgy but about matters of theology and doctrine — some believing in total human depravity and others in divine-human cooperation in salvation, some accepting all seven of the Ecumenical Councils and others only the first four, some advocating the priestly ordination of women and others against it, some who reverence and ask for the intercession of Saints and some who think that practice impious or idolatrous. And these differences aren’t limited just to the private opinions of the people in the pews — they’re held and highlighted by Anglican leadership at all levels across the globe.
At this point in my story I already knew that Anglicans, from the moment that Henry VIII of England separated his national church from the Roman Catholic Church, were a mixture of Catholic- and Protestant-minded Christians forced to figure out how to worship together. But it took me a while to realize just how heterogeneous that mixture had remained over the course of five hundred years, and why that was a problem. Far from converging into a single via media or middle way, the Anglican mixture perpetuated many different ways, all tolerating (sometimes charitably and sometimes not so much) the others. I began to realize just how broad the term “Anglican” had become in order to cover all its wandering constituents.
So even though within Anglicanism I found a well-worn path to the ancient Christian worship I so longed to connect with –worship that is explicitly sacramental, faithfully liturgical, and that boldly makes use of images of Christ and his Saints, among much else– , that path was only one among many paths that came to compose Reformation Anglicanism. And since the Reformation, it has been a minority path. Tracing that path through time, it would occasionally spread out and gain influence (like among the 17th century non-jurors, the 19th century tractarians, and even some 20th century liturgical restorationists), but it would always gather back into a narrower remnant. There was a curious thing I noticed about those Anglo-Catholic groups throughout the centuries, though. Alienated as Catholics within their own Communion, they would all at some point invariably reach out in friendship and affinity toward a certain direction: the Eastern Orthodox Church.
As an Anglican studying Church history, it was impossible not to come across the Orthodox Church. I don’t remember all that well my very first impressions of it. I know it didn’t feature very large or important on my radar at first, but very soon books by Timothy (Kallistos) Ware and Alexander Schmemann starting appearing in my orbit. Assurances from prominent New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright that the Orthodox understand cosmology and eschatology better than the Roman Catholics or the Protestants got my attention. When my hero (and fellow Anglican) C.S. Lewis praised the worship style of the Greek Orthodox Church, I took notice. But the way my favorite Anglican of all time, Blessed John Mason Neale –author and translator of beloved hymns such as All Glory, Laud, and Honor; Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth; Good Christian Men Rejoice; Good King Wenceslas; A Great and Mighty Wonder; O Trinity of Blessed Light; and O Come, O Come Emmanuel to name just a few– , expressed his love for the Orthodox Church really affected me. This 19th century Anglican priest translated many ancient Eastern liturgies into English for the first time, published a two volume Introduction to the History of the Holy Eastern Church, and translated the wonderful Hymns of the Eastern Church.
Why had the Orthodox Church received so many accolades from so many of my Anglican heroes? Once again, I was a sponge waiting to soak up everything I could learn about the Orthodox Church. So I read books, listened to the amazing variety of resources on Ancient Faith Radio, and attended Orthodox services. What I found confirmed the impression I got from those Anglican luminaries: the Orthodox Church uniquely maintained an unwavering devotion to the Faith of the Apostles for 2,000 years. I also found that the Orthodox Church wasn’t always exclusively Eastern either. For a large part of the first thousand years of the Church, the West (i.e. Rome and its territories) played an important role in making sure the Orthodox Church maintained the Apostles’ Faith.
But after the slow schism between East and West and the doctrinal innovations of the Roman Catholic Church and reckless “reforming” of the Protestants, the Eastern Church persevered with the historic Faith, even under centuries of oppression from Islamic forces in the former Byzantine territories and Communist oppression in the Slavic lands. Through the leadership of its many bishops and the dogged commitment to tradition of its lay folk, the Orthodox Church just perpetuated to each generation what the generation before it had handed on.
This stability, this demonstrable preservation of the Faith going back every generation to the Apostles themselves, is what Anglo-Catholics like John Mason Neale found so compelling about the Orthodox. And for me, like for him, the Orthodox Church became a touchstone and reference for reliable doctrine, theology, and practice. More than that, for me, like for him, full communion with the Orthodox Church became a very intentional goal. If the Orthodox Church had an identical faith that I had as an Anglican, why shouldn’t I be in communion with it? (By the way, sharing the Eucharist as a sign of sharing the same faith and severing Eucharistic communion with those whose faith is different was another tenet of the ancient Church that Orthodoxy still holds and that I came to understand as an Anglican, too).
But Neale didn’t renounce his priesthood, leave his Anglican church, and go join the Eastern Orthodox Church (which at that time would have exclusively worshiped in foreign languages), not only because that was totally unfeasible for him, but also because he was thoroughly a Western Christian. He knew the Western, Latin, and British cultural and liturgical treasures which formed his own tradition. He knew which ones were mingled with error and which ones stood firmly unadulterated as Western Orthodox jewels, and he worked diligently to purge the former and retain the latter.
I too had grown to love and appreciate the ethos and aesthetic of ancient Western Christianity. I wanted to be in communion with the Orthodox Church as an Anglican. I saw in Anglican tradition the possibility of it being the Western Orthodox Church. I loved the efforts of institutions like J.M. Neale’s Anglican and Eastern Churches Association and the later Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, which sought to connect the Anglicans and Orthodox through mutual understanding. But my deepening appreciation for historic English Catholic tradition coincided with my growing realization that the present-day Anglican Communion would never be able to establish communion with the Orthodox Church.
This was because the “Anglican Communion” (despite its name) no longer signified a unified entity capable of meaningfully defining its own identity, much less of meaningfully relating with other entities, say, for the purpose of establishing communion with them. Post-reformation Anglicanism had always struggled with its identity, but the hope of its coalescing again into a single mind, a renewed English Orthodoxy, wasn’t always that far-fetched. Until, that is, the later half of the last century, when certain events irreparably divided the Anglican Communion. But these things, playing out over decades and generations, are sometimes hard to recognize as the definitive realities that they are, and it took me a while to put the pieces together in a way that revealed the big picture. After much searching of the contemporary reality, the historical reality, and of my own soul, I came to the bitter-sweet realization that the Orthodox Church was the only intact institutional entity that consistently upheld the Faith which I knew to be true. It was time for me to become Orthodox.
I thank God that I didn’t have to reach this conclusion or take the next steps on my own. There were some wonderful people, some of my very best friends, who had traveled this road with me and were committed to continue walking it. The situation as I just described it was laid out to the congregation of my Anglican parish (Church of the Advent in Atlanta), and they were invited to discern the possibility of joining the Orthodox Church. Despite a very open-ended invitation from our pastor and a very generous time frame of an entire year to do this discerning, over half of our congregation left the church in the next few weeks.
This was, of course, very sad for me. But it left us who remained with a majority of people that were ready and willing to become Orthodox, so the decision was made. We knew that the path forward was uncertain and that it might mean the end of our parish altogether. We reached out to several Orthodox priests and were eventually put in touch with Bishop John Abdalah of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. We were ready to learn the Eastern liturgy or even to close our doors and join another Orthodox parish as individuals if that’s what we were told to do, but Bishop John desired us to keep as much of our identity as possible and set us on the track to becoming a Western Rite Orthodox parish.
Over the last two centuries there were many Anglicans and Roman Catholics who, while steeped in the liturgical traditions of the West, desired to be received into the Orthodox Church. They, anticipating a long-delayed or possibly never-realized restored communion between their churches and the Orthodox, engaged Orthodox bishops (like St. John the Wonderworker and St. Tikhon of Moscow) about becoming Orthodox while retaining their liturgical traditions. The fruit of their efforts and prayers was the establishment of a Western Rite within the Orthodox Church. Many Orthodox Bishops have blessed certain liturgies which are immanently familiar to Western Christians but which were also thoroughly examined to ensure their conformity with universal Orthodox standards. The Western Rite meant that we, as Anglicans, would be able to join the Orthodox Church while maintaining our Western heritage.
So finally, in December of 2015, I became Orthodox. Or more accurately, I was received into the Orthodox Church.
The phrase “becoming Orthodox” is often used to describe someone being received into the Orthodox Church. But the word “Orthodox,” beyond being used to describe a member of the Orthodox Church, primarily means “right doctrine” and “right worship.” Joining the Orthodox Church certainly does mean affirming its doctrines and participating in its worship — both of which I believe to be right and true. But affirming and participating doesn’t automatically make me perfectly conformed to that which I affirm and participate in. That process will undoubtedly take a lifetime. So “becoming Orthodox” is something I’m still doing, and will, God willing, continue doing for a long time yet. My joining the Orthodox Church is just the first step in a life-long pursuit of becoming fully Orthodox.
Over the course of my life, looking back through my journey at all the ideas, lessons, epiphanies, experiences, and communities of which I’ve been a part, I see many first steps which would then lead to another juncture and a first step in a new direction.
It’s been a journey of many first steps in many new directions. But I now can see in hindsight how they all led to one place: to my last first step. All the other first steps were in new directions that were tentative, unsure. But the character of this last first step was altogether different. There is no turning to the left or to the right now. There are many steps of ahead of me, to be sure, but they will all be in the same direction: onward and upward in the Orthodox Church.