by Nicholas McNeish
I have been asked how I became an Orthodox Christian.
As the Americans would say, that is the $64,000 question! I was brought up as an Evangelical, “middle-of-the-road” Church of England Christian, passing through my formative years at a Church School, attending Church Services four times on a Sunday, five when I was confirmed at 14 years of age.
I was comfortable within my religious life; sure and comfortable because I was a member of the Established Church.
My King was the head of this Church and I did not know, (and to be honest, did not want to know), about my Christian brethren who belonged to other denominations. As I went about my religious duties, I saw my Methodist friends going to Chapel, Roman Catholics to Mass … but that was it.
Things however were going to change, and these changes were not to be to my liking, most definitely not to my liking. Bishops, who had not figured much in this cozy life, began to deviate from the norm. I am thinking about John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, with his “Honest to God;” Hugh Montefiore of Birmingham; and most of all, Pope John XX111 started to stir things up.
Everything became questionable.
In my own case, I began to move “upwards” in my religious practice. After some personal upheaval, I left the church of my upbringing to attend another where two candles were upon the High Altar, vestments were worn, there was a Lady Altar, the priest was addressed as “Father,” and services, (Holy Communion, Matins, Evensong), were celebrated daily. I then made my first contact with the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield and the whole cornucopia of a religious experience other than that that I had been used to was there for the tasting.
In this journey I have been greatly blessed by meeting various clerics who were to have a profound effect on my life. The Revd. Hancock of Holy Trinity, Ashton-under-Lyne, (a gentle and kind person), the late Bishop Markham and the Revd. R.A. George, both oblates of Mirfield and respectively, Parish Priest and Assistant Curate of St. Benedict’s Ardwick, Manchester. These by their example in living and teaching the gospel brought me further on this journey.
I was then a practising Anglo-Catholic in all senses of that phrase, and, (I must stress this point), a loyal member of the Church of England. I believed that this church of my birth was in all respects a member of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Here on this journey, I now realise I was resting; the next phase was yet to come, and again it was for me, disturbing.
Rome changed the Mass. Latin was to go for the vernacular. The Bible was to be translated into the modern idiom. All these things combined over a period of time to make me question all sorts of things. A new breed of priests emerged whose loyalty, for me, was not to the Church of England, the church which had ordained them, but to Rome. This was for me, I suppose, a “crunch” situation.
I had lived through the Anglican-Methodist unity talks and the beginning of the “women priests” movement. It always seemed to me that for a Church which had always claimed to be fully Catholic and Apostolic, it always acted like a sect. It was prepared to ditch Catholic Faith and Practice to obtain the result it wanted. It was prepared to act unilaterally and ignore the rest of Catholic Christendom.
I would mention at this point that I had come to feel as a practising Anglo-Catholic, that I had always had more in common, and understood better, the Evangelical wing of the Church of England. The “middle ground” was occupied by bishops (etc.) who did not uphold Catholic Faith and Order. In short it was a morass and all things were acceptable.
About this time I took the postal course from the Roman Catholic Church, but whilst much of what was there in the pamphlets I was already practising, the sticking point for me, and the one that prevented me from taking any further action was Papal Infallibility and Supremacy. I could only accept the Pope as a primus inter pares, (first among equals). So ended my first look outside my native Church.
It is my belief that I have had a direct experience of the Spirit of God and I have been directed to meet certain people at certain times within my life’s journey. I remember distinctly my first meeting with Fr. George on my first visit to a service at St. Benedict’s. I was like a voice within me saying:- “this is the man and this is the place.” Then, through a close friend who had been with me on my journey from Holy Trinity Ashton-under-Lyne and St. Benedict’s, who had come from the same background of my formative years, introduced me to Orthodoxy.
First, he lent me the paperback to read … “The Orthodox Church,” by the then Archimandrite, (now Bishop), Kallistos of Diokleia. I realised that much of what I read, I held to be true, (the question of the papacy, Scripture etc.,), and so I decided to go further, attending with him Vespers and a Liturgy at the Russian Church in London.
Like the emissaries sent from Old Rus to Constantinople, I had a foretaste of Heaven. The whole spiritual ambience of the Church, its services, the people, (at that time mainly emigres displaced into Western Europe by the Russian Revolution), their welcome and the sharing of something they held to be precious was, I now realise, when the seed was sown within me. The last stage of my journey was to begin.
I was not to realise it then, but it was going to be a long journey, hampered in part by family considerations; also by a sense of duty and loyalty to the Church of my birth. It was going to be some years before the journey resolved itself, partly due to my Father Confessor at that time appealing to that loyalty. Notwithstanding these pressures, I have always said that the Church of England moved away from me rather than I from it; but that is a purely academic point.
I forgot to mention that at this first visit to the Russian Church in London I met a most remarkable man, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. Through him and his writings I realised that what the Orthodox Church taught, I believed to be true. When at last I finally made my decision that I with my sister was received into the Holy Orthodox Church and Chrismated.
I have never regretted taking that step. It was, with hindsight, one of the best decisions I have taken in my life. The more I participated in Orthodox worship and life, the more I realised I was Orthodox and that I had at last come home. My only regret is that I failed to take it earlier and wasted all those years between my first and second approaches to Metropolitan Anthony.
I do not say that I am a better Christian than my many friends in the denominations with whom I still maintain friendly contacts. For me, however, the fullness of the Christian Faith and Life from the beginning of the Early Church is there within the Holy Orthodox Church unchanged. It has been guarded throughout the centuries by hierarchs, saints and not least by the faithful Orthodox laypeople who have remained faithful to the teachings handed from Jesus Christ to the first Apostles and then handed down to their successors.
My early life as an Orthodox Christian was not an easy one, what with a Liturgy once a year in Liverpool in the home of a fellow Orthodox, then twice yearly, and then when I found a local Orthodox Church in Manchester … weekly. I am still learning and, I hope, growing in my faith, falling and failing quite often, (I think I and not the Church got the better bargain), but picking myself up and carrying on with my journey.
I pray that this will end with my union with Christ, and being reunited with those family and friends that I have loved and now rest with Him who is Life itself.
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