by Cowey Barbour
My first experience of an Orthodox church was inside the Kremlin in Moscow. I recall an icon of the Archangel Michael and not much more.
The second time was a few years later when in circumstances that I can’t exactly recall, I went with a group of friends to the Easter liturgy at a Greek Othodox church outside Coventry.
My memories of the visit were a little clearer this time: terribly sore legs from having to stand so long, holding a lightened candle, processing outside to let off crackerjacks (I had never seen fireworks used in worship before!) but above all a look of joy on the face of the priest that I had never seen before at any Easter service.
But East is east and West is west and while this was all interesting, the thought of eventually becoming Orthodox never entered my head for a moment.
I had become a Christian many years earlier at the little Brethren Gospel Hall I used to attend. I was taught there that to become a Christian I had to repent of my sins and ask Jesus into my heart and this I did on my own one night, kneeling by my bed.
My faith in Christ soon became very important to me, and when I went to university in Wales I became involved in the Methodist church and through the Christian Union got to know many people from a variety of Christian traditions. But soon things got confusing. One group said that you had to be baptized as an adult to be a real Christian, another group was saying that the Church would be powerless unless it was renewed by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, still others were saying that the true gospel meant living along side the poor and identifying totally with them.
It was all very confusing but I felt I could keep most of it in tension. Just about. After all we all loved Jesus and wasn’t that the important thing?
Outside the University was a little church where I would sometimes go and pray. I liked the two celtic crosses dating from the 6th and 9th centuries that were inside one of the transepts.
One day, it was a Wednesday, I went down to the church. As usual it was empty and cool and I took my seat and prayed. After a while something strange happened. All of a sudden I found that I was praying in a language that was not my own. Some of my friends at University had also had this experience and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with them afterwards (!) but nevertheless this event marked a surprising change in my theological direction. Instead of going to prayer and praise meetings as my friends had done I was discovering silence, being alone with God, praying out of doors. and for the first time a sacramental life.
I found myself getting up in the morning to go to the early morning Holy Communion service at the Anglican church and shortly after I moved to Coventry I was received into the Church of England by confirmation.
After the visit to the Easter liturgy I occasionally came across Orthodox services and books, all of which I would devour rapidly. In Glastonbury Abbey during a pilgrimage I came across an Orthodox priest with his congregation singing an Akathist to the Mother of God and I joined in, wryly thinking how my Sunday School teacher would not have been amused… I also discovered icons and was amazed by their spiritual presence and power. When I moved to London I went to an icon exhibition and revisited it several times. I bought a little postcard of a greek icon of the Glykophilousia, the Mother of God of Tenderness and it has been with me ever since.
I also discovered Orthodox prayer books which revealed new depths of spirituality which I had never encountered before. The authors of the prayers seemed, somehow to be able to see things from an entirely new perspective and I found this to be a breath of very fresh air.
As I read more about Orthodoxy I realised that it was the doctrine of the Church that was going to be for me the deciding factor that would either make me become Orthodox or reject its teachings.
When I lead Scripture Union camps for children during the summer holidays I remember one person saying that we all came to the camps with different beliefs that weren’t essential: it was our faith in Christ that saved us. I reluctantly accepted that what he had said was true but it had always disturbed me that it was the case. I was now realising, however, that there was a church that claimed to be able to trace its doctrine and worship back to the times of the Apostles themselves and that it said that it had not deviated from their teaching.
But in fact it was not a church, it was the Church.
In the end the decision to become Orthodox was simple; there was nothing else I could do. Whilst I was greatful for what I had learned in the past, I knew I was being called to move on and journey East and to discover the Holy Tradition of the Church which has been such a wonderful joy. Coming from Northern Ireland I took the name of a local saint – Cowey – whose holy wells and the remains of his church stand, facing East, near Portaferry in County Down. They are in the care of the Roman Catholic church there.
I was received into the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East by Chrismation on 12 July 1997 at St George’s Cathedral, by Fr Michael, some 18 years after my visit to that Orthodox church in Moscow.