by Fr. Patrick McCauley
Why would an Episcopalian become Orthodox?
When I first became an Episcopalian years ago, a friend facetiously told me that I had joined the
“best church that money could buy.”
In fact, another wag observed that the Episcopal Church is the “Cadillac of American Christianity’’ and the ‘‘Chevis Regal of Protestantism.’’
These attempts at humor, based on social and intellectual snobbery, have grown a bit stale in the ensuing years, as the stately and venerable American version of the Church of England has experienced wide-spread decline in numbers, theological conviction, and social and political influence. The church that once was called “the Republican Party at prayer” has now become little more than a coalition of special interests and would probably be more accurately termed the “Democratic Convention in 1988 at prayer.”
With bishops who declare the Bible to be little more than the prejudices of a group of misogynist, homophobic males, the Apostle Paul to have been nothing but a frustrated homosexual, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ to be nothing but the rattling of old bones, it is little wonder that the Episcopal Church in the United States has lost over a million members since 1970. As if these “profound theological insights” were not enough, the American branch of Anglicanism now has liturgies for the marriage of two persons of the same gender and refuses to expect clergy to live morally pure lives.
This sad state of affairs has prompted some Episcopalians to seek a safe harbor outside the Anglican Communion in which to live out their faith. Not surprisingly, some have elected to leave the denomination for other more conservative, Protestant groups. Still others have ‘‘swam the Tiber’’ for membership in the Roman Catholic Church. A few others have formed “independent Episcopal” congregations, and yet more have formed new ‘‘Anglican Churches’’ that are in communion with neither Canterbury or the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A.
Sadly, some have simply dropped their practice of the faith altogether.
Fortunately, however, an increasing number of Episcopalians have looked to the historic Church of Christ known as the Eastern Orthodox Church as a place of refuge. In fact, many Episcopalians, especially those who come out of Anglo-Catholic backgrounds, were taught that the church catholic exists in three historic branches: Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Eastern Orthodoxy.
Sharing a Common Faith
Old fashioned, high-church Episcopalians have long held a close affinity with Eastern Orthodoxy. In fact, the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsay, said as long ago as the sixties that Anglicans should be working toward union with Orthodoxy because of the commonality of faith. Other Anglicans have said that historic Anglicanism is simply a Western (meaning Western European) expression of Orthodoxy.
Several recent converts in my own parish have observed that Orthodoxy in no way is a denial of what they have always believed as Catholics in the Anglican Church. Rather, say these good folk, Orthodoxy is simply a fuller, richer expression of the ancient faith of Jesus Christ. The same creeds, the same Scriptures, the same seven Sacraments, and the same understanding of the apostolic ministry of Deacons, Priests, and Bishops are all valued and affirmed as the foundations of the catholic faith in Orthodoxy as in the traditional Episcopal Church of days gone by.
Forms of Worship
Even more fortuitous for Episcopalians who come out of the high church tradition are the liturgical expressions found in Orthodoxy. While the great majority of Orthodox Christians worship using the Eastern or Byzantine Rite, a growing percentage of Orthodox Christians worship according to the Western Rite.
The Western Rite is an approved adaptation of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. At least two Orthodox jurisdictions, the Romanians and the Antiochians, have Western-Rite congregations in North America. The latter, in fact, has a growing Western-Rite Vicariate, which has provided a safe haven for traditional Episcopalians. Western-Rite congregations in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America exists in California, Illinois, Texas, Florida, Nebraska, Colorado, Michigan and other states. As each year passes, more and more congregations of former Episcopalians are forming under the banner of the Western-Rite Vicariate.
A Church that Affirms the Gospel and is Willing to say “No”
The Orthodox Church of God continues to proclaim the refreshing Good News that God through His Incarnate Son Jesus Christ is reconciling sinful men and women to Himself (II Corinthians 7). In so doing, she acknowledges that the new humanity created through Christ’s death and Resurrection is the Bride of Christ or the Church. And, it is in the Church that Christians are to work out their salvation by regularity of worship, living lives of moral rectitude, sharing the Christian Gospel with nonbelievers, building a Christian community, and extending a hand of help in the Name of Christ to those in need.
All the while, Orthodox Christians, unlike their counterparts in the Episcopal Church as it now exists in many places in the United States, have the assurance of a leadership of Bishops and Priests who acknowledge the centrality of Holy Scripture, the divinely-given Tradition of the Church of the Apostles, and the need of clearly defined teaching and instruction for the faithful.
Episcopalians, who have been received into the Orthodox Church, no longer have to wonder what their Church believes or dread to see the morning newspaper to learn of the latest scandal that, if not officially taught, is at least sanctioned by the leadership of the national church’s Bishops.
Orthodox Bishops, while not claiming for themselves individual infallibility, do indeed act in presenting the Christian message in clear, understanding terms. Moreover, Orthodox clergy, with the support of the entire Orthodox Episcopate from the office of the Ecumenical Patriarch through the Patriarchates of each jurisdiction to local hierarchs, stand as one united witness to the faith of Jesus Christ.
In spite of the anti-authoritarian age in which we all live, Orthodox Bishops, in other words, can and do say “no” when necessary, to their people. This does not mean that Orthodox Bishops are capricious, arbitrary, or not pastoral. It does mean, on the other hand, that Orthodox hierarchs love those in their pastoral care enough, as does any good parent, to say “no” when a course of action, a lifestyle, or a pernicious belief would be harmful to the faithful.
As one of my own parishioners, an attorney with three sons, said,
“I want my boys to have been reared in a church that has some standards and gives them direction and guidance by which to live their lives. They can’t get that in the Episcopal Church as it now exists.”
A Final Word
Sociologist Robert N. Bellah and several colleagues, in Habits of the Heart, have noted that contemporary American culture places such an enormous value on individual freedom that many Americans find commitment to home, family, the nation or even the church to be marginal at best. In fact, Bellah, who is an Episcopal layman, says that most of us do a “cost-benefits analysis” of nearly every situation we confront . So, if a marriage, citizenship, a relationship with employees or employers or friends, or whatever costs more in terms of effort, time, and commitment than it produces, then many of us feel free to terminate the relationship.
This sort of individualism-gone-to-seed is not only destructive on an individual basis but for the nation as well. Unlimited human freedom, without parameters, is lethal. As a nation, we are not burying people, in fact, who declared that what they did in their bedrooms in the 1960s and 1970s was nobody else’s business. Tragic as the result of that mindset is, Christian people need to look anew at the concept of freedom in Christ.
For Christians, whose bodies and lives were purchased with the body and life of Jesus Christ, Christian freedom has limits and offers direction, guidance and purpose to life. Orthodox Christianity offers reconciliation between God and man, between human fellow beings, and direction and purpose for living beyond the thrill of the movement, the vacuous chimera of materialism, hedonism, narcissism and individualism. One may indeed be a thinking woman or man and still be a faithful catholic Christian within the ancient Church of Jesus Christ known as Eastern Orthodoxy.