“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”– Matthew 7:13-14
As has been made clear from recent posts to my blog, I far prefer Google+ to Facebook. For a while I used both but found juggling two social networking websites to be tedious and distracting so now my online social networking focuses primarily on G+. Many of my FB “friends” (both real friends and online contacts who are categorised as such by FB) have not made the transition, and a number of them cite their establishment on Facebook as the main reason. They already have Google accounts which they use for Google services: Gmail, Blogger, and Youtube, among others. Yet Facebook is where their groups are, where they chat, where most of their friends are. They have an attachment because of that so will not transfer to Google+ even though some of them like it.
My intention here is not to speak about social networking websites. However, the aforementioned situation has got me to thinking about faith in God and our ecclesial affiliations. Of course, the two are not directly analogous – the salvation of one’s soul is not comparable to preference of one form of electronic communication over another, particularly when the matter of electronic communicaton is really of little significance in the grand scheme of things – yet I do wonder how often our attitude of preferring comfort and familiarity over what we know to be better is transferred to matters of principle, conscience, and even our eternal salvation.
This is not intended as a condemnatory post but it will perhaps be a somewhat forthright one. It stems from my own musings in recent weeks due to certain internal questionings of my own, and if there is any sense of condemnation it applies to me first. Please bear with me.
I first became aware of this in myself when I began hearing a call to Orthodoxy.
As an Anglican, I had grown up being taught the branch theory of Christian ecclesiology – a theory that teaches that different ecclesial groups holding to varying and even contradictory doctrines and which are out of communion with each other, nonetheless constitute various “branches” of the Church of Christ, provided that they retain certain common factors, (the list of which varies from one adherent of this branch theory to the next). I had also been taught that the Church of Rome was the continuation of the original Church, from which the Orthodox and later, the Anglicans had separated. As I began to look at history and read of the changes in doctrine, I came to realise that, contrary to what I had previously understood, it was Rome that had separated from the Orthodox Church, itself the original Church of the Apostles. However, since I had no reason to doubt the branch theory, this was of little consequence. It was only in 2004, when I began to explore ecclesiology in light of accusations thrown to and fro between the warring factions of Anglo-Catholicism, that I slowly began to understand the nature of communion, of what it is to be in communion and therefore the Church, and the true implications of heresy and schism.
After that, I continued to read and discuss Orthodox theology, to pray Orthodox prayers, and occasionally go to Orthodox services. Yet it was nearly a year later that I eventually asked for baptism, and only because an agnostic with a Lutheran background and Roman Catholic leanings told me that he had got fed up of me talking about becoming Orthodox and wished that I would just get on and do it. Why? Why did I take so long? Why, having arrived at the realisation that I was unbaptised and outside the Church, and that I had never received the sacraments, did I wait for nearly a year to do anything about it?
Well, I can tell you why. I had become a slave to officialdom, comfort, and establishment, and this culture was far more deeply entrenched and much more difficult to shake off than any doctrinal belief that contradicted Apostolic Christianity. I was in the Church of England. I belonged to the state church, it was known to even those who had no care for religion, and there was a certain respectability that went along with it. It was also easy: there was a parish church every couple of miles, clergy were generally readily available (at least in suburban areas such as where I lived), and a church building with all of the infrastructure of parish life in situ was more or less guaranteed, (certainly a parish without a building was the exception). I knew people in various parishes – particularly on the Anglo-Catholic circuit – and they knew me, and I had even been on the official path to exploring ordination, known to various priests and bishops.
By contrast, Orthodox parishes were few and far between, difficult to get to, and many worshipped in private homes or borrowed buildings, often having to set up the church and take it all down again Sunday by Sunday. They were not very well established, clergy were rare, services were not always weekly and I didn’t really understand them anyway, and being part of those parishes meant working for the things that could be so easily taken for granted in my then current home. Then there was the fact that nobody really seemed to know what the Orthodox Church was. Many had never heard of it, thinking it to be Jewish or something else that wasn’t Christian. Those who had heard of it ignorantly thought it was only for Russians and Greeks, and that there was no place for a Briton in Orthodoxy. To top it all off, I would go from being well known and liked to being nobody. Nobody in the Orthodox Church had any idea who Michael Astley was. Although I knew that Orthodoxy was true, I used all of these things as excuses for staying away from Christ, deciding to live as best I could in an Orthodox way within a structure that I did not believe to be the Church – something I knew from the start to be disingenuous.
Sunday by Sunday, I would go to the mass, knowing in my heart that it was no Mass. I would decline to receive the eucharistic bread and wine, questioning in my heart what it was and what I was doing there. My lapsed Lutheran online acquaintance came along just at the right time, and I was made a catechumen in September of 2005 (on the feast of the miracle of the Holy Archangel Michael at Colossae), and baptised into the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son the following year. It was a time of great excitement and radiant spiritual joy. Now my life in Christ has settled into something more normal: it has its ups and downs, and I struggle along, as do we all. Sometimes, that excitement comes back to me, particularly when some quotation from a Saint or some interaction with another person shows something to me of the love of Christ, and mostly, when I am present at the Divine Liturgy.
Now, people come to me. They say things to me about their own explorations of Orthodoxy and other confessions, and I sometimes see in them what I recognise in myself from 2004/2005. As I listen to what they say, it becomes clear that they know in their hearts where they need to be but they have become slaves to comfort, familiarity, and establishment, placing these things above that still, small voice that calls them into the saving bosom of the Church. So some Anglicans tell me about their disappointment with the current state of affairs in the Church of England, while others do not care so much because they have come to realise that the bigger issue is schism, and that this is no basis for the Christian life, whatever the branch theorists may have told them in their childhood.
They may go to Orthodox pilgrimages or occasional vigil services, develop a small collection of Orthodox books, and even buy prayer ropes and say the Jesus prayer, all the while, going to their Anglican churches week by week and crying in their pews or at the communion rail, either out of upset or frustration. Some of them, having left behind the branch theory but having embraced some sort of “two lungs” understanding, have reached a point of action, and decided to leave. Yet, not having been properly grounded in scriptural, patristic, and ecumenical (in its true sense) ecclesiology, they cling to this common Anglo-Catholic hankering after Rome.
Therefore, presented with the choice between the largely unknown saving Church of Christ whose local manifestation has all of the practical difficulties mentioned two paragraphs back, and an heretical pseudo-church which has buildings, a prolific pope, established infrastructure and parish life, and organisational cohesion, a familiar worship style, not to mention (perhaps most importantly of all) respectability in the Anglo-Catholic circles in which they have moved for their whole lives, they choose the latter and become Roman Catholics. They may have fulfilled the Anglo-Catholic dream but it is at the expense of truth, and they find themselves as much outside the Church as they were before, having endured that upheaval for the sake of respectability – a quality that may win them admiration in some earthly quarters but which does not impart that divine grace which brings salvation
For what profit is it to a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man will come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then He will reward each according to his works.– Matthew 16:26-27
I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on my throne, as I also overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the Churches.– Revelation 3:15-22
Aside from the aforementioned enquirers, there are others who, Anglican or otherwise, seem to love Orthodoxy but remain outside the Orthodox Church, hiding a selection of the above excuses behind a veil of not yet having reached a point of personal agreement with every single doctrinal point, (taking an individualistic approach to communal faith). Others may be gay or otherwise unmarried and involved in active sexual relationships, and use integrity as an excuse for staying outside the Church:
“I love the Orthodox Church but I cannot profess all of that knowing that part of my life contradicts it”.
Or indeed there may be a host of reasons why people who might otherwise be Orthodox give for not taking that final step.
Well, so what? I didn’t agree with everything the Orthodox Church teaches when I became Orthodox. As an Anglican, in all of the arguments about human sexuality and the ordination of women, I fell on the liberal side of the debate. On matters of Scripture, I would have laughed at anybody who told me that Moses wrote all of the Pentateuch (especially those bits that recount events that took place after his death) or that Adam and Eve were historical people. Yet, that wasn’t really the point.
The Orthodox Church was the Church and I had to be part of it. I had to be baptised, dying to my old self and rising from the font a new creature, grafted into the Body of Christ. Academic understandings could be sorted out later, from my vantage point of being within the Church, surrounded by the light of its Mysteries and its Tradition, rather than fumbling in the dark outside. Even today, I cannot say that I am 100% at peace with Orthodox understanding of all of these or other matters, but that’s ok. I have left behind my past home where some of these things were at the heart of arguments and where anybody who didn’t have a definitively worked-out position was branded an unthinking sheep. I am not a Protestant: my understanding of Truth does not depend solely on my own reasoning, and I can afford to simply be obedient to the Church’s teaching, deepening my grasp of it through study and prayer, in my own time, and without external pressure to always have answers.
After all, we all suffer the effects of the Fall in one form or another. The Church is a spiritual hospital, where we seek to overcome these effects at the hands of experienced physicians, who prescribe the appropriate spiritual medicine for us, over time, that we may grow into health and fullness of life in Christ. To cite temptation to sin and prideful disagreement with Church doctrine as reasons not to enter the Church is like citing sickness as a reason not to go to hospital. Yet who has ever heard of a hospital that insists that people must stand outside and get better before they can be admitted as patients? The Orthodox Church is not made up solely of Saints. We are called to be holy but it is only through life in Christ’s Church that we are made so.
‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.’– Jesus Christ (Matthew 9:13b)
We are all sinners when we start off, and I know that I have remained so but I’m not about to walk away for that reason, however uncomfortable the struggle may seem at times, and to anybody who has spent some time teetering on the edge of Orthodoxy but hasn’t made the leap, and who has survived reading this far without becoming bored or too affronted to continue, I urge you to consider the reasons for your own inertia and ask yourself whether they justify your continued separation. Do not answer here – nobody is accountable to me. Rather, when you are in your own company – not in the midst of a conversation with anybody about matters of faith or anything else, but when you are alone – in the stillness of your own private thoughts, ask yourself that question, examine your heart, and answer yourself honestly. For some, I know that it is not so easy. For many, it is not simply a matter of comfort, as housing and income may be linked to one’s ecclesial affiliation and this presents problems, but for most people this is not the case, and you know what you need to do.
We are called to be martyrs in this world, to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ. Sometimes that means losing our current social circles, losing our reputation and status, having to learn an unfamiliar rite, worshipping God according to a calendar that is not in step with that followed by the world, and doing a whole host of other things that make life just that little bit less comfortable, that make us appear strange, and that cause the world and even those in our past homes to laugh at us or reject us, but it has ever been thus, and if we do take up the Cross of Christ, what we will find is that the rewards, even in this life, make it truly worthwhile.
Status, knowledge, reputation, physical comfort: these worldly things are fleeting. Monastics leave behind their friends and family, avoid weddings and even sometimes their own families’ funerals, shed their surnames with the status and heritage that it entails, and focus purely on their salvation. We in the world may not always live up to that full angelic ideal but we must always bear in mind the ultimate purpose of our life, and not withdraw from it or make do with something less for reasons that have nothing to do with God, grace, and salvation.
‘We see the water of a river flowing uninterruptedly and passing away, and all that floats on its surface – rubbish or beams of trees – all passes by. Christian! So it is with our life… I was an infant, and that time has gone. I was an adolescent, and that too has passed. I was a young man, and that is also far behind me. The strong and mature man that I was is no more. My hair turns white, I succumb to age, but that too passes away; I approach the end and will go the way of all flesh. I was born in order to die. I die that I may live. Remember me, O Lord, in thy Kingdom!’– St Tikhon of Voronezh