by Fr. Mark Rowe
My journey to Orthodoxy took a long time. Sometimes I feel like it took an eternity. My first exposure to Orthodoxy came in an interesting way- while at seminary studying to be an Anglican Priest. We were sitting at a table during one of the lectures in theology, and it became clear that there were three types of students there. Some were life-long Anglicans, some (like me) were formerly Roman Catholics, and some were Anglicans with a decidedly eastern focus to their spirituality and theology.
I remember having debates while in seminary about the Orthodox and Roman Catholic views on theology. Because the Anglican Church sees itself as the Via Media; some felt this was the bridge between Catholicism and Protestantism, and most, like myself, saw the Anglican Via Media as the bridge between East and West. There had always been dialogue between Anglicanism and Orthodoxy, and the more I listened to my seminary colleague during our debates, the more I had to look further into his claims. (He doesn’t know that until now, as we print this story.)
As we both were ordained Deacon then eventually Priests, we went our separate ways, and I continued to study. I found myself trying to decide between what seemed to be juridical and soteriological views of the Church and her theology. The more I studied about Orthodoxy, the more I found myself more in line theologically with the teachings than I had ever thought. I also studied the history of the Church, and had to agree about the Great Schism, and that the four ancient patriarchates were still in communion to this day, and that they were the ancient Church- and they were Orthodox!
The more I studied the Church in England, the more I realized that they were Orthodox in the beginning. Now I was in a real predicament.
One day, a former parishioner of the Church I was serving in at the time in Tampa,(who had left to become Orthodox some months before my arrival) came by my office to meet me. He was attending an Orthodox church in Pinellas Park, St. Nicholas. He invited me to come visit his church some time and remarked that the Antiochian Archdiocese had a Western Rite, and that we should investigate the possibility of converting to Orthodoxy while being able to continue in our liturgical heritage and tradition. He also invited me to meet his parish priest. This seemed like it was too good to be true at the time, so I made my first visit to St. Nicholas.
Little did I know that would be the start of an incredible journey.
We went for a visit to St Nicholas and met up with my new friend and his parish priest, Fr. Thomas Joseph. He and his parish were very welcoming to me and my wife and members of my parish. After several different visits and discussions with Fr. Thomas, I knew down deep inside that Holy Orthodoxy was where my church and I needed to be. Over the course of a couple of years, we worked toward that goal. I had also read a book that really spoke to me and where I was at the time. It was called Anglican-Orthodox Pilgrimage , by Franklin Billerbeck, an Anglican convert to Orthodoxy. We invited Fr. Thomas and a couple of other Orthodox Priests over to our parish to give talks and instruction about different facets of Orthodoxy such as icons, and the Jesus Prayer. I also took members of my parish over to St. Nicholas for different parish events as we worked toward the common goal of our parish entering Orthodoxy.
One memorable trip we made together was a day trip to two monasteries in the Ocala area. There was a female and a male Greek monastery. We visited both that day. I remember to this day how impressed we were with the humility, hospitality and love we were shown in these holy places. The monks were going about their daily business during our visit and I noticed that they were saying the Jesus Prayer while walking or at their tasks. At one point, a young Priest-monk and I began to have a conversation. He was interested in hearing about my background. After we talked for a few minutes, he asked me some very candid questions- questions that changed my life.
He asked me:
Is the Church that you are in currently producing Saints?
Are you truly in the Church founded by Christ Himself?
If there was liturgy and Communion at the Tomb of Christ, would you be admitted to Communion?
Why would you risk your salvation and not become part of the Church where you can still do everything you love about your liturgical tradition but within Holy Orthodoxy?
For once in my life, I had no answers.
I remember remarking at the male monastery at a beautiful icon of the Theotokos that they had on one of the walls which was as big as a mural. The colors and detail of the icon were striking, and I really loved it. They were selling copies of this icon in the gift store, but at the time I didn’t have the money to purchase one, but had made a mental note to myself to order one at a later time and have it shipped. As the day came to a close, and we all began to get back into our vehicles to leave, Fr. Thomas and a young Priest-monk asked me to come over where they were standing, which was behind the corner of the building.
The young Priest-monk handed me an 8×10 copy of the icon I loved so much, and something to me I would never forget:
“Father, I give this icon to you so that God would give you to us.”
As time went by, I was sure of my purpose, but the parish wasn’t ready to submit to Orthodoxy. Sometime after my monastery experience, Fr. Thomas Joseph was elevated to become an Archmandrite and then was elected and consecrated Bishop. After being in the Tampa parish six (6) years, I moved on to help another parish that had no priest for a couple of years. I still knew and believed that Orthodoxy was the way, but it seemed as if I was having trouble submitting myself. I also attended a local Russian Orthodox parish from time to time, and really loved the spirituality and fellowship I found there. Due to a new job, I relocated and I then started another mission parish in Sarasota, Florida.
In 2010, I had been in the third church split since being an Anglican. It was clear to me that not only did I now have answers to those questions the young Priest-monk asked me some years ago, but they required me to take action. Anglicanism was a good learning experience for me, and I am not sorry that I was part of it. I made many friends and learned a lot about ministry. I had been in ordained ministry as an Anglican for fifteen (15) years.
For me, it was time to come full-circle. It was time to come home. I began a dialogue with the ROCOR Western Rite, and after much prayer and consideration, I felt this was the place God was leading me. I also knew of several other clergy who had the same feelings I did, and so I informed them about my plans, and they were also interested. We then made our applications to the ROCOR Western Rite Vicariate, which were accepted and blessed by Metropolitan Hilarion, and ordination dates were set for the three of us to be received and ordained to the sacred priesthood.
We sent in our letter to the College of Bishops and told them of our intent to become Orthodox. An excerpt of this letter is below:
“We are thankful for the opportunities you have provided for us. In entering Orthodoxy, we do not seek to repudiate our Anglican tradition- in fact we wish to embrace it in its fullest sense. Historically, the Ancient Church in England was Orthodox. The current vision of the HCC-AR as a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism is not the historical tradition we wish to preserve. The identity crisis and fracturing of the Continuing Church continues to this day. Thank God, we will no longer have to define who we are by who we are not.
We believe that the Continuing Church was indeed a lifeboat for the faithful. It has, in our opinion, served its purpose and run its course. The present question is whether and/or what it is intended to continue? With the advent of the Pastoral Provision and Roman Ordinariate as well as the Western Rite in Orthodoxy, it became clear to us that there was no need to remain on the lifeboat, when we could paddle home to the mother ship. In our case, we believe unequivocally that mother ship is the Orthodox Church- the Ark of Salvation.
Continuing Anglicans, Anglo-Catholics, by whatever way we wish to identify ourselves- we believe that historically, these are just shades of Western Orthodoxy. We can practice our faith and worship style and tradition alongside 300 million Orthodox worldwide. This is 300 million members as opposed to 300 members. We can be part of the Church that is still producing Saints. We also believe that Christ is pleased when His faithful seek unity. We see no reason not to seek spiritual and organic unity with the Ancient Church. “
The responses sent by two (2) of the Anglican Bishops made us realize even more that we were doing the best thing for our spirituality and salvation. We knew we were on the righteous path and that the goal was near. We were waiting with anticipation and excitement for the days to pass and to finally arrive at our destination of Holy Orthodoxy .
One of the greatest blessings I was able to receive was that my friend and the one responsible for me beginning my journey attended my ordination. Bishop Thomas Joseph made time in his extremely busy schedule to be present at my ordination to the sacred priesthood, and to me it was one of the greatest gifts I have received. As I write this account, I look at the clock and realize I need to finish soon and get to bed, as I have a lunch appointment with my friend Bishop Thomas tomorrow, as he is in Florida visiting his family. I am blessed and thankful for his friendship and all his efforts as I journeyed to Orthodoxy.
By God’s grace I am now an Orthodox Priest. I have come home. By the grace of God, I have been able to share this journey with others and bring them with me. I now have the proper answers to those questions asked of me years ago in a simple Orthodox monastery. I cannot tell you how fulfilling and exciting this journey has been. The only regret I have is trying to figure out why I waited so long. Maybe it was to bring the three other priests with me? Only God knows.
I suspect I also need to look up a certain Priest-monk and tell him the news…
If you are reading this article and contemplating Orthodoxy, I would ask you to answer the same questions I was asked.