Please don’t skip down to the list immediately. This entire post outlining ‘why I can’t become Orthodox’ is worthy of your time.
Why do so few people of contemporary Western culture join the Orthodox Church? Before we attempt to answer this question, we would like to underline that this article is not about people of Western European origin, but about people of contemporary Western culture. These people are not necessarily of Western European origin and may not even live in any part of the Western world. Thus, on the one hand, I have met nominally Orthodox Russians, Romanians, Greeks and Lebanese who, lapsed from their Faith, are profoundly secular and ‘Western’, and, on the other hand, ‘Western people’, Swiss, French, English and American, who are profoundly Orthodox. In other words, there is nothing wrong with being racially Western, but there is a problem with not being Orthodox.
Why then do so few people of contemporary Western culture join the Orthodox Church? There are surely several reasons for the phenomenon of the Western refusal of the Gospel. No doubt, the most important is the fact that for a thousand years Western European culture has been marked by secularism disguised as ‘Western Christianity’, and has either been indifferent or else hostile to the Orthodox Christian Gospel. Contemporary Western culture is therefore an accumulation of a thousand years of profound secularism. It is therefore more and more openly atheistic. The majority of the population will not be moved by Orthodoxy, even if miracles were worked in front of them (and miracles are worked at every Divine Liturgy, in the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ), or if our icons gave off myrrh or wept tears in front of them (as they have). However, if this is why the majority of the population is not interested, what of the minority?
Here, in understanding their refusal of Orthodoxy, we would first of all do well to look to ourselves and our own faults, as poor witnesses to the Orthodox Faith. For example, my own experience of the Orthodox Church is one of constant rejection. Thus, in 1974, I was told by ROCOR laity, that Russian-speaking was not good enough, that ‘only Russians need apply’, and that as one ‘without Russian blood’, I could not become Orthodox in their Church. This was repeated in 1983, when ROCOR clergy told me, an Orthodox layman, to go away. I might have been Orthodox for eight years, studied at an Orthodox Theological Institute, but I ‘did not have a Russian surname’. In 1992, as a ROCOR priest, I had the third experience of being told to go away. I might be a ROCOR priest and have been a clergyman for nearly eight years, but I was unwanted, because I did not have ‘the right blood’.
Therefore, for over twenty-five years, since being ordained reader, like so many others I have had to waste time and energy, struggling to earn money to live in a secular profession, which I never wanted. Here I am not criticizing ROCOR in particular. Experiences of others with other Local Churches, Patriarchal Russian, Greek, Antiochian, are also full of horrors. I will not mention the decades of persecution, hatred, slander and contempt to which we have been subject from various individuals of remarkably scandalous life. These were supposed representatives of jurisdictions of various Local Orthodox Churches, as they strived to ‘quench the Spirit’. Of course, all of this is good for humility, but it does seem a waste. But that is none of my business. As a priest, my business is to resign myself with a smile, concentrate on overcoming my own sins and pray for everyone. Providentially, all this is possible thanks to the above experiences. Glory to God for all things!
However, beyond the racist attitudes of certain ‘Orthodox’ to Non-Orthodox, by far the most important reason why so few Western people have become Orthodox is ‘cultural’. The most common reason I have heard always boils down to: ‘Orthodoxy is too different from what I am used to for me to become Orthodox’. Of course, it is different, the Gospel is profoundly different from contemporary Western life and culture, as we have explained above. How could it not be, given the thousand years of Western secularism masquerading as ‘the Church’?
From the universe of Western cultural prejudices, ethnic pride, excuses, ignorance and sheer laziness, modelled on the ‘too different’ excuse, I have over the years heard the following:
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because I was born Roman Catholic/Protestant’.
(No, you weren’t. You were born a pagan, like all of us. You were then conditioned and manipulated by a set of ethnocentric cultural values. Look at the Apostles: most of them were born Jews, only they freely changed to Orthodoxy).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because you don’t have a Pope’.
(You don’t need a Pope; Christ is the Head of the Church)
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because you don’t have the filioque’.
(Nor does the New Testament. See Jn. 15, 26 or Acts 2,33).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because you don’t have purgatory’
(The Gospel never mentions this Latin word that was first mentioned at the end of the twelfth century).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because it’s a sect’.
(For nearly 2,000 years, billions of people have not thought so. Are you so much cleverer than all of them?).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because you have saints’.
(Sadly, that is your loss. Don’t you want to know the friends of Christ?).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because your way of taking communion is so unhygienic’.
(Then why aren’t Orthodox all constantly ill?).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because you kiss icons’.
(Don’t you kiss members of your family? Don’t you love Christ and those close to him? Are you not members of the family of Christ? Or are you victims of Protestant scientism?).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because you have to confess’.
(You mean you have no sins? Then give me your photograph and I will stick it on the iconostasis).
- I can’t become Orthodox, because Orthodox are sinners and argue among themselves’.
(Yes, we know about ourselves, that we are sinners. We also think our Faith is important – that’s why we argue, because we are not lukewarm and indifferent. And that’s why we go to church and go to confession and communion, repent, read the Lives of the Saints and find healing for our arguments. You mean you do not know about yourself and your own need to repent?).
- ‘I cannot become Orthodox, because you don’t sing our hymns’.
(Why sing Victorian platitudes, when you can have ancient spiritual depth?).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because the choir sings badly’.
(Then come and sing yourself and help improve it).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because the services are always the same’.
(You mean have never been to more than one Orthodox service in its entirety?).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because you can’t take part in the services’.
(You mean you have never tried praying?).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because I will no longer be free to change the Faith and pick from it what I want’.
(You don’t come to the Church to change the Orthodox Faith, you come to the Church to be changed by the Orthodox Faith. Or do you consider that you do not need changing?).
- I can’t become Orthodox, because I can pray anywhere, without ritual’.
(And do you? If you can live without ritual, why then do you have a daily routine?).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because there’s no difference between it and my present religion’.
(Why hesitate then?).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because it won’t help me’.
(Correct. Nothing will help you, if you don’t first make an effort to improve yourself).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because you don’t have the same calendar’.
(No, it’s you who don’t have the same calendar).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because it’s not Western, it’s Oriental’.
(Then it’s like Christ. He came for the Middle East. He wasn’t Western and secular either).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because I was born English’.
(Nor was Christ. By the way, I didn’t know that ‘English’ was a religion).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because there are foreigners in church’.
(For racists and xenophobes. As I said, Christ was also a ‘foreigner’).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because you are so diverse’.
(That’s why we are not boring).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because the other people are different from me’.
(Are you anti-social? Yet you are different from them and they accept you).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because the clergy wear beards’.
(So did Christ. More victims of their cultural prejudices).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because women can’t wear trousers in church and have to cover their heads. It’s like Islam’.
(Yes, like the Mother of God? Or do you think that She was a Muslim? Or do you mean that you have no sense of modesty?)
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because men can’t wear shorts in church’.
(Nor did the Apostles and the saints and your ancestors, when they went to church. Why this need to distract others from prayer by your immodest way of dress?).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because the services are too long’.
(You mean you are lazy?).
- ‘The services start too early and finish too late’.
- ‘I can’t be bothered’.
(See above, but thank you for being honest).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because then I won’t be able to live with my partner any longer’.
(Yes, you will, only you will receive a Divine blessing, your union will become spiritual as well as physical, and your ‘partner’ will become your legitimate spouse, instead of your partner in sin).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because you have to fast’.
(You mean you reject Christ’s sacrifice of fasting in the desert and his Gospel instructions about freeing yourself from demons through prayer and fasting?)
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because I can’t eat roast beef every Sunday lunch-time’.
(You mean you have an all-important passion for meat?).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because I can’t go to the pub on Saturday nights’.
(You mean you are too weak to stop your drinking bouts?).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because the priest says that I should try to give up smoking’.
(You mean your passions are stronger than your faith?).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because I don’t believe in God’.
(I understand. But how do you know? When you were surprised, I heard you calling on God’s name. If you start searching now, you will find faith and then be able to become Orthodox. Seek and you will find).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because my family will reject me’.
(I understand you. But are you sure? In any case, Christ will not reject you).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because I do not live near an Orthodox church’.
(I understand you. Change your way of life, so that your priorities are based around the Church).
- ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because I don’t understand anything’.
(If you want to understand something, then begin by praying about it).
Or my favourite:
40. ‘I can’t become Orthodox, because you have to stand and pray’.
(You mean you can’t be bothered. At least this is not an excuse, but honest).
What more can I say than repeat the words of the Gospel? And he said unto him,
If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead (Luke 16, 31).
And one did, and they will not.