by David E. Sumner
The Anglican Communion, from where I came to Orthodox Christianity, consists of churches in 40 countries that grew out of the Church of England. The Episcopal Church—the American branch of Anglicanism—was brought here by English settlers 100 years before the American revolution. I was a member of the Episcopal Church for 30 years, graduated from one of its seminaries, worked fulltime for one of its dioceses, and wrote a book about its history.
The Antiochian Orthodox Church is today the third largest branch of Orthodox Christianity behind the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches. All Orthodox churches have the same beliefs, differing only in their countries of origin. How I moved from Anglican to Antiochian is a long story, filled with a few bruises and scars, but it felt like a trip home.After growing up in a Christian household in Florida, I became an Episcopalian at the ageof twenty-eight. I was partially attracted to this church because the beautiful liturgy and worshipful music that communicated the mystery of God. I felt I could worship God without explaining my salvation in formulaic terms. Through its worship and fellowship, I discovered a meaningful relationship with God for the first time. The Bible became alive, and Jesus became a friend, not an austere, authority figure whom I didn’t understand.As a young man, my career was struggling, and I felt I needed more training and a master’s degree. I was accepted into a master’s program in journalism and a master’s program at a seminary. I chose the seminary, mainly because it was cheaper than the journalism school, and I could work my way through without going into debt.
After finishing the M.Div. I went to another seminary and earned a master’s in church history, thinking I might go into teaching. Near the completion of this degree in 1981, the door opened to become the editor and director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio in Cincinnati. I loved the work. It didn’t take long to realize that I had a writing talent and that my calling was in journalism. The next five years were among the most exciting of my life. The newspaper I edited won national awards and recognition and was popular among readers. I published articles regularly in the Episcopal News Service, national church magazines, and even the Church Times of London. The diocese sent me on assignments to cover church conferences and conventions in more than a dozen states and international Anglican meetings in Switzerland and Nigeria. I was invited to write news articles about the Anglican Communion for the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year for several years.During this time in Cincinnati, I met and married my wife, Elise, in 1983. She came from an evangelical background and agreed to become an Episcopalian so we could worship in the same church.
The job was demanding, and I frequently worked six or seven days a week covering and writing about events that frequently occurred on weekends. I wrote a monthly column for the newspaper, which generated controversy and hate mail a few times because my theological views were more conservative than some of its 12,000 subscribers. A few people tried unsuccessfully to get me removed from the job. But I worked for a kind, supportive bishop who gave me complete editorial freedom and defended me against critics.Nevertheless, I was starting to feel burnout and that I needed a bigger challenge and a more stable career, so I decided to become a journalism professor. I resigned in 1986, and Elise and I moved to Knoxville, where I received a teaching assistantship to work on my PhD at the University of Tennessee. Elise found a high school Spanish teaching job that supported us during these four years. Shortly before beginning doctoral work, I published my first book, The Episcopal Church’s History from 1945-1985, which grew out of a master’s thesis with additional research. The book received favorable reviews in ten church publications, and some seminaries used it as a textbook in church history courses.
The completion of the PhD led to an offer as a journalism professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, in 1990, where I taught for 25 years before retiring. I enjoyed teaching immensely and felt I was able to positively influence students. I felt it was a Christian ministry because I counseled many students through personal difficulties and helped many more find jobs, internships, and launch their careers. I did what was expected to “publish or perish” and moved up through the ranks to a full professor with tenure after ten years. I specialized in magazine journalism and wrote successful textbooks on magazine writing, American magazine history, and a “how-to” book on magazine publishing. What prompted us to leave the Episcopal Church in 2005? During the 1980s and 1990s many bishops and church leaders started drifting away from historic Christian beliefs. The church seemed more and more like a club focused on social causes. Episcopalians voted with their feet as they left the door.
The Episcopal Church declined in membership every consecutive year from 3.6 million in 1966 to 1.8 million in 2018. Two Episcopal seminaries have closed. Orthodox churches have benefited from this exodus, and I have heard of several former Episcopal priests who are now Orthodox priests. The Episcopal General Convention, the official legislative body, meets every three years. I covered every General Convention except one between 1982 and 2003. Similar in structure to the U.S. Congress, it has a 200-member House of Bishops and a 900-member House of Deputies with lay and clergy deputies. Each house must concur on all resolutions and legislation.
I could write about resolutions and statements that I disagreed with at each convention. It became increasingly obvious to Elise and me that what the church’s beliefs were up for a vote at each convention. Even then, it didn’t matter much because the decisions weren’t enforced. Each diocese and bishop had autonomy and could do whatever they wanted. The lack of a mechanism for enforcing resolutions revealed itself in a long series of contradictory statements and actions. One convention passed a resolution urging churches to conserve the use of paper, but convention offices ran out of paper after printing copies of hundreds of resolutions that had passed.I listened to Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, speak about the ambiguity of Anglican belief at the international conference I covered in Nigeria in 1984. He said one of the problems in Anglicanism was the
“ambiguity we have in our theological positions.”
These problems surfaced in ecumenical discussions because
“many just don’t know what we believe. And we have a hard time telling them,” he said.
I once interviewed a well-known female priest and theology professor at one of the Episcopal seminaries. She wrote in her book, Staying Power: Reflections on Gender, Justice, and Compassion:
“The root of our salvation, call it christ/christa or God or love of justice, whatever names we may give it, does not have a single face. It has countless, different human faces and arms and amputations and also the faces and bodies of lambs and falcons and scorpions. Holy spirits? For sure! Many holy spirits to be respected and involved and marveled at.”
When I interviewed her about the book, she was unable to explain why her lack of belief in the Nicene Creed didn’t affect her role as a priest and seminary professor. The seminary where she taught closed in 2017 because of declining enrollment. Another Episcopal seminary closed in 2010 also because of declining enrollment.
Turning to Antioch
The first time Elise and I had a conversation with an Orthodox Christian came with Frederica Mathewes-Green in 1997. She and her husband, who was a priest, left the Episcopal Church in 1993 to become members of the Antiochian Orthodox Church. In 1997, she was recruited by our mutual friend, Douglas LeBlanc, to report on the Philadelphia General Convention for a daily newsletter published by Episcopalians United. I did news reporting on convention actions, and she wrote a daily commentary. One evening, we had dinner with Frederica, and she gave us a copy of her new book Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy. I regret to admit that I did not read Frederica’s book until 2004 when we began to investigate the Orthodox Church. Elise had already read the book and became interested in Orthodox Christianity before I did.
At first, I was more interested in the Roman Catholic Church because the nearest Orthodox church was 35 miles away from the town where we live. But after investigating Catholic beliefs, that interest waned. In October 2003, Elise and I visited an Orthodox bookstore in Indianapolis. I purchased two significant books. One was Thirsting for God in A Land of Shallow Wells by Matthew Gallatin, a former evangelical pastor who became an Orthodox Christian professor. The other was A Faith Fulfilled: Why are Christians Across Great Britain Embracing Orthodoxy? by Michael Harper (1931-2010), an author and former priest in the Church of England. Two other influential books that we read were The Orthodox Church by Bishop Kallistos Ware and Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith by Fr. Peter Gillquist, a former leader of Campus Crusade for Christ.
After reading these books, I felt Orthodox Christianity was the faith that best represented the original beliefs and practices of the early Christian Church and that I could wholeheartedly embrace it. It all made sense. The Orthodox faith attracted me for three major reasons.
First, all Orthodox churches have the same beliefs, which haven’t changed since the first century. When we get a new priest, we can be assured the next one will have the same beliefs. Orthodox churches do not fight each other over doctrine because doctrine and beliefs are settled. The Orthodox Church maintains an unbroken unity with the early Christian church and church fathers. It gives me peace to feel united with Christians all over the world who follow the teachings of the early church and church fathers. The Roman Catholic Church has added to these teachings while the Protestant Reformation splintered these teachings into different denominations.
Second, Orthodox theology on how our salvation occurs differ from Protestant and Catholic churches and makes more sense to me. Our salvation depends on embracing the whole life of Jesus from his birth to his words, deeds, death, and resurrection. Salvation doesn’t mean believing in a vague notion of God’s love and forgiveness (as in liberal churches) or in “just accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior” (as in conservative churches). Salvation is not a legal transaction that “Jesus paid the debt for our sins” suggests. Salvation comes from embracing a lifelong journey of continual confession, prayer, forgiveness, worship, and service.
Third, Orthodox Christianity challenges me by requiring regular fasting, confession to a priest, and church attendance to remain in good standing. The expectations about what to do to be a strong Christian are clear. Frederica Mathewes-Green wrote a popular article called “Why Orthodox Men Love Church.” She surveyed 100 men who came to Orthodoxy from another faith. She said the term these men cited most often was “challenging.” One said,
“It’s the only church where you are required to adapt to it rather than it adapting to you.”
Another called it,
“The Marine Corps of Christianity.”
A lifelong Orthodox layman told her,
“American Christianity in the last two hundred years has been feminized. It presents Jesus as a friend, a lover, someone who ‘walks with me and talks with me.’ This is fine rapturous imagery for women who need a social life. Or it depicts Jesus whipped, dead on the cross. Neither is the type of Christ the typical male wants much to do with.”
After we decided to become Orthodox Christians, we visited two Orthodox churches in central Indiana before we visited St. George Orthodox Church (which moved from Indianapolis to Fishers in 2014). When we made our first visit in 2004, the visiting priest was the Very Rev. Chad Hatfield, who was then dean of St. Herman’s Seminary in Alaska and now president of St. Vladimir’s. In talking with him after church, we learned he was a former Episcopal priest who became an Orthodox priest in the late 1980s. The coincidence of hearing and meeting a former Episcopal priest during my first visit to St. George seemed like a sign from God.
Because St. George was also the closest Orthodox church, the decision was easy. A 45-minute drive to church was a small price to pay for the joy of worship and fellowship we have discovered.In his book, A Faith Fulfilled, Michael Harper compared his years as an Anglican with having the church as a “foster mother.” In a similar way, the Episcopal Church took care of me for thirty years and changed the direction of my life. When I was confirmed in 1974, I was single, depressed, and working in a low-level job. When I decided to leave 30 years later, I was happily married, a tenured full professor with a PhD, and a published author. This church gave me significant experience as a journalist and many wonderful friends. It awarded me a master’s degree from one of its best seminaries. For all of the church’s theological weaknesses, most Episcopalians are savvy in the ways of the world and how to succeed. Harper wrote,
“There is in much of Anglicanism, with all its faults, a great kindness.”
Quoting the poet John Dryden, he wrote,
“See how this Church is adorned with every grace; with open arms, a kind forgiving face.”
So, I am thankful for thirty years as an Episcopalian. I am sorry the divorce had to occur, but maybe another way to view it is to say that it was time for the foster mother to let this son free to find his true home. It’s been a lovely journey.
David E. Sumner is a professor emeritus of journalism at Ball State University and author of seven books. He and his wife, Elise, live in Anderson, Indiana, and worship at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Fishers, Indiana.
David and Elise Sumner converted to Orthodoxy back in 2005, and you can read an earlier version of their conversion story here.