by Sergei Mudrov
It was easy to get from San Francisco to Berkeley, CA., by high-speed train. It took me half an hour to reach Ashby Station, from which St. John the Baptist’s Church is five minutes’ walk. Fr. Edward Henderson has served here for over six years—since autumn 2013, almost since his ordination. He made a remarkable journey from a parishioner of the Episcopalian Church in Florida to an OCA priest. Our talk started with my questions on how an ordinary American from Florida, who grew up in a religious environment which was far from Orthodoxy, managed to find his unique path to the true faith.
Fr. Edward Henderson.
—I was born in Fort Myers in the south of Florida. My ancestors moved to Florida in the late eighteenth century, so we weren’t newcomers, unlike most residents of this state. My parents belonged to the Episcopalian Church and I attended it too. Since public schools in the USA aren’t always good, as a boy of eleven I was sent to a private school and then went to a Catholic school which offered brilliant good-quality education. Among other things, they taught religion at this school, and we attended Catholic services. Catholic and Episcopalian services are very similar, so I understood what was done and said during Mass. And at religion lessons I discovered many interesting things, all the more so because the teacher was a Catholic priest. I remember him saying at one lesson while answering the students’ questions, that the Catholic Church was founded by Christ, whereas all the other Churches were founded by men. I was fifteen and I hadn’t heard of that idea before. It gained my interest and I started studying this subject. As I read various books I realized I disagreed with what Luther and especially Calvin taught. Many things seemed appalling to me. So by age seventeen I had been convinced that I should become a Catholic.
—Did you tell that to your parents?
—Yes, I spoke both to the Catholic priest and my parents. Mom said that since I had participated in their parish life for many years I couldn’t just leave it. She suggested that I speak with an Episcopalian priest. In the end I had a conversation with an assistant priest who had been a Methodist and later joined the Episcopalians. I told him that I didn’t agree with Protestantism, that I saw the historical Church in Catholicism, that the Roman Church was global, whereas the Anglicans just split from it under Henry VIII and are closely connected with England. The priest replied that he understood me, that if I were going to join any other Protestant group (e.g., Baptists or Penticostals), he would have given me a talking-to. But so long as I wanted to convert to Catholicism, he just recommended me to find out about Orthodoxy and Uniatism before that. He believed that these traditions were nearly identical, that the Uniates are the Orthodox in communion with Rome.
—It’s so curious that an Episcopalian priest suggested that you pay attention to Orthodoxy…
—Yes. He noted that at seminary they put emphasis on the Reformation as the greatest split in Christianity. But he admitted that, as he saw it, the real split was the Great Schism of 1054 when, as he stressed, the West lost something. He proceeded to tell me about Orthodoxy in such a manner that I asked him why he hadn’t become Orthodox. The priest replied that he had been troubled by the excessive national introversion of Orthodoxy, so he had chosen the Episcopalian Church. Incidentally, many years later the same cleric did convert to Orthodoxy, though as a layman, not a priest, because he was in his second marriage.
—And you decided to heed his advice?
—Having an inquisitive mind, I decided to study Orthodoxy and Uniatism before embracing Catholicism. At that moment I knew about Orthodoxy at the level of various movies and the National Geographic films. I was at a Uniate service and I can’t say that I really liked it there; besides, their service was short and lasted only an hour. I also found out that there were two Orthodox churches and a monastery in my town. Though only three monks lived at the monastery, they were so wonderful that after spending an hour with them I decided to come again. I took one of the hieromonks’ business card, called him and we arranged a meeting. The talk lasted five hours! The meeting changed something in me radically and I wanted to learn more about Orthodoxy. I came to a service at a Greek church and at the monastery. The Liturgy was served in English, it lasted 2.5 hours in the traditional Greek style. And I’ll be frank—though I didn’t feel that I was on heaven and not on the earth (like Prince Vladimir), I did have another feeling—the Liturgy seemed timeless. It was ancient, present and future at the same time. It seemed as if it were beyond time. Besides, the service wasn’t “foreign” to me; rather, everything was clear and comfortable, though Byzantine chants were sung. That experience proved very positive for me.
—You also were at the Liturgy in the Greek church.
—Yes, I did come to the Greeks, but they weren’t very friendly. Moreover, the Greek Church in the USA has become largely protestantized; for example, they use musical instruments (organs) in services. Very many Greeks who emigrated from Greece to the USA go to Russian churches, seeing that Russian services there are more similar to those in Greece than Greek services in America! By the way, the Greeks have cut their services, while everything was done properly at the monastery (for example, it didn’t introduce the strange practice when the Gospel reading is immediately followed by the Cherubic Hymn). So I wanted to be present at monastic services every day. By the end of summer 1995 I firmly decided to embrace Orthodoxy. In December that year I became a catechumen, and in June 1996 I was baptized at the monastery. Though at that time the monastery was still Old Calendarist. But two years later our metropolitan sought to get into communion with the canonical Church, and in 1998 we came under jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, while preserving all our liturgical traditions. The only change for us was that we began to commemorate the Patriarch of Constantinople together with our metropolitan.
—How did your family react to your conversion to Orthodoxy?
—At first my mother wasn’t pleased that I was going to leave. Though the doctrinal differences didn’t matter to her because the Episcopalians accept the branch theory and believe that all the denominations make up one Church of Christ. Mother would say that we went to church together as one family, and after my conversion to Orthodoxy that would become impossible. Perhaps at the early age of seventeen I was too zealous and it was hard to speak with me. It was my fault. But in the end my parents saw that my intentions were serious and put up with my choice. More than that, ten years later they paid for my education at an Orthodox seminary. Our arguments have stopped long ago, but my parents are still members of the Episcopalian Church. Why? I wish I knew.
—Why did you decide to move forward and seek ordination?
—Quite a few Orthodox priests in the USA converted to Orthodoxy from other denominations. There are some parishes where most clergy and laity were originally not Orthodox. My mother wanted me to become an Episcopalian priest; however, to be honest, I wasn’t interested in that prospect. But on converting to Orthodoxy I began to think of how I might serve the Church. For example, I considered entering a monastery and becoming a monk. But I also had a secular education, a Master’s Degree in Linguistics, and then found an English teaching job in Moscow. In Russia I experienced a personal crisis and even considered leaving the Church but then flatly rejected that idea, saying that I did want to serve the Church. In Moscow I was involved in the activities of the Metochion of Valaam Monastery and sang in their choir. Friends advised me to enter seminary and it occurred to me that if I refused I would lose a lot. I didn’t rule out the possibility of studying at a Russian seminary but it came home to me that Russia didn’t really need an American priest. I was born in America and was more needed there. I travelled back to the USA, visited both St. Vladimir’s and St. Tikhon’s Seminaries and decided in favor of the latter (once I had come there, I felt it was exactly where I wanted to study). I entered seminary in 2006, ten years after I had been baptized.
I think it was a right decision. I would strongly recommend those who convert to Orthodox faith and hurry to study at seminary to wait at least for five years. Such decisions shouldn’t be taken only under the influence of emotions.
—Ten years would suffice to make certain that your desire to serve the Church is deep and serious…
—Yes, I wanted to be in the Church very much. And a situation when I can’t go to church on a working day for a feast (e.g. the Nativity of Holy Theotokos, the Transfiguration, etc.) is unacceptable to me. After graduating from seminary in 2009 I was still undetermined, and at last I found a teaching job at St. John’s School in San Francisco (situated downstairs at the ROCOR cathedral on Geary Boulevard). But it was the Holy Trinity OCA Cathedral that became my spiritual home. I took part in parish activities as a layman. When I turned thirty-five, I pondered over the possibility of becoming a monk but concluded that it was not for me. I didn’t want to marry either. And on Forgiveness Sunday, 2013, Archbishop Benjamin (Peterson) of San Francisco and the West said he could ordain me a deacon on Pentecost. I was given 100 days to think and take a decision. I felt the peace of mind; my spiritual father and my parents didn’t object (and the fact that they wouldn’t have the joy of becoming grandparents because of my decision didn’t cause any arguments). But I didn’t serve as a deacon for a long time: in October 2013 I was ordained a priest and assigned to St. John the Baptist’s parish in Berkeley. It has been my first and only parish so far. If it remains the only place of my ministry, it will be wonderful for me. I know priests who served in one and the same parish all their lives, till their retirement, and I feel at ease about this prospect too.
—Fr. Edward, let’s talk about the liturgical languages. As far as I know, you combine English and Church Slavonic?
—You’re right. We have what I call “Liturgy A” and “Liturgy B”. One part of “Liturgy A” is celebrated in English and the other part—in Slavonic. At “Liturgy B” it’s vice versa: all that was served in English at “Liturgy A” is done in Slavonic, and all that was served in Slavonic is done in English. Earlier virtually everything at St. John the Baptist’s Church was served in Slavonic; but there are people of various nationalities in the parish, and I’ve noticed that even children of Russian emigres who were born in the USA have become so Americanized that they sometimes don’t understand Slavonic. I know cases when parishioners who didn’t understand the liturgical language left the Church. So services in English became necessary. The main language of weekday services is Church Slavonic, though. But I give sermons only in English. If I speak in two languages (Russian and English), it will be too long.
—When it comes to languages, there may appear the following problem: in cases of the domination of a national language (Russian, Greek, etc.) there are situations when people come to church not so much for religious reasons as for cultural and national ones. What should be done to prevent churches from turning into cultural and ethnic clubs?
—It’s not an easy task. We can’t control people and force them to do anything. True, we try to unite people: we share a meal after services and I teach the fundamentals of Orthodoxy to adults. We wanted to open a Sunday school for children, but that initiative was met with no enthusiasm. At first I believed that I would have no problems with my parishioners as I know Russian, had lived in Russia, and the priest who prepared me for Baptism knew representatives of pre-revolutionary Russia well. In Russia of the 1990s, when I lived there, a new post-Soviet culture of Orthodoxy was formed and believers were very zealous. But it turned out that emigres who moved to California had neither the culture of pre-revolutionary Russia nor that of modern Russia. They still had the Soviet mentality: you can drop in at church for a few minutes, light a candle and leave. Perhaps this behavioral pattern was characteristic of the Soviet era when the faithful were persecuted; but I tried to bring home to them that they were in the USA where the situation was different. They either didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand that. They would tell me that the Church shouldn’t change. True, the dogmas and moral principles must remain unaltered in the Church, but why should it be applied to the weird religious practices of the past (as if they go back to the apostles)? In their view, true Orthodoxy is when babies are baptized at home, when you can freely come to church towards the end of services and take Communion twice a year at best. Alas, it is hard for me to convince them otherwise and change anything.
—Once you said that San Francisco and the Bay Area are an extremely secularized place. How does it affect church parishioners, families and children?
—That’s a real problem for us. Many children leave the Church after entering university. One of the greatest troubles in California is the general recognition of homosexuality. If you say that homosexual relations are a sin, you are as bad as those who spoke out against the rights of black people. In our region there are quite a few Protestant churches with rainbow flags in support of the LGBT-community. In the Orthodox Church we assert that though we love everybody, homosexual behavior is wrong and sinful. Thus sometimes we lose people who say that we are “homophobes” and “hate gays”.
There are other problems too: for example, many sport clubs hold practices on Sundays. Sometimes I hear from parents: “Today our son didn’t come to the Liturgy because he has gone to tennis practice.” Okay, but what is more important to you: tennis or Holy Communion? Some parishioners tell me that they won’t be able to attend the Sunday service and later I see on their Facebook pages that at that time they went to a party or went out to the countryside. Very few parishioners gather at the Vigil, though I remind them every time that we shouldn’t disregard the Vigil only because we don’t feel like going to it. I keep saying that we must be in church every Sunday. I tell people who come to our church on Pascha or the Nativity that I hope to see them next Sunday. Some indeed come again and our church attendance, though slowly, increases.
—Why do the Orthodox set priorities in such a strange way? They find time for a picnic or a party, but not for a Sunday service.
—I keep asking myself this question but haven’t found a clear answer yet. When I was a layman I seldom missed the Vigil and hardly ever missed the Liturgy. Of course, we should take into account the influence of American secularism, which limits faith to inside the walls of the church. According to it, you can’t be a religious businessman, teacher, or dentist. You get to work and leave your faith outside, behind your office door.
Undoubtedly, numerous temptations await Christians in our days. In Belarus [the interviewer, Sergei Mudrov, resides in Belarus.—Ed.] you live in an Orthodox country, decades of persecutions notwithstanding; at least your culture is imbued with Orthodoxy. In the USA, many priests are afraid to be stricter with their parishioners, fearing that people may leave the Church. Sometimes full permissiveness reigns in parishes. The ruling hierarch of the Greek Diocese of Chicago has allowed priests to give Communion to anyone who comes up to the chalice. This practice is unthinkable in my parish as I carefully see to it that no Copts or Armenians (who attend our services occasionally) come up to the chalice. The Greek parishes are strongly Americanized, but all their hierarchs are ethnic Greeks. They hold to a Greek-American identity to some extent, while we in the OCA have a territorial identity. I can say we are here to serve the whole of the American nation.
—One more problem of the Bay Area you mentioned in another interview is demonic possession. What is the source of it?
—Indeed it is a real trouble for our region. Some of my parishioners once practiced witchcraft (of course, they abandoned it after conversion to Orthodoxy). We regularly see people who show some signs of possession in the streets. Sexual perversions and drug use lead to it. We also have quite a few Hindu, Buddhist and pagan temples, attendance at which provokes demonic possession. Now we hold prayer services for those who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction, seeing that this addiction destroys not only people’s bodies but also their souls.
—Fr. Edward, in conclusion I’d like to ask you about your opinion of the recent inter-Orthodox controversy. Have the events of Ukraine’s Church life influenced the religious situation in California and the USA in general?
—My stance remains unwavering: we can only recognize Metropolitan Onuphry, the primate of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church. I consider that both Philaret and Epiphany can’t be recognized as canonical. We are aware of the Moscow Patriarchate’s decision; however, the OCA hasn’t broken off Eucharistic communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. There were some odd rumors going around that the OCA was allegedly going to give up its autocephaly and go under Constantinople’s jurisdiction. Archbishop Benjamin of San Francisco had to make a special speech on this subject and assure everybody that there have been no such plans. I think the decisions made in Istanbul have only created divisions and disturbed the faithful. I don’t think that the actions of the Phanar can be justified. I personally decided to stop concelebrating with clergy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, though I don’t refuse to give Communion to their laity. By the by, quite a number of OCA priests have decided to do the same.
Thank you for sharing this story. Fr. Edward is my priest, and I have really been blessed to have his spiritual guidance.