Thursday, June 22, 2006

Why Would an Episcopalian Become Orthodox?

Another guest editorial, this from the late Fr. Patrick McCauley, a former Episcopalian priest who converted to the Western Rite within Orthodoxy. He served the Orthodox Church of the Holy Apostles (now St. Peter’s) in Fort Worth, Texas, until his repose. Although written more than a decade ago, it reads as if it were produced yesterday:

When I first became an Episcopalian years ago, a friend facetiously told me that I had joined the best Church money could buy. In fact, another wag has observed that the Episcopal Church is the Cadillac of American Christianity and the Chivas Regal of Protestantism.

These attempts at humor, based on social and intellectual snobbery, have grown a bit stale in the ensuing years, as the stately and venerable American version of the Church of England has experienced widespread decline in numbers, theological conviction, and social and political influence. The Church once called the Republican Party at prayer has now become little more than a coalition of special interests and would probably be more accurately termed the 1988 Democratic Convention at prayer. With bishops who declare the Bible to be little more than the prejudices of a group of misogynist, homophobic males, the Apostle Paul to have been nothing but a frustrated homosexual, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ to be nothing but the rattling of old bones, it is little wonder the Episcopal Church in the United States has lost over a million members since 1970. As if these profound theological insights were not enough, the American branch of Anglicanism now has liturgies for the marriage of two persons of the same gender, and she refuses to expect clergy to live morally pure lives.

This sad state of affairs has prompted many Episcopalians to seek a safe harbor outside the Anglican Communion in which to live out their faith. Not surprisingly, some have elected to leave the denomination for other, more conservative, Protestant groups. Still others have swum the Tiber for membership in the Roman Catholic Church. A few others have formed independent Episcopal congregations, and yet more have formed new Anglican Churches that are not in communion with either Canterbury or the Episcopal Church in the USA. Sadly, some have simply dropped their practice of the faith altogether.

Fortunately, however, an increasing number of Episcopalians have looked to the historic Church of Christ known as the Eastern Orthodox Church as a place of refuge. In fact, many Episcopalians, especially those who came out of Anglo-Catholic backgrounds, were taught the curious theory that the Church catholic exists in three historic branches: Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Sharing a Common Faith

Old fashioned, traditional High-Church Episcopalians have long held a close affinity with Eastern Orthodoxy. In fact, the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, said as long ago as the 1960s that Anglicans should be working toward union with Orthodoxy because of the commonality of faith. Other Anglicans have said that historic Anglicanism is simply a Western (meaning Western European) expression of Orthodoxy.

Several recent converts in my own parish have observed that Orthodoxy in no way is a denial of what they have always believed as catholics in the Anglican Church. Rather, say these good folk, Orthodoxy is simply a fuller, richer expression of the ancient faith of Jesus Christ. The same creeds, the same Scriptures, the same sacraments, and the same understanding of the apostolic ministry of deacons, priests, and bishops are all valued and affirmed as the foundations of the catholic faith in Orthodoxy, as in the traditional Episcopal Church of days gone by.

Forms of Worship

Even more fortuitous for Episcopalians who come out of the High-Church tradition are the liturgical expressions found in Orthodoxy. While the great majority of Orthodox Christians worship using some form of the Eastern or Byzantine Rite, a growing percentage of Orthodox Christians worship according to the Western Rite. The Rite of Saint Tikhon, used by many Western Rite Churches, is an approved adaptation of the eucharistic liturgy from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

At least two Orthodox jurisdictions, the Romanians [Russians, not Romanians -- BJ] and the Antiochians, have Western Rite congregations in the United States. The latter, in fact, has a growing Western-Rite Vicariate, which has provided a safe haven for former traditional Episcopalians. Western Rite congregations in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America exist in California, Illinois, Texas, Florida, Nebraska, Colorado, and other states. As each year passes, more and more congregations of former Episcopalians are forming under the Orthodox banner of the Western Rite Vicariate.

A Church that Affirms the Gospel and is Willing to Say No

The Orthodox Church of God continues to proclaim the refreshing Good News that God through His Incarnate Son Jesus Christ is reconciling sinful men and women to Himself (II Corinthians 5:17–20). In so doing, she acknowledges that the new humanity created through Christ’s death and resurrection is the Bride of Christ, the Church. And it is in the Church that Christians by the mercy of God are to work out their salvation (Philippians 2:12) by regularity of worship, living lives of moral rectitude, sharing the Christian Gospel with unbelievers, building a Christian community, and extending a hand of help in the name of Christ to those in need.

All the while, Orthodox Christians, unlike their counterparts in the Episcopal Church as it now exists in many places in the United States, have the assurance of the leadership of bishops and priests who acknowledge the centrality of Holy Scripture, the divinely given Tradition of the apostles, and the need for clearly defined teaching and instruction for the faithful. Orthodox bishops, while not claiming for themselves individual infallibility, do indeed act in presenting the Christian message in clear, understandable terms. Moreover, Orthodox clergy, with the support of the entire Orthodox episcopate from the office of the Ecumenical Patriarch through the Patriarchates of each jurisdiction to local hierarchs, stand as one united witness to the unchanging faith of Jesus Christ.

In spite of the anti-authoritarian age in which we all live, Orthodox bishops, in other words, can and do say no, when necessary, to their people. This does not mean Orthodox bishops are capricious, arbitrary, or lacking in pastoral gifts. It does mean, on the other hand, that Orthodox hierarchs love those in their pastoral care enough, as does any good parent, to say no when a course of action, a lifestyle, or a pernicious belief would be harmful to the faithful.

Rediscovering Committment

Sociologist Robert N. Bellah and several colleagues, in Habits of the Heart, have noted that contemporary American culture places such an enormous value on individual freedom that many Americans find commitment to home, family, the nation, or even the Church to be marginal at best. In fact, Bellah, who is an Episcopal layman, says that most of us do a cost-benefits analysis of nearly every situation we confront. So, if a marriage, citizenship, or a relationship with employees or employers or friends costs more in terms of effort, time, and commitment than it produces, then many of us feel free to terminate the relationship.

This sort of individualism-gone-to-seed is destructive not only on an individual basis but for the nation as well. Unlimited human freedom, without parameters, is lethal. As a nation, we are now burying people, in fact, who declared that what they did in their bedrooms in the 1970s and 1980s was nobody else’s business. Tragic as the result of that mind-set is, Christian people need to look anew at the concept of freedom in Christ (Galatians 5:1–13).

For Christians, whose bodies and lives were purchased with the body and life of Jesus Christ, freedom has limits yet offers direction, guidance, and purpose to life. Orthodox Christianity offers reconciliation between God and man and between fellow human beings, and direction and purpose for living beyond the thrill of the moment, the vacuous chimera of materialism, hedonism, narcissism, and individualism. One may indeed be a thinking woman or man and still be a faithful catholic Christian within the ancient Church of Jesus Christ known as Eastern Orthodoxy.

(Reproduced from

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