By Fr. John Parker
Published in the Post and Courier, Sunday, February 4, 2007
Nineteen degrees and snowing. An ecumenical affair: Orthodox Christians addressing curious Anglicans and Episcopalians in a Roman Catholic retreat center which shares a parking lot with an Orthodox Monastery of Romanian and American monks. Inside the retreat, a bustle of 50 or so attendees who traveled to Detroit from warmer climes, Florida included. Others from South Carolina, Maryland, and Illinois. A few came to warm up in Detroit, having crossed their southern border from Toronto. The most amazing of the attendees, in my opinion, was a former Episcopal priest—a woman—who has come to understand the way of the Ancient Church and renounced her ordination in order to enter the Orthodox faith.
On Monday and Tuesday, January 29-30, I had the privilege of taking part in this fascinating conference. “Faith of our Fathers: a Colloquium on Orthodoxy for Anglicans” was organized with the blessing and encouragement of His Eminence, the Most Reverend Nathaniel, Archbishop of Detroit and the Romanian Episcopate of the Orthodox Church in America.
Archbishop Nathaniel had been approached by several local Episcopalians and neighboring Canadian Anglicans who asked, “How can you help us?” a question rooted in both the recent and centuries-old scandals and struggles which are plaguing the Anglican Communion worldwide.
His Eminence made it very clear in his keynote address on Monday that the conference was not intended or organized in any way to solicit Episcopalians to the Orthodox Church, but rather was an answer to a profound request for guidance and assistance. The Archbishop’s biblical foundation for the conference, he elaborated, was the Parable of the Good Samaritan. He noted that the traveler did not cry out for help, but rather lay beaten on the roadside. It was the Samaritan who took note of the bloodied man, had compassion on him, and made arrangements for his recovery.
The conference was structured around four basic lectures: “Theology”, “Liturgy”, “Culture and Tradition”, and “Practical Considerations”. Each was preceded by a brief account of a personal journey to Orthodoxy. The speakers were predominantly former Episcopalians, most of them now Orthodox Priests. The lineup included Charleston native, Fr. Gregory Mathewes-Green (who—along with the present Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul, the Very Rev. William McKeachie—coauthored the Baltimore Declaration); his wife Frederica, also a native Charlestonian and well-known columnist, speaker, and author of books like Facing East and The Illumined Heart; Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon—one time professor at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, and present lecturer at Nashotah House Seminary; and others.
His Grace, the Rt. Rev. Mark, Bishop of Toledo and the Midwest of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, shared with the conference participants his engaging arrival to the Orthodox Church. Bishop Mark found his way from his native Roman Catholicism to charismatic Christianity, finally studying at and then teaching at Oral Roberts University. His ever-deepening studies of the Old Testament, along with engaging conversations with an Orthodox professor at ORU led him to embrace the Ancient Church, in which he now serves as a hierarch.
A third bishop, His Grace, the Rt. Rev. Tikhon, Bishop of Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania of the Orthodox Church in America, shared briefly about how is life is “made very interesting” by the fact that his mother serves as an Episcopal priest.
I believe it is safe to say that very few of the conference attendees came to hear about the Orthodox Church and faith for the first time. Many appeared to know a significant amount already, and have developed friendships with Orthodox clergy and lay people in their respective hometowns. There were, however, a few difficult questions, which required a delicate response—though the answers remain unchanging.
One fellow from Canada asked, for example, why the Orthodox Church practices what many call “closed communion”, allowing only those members of the Orthodox Church to receive communion in their services. Several speakers explained this commonly misunderstood and challenging pastoral matter. In fact, in the Orthodox Church, not even all Orthodox can/ought to receive communion at any given service. Our discipline is to serve those who have prepared themselves by prayer, fasting, and recent confession, taking very seriously St. Paul’s exhortation to the Church in Corinth (1 Cor. 11:27ff).
The grounds for so-called “closed communion” are ancient and simple. First (also a practice abandoned by many non-Orthodox Christians today), one must be baptized to receive. Baptism is open to all repentant sinners, in the Christian view, and is the doorway into the life of the Church. Second, the Church has always believed that Communion is the sign of the shared fullness of faith, and not the maker of it. In other words, it makes no sense for a group of people to “have communion together” who don’t believe the same things about who Jesus is, why he lived and died, how we are called—voluntarily—to change for and be changed by God, and what the bread and wine become in the liturgy. In short, in this scenario, there is no “common union” (the meaning of “communion”) except the action of eating and drinking something together at the same time.
The inquirer was also somewhat surprised to hear that this was the universal practice and belief of all Christians for 1500+ years, and for Anglicans until the 1950s or 1960s. It has always been and remains the practice in the Orthodox Church (as well as the Roman Catholic Church, I believe) to this day.
“Faith of our Fathers” was a conference rooted, at least generally speaking, in Acts 2:42. We shared the teachings of the Apostles, we sat at table together, we enjoyed one another’s company in fellowship, and sang a beautiful Vespers (evening prayer) service on the occasion of the Feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs: St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom, fourth-century luminaries universally remembered for their essential contributions to Christian theology and preaching.
The talks from this conference will all be available for download at http://www.ancientfaithradio.org/, a 24-hour Orthodox internet Radio station.
Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church located on the Square in I’On. He can be reached at email@example.com or by phone at 881-5010.