A Voice in the Public Square

[Ancient Faith Radio; October 9, 2008]

Frederica Mathewes-Green: I’m in the nave of the Church of Holy Ascension in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina on Route 17, just north of Charleston. I’m talking with the pastor, Fr. John Parker. Tell me a little about your journey to Orthodoxy, Father, as we get started.

Fr. John Parker: Sure. Well, it all began during my Episcopal seminary experience in Ambridge, PA, when the library there had a sale on duplicate books. So they were 50 cents for paperbacks and a dollar for hardback books. I found a whole stack of Orthodox Books there, which, I’d never read anything like that before. So, there was “Becoming Orthodox” by Fr. Peter Gillquist, there were several books by Fr. Schmemann… so, we began to read those books at home actually. My wife (she’ll probably not be happy that I said this) took “Becoming Orthodox” off of my bedside. I had read thirty pages in three days, and she’s a very voracious reader, and so she took it and put it on her bedside, and read it in one day. As a result of that, she came to me and said, “You know, this book… we have to talk about this book.” It raises questions that we couldn’t even think to ask. That was very intriguing to me. So that was the very beginning of it: some used books from Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.

FMG: And is that about eight or ten years ago now?

Fr. JP: That would have been… you know, I was just measuring it the other day. It would have been 1998 or 1999. So, yeah, it’s been almost ten years ago right now. Amazingly, (I remember this too because I still have the email) once I began to ask some of the questions that Fr. Peter raised in his book, “Becoming Orthodox”, the first thing that I tried to do was to contact your husband, who was my Episcopal priest when I was a child, and to ask him some of these questions- what has the Orthodox Church always believed about this? That was an email, I think it was in January 2000, that I was able to reach him.

FMG: I have a similar memory, I was going through some old file boxes and I found a manila envelope. My husband’s handwriting on the tab said, “Orthodoxy”. To think that there was a time in our lives when everything about Orthodoxy fit in one manila folder! It’s like it just exploded and took over the whole house and our lives.

Fr. JP: I have the same folder!

FMG: (laughs) And as you mentioned, we go back quite a ways. When my husband was the rector of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Woodbridge, Virginia, 1981 to 1989, your dad was on the parish council, and you were a teenager in the youth group, and we knew you quite well then. And as we always say, you always came over and mowed the lawn for us when we were out of town. So, God has some very strange and surprising plans- because here you are in our home town, right outside of Charleston with this beautiful church. I’ve already talked to Andrew about the architecture and all of that. But you’ve drawn some attention to yourself here in Charleston, by being outspoken, as I’m sure you were in the Episcopal Church as well. Tell me how you began to get the attention of the local newspaper and local inquirers.

Fr. JP: Well, it happened in two ways, actually. The first is that the local newspaper has an incredible Faith & Values section. Incredible, I think, because it has one; well, let me just say that it’s incredible that they have a Faith & Values section that’s three pages every Sunday. And they often report on the happenings of local churches. I noticed in reading that section many times that they often reported on mega-church activity in the area, and almost never reported on anything traditional. So, I took a moment to email the contact at that time at the newspaper, and I said, ‘You know, all of these articles I read are about contemporary Christianity in the Faith & Values section, I wonder if you’d be interested in something about the traditional Christians in our area.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’d be interesting’. And as it turned out at that time, I think it was at that time, the main writer for the Faith & Values section of the newspaper had received some sort of a paid study abroad to Indonesia. It was maybe around the time of the tsunami. He went there to study the intersection of journalism and religion in the aftermath of the tsunami. So, the newspaper agreed to allow me to write columns as a guest writer while he was away for several months. So there was a time actually when I was able to write two or three and sometimes four columns a month for that newspaper, unedited except for spelling and punctuation, basically. So I could write strictly about the Orthodox Faith and the Orthodox tradition without any supervision, so to speak.

FMG: That is amazing. So you wrote about iconography, or the Virgin Mary, or…

Fr. JP: Well, I don’t know if I got myself in trouble or not in the very first article I wrote, but I wrote about the importance of tradition in Christianity, and in that particular article, I described that all Christianity is traditional, but the question is, whose tradition?

FMG: I remember reading it!

Fr. JP: That was not received well in certain circles, because it seemed like a slam on everyone, but I made the point in that particular article, writing about churches, that if you come into a church like we’ve been graced to build here, a traditional church which is oriented toward the East- that’s redundant- but it’s properly oriented, and it’s in the form of a cross and it has three spaces, you know- the narthex, the nave, and the altar, and so forth. That describes one tradition. And a gigantic church in an auditorium with stadium seating and a stage represents another tradition. It is a certain Christianity, but that comes from a different architectural tradition. So, it’s traditional, it’s just not the ancient Christian tradition.

FMG: I want to say, I’ve been experimenting, I always want to find terms that go down a little smoother. When you use the word ‘tradition’ you always have to do a lot of explaining, because people think about the scripture of, ‘Do not be led by false tradition’ – false tradition? ‘dead tradition’. I’m experimenting with using the phrase, ‘community memory’ instead. Orthodoxy is held together by community memory. We do these things because everyone everywhere throughout the history of this Body of Christ has, we always have. So, it’s community memory. I find people don’t balk as much as they do at the word ‘tradition’. So that was your first column, and then you were off to the races for several months.

Fr. JP: That’s right, and the more controversial one was when I was invited to give the benediction at the local medical university, the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Actually, the local Greek priest was invited to give the benediction that year, and his schedule was full. I was very grateful that he came to ask me; he wanted to keep it within the Orthodox churches. So, that was wonderful. So I diligently sat down at my desk and I pulled out our four-volume Great Book of Needs, and I went specifically to the service of the anointing of the sick, to look at the different prayers that we have that talk about Jesus as the physician of our souls and bodies, figuring that this is a group of students who are going to be nurses and doctors, that I would find something helpful there. Then, I penned what I thought was a prayer absolutely in line with our tradition, which was both rooted in those prayers from the Great Book of Needs, but also rooted in the local circumstances of the medical school. The day after that, I got a letter in the mail thanking me from the medical university that I would do this benediction, and it said, ‘please see the guidelines for the benediction inside’. So, I did. And it was crazy. It describes that you weren’t allowed to use the word ‘Father’, or ‘Jesus’… actually, it listed ‘Jesus’, ‘Allah’, and I don’t remember what else, but all these quote-unquote specific names for God; you had to keep it generic. I’m not even sure you could say ‘God Almighty’. You just had to be very generic. So, I immediately contacted their office and suggested that I couldn’t do such a thing because I’m an Orthodox priest. We pray in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that’s what I had to do. So, here’s my prayer. And I sent it to them by email.

FMG: So they had their own tradition that they were trying to make you fit.

Fr. JP: Well, ironically, a new tradition, if we can say so, because this is the point I’d tried to make before I wind up just saying, you know, I either need to pray the way we pray, or else maybe I shouldn’t do that at all. And so they asked me, would it be terrible if I were uninvited? And I said, no, you do what you need to do. So they invited someone else. But the point is that the medical university has a chapel which is on the corner of Rutledge and Bee Streets in downtown Charleston. It’s a neo-Gothic chapel, called St. Luke’s Chapel. Who’s St. Luke? He’s a physician, who wrote a gospel. And it’s got a gigantic stained glass window of St. Luke. And it’s got a cross on the top. So, the medical university especially in Charleston has a very venerable Christian tradition. But that has changed a lot lately. So, anyhow, that became an opportunity for the local area to learn a little about the Orthodox Christian Church. And the newspaper allowed me to write a column about why I couldn’t give the benediction. And it gave the chaplain of the medical university a couple of columns next to my column so that we were side-by-side in our writings, and that caused many letters to the editor to be written. Ultimately, I was able to sit down with the chaplain, which was very good, and to talk to him about his position and so forth. It was very helpful in that sort of dialogue sense, but very frustrating because a Christian should be able to pray as a Christian, and a Christian chaplain of a school should be able to defend that a Christian invited to pray as a Christian should be able to pray as a Christian! If that makes sense. Kind of crazy.

FMG: So it was a moment of controversy for your church here, for Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, but it was a beneficial controversy, because it drew attention, it got everybody talking, and I’m sure there were a lot of discussions of the pro’s and con’s and what should be done. I imagine you found that a lot of the local population was very sympathetic to what you were trying to do.

Fr. JP: It’s true. Actually, that was my first foray into the broader religious constituency of Charleston. I did get a lot emails- every time I wrote in the newspaper I’d say, “And you can reach Fr. John by email at… ” and I’d give my email, and I’d give the phone number, precisely because I would enjoy having the conversation with anyone. I received an equal number of ‘Atta boy!’s as, ‘You are just a Neanderthal Christian…’ I mean, I received that from atheists, I received it from other Christians… So it was a very interesting response, even from the Christian community there were those who were way in favor of, ‘Yeah, you stand up there and the Gospel says, if you deny me I will deny you, and so forth, and if you stand up for me, I’ll stand up for you!’, and then from other Christians, who’d say, ‘You just have no business saying those sorts of things.’ It’s crazy. It was quite an experience.

FMG: You told me you met recently with an orthodox rabbi who specifically wanted to meet with you because of that controversy.

Fr. JP: Right. He was given the opportunity to give the benediction this year, and ironically, um, I’ve never said anything like this, I’ll say it out loud, he prayed in the name of ‘Our Father’ in the benediction, which was permitted for him. So maybe in some little way, I paved the way for some stripping of the generic language about God, even if we need to talk about Who the fulfillment of Our Father is. But, that was quite a remarkable experience. It was nice to hear from him as an orthodox Jewish rabbi that he has a firm conviction about in Whose name he prays, and that he would not waver from that either.

FMG: That’s very good. So in a short time, you’ve managed to become pretty well known, I guess, in Charleston, with the regular newspaper columns, over the course of a couple of years now. Do you find that people are being drawn, being brought to this parish out of curiosity or whatever because of this effort to speak in the public square?

Fr. JP: I think that’s true. Yes. We have a number of people, I don’t know, maybe two or three or four families, who have specifically come here as a result of those newspaper articles. There is one family I am thinking of at the moment, who read something that I read in the newspaper- it was in late October that year because it was about Halloween- and actually, I wrote about the link between Halloween and death. Just to kind of capture everyone’s imagination. They happened to be reading that, they had dabbled in witchcraft, and they thought, ‘This is amazing. I’ve never heard anybody write anything like this about Christianity and death and Halloween. We need to go check that place out!’ And in short order, they were catechumens, and a year later, they were received into the Church. Really remarkable. You know, people aren’t coming in droves, but I’m guessing now, that just about everyone who reads the Post and Courier in Charleston could name the Orthodox church as a result of this. It’s been a real gift to us to have that kind of opportunity. Many of my brethren in other states, particularly in the north or northeast, can’t believe even that there is such a thing as a Faith & Values section, much less that Orthodox Christianity is playing such a prominent role in writing in that particular paper.

FMG: I know that’s one of the things, as newspapers have lost so many subscribers, and they keep shrinking, they keep losing pages, that the religion section is one of the first things to go. So, to still have three pages devoted to it here is an amazing thing. I know that there’s Fr. Aidan Wilcox in Cedar Park, Texas, right outside of Austin, that he writes regular columns for the local paper there, and I guess I would want to encourage pastors to do that. If you’re listening and an Orthodox pastor, you might think you’re not a writer, but if you can write a sermon, you know, just write down what you said in the sermon. Find a local hook, something in the news, and… a lot of times papers are looking to fill content, especially online, on web pages it’s 24 hours a day, and you have to keep replacing it. There are many ways you could actually reach a larger community than just your parish by reaching out like that.

Fr. JP: May I say another word about that? I would just like to encourage the same, and one of the tacks that I found most helpful was that the Orthodox Church represents something so totally ancient, something so totally different from everything else that’s in the religious news, at least in our area, but I think it’s true in the broader context of our country. We represent the minority, in a sense, and newspapers like minorities. So it’s helpful to use that, to use it for good, to describe that ‘Here’s what we’ve been doing for thousands of years, and here’s how come you don’t know about it already.’ Or by comparison to some grandiose thing, I read in the newspaper- this is how it happens sometimes. There was an article in the newspaper about eight weeks ago about some local mega-churches that have been partnering with other mega-churches to make mega-mega-churches. Their call to unity is to do things together, so they’re going to put a lot of money in a big pot together, and they’re going to go plant a church in Africa. Or something like that. It’s a very noble idea, and thank God they have such resources. But nevertheless, one of the lines in that article said, ‘We are partnering together with churches to plant other churches in other parts of the world where it’s never been done before.’ That was one of the things they said! And I thought, that’s outrageous! So I called the newspaper, my contact there, and I suggested, this has been going on for a long, long time, and can I have the time to explain a) what true Christian Unity is, and b) how it has been going on throughout the last 2000 years, and perhaps why they might not know so- part of which is our fault, and part of which is their own myopia. But anyway, just to read something in the newspaper, and to contact the newspaper and say ‘I have a different perspective on that, which is also very venerable and ancient’, and I also have the opportunity to talk about it. I find that they’re always interested in that.

FMG: Yes, I think you will find that editors are often very receptive to that. Otherwise, they have to go out and find written material day after day after day. If you can tap into some open discussion going on they’re often very willing to hear that.

Fr. JP: One last word: I’ve found it very helpful to do that sort of writing about something that’s already been written about, because they’ve already chosen the topic, and this would be a way to respond to it. It does happen on occasion that newspapers are interested in having two opposing sides put in a room and having you duke it out. So, that also can be beneficial if everyone knows that that’s going on. It’s important to be aware of that, so that when we come to the table to write about that, to write about whatever the topic might be, we know that sometimes it might just be for the spectacle. So we have to be careful to know that’s the case. We may still choose to be in the arena, but…

FMG: I noticed that desire for spectacle when there used to be much more interest in hearing about the abortion issue, and I was doing a lot of writing, radio, newspaper, and TV shows. Especially on TV shows, I would notice how the producer would dart in during the commercials and try to make us angrier, saying, ‘Challenge him on that, don’t let him get away with that…’ It is spectacle; they know that what catches the viewers, or the readers, is people getting angry. We want to do things the way that is appropriate for us as Christians and not get hooked into that culture of spectacle and anger and violence, in fact, verbal violence.

Fr. JP: Yeah, it’s amazing how that does work sometimes. I would say, just to make a shameless plug for the Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, that over the last two and a half years, they have been incredibly gracious to me, and have allowed me on behalf of our parish, to write about things that otherwise people just… they won’t buy a book at the store to read about this, they won’t type it in to the internet to read about it, but they flip over to page F-1 or whatever the Faith & Values is that particular Sunday, and they look on there for what piques their interest, to the point where people will see me on occasion in my cassock, and they’ll say, ‘Are you the one who writes in the newspaper?’ And then I find that they’ve clipped those articles out and they’ve studied them in their adult Sunday School class in their big Baptist churches, and that’s amazing! So thank God for that and anything to help the Orthodox Faith become well known.

FMG: Well, it’s my home town. I’m glad to hear that they’re gracious and agreeable as you say at the Post and Courier. Congratulations. You say things in those columns sometimes, I think, ‘You can’t say those things in public!’ Because you’re so forthright about the Orthodox moral and theological position, and I find that it turns out, you *can* say that! And it clears the air when you just spell it out. And anytime you want to come mow our lawn, you can do that too!

Fr. JP: Thank you, I’ll be happy to do that again sometime!

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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