The story of the conversion of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware to Orthodoxy has more or less passed over into modern Orthodox legend. He accidentally stumbles into a Vigil service in order to get out of a rain storm. Discovering Orthodoxy and its beauty he begins to inquire into conversion only to be told to go back to his Anglican Church (he was not a clergyman, by the way). When eventually he does convert, he is told that he may become Orthodox but that he should not expect to ever be a priest because he is not Greek. The irony of the story, of course, is that it is being told by a Greek Orthodox Metropolitan.
His story was from another time. It is similar to that of Archbishop Dmitri (OCA) who, along with his sister, persuaded by encyclopedia articles that the Orthodox Church is indeed the Church founded by Christ, seeks to convert and attends five weeks in a row before anyone speaks to them (he was 16 or so at the time). He says he was 21 before he ever knew what the Liturgy said.
In neither case did the Orthodox Church seem particularly anxious to accept a convert. Some part of these stories is a failure – a lack of concern for evangelism – but another part reflects an aspect of Orthodoxy that continues to a certain extent: a frequent lack of anxiety about conversion. The night before I made a heart’s decision to convert to the Orthodox faith, I had read an article about a gentleman who had himself approached the Church and was told by a very spiritually mature woman that he should indeed convert to Orthodoxy, but that he should wait ten years.
I recall at the time being amazed at the story. What amazed me was that no one could say such a thing without a sure confidence in God. It was an uncommon thing to say – something that could only be said because of a prophetic gift. Indeed something about the story moved my heart to a place of decision that had not been there before. That story had a character to it that I later heard echoed in both the stories of Metropolitan Kallistos and Vladyka Dmitri. Indeed, my own entrance into the Church took years after that first decision of the heart – not because anyone in the Orthodox Church told me no or asked me to wait – there were many other factors that made my conversion extend over such a period. But what I found in the Church was no one who was anxious to make me do anything.
I found priests who certainly cared for me and would have done anything for me. But I did not find priests who seemed alarmed at my condition and anxious that it be corrected as soon as possible. The priest who eventually received me and my family into the faith later said to me that he thought everyone who came through the door of his parish was called to be Orthodox. “But that is God’s problem. My problem is to show hospitality.”
I had no arguments when I approached the faith. For one, I had no doubt of its truth. This stood in stark contrast to the life I was experiencing as an Anglican – where doubt and argument, crisis and cowardice were all too familiar companions – both within me and within most around me.
There was no argument – only decision. The lack of anxiety that greeted my decision probably played a much larger role than I will ever know. I provided all the anxiety anyone could want (I didn’t need more from someone else).
In hindsight, I can see that the “Church of the Unanxious God” is also the foundation for virtues such as patience, faith, hope – all characteristics that are born from dwelling in the truth. We can be patient because “God is good and loves mankind.” For the same reason we can be faithfully patient and live in hope.
I will quickly grant that Orthodoxy has no corner on proclaiming an unanxious God and that we sin as often as anyone else, failing to be patient or to have faith and hope. Nevertheless it seems to be an inherent part of the Orthodox faith to say to the world: “The truth abides and will abide and will not change. It will be here tomorrow as surely as today. Whether you come now or later or never come at all – it will abide.”
The position of Orthodoxy within the English-speaking world has shifted dramatically since the decades in which Archbishop Dmitri or Metropolitan Kallistos sought to be received into the faith. Much of the convert-rich territory of today’s Orthodoxy can be attributed to the fact that, unlike 50 years ago, today’s Church has an abundance of material in English. And with greater numbers of converts also comes greater conversation, awareness and opportunity.
And yet, it should still be the case that the Orthodox Church retain its faith in the unanxious God. Hospitality is tremendously important and so is the ability for people to get information who want it. We have a commandment to preach the gospel and to make disciples – but this is not the same thing as a commandment to make converts. That is God’s business, and a mysterious business indeed. Our first task is to pray for the world and welcome such as God adds to the Church (Acts 2:47), making disciples by learning to be disciples ourselves.