Orthodoxy in America Has a Convert Problem

The Orthodox Church in the United States has problems. One of the problems the Orthodox Church currently suffers in this country is a lack of converts. There are other problems as well: overlapping jurisdictions, lack of communication across jurisdictional lines, and a tendency to isolate ourselves from communities in which we live. But it is our lack of converts that strikes me as particularly troubling.

Doubtlessly, some will correct me and remind me that the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Orthodox Church in America are made up largely of converts. While this is certainly the case, it may be so only from a numbers perspective (though, together, they comprise less than 20% of Orthodox in America). “But how else can we measure a shortage or a surplus of converts except in terms of numbers?” some may ask.

First, let’s examine what is meant by convert. Most of us would say that a convert is a person who was not raised in the Orthodox Faith but later chose to embrace it. By this definition, I am a convert. I was raised in the Episcopal Church up to the age of 13, when my parents moved us to the Roman Catholic Church. I was 23 when I embraced Orthodox Christianity.

However, there are some who would not consider my conversion a conversion at all. “You just switched church buildings,” they say. “All the Orthodox Church did was steal a sheep from the Church of Rome.” There may indeed be some substance to this charge. On the one hand, it might be true if all churches are simply different articulations of the same message—different branches of one tree. On the other hand, it might be true if there are substantial—even fundamental—differences between the churches, but I had not fully embraced the teaching of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

We can safely dismiss the first possibility. The differences between the various churches are simply too wide and too deep to traverse for anyone who understands such differences to be able to consider all churches “basically the same.” The modern ecumenical movement, despite nearly a century of work, has failed to reverse the fragmentation of the Protestant world, just as it has failed to reunite the Church of Rome with the Orthodox Church. It is, therefore, the second possibility that may give credibility to the charge of “sheep stealing” as opposed to genuine conversion. If I have not fully embraced the paradigm of the Orthodox Church, believing all that the Church preaches about God and man’s proper response to God, then I am no convert.

Consider the recent case of Matthew Heimbach. A now prominent figure among American white nationalists and most recently an organizer for the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, he expressed an interest in Orthodox Christianity a few years back. He was received into the Orthodox Church in a parish of the Antiochian Archdiocese in 2014. Having learned of his racist background after his reception into the Church, his parish priest, Fr. Peter Jon Gillquist, with the support of his bishop, insisted that Heimbach publicly renounce “violence, hate speech, and the heresy of Phyletism.”

Ultimately, Heimbach did not comply and was excommunicated from the Orthodox Church, although he currently seeks communion in non-canonical groups. It is clear that he was intrigued on some level by one or more aspects of the Orthodox Church, but he found it impossible to embrace the teaching and lived experience of the Church, which urges the faithful to love their neighbors as themselves (Mk. 12:31). He was willing to accept the Orthodox Church only insofar as he was able to cram it through his white nationalist framework, which he prized above all else. Whether or not Matthew Heimbach was a “stolen sheep” is debatable. Whether or not he was actually a convert to Orthodox Christianity is not.

When we step back from this one sad story of a failure to convert and look at the Church in our country, we begin to see that the failure to convert is actually fairly common for many Orthodox Christians who remain in the Church’s communion. But when we look to see who has not fully embraced the teaching and preaching of the Church, it not just those who have come to the Church from outside but also those who were born and raised in the Church. It is not uncommon for self-professed Orthodox Christians to vocally support abortion and gay marriage.

Indeed, some of these people call upon the Orthodox Church to alter her teaching on such matters, even though the Church has clearly and unambiguously proclaimed her position. They are sorely displeased that the Church is not as “enlightened” as they are, when it is they who cling to paradigms incompatible with the Gospel, which they doubtlessly value more than the Gospel. Some of them eventually leave, and some of them stay. All of them are only too happy to tell us how the Church is wrong.

The leap to Orthodox Christianity from wherever we have been is difficult, to say the very least, even if it is a leap from within the Church. After all, there is a good reason why we think and act the way we do. Right? But the call to discipleship comes with an all-encompassing price: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).

It is not that only some of us have a hard time denying ourselves, setting aside what we personally think is best and trusting in Christ. All of us do. Who is the true convert? It is the person who turns away from himself or herself and turns to Christ endlessly.

The Church does not ask us to abandon reason or decency, nor does she ask us to blindly follow her leaders. On the contrary, the Church asks us to carefully consider what we mean by “reason” and “decency” and measure them by the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Church calls us to follow her leaders with our eyes open to the commandments of Christ. The Church is the Bride of Christ calling us to a life of faithfulness to the Bridegroom. A life which faithfully reflects the light of Christ—such is the life of the convert.

29 comments:

  1. Father Bless,
    Your post is succinct and timely. I, too, am a convert and can understand and appreciate what is required to be converted. Your concerns are not unique to Orthodoxy. I graduated from a Protestant Seminary with an M Div with emphasis on two disciplines: Evangelism and Christian Education. I wrote a research paper dealing with the subject of conversion. I discovered that every denomination, independent church and even the Roman Catholic s had all of their emphasis on getting people to commit to Christ and very little after their acceptance into the church of their choice.
    I found that generally Sunday School was not a formal “continuing education” bit generally a haphazard system mostly guided by the whims of the teacher of every class. Some denominations had formal written materials but these programs were mostly ignored. Since my acceptance into Orthodoxy, I find the same issue haunts us. My Priest and I have discussed this and we both agree there is a need to offer “continuing education” to help people grow in their faith and spirituality but nobody in our parish seems to want to attend. I decided to start a class to look at the Nicene Creed (as a tool to explain the faith). I had 15 participants but within a few weeks (there were many excuses) I had one student who was awaiting acceptance into the Church and he stuck it out to the end.
    I can see the problem, as you have outlined it, but I am still trying to find a good answer to it. You have illumined a problem that begs to be solved but greater minds than mine will need to address it.

    1. Thank you for your message, Nicholas. For those faithful in the Church, who would like to see their children grow up as believing Orthodox Christians, I firmly believe that the answer is catechesis in the home. Church cannot be a Sunday-only phenomenon. Parents must pray with their kids and talk openly about the importance of the faith. I know that some parents feel ill-equipped to do so, which is why many don’t do it at all. The parents’ feelings of insecurity should not prevent them from teaching the Faith to their kids. They can ask their priests for clarification. Indeed, it would be wonderful if there was a single place where parents could gather resources to help teach their children. This is something I am working on right now.

      1. Father,
        I agree completely. We must disciple our children in the home as well as in services and by that I do not mean only at the Divine Liturgy on Sundays. As it says in Deuteronomy: “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.” The Lord has commanded us to teach our children the faith. For us who convert as adults it is our task to seek the Lord’s face with the same intensity.

  2. Interesting article. At the same time we should note that Christianity and churches in the U.S. face an increasing anti-religion populace… I have Catholic friends here in PA that tell me they “dropped” out 20 years ago. And some local mainline Protestant churches in our small towns in PA are closing doors.

    Not sure how to fight this trend but for sure the Orthodox need some new life. I realize that one drawback is when :Greek or some other name is part of a church name… but have found that those churches are usually very welcoming to outsiders… and dropping any “ethnic” part of a church name might be a challenge.

  3. Excellent post, Father. Many thanks!

    I discovered that every denomination, independent church and even the Roman Catholic s had all of their emphasis on getting people to commit to Christ and very little after their acceptance into the church of their choice.

    I completely agree and this is, at least in part, supposed to be addressed during catechism. I know our priest usually meets with catechumens for at least a year and I find this very wise. But the issue remains.

    The fact that the Church is slow to address many changes in society-at-large, leaving many in it unable to adequately respond when they are challenged with various questions, also adds to the problem. Not everyone is wise enough to remain silent until they can discuss an issue with their spiritual father or priest and this can cause a great deal of confusion. Then again, the slowness of the Church to speak on some matters is also a blessing; knee-jerk reactions are rarely beneficial.

    My priest has stated that the Liturgy itself teaches and I believe this to be true. It may be that a formal “Sunday School” education situation is not the real answer. We seek to obtain a humble and loving heart before God and others; that is a lesson that takes a lifetime to learn. Just thinking out loud. May God bless.

  4. Father,
    Thanks for the article. As a Lutheran struggling with the issue of converting to Orthodoxy, I appreciate it. However, would it not have been helpful to include some statistics on conversions to Orthodoxy within various communions (over and above the one stat on how many in the OCA and Antiochian churches are such) as well as some comparative data for how many folks convert to, say, Catholicism?
    Thanks.
    Tim Furnish

  5. I am an Roman Rite Catholic-I felt drawn to the Greek Orthodox Church in my area and attended for several months. I love the liturgy and the teachings but the bridge to “convert” to the Eastern side seems too great. I wish I could go to an Eastern Rite Catholic church but they are too far away from me. So I made the decision to stay in my Roman Rite church and adopt Eastern Orthodox prayers and practices in my devotional life. It is sad that we are divided!!

  6. My experience as a convert to Orthodoxy from High Church Anglicanism might be of some relevance here, although I’m loath to suggest that this anything other than a minority report.

    My journey to Orthodoxy took place over a number of years and had reached a position of irrevocable commitment before I ever set foot in an Orthodox Church. That might be an unusual process, but perhaps not.

    Immediately on starting to attend an Orthodox Church I met with the priest to share the process I had been through and what I believed the Lord had been doing with me during the previous few years. I was received with great warmth by both priest and congregation, as one would hope. I was left somewhat perplexed, however, in learning that the diocesan bishop had mandated that all converts would be required to be attached to a local church for a period of two years before being considered for chrismation. I shall leave both jurisdiction and diocese undisclosed.

    Far be it from me to question an episcopal decision, but it did seem a rather curious way to go about receiving converts, particularly when the specific congregation had, perhaps, 20 members and was in need of new blood. From the convert’s perspective, to deny long-standing Christians participation in the sacraments of the Church for this arbitrary period should be self-evidently problematic. The same provisions were applied in the case of another convert into that congregation, who had served as a Lutheran pastor for more than 20 years. They were not, however, seen as necessary in the case of the converting husband of a cradle Orthodox wife, whose chrismation proceeded apace.

    Again, whether this is anything other than minority report, I will leave others to judge. Whatever the bishop’s motivations, and I wholeheartedly believe that they were well-intentioned, this approach to enthusiastic converts seems somewhat counterproductive and, potentially, spiritually harmful if one takes participation in the sacramental life of the Church seriously. Surely it would have been more beneficial to deal with each case on its own merits, with the bishop himself being prepared to conduct one on one interviews to assess the spiritual condition and commitment of new adherents.

    A barrier to easy conversion to Orthodoxy might have benefits on paper, but arbitrary policies do not necessarily make for good pastoral care.

    1. Peter,
      Perhaps it was as in my case. The Orthodox Church was trying to see how serious I really was. I had done all the academic work and had adopted an Orthodox Prayer Rule (even though I was still a Pastor in an evangelical Protestant Denomination). I was told I could become a catechumen after I had regularly attended Divine Liturgy for a year and then after two or three years be accepted into the Church. I made the leap, resigning from my previous Church and giving up the income only to find that through diligence, determination and through the Grace of our Lord, the whole process took nine months.
      One of the saddest things I have seen since conversion is others who come in, get received and then disappear in a few months. I am fairly certain what you were told was not arbitrary but a way to shift out those who were not that serious or dedicated. In the Early Church in the latter First Century up to the acceptance as the State religion in the Fourth, the catechumen process was several years. One of the things that jump started Monasticism in the Fourth Century was the easy “conversion” of so many pagans who really did not convert.
      Obviously, you had the drive and the Lord gave the Grace to receive you in quicker fashion. Sometimes it is our answer to the “maybe later” that shows our true grit and determination to convert. In any case, you and I are both in the Church and remain so.

      1. Nicholas – It sounds as though your experience was not altogether dissimilar from a combination of my own and that of my former Lutheran pastor friend. To relinquish one’s ministerial offices – not something I had to do – is an enormous step of faith.

        Your clearly articulated position is precisely that of my bishop, and it’s one I understand and appreciate. I mentioned my experience here only because, against the backdrop of Fr. Photius’ article, I thought it had some relevance to the convert issue. Having been through it, I would never go back; and I’m sure that all those who convert for spiritual and theological reasons would say the same thing.

        I have nothing against conversion being a process that requires the demonstration of genuine and long-lasting commitment. Orthodox Christianity is demanding upon the faithful and no one should be under any misapprehensions about the rigor of the Orthodox Christian life.

        A very long period as a catechumen was indeed followed in the early centuries, although I might add that there is a substantive difference between catechizing converts from paganism and the reception of those who have already been Christians for several decades, have attended theological colleges, and have served in ministry in various categories. At least, I hope that there is!

        May you be abundantly blessed by our Great God and Savior and find much useful work in your parish.

        I would just add that I’m a firm believer in spiritual formation and education within the local church. I would like to see more enthusiasm for evangelistic outreach and Biblical study within the Orthodox community. This is an area in which we lag far behind Evangelicalism. Your experience in wrestling with the appetite (or lack of it) for teaching in the Orthodox local church is not uncommon, although some priests around the country seem to have been successful in fostering the desire to grow among the faithful. How long it took them, and what had to be suffered during the effort, is probably something for another interesting article.

        1. Peter
          In this and your more recent post your thinking is, I believe, quite on target. I know in my own Parish our Priest is very discerning on who goes from seeker to Catechumen and when they are full received. I know he has a great desire, as I am sure do all, to make sure people do not fall away after conversion.
          It would be nice to be able to do outreach more successfully than my experience has been. With my training in evangelism, I tried to convince people of the truth of Orthodoxy. I have had to reject everything I learned in my Protestant Seminary and learn the Orthodox way.
          The Orthodox way is slow, steady and experiential. I had to learn to just invite people to services and let the Lord handle the rest. As I am now in the OCA, we are not ethnic (not that there isn’t a need for that in Orthodoxy in America) and we seem to be able to attract people a little easier. My main concern is based on my own experience. I have been scholarly in the past and have read extensively of Western Theology and now Eastern. I had to unlearn my mode of thinking as a Western Christian and “swim the Bosporus” as the saying goes. I have found much a more profound connection to Christ through the theology of worship and prayer than I ever did from reading. It is hard for a Westerner to make that change of mind.
          I do think, however, that being aware of the issues is a great first step and your suggestion of knowing some statistics would seem to be of great benefit to those in the Hierarchy. One of my greatest challenges in learning the Orthodox phrenoma was to learn to let the Church take the lead. I am way too small a fish to stick my nose in things that are way above me.

  7. Thank you for this enlightened post. Our Greek Orthodox Church, Saint Paul’s in Irvine, CA has a very large number of converts. Most of them continue beyond the 8 month “Orthodoxy 101” weekly class, lead by our Pastor, Father Steven Tsichlis. We offer two bible studies, an Orthodoxy 102 course as well as a weekly prayer group and a Women’s Study Fellowship. Many of our converts become very committed and active parishioners. We are involved in many outreach projects and welcome visitors and converts with open arms. Our pastor reminds us all that one need not be Greek (or Russian or Romanian, etc.) to be an Orthodox Christian. Many converts hear about us during the tours of our church during the Greek Festival. Our priest as well as one of our parishioners, Dr. Eve Tibbs (PhD Theology) give a presentation which explains who we are and how we worship. They invite them to learn more by attending the Orthodoxy 101 class. It’s a start, but there is always more work to do for Christ and His Orthodox Church.

  8. Great article Father. I will soon be crismated and become a member of the Orthodox Church after two years. Being from a family that has lived in America since virtually the beginning, I have no ethnic roots to speak of……we simply think of ourselves as Americans and that is it. I think the first issue at hand is that many non-ethnic Americans really have never heard of the Orthodox Church. I have been an active Protestant (Lutheran and evangelical SBC) for almost 45 years, even attended Liberty University for a semester for a Masters of Div. degree (did not finish degree due to other issues), yet Orthodoxy was foreign to me. Just to make my point, if 5 years ago you would have asked me to make a list of every Christian denomination I could think of, Orthodoxy would not have made that list…..never heard of it. It was only through my own research and seeing one NFL player cross himself that made me realized what the Orthodox Church was.

    The ethnic side of the Church can be a turn off. As I desired to attend an Orthodox Church, and looked at websites…written in Romanian, Serbian, and Russian….I thought that maybe the Orthodox Church wasn’t for me. I did find an OCA and GOARCH Church website in English. The Greek Orthodox was the closest so I went to that one. I thought everyone was very inviting and do love that church, yet often in the beginning many people that came to me, the first thing they would ask is, “are you Greek”? I never received anything negative when I said no, but it does make one uncomfortable. I never once was asked where I stood with faith in Jesus Christ, meaning where I was in my journey, except by the priest. Everyone else just seemed to want to know if I was or wasn’t Greek. That seemed very wierd to me for a Christian church.

    I say all this because it did not deter me since I knew what I was searching for, what I found, what was revealed to me, but I do believe it would scare away my fellow family members.

  9. I am a bit confused by the article as it seems at the beginning there is an inference that the problem is with the Orthodox Church, as if it were her fault that people do not commit themselves to the Holy Trinity in general, much less the time tested and well-worn path of Orthodoxy. That the emphasis is on getting converts. That makes me cringe as it is not about numbers, it is about people coming into true relationship with the Holy Trinity. God gives the increase when the Church is doing it’s job faithfully of worshipping, teaching the ancient faith, speaking the truth and living in love, walking upright yet with humility. Then, further in the article, its clear that it supports standing by the Faith as handed down. As a liturgical/sacramental Christian, who has by the Grace of God believed Orthodox all my life, and is now finally able to live where there is an Orthodox Church and join with the Ancient Faith, I can tell you that assuring people know the faith and go through instruction is crucial. Each person comes with different baggage, some are on the rebound from another faith, some are drawn only by the mystical sights and sounds of worship, etc. Our Lord’s parable of the sowing of the seed comes to mind. Everyone learns and grows at different spiritual rates and a wise priest measures that growth and determines when one is ready. I am entering the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, which is more a place name than ethnicity in the title. There is nothing wrong with those designators in the name, as long as the people who are Greek or Russian think outward welcoming all people and not inward as an ethnic only social club. However, any church can find something to be cliquish about, and the priest has nurture the culture of the parish to be about the Lord’s work. In the end it is not about numbers. Lord have mercy.

  10. Father, bless:

    How can it be “sheep stealing’ if one chooses to attend a church? Last time I looked Orthodox Christians didn’t actively prosyltize the way you see many Protestant churches do. This idea of ‘switching’ church buildings’ is also a rather ignorant statement which only demonstrates that those who say such things know nothing about Orthodoxy and how it is unique within Christianity. As for Mr. Heimbaugh, I would say that the only true ‘convert’ problem here would be if his name is continually attached to Orthodoxy. Most Orthodox Christians are not avowed racists and it’s a shame that some want to tar the church with the Heimbaugh brush. I’d say he speaks for himself, not for most Orthodox Christians and definitely not for the African American converts like myself who know that Orthodoxy existed in Africa long before it was ever in Russia!

  11. Did anyone here actually read this great article, or just the headline?
    The article isn’t about people converting to The Church, but for some reason, that’s what most of the comments so far pertain to.

    “……and look at the Church in our country, we begin to see that the failure to convert is actually fairly common for many Orthodox Christians who remain in the Church’s communion.”
    This is a challenging, but great line Father. Thank you.

  12. Thank you for this thoughtful essay. I think, however, that your characterization of people who question the what is the received tradition of the Church is a bit unfair. First, it’s not just people who have grown in the Church who are doing so, it is also Orthodox Christians who have converted from another faith. So, your making it seem that it is just born-and-bred is inaccurate. Second, you conflate abortion and gay marriage, as if every person who questions the Church on one also does so for the other. That is also inaccurate. Moreover, it’s not the only issue–what of women’s ordination? You give the impression that there is a group out there, which is infected by liberalism and challenging the Church on these issues. Again, it’s more complex than that. For example, there are those who would question the Church on women’s ordination but be very much anti-abortion and against blessing of gay marriage. On this point, you fail to clarify more clearly that the “gay marriage” is a twofold issue: a) how the Church should respond to legalization by the state and b) whether the Church should offer some blessing. Those who argue for legalization get conflated with those asking for blessings and that is also not precise. Finally, you give the impression that those raising questions to the Church’s received tradition on issues are only doing so out of concern for ‘enlightenment’–again, unfair. There are those who are doing so for deep theological reasons. They are engaging these issues theologically, fully aware of the complex questions of hermeneutics in relation to the Biblical, canonical, patristic, dogmatic, conciliar and liturgical tradition. They share the same sources of authority, but the debate is really about how to interpret those sources. It’s not enough to say “the Church has said”; one must offer explanations that cohere with what the Church proclaims dogmatically about the union of the divine and the human in Christ, and, correlatively our struggle for theosis. Even Athanasius against Arius never rested on “the Church has said,” but offered reasons for why affirming the full divinity of Christ is more reasonable than the Arian position (He uses such words as ‘aprepes’ and ‘eulogon’ in “On the Incarnation”). The basic issue is really this: what does it mean to be a living Tradition? The dogmatic tradition is non-negotiable, but is that really the case for other issues, such as women’s ordination? The dogmas did not intend to stifle conversation, but provide the parameters for discussion of issues that the Church knew would emerge in ways unforeseen. We are all faithful Orthodox Christians trying to interpret the Tradition the best we can. Rather than engaging in ad hominems, or dividing us in the-truly v. the-not-truly converted, we should recognize that there is a serious debate about interpretation within our Church, and focus our attention there.

    1. Allow me to address your points.

      You write:

      “I think, however, that your characterization of people who question what is the received tradition of the Church is a bit unfair.”

      It is not my desire to mischaracterize those who question the received tradition of the Church. I have thoroughly questioned the received tradition of the Church for the sake of understanding it better. The Orthodox Faith cannot be one’s own unless one has questioned every aspect of it. I have done so and find no fault in either the Church’s dogmatic, doctrinal, or moral teachings.

      You write:

      “First, it’s not just people who have grown in the Church who are doing so, it is also Orthodox Christians who have converted from another faith. So, your making it seem that it is just born-and-bred is inaccurate.”

      Read the article again. I never said that the phenomenon of people who try to harmonize the faith with their own paradigms was a “born-and-bred” phenomenon. Did you miss the paragraph about Matthew Heimbach?

      You write:

      “Second, you conflate abortion and gay marriage, as if every person who questions the Church on one also does so for the other. That is also inaccurate.”

      Mentioning the two issues side by side is not the same as conflating them. I do not conflate the issues. I simply mention them as two popular issues, which certain people have called upon the Church to “engage in dialogue.”

      You write:

      “Moreover, it’s not the only issue–what of women’s ordination? You give the impression that there is a group out there, which is infected by liberalism and challenging the Church on these issues. Again, it’s more complex than that.”

      Liberalism is not the only thing warping people’s perspectives on the teaching of the Church. Conservatism is doing it just as much. As to women’s ordination, it is curious that the question is never raised in the Church in any serious capacity until the second half of the Twentieth Century with the rise of Second Wave Feminism in the West. Forgive me if I think it unlikely that those desiring “dialogue” on the issue are genuinely doing so out of a desire to “understand the Tradition more clearly.” It is positively clear from our history that the roles of the bishopric, presbytery, and diaconate have evolved. They have, however, only done so in degree; not in kind.

      You write:

      “For example, there are those who would question the Church on women’s ordination but be very much anti-abortion and against blessing of gay marriage.”

      I am well aware of that, and I have friends who hold this position. Again, it is not an issue of equating errors or discouraging free thought. I want people to ask honestly both what the Church proclaims and why. With this, we can examine our own beliefs and why we hold them.

      You write:

      “On this point, you fail to clarify more clearly that the ‘gay marriage’ is a twofold issue: a) how the Church should respond to legalization by the state and b) whether the Church should offer some blessing. Those who argue for legalization get conflated with those asking for blessings and that is also not precise.”

      I am aware of this, as well. I did not clarify the distinction, because that was not the point of the article. However, I am happy to address the distinction. The “gay marriage” phenomenon is an historical anomaly with no precedent in any society, even though homosexuality exists in every society. Consider the world into which the Church was born—the Roman Empire. Homosexual behavior was far from taboo. It was quite normal, but the Romans never considered affording homosexual couples the ability to marry, which they believed was reserved for a man and a woman for the sake of procreation. A man could engage in as much sodomy with other men and young boys as he liked, but if he desired to marry, it was a woman he must choose. Fast forward to America in the Twentieth Century. Gay culture was/is not predominantly expressed in monogamous unions. It was/is expressed primarily in the likes of the Castro Club in San Francisco. When gay activists began advocating for marriage as a solution to the ravages of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, they were initially met with resistance in the gay community. “That is not how we live,” many gay men objected. And yet now, “gay marriage” is an institution. The political opinions of Orthodox Christians regarding the acceptability of gay marriage as a civil institution are really neither here nor there. The question as to whether or not the Church can bless such unions is of great importance. However, even a cursory study of the Church’s unambiguous position on homosexuality renders the answer to that question rather quickly.

      You write:

      “Finally, you give the impression that those raising questions to the Church’s received tradition on issues are only doing so out of concern for ‘enlightenment’–again, unfair. There are those who are doing so for deep theological reasons. They are engaging these issues theologically, fully aware of the complex questions of hermeneutics in relation to the Biblical, canonical, patristic, dogmatic, conciliar and liturgical tradition. They share the same sources of authority, but the debate is really about how to interpret those sources. It’s not enough to say “the Church has said”; one must offer explanations that cohere with what the Church proclaims dogmatically about the union of the divine and the human in Christ, and, correlatively our struggle for theosis. Even Athanasius against Arius never rested on “the Church has said,” but offered reasons for why affirming the full divinity of Christ is more reasonable than the Arian position (He uses such words as ‘aprepes’ and ‘eulogon’ in “On the Incarnation”).”

      I could not disagree more that those raising such questions are doing so “for deep theological reasons.” Obviously that is the banner they fly, but it is really only about the fact that the Church teaches one thing, they believe another, and they want the Church to accommodate them. Their desire to determine what the sources “really mean” is nothing more and nothing less than looking for loopholes. I agree that it is not enough to say, “The Church has said,” thus and such. We must know why. But the why is evident. It is this party who pretends that it is not.

      You write:

      “The basic issue is really this: what does it mean to be a living Tradition? The dogmatic tradition is non-negotiable, but is that really the case for other issues, such as women’s ordination? The dogmas did not intend to stifle conversation, but provide the parameters for discussion of issues that the Church knew would emerge in ways unforeseen. We are all faithful Orthodox Christians trying to interpret the Tradition the best we can. Rather than engaging in ad hominems, or dividing us in the-truly v. the-not-truly converted, we should recognize that there is a serious debate about interpretation within our Church, and focus our attention there.”

      To say that someone is in error about one thing or another is not tantamount to an ad hominem attack. I agree that the dogmas of the Church are not meant to crush discussion but that they provide a framework within which to understand our faith. But that framework does indeed have limits. If we can question whether or not homosexual behavior is sinful, what is stopping us from questioning whether or not pedophilia is sinful? As long as it is consensual? And what do we mean by “consent”? If the roles women have occupied in the history of the Church are nothing more than the result of cultural norms dictated by a repressive patriarchy, why are we only addressing the injustices between the sexes? Why not address the injustices between the ages? Why can’t a child guide an entire Church community? After all, it is only bias that has kept them from holding such offices. Thus, we fall into the endless regress of nominalism, whereby knowledge is impossible, and a thing is only what we call it.
      To be an Orthodox Christian is to surrender one’s life to Christ—to be shaped by the Tradition whereby Christ was first made known to us.

      1. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. In your response to your “I could not disagree with you more” how can you make such a judgement? For example, on women’s ordination to the priesthood, there are those who have, such as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who for theological reasons has not foreclosed the possibility. To dogmatize women’s role is simply to define Orthodoxy in self-opposition to anything liberal. Orthodoxy is not negative self-identification; it’s not a distorted apophaticism. To say that people are motivated simply by accommodation is to indicate that you have already predetermined what is and what is not up for discussion. Therefore, even if one were to try and give theological reasons consistent with the dogmas of the Church, you would accuse them of accommodation. So, my question is: what is exactly up for discussion?

        To equate every form of homosexual relationship, especially long-term committed relationships, with pedophilia is simply ridiculous and absolutely not convincing. It indicates a certain grasping-at-straws argument.

        The Fathers understood clearly that Orthodoxy pertains to beliefs. That’s why morals were never dogmatized, because they knew that what was dogma was the understanding of the God-world relation in terms of divine-human communion. They knew clearly that realizing that communion required discernment. Yes–there are rules; but they knew that discernment was required to best move one toward the presence of God.

        Finally, I absolutely could not agree more with you that to be an Orthodox Christian is to surrender one’s life to Christ. And that means a struggle toward theosis as, in the words of St. Maximos the Confessor, a learning how to love, especially the enemy and the stranger. It also means a struggle to discern the meaning of the Incarnation in the face of new questions and circumstances. It means having the humility to recognize that even the Other may have a point.

        1. Let me stop you right there. How did the message of Jesus Christ come to us in the first place? Through the Apostles. Of all the Apostles, no one of them writes more about Our Lord Jesus Christ than St. Paul. How can we, in one breath, praise what he says about the Crucified and Risen Christ, and in the next breath describe his prescriptions for a life lived in proper response to the saving work of Christ as “temporary” or “fluid” or “subject to the progressing enlightenment of the human race”? Christian morality is directly informed by dogma. If it is not, then dogma is merely a source of comfort with no real implications as to how to live our lives, and the only real sins are those we prefer to demonize. Dogma demands nothing of us according to you.

          With regard to pedophilia, who are you to judge the sexuality of hundreds of millions of people? After all, Jesus never talked about it, and the entire patristic witness is entirely silent on the matter. And what is not condemned must be permissible, yes? Who is to say that such unions cannot be blessed? If we can ask, “What is gender that it should separate two people who want to commit themselves to one another?” it logically follows that we can ask, “What is age?” After all, did not the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) wed ‘Aisha (ABPWH) when she was but a child of six years and consummate the marriage when she was nine? And did she not go on to become the greatest of his advocates? If you advocate monogamous sodomy, you cannot condemn monogamous pedophilia.

          Your agenda is naked. You seek to fashion the Church in your image, after your likeness.

          1. I sincerely, and without any sarcasm, don’t understand your response in the sense of I cannot comprehend what you are trying to tell me. I affirm Christ as the revelation of God as the one who is God; I affirm the faith of the Church as expressed by the seven Ecumenical Councils. We share the same sources of authority; again, I think where we disagree is how we understand Tradition. The morality of the Church is not simply reducible to Jesus’s commandments (the highest being to love God and neighbor); it can’t be–what did Christ say about stem cell research, or women’s ordination? Studying its history will show that the Church discerned moral principles that best move us toward theosis. Let me repeat: we need moral rules; but morality is not dogma. Morality derives from the interpretation of the dogma. I never said dogma demands nothing of us. In fact, I affirmed that it demands a lot in terms of learning how to love–stranger and enemy–in our struggle toward theosis.

            I can understand how you might accuse and judge me of a naked theology, fashioning Church in my image, etc. The limitations of this format inevitably lead to misunderstandings that personal conversation could probably clear up. But, as the one who is truly converted, before you judge me–the not-truly-converted-born-and-bred Orthodox with naked theology–you should at least take the time to read some of my other writings: https://fordham.academia.edu/AristotlePapanikolaou. The stuff on virtue and violence may especially interest you. At the very least, listen to my Ancient Faith Radio podcast in “Everyday Theology.”

          2. Thank you Father! More people need to see the real agenda of the Fordham crew and said agenda needs to be exposed.

          3. The purpose of my last message was to call into question your logic regarding both the prescribed response to the work of Christ as set forth by the Apostles and your assertion as to the virtue of monogamous homosexual relationships. I apologize if that was unclear, but as you observed, this format has limitations. To clarify, it is not your theology I called “naked.” It is your agenda. I am more than happy to read your work.
            Again, I would have to say that I disagree that “the morality of the Church is not simply reducible to Jesus’ commandments (the highest being to love God and neighbor); it can’t be—what did Christ say about stem cell research, or women’s ordination?” The morality of the Church is based upon the very person of Christ Jesus, Who said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Matt. 5:17). Our morality no other foundation. Not Locke. Not Hume. Not Nietzsche. Not Heidegger. Not Gloria Steinem nor Hugh Heffner. If we pretend that our morality does have some other foundation, we inevitably seek one that is most pleasing to us. While we doubtlessly face new questions with the passage of time (particularly those of bioethics), many questions currently being raised by those unhappy with the Church’s teaching have already been answered—those of homosexuality, abortion, women’s ordination, etc.
            The Orthodox Church has never subscribed to John Henry Cardinal Newman’s notion of “Progressive Revelation.” To do so would be to deny that Jesus Christ Himself is the fullness of God’s revelation to mankind. Our morality, like our theology, does not evolve, because it is based upon Our Lord Jesus Christ “the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). To be sure, ecclesiastical crises have demanded that our theology be more precisely articulated through the ages, but our theology has not fundamentally changed. So it is with our morality. Times change, but people, apart from the saving work of Christ, do not. The same things that were good for us at our origins are still good for us, and the same things that were bad for us at our origins are still bad for us. What was wrong does not with the stroke of a philosopher’s pen or by popular demand become right.

  13. Having now read the article through several times, perhaps we need more data on the phenomenon of conversion to Orthodoxy. Who converts? From where do they come? What is it about their prior church affiliation that causes them to seek pastures new? And what is it about the Orthodox Church that is found to be conducive to a deeper and more fulfilling Christian life? And what, if anything, might give coverts pause?

    Without the essential data, it’s a little difficult to determine the roots of the problem, to the extent that there is one. And pastorally, there appears to be.

    I don’t have empirical data on the dynamics of Orthodox conversion to state anything with scientific certainty, so everything I say is subject to that caveat. But my personal experience of converts to Orthodoxy is that they are typically serious Christians who have read and studied and thought about their spiritual needs. They have often spent quite some time in studying church history and liturgy and have thought rather penetratingly about what the Church is, should be, and have found in the Eastern Church a freedom from the winds of cultural change that is refreshing and comforting. Converts are likely to be more conservative in their approach to the Bible, as reliable testimony to God’s dealings with mankind. They are more likely than not to be suspicious of doctrinal innovation. They see the historical continuity of doctrine and tradition as a distinct positive.

    I doubt whether many church-shoppers have the essential commitment to the Orthodox Faith to remain long within the Orthodox Church, even if they were ever to find themselves within an Orthodox Church.

    Yes, there are those who see in Orthodoxy through the lens of its historical grounding in national churches, for political reasons, but these are not converts. For such people, Orthodoxy is an adjunct to their nationalistic agenda. This cannot be, and is not, a notable phenomenon in the West. Whether it is a driver of increasing Orthodox adherence in Eastern Europe is a question only time will tell. Spiritual commitment to the Orthodox Church will ultimately be measurable in Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia, etc.

    Examining the Western conversion phenomenon is essentially about the spiritual journeys of individual converts. I’ve spoken at length with converts from Pentecostalism, Calvinism, Anglo-Catholicism, Methodism, and various Baptist expressions. All have shown a deeply reflective understanding of their spiritual journey to Orthodoxy. Again, I can’t represent this as a statistically representative sample; but my experience suggests that becoming truly Orthodox in belief and praxis is not a problem for converts of this type.

    Perhaps we just need to become more discriminating in whom we accept as a convert. This convert to Orthodoxy comes about by the working of the Holy Spirit upon conscience in individual lives. This is not necessarily a phenomenon that can be or should be induced.

    Should we not, therefore, concentrate more of our efforts on the lost, through evangelism and outreach? The willing desire of mature Christians to come to the Orthodox Church is God’s work. The Spirit blows where He wills. Our growth in numbers should come from faithfulness to our sense of mission: to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to those presently outside Him. That mandates hard work, but the fields are ripe for the harvest.

    We should focus more assiduously on the conversion of sinners to Christ and perhaps worry less about the transition of those who are already Christians, who yet lack the fullness of Christ. Shouldn’t we rely on the Almighty God to do His work in that first dimension, and concentrate upon the real converts we long to make: those who have never heard the Gospel?

    1. “I can’t represent this as a statistically representative sample; but my experience suggests that becoming truly Orthodox in belief and praxis is not a problem for converts of this type.”
      I would submit that you could not be more wrong in this assessment.
      The fact of the matter is it is far easier for an atheist to become truly Orthodox in belief and praxis, than the “mature Christian” who has spent most of their life internalizing a myriad of theological errors. People who flee to Orthodoxy to avoid the “winds of change” (and let’s face it, these “winds” often have far more to do with empty moralism rather than a true theological metanoia- after all Lutheran theology, for example, was in grave error LONG before the ELCA allowed women to become pastors) are far too often quick to fashion an “Orthodoxy” of their own imagining, rather than doing the difficult work of rejecting their former error and beginning anew.

  14. Father, Bless

    Your article I think addresses two groups of people with the same problem, those people who grow up in the church as children, who tend to be ethnic, and those who convert in adulthood.

    I would propose both groups have to “convert” in the sense that no one is born a Christian; we are all baptized at one time or another. God is no respecter of persons. For those who grow up in the church, the challenge is to maintain fidelity, to remain converted, and to not drift into various states of apostasy or opposition to the Church driven by politics. For those who join the church as refugees from the Episcopal Church, USA, or other increasingly liberal mainline Protestant churches, which are dying off, or from evangelical churches which are superficial, the challenge is to not overreact or view the Orthodox Church as just another denomination, albeit one less likely to change and embrace gay marriage, et cetera. This is also where the politically passionate conservatives come into the picture – I myself am a conservative, but some Christians, for example, Al Mohler of the SBC, or the writer of Pen and Pulpit (who penned some amusing anti-Orthodox tirades, which I can’t even call polemics, as they were too silly, after the Bible Answer Man was chrismated earlier these year), or the late Rev. Dr. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, seem to conflate political positions with the church, whereas the Orthodox Church, while not apolitical, is not supposed to be politicized. We did manage to get gladiatorial combat, the Olympics, the abandonment of infants, and other cruelties of the Roman Empire suppressed, but the political activity of the church should be focused on only the most vital issues concerning abortion, the freedom of our clergy to read the Gospel and deliver homilies and catechtical instruction on issues such as homosexuality without fear of reprisal or criminal penalties, and the freedom of our church and the safety of our people, particularly in the suffering lands of Iraq, Syria and Africa. Thus, we have to avoid being, to use a British phrase, “party political” but rather work “across the aisle” to ensure our safety.

    It has been my experience, in the four years I have been blessed to have been in the Church, that most advocates for liberalization or the ordination of women or gay marriage are “cradles”, although Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who I much admire, did in the 1990s participate in an interview in which he implied a lack of opposition to the ordination of women to all levels of the hierarchy, and has also said on more recent occasions that he feels we must do a better job explaining why we do not ordain women. I have my own opinions on the matter, some of which he rejected in a lecture as theologically inadequete, such as the bishop being male because of the need to act in persone Christi, and the priest being male in order to vicariously represent the bishop, and the binding force of tradition, which is set out in Canon 73 of St. Basil the Great. This canon, which establishes Holy Tradition as a precedent which we must follow, would seem to rule out the modifications required to the liturgy in order to ordain women to the major orders. The other objection I have is that the Prothesis is a very intense part of the liturgy, and I am not sure I would feel comfortable with a woman who could endure performing that portion of the liturgy, which is very specifically focused on the death of our Lord (to the point Theodore of Mopsuestia argued that in the Prothesis, the bread and wine became the dead body of Christ, which was then resurrected in the Anaphora, a strange and probably incorrect view, but one which does point to the very passion-centric, sacrificial nature of the Prothesis in all of the Eastern Churches, the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox, and the Assyrians, who still use Theodore’s liturgical recension. My mother suggested to me that some of the liturgical actions of the priest in the Prothesis, and on Good Friday, would cause her to faint, and I think this is indicative of a healthy piety following the example of the Theotokos. Also, our offering of hyperdoulia to the Theotokos alone, and our venerating Sts. Mary Magdalene and Nino the Evangelist of Georgia as Equal to the Apostles, seems to rule out the charge of feminism.

    Perhaps we could bring back deaconesses, women of at least 60 years, widows or celibate, to assist with the baptism of adult and adolescent women, not for reasons of modesty, a problem solved by the baptismal robes, but rather to protect our male clergy from spurious charges of sexual harassment. However, we would need to ensure that there were measures in place to preclude deaconesses from serving in the same capacity as deacons, for example, denying them use of the dalmatic and stole and issuing stern directions precluding them from entering the altar without a specific blessing from the bishop, or reading the Gospel except in a Reader Service Matins or Typika.

    The issue of homosexuality has also been frightening. Outside the canonical church, we had the tragedy of Elder Panteleimon of HOCNA, who left ROCOR and set up his own jurisdiction to thwart a ROCOR investigation into allegations of him engaging in exploitation of novice monks. This is particularly depressing as he was a spiritual son of St. Joseph the Hesychast, and at one time a spiritual brother of Elder Ephrem of Arizona, who I have met and love greatly, despite the fact that the language barrier prohibited our communication in words. What makes incidents like that, which happen outside the church, but still very close to home, more frightening is the stance implicitly taken by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, and also the priest of the OCA cathedral in Boston, who I believe your diocese of Texan priests wrote a letter of abuse to. So even clergy sometimes miss the mark or fail to convert, as was the case with Elder Panteleimon of Holy Transfiguration Monastery. Other legitimate clergy, such as His Eminence Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, have in the past expressed views that risk legitimizing these errors.

    So I feel that conversion is not an event but a process; everyone in the Church has to continually repent and convert, via the mysteries of reconciliation and the Eucharist, to remain healthy.

    Some posters have reporter a challenging 2 or 3 year conversion process,except for those betrothed to an Orthodox person. This sounds to me like a disorganized approach worse than the rather cookie-cutter approach of the RCIA. I feel that priests should be able to work with individual catechumens to guide them into the mysteries as quickly as can be allowed given their spiritual health; the long catechumenate of the early Church it must be remembered was for the benefit of Pagans. We have it in the historical record that thenearly Church received Nestorians and even Arians merely by confession, not even chrismating them, as oikonomia, and I propose, Fr. Photius, that to increase conversion, the Church should recognize the varying levels of spiritual maturity, and catechize people based on the extent to which they are in need of it, and not basednon arbitrary criteria such as a two year catechumenate. I met a Jewish convert to Orthodoxy who initially attended a parish in one jurisdiction whichnwanted him, before beginning the catechumenate, to read a peculiar confession from the Trebnik in which he would denounce Judaism as entirely false, something he felt he could not do, because the Christian Bible contains the Old Testament, and the somewhat clumsy formula, which would have also been embarassing as a public statement, almost an act of ritual humiliation, did not seem to differentiate between ancient Judaism and the Rabinnical and Karaite Judaism which has grown up in opposition to the Church. I referred him to an Antiochian parish in his area where the priest was himself a Jewish convert, and that solved that problem. A longer catechism is still needed there tomfully explain concepts like the Trinity, and to shoe how the Old Testament makes much more sense as a prophecy of the new than as merely a collection of books containing the laws, hymns and history of ancient Israel; it is that, but every one of those events, every Psalm, every law, and the history, points to our Lord.

    Many non Orthodox Christians understand that. I think we need to recognize the extent to ehich the former church of a convert has prepared them for conversion. For example, with Ukrainian Greek Catholics or Melkite Catholics, they are basically Orthodox, in most cases having benefitted from substantial de-Latinization since Vatican II, their sole error being acceptance of Papal Supremacy and certain related RC doctrines; Greek speaking Greek Catholics do not even recite the filioque, Rome receives us into their Uniate churches by confession, but we make it harder for a Uniate to join us through lengthy catechumenate periods and the requirement of chrismation, when most Uniates who desire Orthodoxy worship using our liturgies, are taught about theosis, et cetera, by priests increasingly free from the constraints of Scholastic theology, and in most cases, actively encouraged to teach Orthodox theology except where we reject Papal supremacy. These Uniates know, in most cases, ehat it is in their churches they eant to get away from, and I think we should be prepared to receive one at any time with a simple private interview and confession with the parish priest, to make sure they understand the difference and know why they are converting; if they do know, I think we should receive them immediately with a profession of faith. The two or three year catechumenate should be for those born into Hinduism or Atheism or Buddhism, or other non-Christian faiths, who have a desire to cinvert but only superficialmknowledge and a prompting of divine grace regarding our beliefs, pushing them to convert,

    Please pray for me a sinner, and for my mother, who will shortly have cancer surgery,

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