Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Paper Pulpit: Journey to Orthodoxy; October, 1995

I found the following in a file folder while looking for some notes from my seminary days. It’s from the parish newsletter of the small Episcopal Church in which I was the pastor when I resigned in order to be free to be baptized and chrismated in the Orthodox Church. I wrote a column called, “The Paper Pulpit”; the issue is dated October, 1995, which means I wrote it in September. Ironically, I resigned at the end of October – the same month in which the column was distributed. It’s clear that I hadn’t yet decided to leave at the time I prepared the article.

“Several weeks ago, a member of the congregation said to me (somewhat energetically), ‘Stop trying to make this an Orthodox Church!’Instead, this person wanted me to focus on making it an Anglican, or Episcopal, Church. My response, when this comment was offered was, ‘I am not trying to make this an ‘Orthodox Church.’ I am trying to teach the truth, as the Church has always known and done.’

“I must be honest with you: this isn’t entirely true. Of course I want this to be an ‘orthodox’ Church. But what does this mean? It means that I want this to be a Church that is both ‘believing rightly’ and ‘worshipping rightly’; holding to the Truth of the Gospel and the Christian life in both belief and practice, despite the pressures of our world and culture. I am certainly trying to make this an ‘orthodox church’ in this sense.

“But that’s not all – there’s more to the story. Certainly, in seeking to teach and practice the truth, I have drawn, as did Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and the other English reformers, upon the early fathers of the Church. Their teachings have been incorporated in sermons, in classes, in counseling, and the like. I have also tried to embrace influences from the Eastern Churches: especially in music, in the icons in the church, in my wearing a prayer rope (not only during the liturgy) – even growing a beard. Blame this, if you will, on my experiences with the people and the Church – the Orthodox Church – of Russia.

“Why? It’s not easy to describe. I’ve seen and experienced something there that has given a new depth and power to the Christian faith. There is no doubt in my mind that these people, some of whom have truly suffered in body, mind, and spirit for the Christian faith, have, in their worship experience a marvelous – and life-changing – expression of the Christian faith, with a expression of the Truth that has genuine power.

“I don’t know what this ‘something’ is. Candles? Icons? Incense? Music? All of these are valuable and essential parts of the liturgy, of the praise and worship of the Lord God. But I suspect there’s more: it is in the hearts of those who gather to worship, with a sense of their being the Body of Christ. Of course, those hearts were shaped both by the suffering endured, and by the liturgy – a reciprocal process of development. But it is this experience, above all, that I have experienced: and that I long to give to you. If the only way for you to receive this blessing is to become Orthodox – then, yes, I want this to be an Orthodox Church. Not because of wanting a ‘label’ – but so that you might experience the majesty, the mystery, the wonder and the glory of the reality of the presence of the living Lord, Jesus Christ. Not because of wanting a certain outward expression or form – but so that each of you might be able to know the Truth, and let the Truth set you free; so that each of you may save your souls, saving others as well.

“Can we do this in the Episcopal Church? In my mind, it is possible – but it is becoming more and more difficult to do so. Certainly, at the national level, the leadership of the Episcopal Church USA has surrendered the Gospel, and has embraced apostasy and heresy, especially in the realm of morals. We no longer know how to proclaim the good news of salvation; and this is, in part, because we have lost the knowledge of sin. At least Adam and Eve, when they became aware, covered their nakedness! Our society is experiencing a growing level of the flaunting of convention; people openly revel in their sins. Not only do they expect us to permit them their sins; they demand the right to practice them where and when they please, with the rights and protection of law! (In fact, they not only expect us to permit them their sins; they expect us to join them.) If we dare to speak of the will of God, the righteousness He requires, and the coming Judgment, we are ignored, ridiculed, reviled, attacked… and heaven forbid that we Christians should offend someone by daring to suggest the need to repent, to confess, and to transform their way of living! Is it any wonder that our culture is sick and depraved, since we are no longer salt and light? We need to be about the task of saving our own souls, dealing with our own sins, fasting and praying to God for forgiveness, and help, and deliverance, and salvation. We need to be at the work of being transformed in the power of the Holy Spirit. This, by itself, can be a powerful witness to the life-changing power of God. But how much support for this endeavor comes from our leaders, from the bishops, priests, and deacons, and from the key leaders of the laity? And yes, for the moment our churches in the Diocese of <…> are safe… but that can change, more quickly than we can imagine.

“What can we do? Fast; pray; live spiritually disciplined lives; give alms for the Church; and do all that must be done to fulfill the ministries entrusted to us by God. We must acquire the Spirit of peace, the Peace of God which passes all understanding. We must live as orthodox Christians… but I’ll have more to say about this in our next newsletter.”

There was no “next newsletter.” At the end of September, 1995, it became clear that the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, which had for so long been a bulwark against the agenda to change the faith and practice of the Episcopal Church, had fallen victim to the assault of the spirit of the age, and would approve a proposed canon that would establish the very real possibility that those in the ordained leadership of the Church could be defrocked for continuing to oppose the changes; and that even lay leaders who dared to speak out could be removed from their offices. On October 7, 1995, having met with the diocesan bishop a few days before, I issued my letter of resignation, effective at the end of the month. About five weeks later, we were baptized and chrismated at the parish of St. Herman of Alaska in Sunnyvale, California.

Why bring all this up? It was difficult to read today what I had written in the newsletter and in my letter of resignation. In part, it is difficult because, for those we left behind when we came to the Orthodox Church, things have continued to get worse. I could not help them there; I desire to help some remnant now, if that is possible. I hope these words, this part of my own journey, might be found by someone who can no longer endure what is happening in what was once a bastion of true Christianity, and is searching for a safe harbor. That place of safety is the Orthodox Church. May those who seek to love and serve the Lord be brought to our safe harbor; and may we welcome them as the storm-tossed, embracing them warmly, and welcoming them home.