Thursday, January 4, 2007

Background

Before I begin to explain my reasons for becoming Orthodox, I suppose I should provide some background on where I am now and how I got here. Different people know different parts of the story, but few know everything, so I'll start at the beginning, moving quickly and avoiding tangents (I need to save something for future posts!).

I was raised as a United Methodist in Indiana. I grew up in a county where there was no Episcopal church, let alone an Orthodox church! I participated in my UM church's very active youth group, served on the District Council on Youth Ministries, and assisted my mom with her duties as the church's custodian. When it was time for college, I attended DePauw University, a Methodist-affiliated liberal arts college in Indiana. During my four years there I attended Gobin UMC on campus nearly every Sunday, attended chapel nearly every Wednesday, and participated in an InterVarsity Bible study co-led by my roommate. After graduation I proceeded directly to graduate school at the University of Illinois, where I was active in the Wesley Foundation and became a regular at the weekly, student-led Midweek Worship service. When I moved to Virginia to start my first real job, I quickly found Wesley UMC, where I would eventually lead the young adult class on Sundays and serve as secretary of the Administrative Board. By this point I was 30 years into my life and had never really considered alternatives to the denomination I was raised in. But that was about to change.

In 1991 I was hanging out with my colleague Pat at a Russian festival sponsored by our Russian teacher's church. We ran into Pat's old friend from O'Connell High School, Mark, who was in the process of converting from Catholicism to Orthodoxy. At the time, he was attending Holy Transfiguration Melkite Greek Catholic Church. That day just happened to be Pentecost, and from the Russian festival he was headed for Kneeling Vespers with the Melkites. At Mark's invitation, Pat and I tagged along.

This was a real eye-opening experience for the Methodist boy from rural Indiana. I had never seen a sung liturgy with incense before. It got me asking a lot of questions like, "Why don't we do this?", "Should we do this?", and "What else is there besides Methodism?" I initiated an intensive campaign of research on Christian denominations, just to see what options were out there.

Several months later, my colleague Elizabeth and I were trying to figure out what Candlemas was. A few days after that, I saw an ad in The Washington Post for the annual Candlemas service at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, so I decided to attend and see what I could learn. The service lived up to its elaborate, impressive title: Blessing of Candles, Procession, Solemn Evensong, and Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament. As if that were not enough, it was also the parish's Annual Service of Catholic Witness. When all the lights dimmed except those aimed behind the altar, and the back-lit priest, obscured by the thick incense, held up the monstrance, it was the spookiest thing I had ever seen in church – but in a good way!

On Wednesday evenings of Lent that year, I alternated between St. Paul's (Evening Prayer and Low Mass with hymns, followed by dinner and a guest speaker) and Holy Transfiguration (Presanctified Liturgy followed by a light fasting meal). I continued visiting both parishes whenever nothing was happening at Wesley UMC, which was just about any time except Sunday morning.

Around this time I heard of the Order of St. Luke, a high-church Methodist group, but I was never able to get information about it (this was back in the dark ages before the Internet!), so the UMC lost what might have been its one chance to hold onto me. It was also around this time that my colleague John gave me a copy of Peter Gillquist's book, Becoming Orthodox, which clarified many bits about Orthodoxy that might otherwise have remained mysterious or inaccessible.

And then I began attending the catechumenal class at St. Paul's, not yet committed to becoming Episcopalian, but just to learn more. I was still attending Wesley UMC most Sundays at 11:00, often preceded by the 9:00 Sung Mass at St. Paul's. I was pleased to find that everything I was learning at St. Paul's was consistent with what I was learning from Orthodox sources. Where (as I was later to learn) most Anglo-Catholic parishes are quasi-Roman in their teaching, ethos, and worship, St. Paul's was essentially Western Orthodox – and often self-consciously so. This meant that my choice between Anglo-Catholicism and Orthodoxy would have to be determined on other bases.

At that time my sister had been going to an Episcopal church for a few years. So if I were to become Episcopalian I would not be adding a new denominational division to my family. Also, I had not yet been exposed to the arguments against the ordination of women, so I tended to think it was a good thing, which was another point for the Episcopalians. I was also interested in exploring a possible monastic vocation, and I had learned that there were religious orders in the Episcopal Church. But, most important, as a devout Methodist I had to ask, "What would John Wesley do?" The Episcopalians taught me something the Methodists did their best to downplay: John Wesley never left the Church of England, but remained an Anglican priest until he died. So, at the time, joining St. Paul's seemed like the logical thing to do – a fulfillment, rather than a betrayal, of my Methodist upbringing.

I still wasn't sure I would go through with it until the bishop's hands were on my head, but when he dealt me a resounding slap that could be heard at the back of the nave, I and everyone else at St. Paul's knew that I had been confirmed and was now a member of the Episcopal Church.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I know other bits of your story, and have enjoyed reading todays history. How strange the ways our lives influence the roads we follow. My family pseudo presbyterian, my brother now accepting his families "Apostolic" faith with vigor, my other brother off to Episcopal, and me still Presbyterian, tho I like the local congregationalist pastors sermons much better.

The bit that challenges me is the tension between finding a church community one can serve in, vs a base theology/practice one can truely worship in, vs local church worship/study/group events that feed spiritual needs. I've not found all that so far.

I actually most respect the Armenian Monophysite theology. The Eastern lean away from an emphasis on the "sacrificial lamb of God" and a greater concentration on the "way the truth and the life" challenges me.

Right now I mostly look for a place with a good room for my toddler to play while I'm in worship! And one which sings hymns not approved by the United Nations. Hymns that worship rather than preach.

Thanks for the christmas card! WHN

DebD said...

Wow! Another Maryland Orthodox blogger.

I found you through Fr. Stephen's blog

Roland said...

Bill - Yes, it's hard to find the perfect church. And even if you find one there's no guarantee it will stay that way!

Deb - Welcome! Glancing at your profile, I see we have some tastes in common. When I get around to filling in my favorites, Excalibur and Bruce Cockburn will certainly be included.