by Michael Harper


Why Are Christians Across Great Britain Embracing Orthodoxy?

Jesus said that His Kingdom was like treasure hidden in a field or like a merchant looking for valuable pearls. To find the treasure, and to buy the pearls, there needs to be a great deal of effort and not a little sacrifice. Orthodoxy is like that. You have to work hard to find and secure it, and be most determined also. There is something essentially hidden and mysterious about Orthodoxy that does not fit easily into the culture of Western consumerism and its marketing thrust; it runs counter to modern demands for openness and the "sales pitch" of our approach, particularly in the Protestant world, to "mission." Sometimes it seems as if the Orthodox are not too concerned whether people become Orthodox or not, yet I have found this to be one of the most appealing things about the Orthodox Church: it doesn't go out of its way to convert you. Its prime concern in practice is the realm of worship.

We need to view this attitude against the background of the history of Orthodoxy in Western Europe. There are some similarities here with the Jews. Both Orthodox people and Jews came to Western Europe from the East, often as refugees. They came to societies that were culturally different from, even alien to, their own. So they have tended to develop an enclosed mentality. They have had to struggle against the temptation and pressure to lose their identity and become absorbed into the society and culture of the West. This has been the main reason why there has been a lack of a sense of mission in the Orthodox Church in the West. They have seen their role as preservative rather than evangelistic. Both Orthodox people and Jews have also tended to look to the East for their roots and to North America for their support. But in one respect British Orthodoxy is different. The original roots of Christianity in Britain are more Eastern than Western, and the sources of the Celtic Church were more Byzantine than Roman. This is due largely to the geography of the British Isles. At the time of Christ's life on earth they were attracting trade from the eastern Mediterranean, unlike most of the rest of Europe.

When the journey to Orthodoxy began, we found barriers in the way. At the start of our pilgrimage a few of us had an appointment with a leading Orthodox bishop. He spent the first ten minutes telling us how wonderful he thought the Church of England was. He expressed surprise that we should want to become 0rthodox. When my wife and I visited India just before our reception into the Orthodox Church, we had an appointment with the Catholicos of the Orthodox Syrian Church in India, Baselius Marthoma Mathews I. The conversation went much the same way. He spent the first part of our time together trying to put us off becoming Orthodox. "Don't do that without a great deal of prayer," he pleaded with us.

The Orthodox didn't seem keen to talk. Then a friend gave me a key which in the end opened many Orthodox doors. "When you contact the Orthodox, don't ask to go and talk theology with them," he said. "Say to them, may I come and pray with you?" For some this may seem like a false kind of piety. Yet it pointed the way for me as nothing else had done. Timothy (Bishop Kallistos) Ware, in his book, The Orthodox Church, writes: "Those who wish to know about Orthodoxy should not so much read books as ... attend the Liturgy" (p.266). He goes on to quote the words of Christ to Andrew: "Come and see" (John 1:39). You need to come and see Orthodoxy as well as read about it.

My earliest contact with Orthodoxy was entirely surprising and unsought. One would not expect to find it in a Pentecostal university! I was on a visit to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during the 1970s. I stayed with Dr. Bob Stamps, who was then the Methodist chaplain. I remember he had just written a song, and he sat at the piano and sang it to me. It was "God and Man at Table Are Sat Down," and I introduced it in Britain when I got back. It proved popular, though I did not realize its strong Orthodox overtones at the time. The university, believe it or not, was experiencing an Orthodox revival, with a Friday Vespers service, a processional crucifix, and incense. Sadly, not much of it rubbed off on me.

In 1989 an international group of church leaders began to plan a large conference, which was to be held in Brighton, England, in 1991. I was appointed the chairman. One of my duties was to contact the Orthodox with a view to their being invited as delegates. (We were not that hopeful, so we allocated fifty places out of a total of over three thousand delegates. In the event only twelve came.) But to fulfill this undertaking some of us went on a short tour of the Middle East, and visited Finland.

The trip to Finland was a milestone on the journey. Three of us went there in January, 1990, in the middle of a particularly cold winter. It was -25°C when we got on the sleeper train in Helsinki to travel to a remote corner of the Finnish tundra, the monastery of New Valamo, at Heinavesi.

Old Valamo (orValaam) was a famous monastery in Russia founded in the twelfth century, which was attended regularly by Tsar Nicholas II and his family. In fact, the furniture of the royal suite is now in the new monastery. There we saw the simple life of the monks of this famous center of spiritual life to which many Finns go, though they normally choose more clement weather.

That Sunday I attended one of my first Orthodox Divine Liturgies. I should explain that the Orthodox use the word "liturgy" to describe what others call the service of the Eucharist or the Holy Communion. My first thought was, "How relaxed." The service ran through most of the morning, and people came and went; no one seemed bothered. We went out for a cup of coffee halfway through and didn't feel the least bit guilty. The Liturgy, which has since come to have the primary place in my life, was the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. It was said and sung in Finnish.

It was one of those moments when an event becomes etched indelibly in one's mind and heart. I still recall it as if it were yesterday. I remember David Goodenough, a friend who was with us and was suffering from ME, asking a member of the congregation if they prayed for the sick. He was directed without embarrassment to an icon where healings were known to take place. (Who said the Orthodox Church isn't charismatic?)

My other memories are of an old man who stood throughout the service (there were no pews in the chapel) and of the expression on his face. It was not the glow of a charismatic or the boredom of some Western worshippers. I was reminded of the faces of old Russian women, their expression of eternal faithfulness. One might be tempted to call it stoical disregard for the circumstances or the fashions of the times. Yet there was nothing stoical about this man. For me he epitomized solid faithfulness, the quality that has made Orthodox laity stalwart defenders of the Faith down the centuries.

The Liturgy was being served by a young Finnish Orthodox bishop. I will never forget his kindness and thoughtfulness. He greeted us and invited us to sit with him for the early part of the service, so that he could explain it all to us. He welcomed us to share in the so-called antidoron and to reverence the cross at the end of the Liturgy. The antidoron is unconsecrated but blessed bread, offered as a token of brotherly love to all Orthodox in the congregation, but also to guests who are not Orthodox. It is also a symbol of taking the gospel to the whole world.

After everyone had gone, Bishop Ambrosius invited us to the sauna to carry on our discussions. How Finnish! In that country almost everything that is important is done in the sauna, and this was no exception. So one of the most significant things I learned was how culturally adjustable Orthodoxy can be. I did not feel then, and never have since, that the Eastern Liturgy is culturally foreign to an Englishman. It is no more strange to me than the Bible is. Here was Orthodoxy fitting like a glove into Finnish culture. One may be tempted to think of Orthodoxy as intended for hot eastern climates; here we had been worshipping God in a chapel where the outside temperature was -25°C, and doing it in Finnish, not Greek or Slavonic. It is true the bishop had a beard (I have met some who haven't), but he was thoroughly Finnish. It helped me see that the Orthodox Church fits all cultures, climates, and situations-even saunas.

One has to face the fact that in Western Europe there is a great deal of ignorance about Orthodoxy. When I was about to join the Orthodox Church I wrote to my sisters to tell them what was going to happen. I had roughly the same response from two of them. "Thank God you are not going to become a Catholic. What is the Orthodox Church?" This says a lot about the ingrained suspicion and prejudice that persists in Britain against Catholicism. But it also reveals starkly that most people in Britain know little or nothing about the Orthodox Church.

I have to confess that for many years I was as ignorant as anyone else. Yet two factors kept me asking the question, "What is this Church?" In the first place, I had a deep interest in, and concern for, the Church itself, not as an institution but as it really is, the "Body of Christ." And second, there was in me an underlying passion for Christian unity and a sense of corporate guilt that the churches were so divided and that progress towards unity seemed so slow. The Orthodox Church could not be left out of that equation.

Having said all this, there is at least one advantage to ignorance of Orthodoxy: most people don't know enough about us to be prejudiced against us. No Orthodox Armada set sail to bring Britain under its heel. No Orthodox blood has been shed in Britain for the last thousand years to defend the faith of our Church. Mostly people have vague notions about bearded, cassocked priests, icons, incense, long services, and an absence of pews. Obviously we have a lot to explain about our Orthodox Church, the second largest in the world. (On a recent visit to the USA I brought back an Orthodox bumper sticker that says, "Preaching the gospel since AD 33"-and so we have been!)

Orthodoxy, for me, is like one of those old metal chests, covered with the dust of centuries. But when you pry it open-and how hard it is to do that-you find the chest full of jewels. So many people never see the riches; they see only the outward dust. When I was a student at Cambridge, I studied theology for three years. I do not remember ever being recommended any Orthodox books to read, let alone having one as a set book in the syllabus. I did not even know the name of a single theologian from this tradition, apart from Nicholas Zernov. The only Orthodox leader I had ever heard of was Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. Now I have discovered some of the truly great writers and theologians of this century, men like Georges Florovsky, Vladimir Lossky, Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff, and many others. What a lot I had missed! These men write with a prophetic instinct, a deep commitment to the Orthodox Faith, and a humble respect for the truth. There are few books I read more than once, and even fewer more than twice. But Bishop Kallistos Ware's book The Orthodox Church (Penguin Books, 1963, rev. ed. 1993) I have read three times, buying each updated edition as it has been published. At an early stage in my pilgrimage I went to Oxford to meet the author. He received me with great kindness and gentleness.

It was while on a visit to Zaire that I had a brief encounter with the Oriental Orthodox Church that I will always cherish. I was in a party representing the World Council of Churches, and we were the guests of the Kimbanguist Church, which is one of the largest of the African Independent churches. The church, a member of the World Council of Churches, was founded by a man called Simon Kimbangu in the 1920s and had suffered a great deal of persecution from the Belgian colonial rulers. Simon Kimbangu himself spent most of his life in prison.

We were waiting for dinner one evening and, as usual, were having a heated discussion. The party included Dr. Walter Hollenweger, who was then Professor of Mission at Birmingham University in England, and Bishop Markos of the Egyptian Coptic Church, who was living in Nairobi. The subject of our discussion was the teaching of the Kimbanguist Church on the Trinity. It seemed to us that it was, at that time, unitarian.

Now, I have known Walter for a long time, and he loves to play the part of agent provocateur. This time he got more than he bargained for. "Of course," he said in as casual a tone of voice as he could muster, "some of the Church Fathers were unitarian." At that the Egyptian Coptic bishop got to his feet and strode quickly over to Walter. I thought for a moment he was going to hit him. There followed a tirade in defense of the Church Fathers such as I had never heard before. Here was passion, and no holds barred. I flagged in my memory this note: "The Orthodox Church doesn't mess around with truth. They love the truth so much they'll defend it at the drop of a hat."

In the last few years we have met many Orthodox people; we have been shown great kindness-although, it has to be added, a few have made life difficult for us. I cannot help being reminded of the parable of the prodigal son, a story that the Orthodox Church focuses on as it approaches Great Lent. Those of us in Britain who became Orthodox through the Antiochian Patriarchate were welcomed home with open arms, but there were a few older brothers around who were indignant that we were being made such a fuss of. They also criticized our table manners. For myself, I don't think the father of the prodigal worried too much whether his son used a spoon or a fork to eat his dinner or wiped his fingers on his shirt or the tablecloth. It was just good to have his son home. In time the manners would be corrected. Our Orthodox manners were far from perfect. We got some things wrong, and we had a great deal to learn. Yet home is a far better place to learn it in than the far country.

This article is excerpted from Fr. Michael's new book, A Faith Fulfilled (published in Britain as The True Light), soon to be published by Conciliar Press.

Fr. Michael Harper is the first Dean of the new British Antiochian Orthodox Deanery. He was previously Canon of Chichester Cathedral, Director of Fountain Trust, and International Director of SOMA (Sharing of Ministries Abroad). He is the author of numerous books, including Let My People Grow, Walk in the Spirit, Power for the Body of Christ, and Equal and Different.

From Again Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
Winter 1999 / Vol. 21 No. 1
pp. 16-19