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Interview: Orthodoxy and Protestants

By Frederica Mathewes-Green

Originally published by Modern Reformation, Mar 2003. Reproduced here courtesy of the author.


The author of numerous books, most recently, The Illumined Heart, Frederica Mathewes-Green is a commentator on NPR’s Morning Edition, a book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times and a columnist for Her book, Facing East, charts her movement from being an evangelical Episcopalian to her embrace of Eastern Orthodoxy. Among other things, we asked Frederica to help us understand why a number of evangelicals are attracted to Orthodoxy.

MR: Can you tell us a little about your spiritual pilgrimage?

FMG: I was raised nominal Roman Catholic and abandoned Christian faith as a young teen. More than abandoned it, I emphatically rejected it as something embarrassing. I spent my high school and college years exploring various alternative religions, though I praise God that I was protected from becoming deeply involved in any of them. By the time I was a college senior I’d settled on Hinduism as the "grooviest" of all faiths. When my husband and I were married, out in the woods in 1974, I read a Hindu prayer at the ceremony.

But he, an erstwhile atheist, had read a Gospel as a philosophy class assignment, and was moved by the authority of Jesus: "If Jesus says there is a god, there has to be one." This fell far short of Christian faith, but he nevertheless arranged to enter Episcopal seminary in the fall-not intending to be a pastor, but wanting only to continue to study theology. At the time he was most attracted to the German deconstructionists and Bultmann. I was wary of all this and firmly anti-Christian, but willing to tolerate his odd hobby.

We spent that summer hitchhiking in Europe. On June 20, 1974, we arrived in Dublin and went out sightseeing. We went into a church, and I wandered around evaluating the architecture and sculpture. Near the altar I saw a statue of Jesus and stood looking at it. The next thing I knew I was on my knees. I could hear a voice within speaking to me, saying, "I am your life." It was a galvanizing experience. I didn’t know what to make of it, and I still was alienated from Christianity, but I did feel from that moment on an irresistible pull toward Jesus. I bought a Bible and began reading the Gospels, and didn’t like them. Yet that heart-pull kept dragging me forward, against my stubborn mind. In the fall, when my husband started seminary, I enrolled as well. It wasn’t until December when a friend asked whether we’d ever given our lives to Christ that we actually knelt down and made that faith commitment. God was very patient with us, and led us continually into deeper faith.

When we graduated my husband was ordained, and I decided to wait to be ordained later; the Episcopal church had just approved women’s ordination, and it was still hard for women to get jobs. After a few years, when I saw how hard a pastor’s job is, I decided that it wasn’t my calling. We had babies, I taught natural childbirth classes, and we were generally very happy pastoring Episcopal churches that were in the "renewal" movement." But gradually we noticed that the main body of the church was moving away from us, with approval of theological and moral innovations that we couldn’t support. The turning point came at the General Convention of 1991, when the House of Bishops voted on a resolution stating, "Clergy should abstain from sex outside of marriage." The resolution was defeated. We realized that something cataclysmic was happening in our church, and for the sake of our faith and our children we would have to leave. We felt that this would have to mean returning to the roots of the faith, since we had seen firsthand what can happen in a church that is swayed by the times. We considered joining a breakaway "continuing" Anglican church, but that felt like going further out from the limb to a twig. We then presumed that Roman Catholicism was our destiny, but as we read its theology we felt that it had altered the faith (they would say "developed") that was held by the earliest Christians.

MR: What brought you to Eastern Orthodoxy?

FMG: We probably would not have known about Eastern Orthodoxy on our own; it didn’t seem like a church you could join, but like something you had to be born into. However a Lutheran pastor contacted us saying that he was inviting a number of pastors to his home to hear Fr. Peter Gillquist speak. My husband went and asked some hard questions, very suspicious that Orthodoxy taught mistaken doctrines or works-righteousness. Fr. Peter later said that he thought of all the group my husband would be the least likely to convert. But my husband was impressed by Fr. Peter’s answers, and particularly that he didn’t give his own answers but referred my husband to sources in the church fathers that supported Scripture.

It was attending an Orthodox vespers service that really sealed it for my husband, however. The worship just overwhelmed him, and he felt that this combination of awe, gratitude, submission, and love was how Christians were supposed to be before God. I remained concerned that we were supposed to "stay and fight" in the Episcopal church, and kept saying to him, "God needed chaplains on the Titanic. Even if this ship is going down, maybe we’re supposed to stay with it to the end." My husband responded, "God needed lifeboats on the Titanic. We know where the ship is that isn’t going down, and the best thing we can do is get people over there." We were chrismated in January 1993, ten years ago now. We left a very comfortable living in the Episcopal church-my husband was on his second chief pastorate-to start all over at the very bottom with only five other families. Holy Cross Church has been a wonderful success, and our only regret is that we didn’t do it sooner. All three of our now-grown children are active in church and see their dad as a hero who risked everything to do what he knew was right.

MR What does "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church" mean to an Orthodox person?

FMG: Orthodox people have a lively sense of living in the church of the early centuries-not merely keeping alive the memory of early church practices and teachings, as in a scrapbook, but of being in one living timeless church that arches over the centuries. So this phrase from the Nicene Creed would mean what it did in the fourth century. In the face of multiple heresies (particularly Arianism, at that point), the Church is one, is united. It is one because the Holy Spirit keeps eliciting the same faith all over the world and through all cultures and in all times (at that time, meaning, of course, the known world, Africa, Asia, and Europe). So we mean the "one" faith of that era, not the lowest-common-denominator faith you’d arrive at if you added up the beliefs of everyone who call themselves a Christian today. It is the faith held by all true Christians of that era, which arises from the grass roots and directs us in the Holy Spirit, which is what discloses the "one" church.

Holy-we believe that Jesus intended to found a visible church on earth, a recognizable Body. "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church;" we may disagree about what he meant by "this rock," but there’s no such doubt about "my church." Insofar as the visible church lives up to its calling, it is Holy, but of course in practice it strays from its calling due to fall enness of its leaders and members. Weed and wheat grow up together till the last day. Nevertheless, there is a real field with recognizable borders; the field isn’t theoretical or invisible.

Catholic-Roman Catholics interpret this term as meaning "universal," so that each individual parish is just a little piece of the whole. For Orthodox the term means "whole, complete," and each parish is the entire Church; all the parishes added together are also the entire Church. Where the faith is, there is the one, holy, and Catholic church, in entirety. Apostolic-continues the meaning above. It is apostolic if it continues in the faith of the apostles, teaching unchanged the faith of the Scriptures and early church. I say both Scripture and unwritten teachings transmitted from one believer to another, because some things, of course, were not written down. This was either because of the difficulty of circulating books, or because of the danger of books falling into the wrong hands. Some elements of the faith were transmitted only by word of mouth during the centuries of persecution. A person who was trained to follow in the footsteps of the apostles and entrusted with teaching the faith would be carefully examined and commissioned by the laying on of hands, as St. Paul mentions. This laying on of hands didn’t magically transmit authority, but it recognized and sealed it, in a worthy person. So when we say "apostolic" we’re not primarily talking about the laying on of hands, as if that magically transmits authority. We’re talking about the preservation of the faith accurately from generation to generation, and this was confirmed and sealed by the laying on of hands.

MR: Most Protestants believe that the Scriptures teach that the "gospel" (specifically, the "forgiveness of sins and resurrection of the body") creates the church, not vice versa. What’s the relation of gospel and church in Orthodoxy?

FMG: Orthodox would agree that it is the Gospel that creates the Church. Jesus’ saving acts, followed by the sending of the Holy Spirit, permits us to be reconciled with God and instructs and leads us in the faith. So you might say that the Gospel (meaning, the events of the Gospel), or the Holy Spirit, or the faith, create the Church-all would be true. On the other hand, the Scriptures are something that welled up within the Church, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Church was obliged to discern which writings were worthy of being read in worship and which were not; which went into the Gospel book kept on the altar, and which into the Apostolos book kept elsewhere. There was as you know heated debate about some of the books. By the end of the fourth century it was pretty well decided; the Church had arrived at a reliable list of books for both Gospel and Apostolos. Those Scriptures were then the Church’s main authority and guide; the Church had given birth to its teacher.

MR: Does the church ever change in the Orthodox understanding? For instance, the debate over icons: at one point Orthodoxy banished icons, but then accepted them.

FMG: Change is a word that requires a backdrop. I once had an Orthodox priest insist to me that the Church does change, because we have now added to St. John Chrysostom’s prayer "for those who travel by land or sea" the words "or air." The entire last ten years of the Episcopal Church flashed before my eyes, and I thought, "Ignorance is bliss." A good analogy might be to whether a family’s Christmas traditions change. If the family ceased going to worship on Christmas, that would be a cataclysmic change! If they decided to open two gifts, not just one, on Christmas eve, that would be a minor change. Likewise, one who enters the Orthodox "family" gradually comes to see what it means when it says, "We don’t change." Here’s an example. The general rule for fasting is to abstain from meat, fish, and dairy products on Wednesdays and Fridays, and during the four major fasts. Already in the second century Church fathers are speaking of these fasts. Some Orthodox today follow these guidelines closely, and others mostly disregard them; furthermore, under the individual spiritual direction of your pastor you might increase or decrease these fasts to suit your health, ability, and spiritual maturity. (The fasts, by the way, are meant to strengthen self-control generally; they are like exercises, and not ever seen as penances or ways of paying for past sin.) Ways of keeping the fast can vary, from person to person and even community to community. This is why St. Ambrose told St. Monica, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," and don’t worry about keeping the Saturday fast that we do in Milan. However, the rule for receiving communion at the Eucharist is to fast from all food and drink from the time you get up that morning. Nobody would think of changing that fast (except for serious health reasons). Preparation for the Eucharist is taken very seriously in Orthodoxy, and this fast is one thing that cannot change.

Now, you wouldn’t necessarily know that until you had been "in the family" for awhile. Some things change, some things don’t. The tumult over icons is not quite the same thing. Iconoclasm was instituted by the state and resisted by the church; many faithful Christians died because they refused to trample on pictures of Jesus, whom they loved so much. The sixth and seventh ecumenical councils vindicated the use of icons and established safeguards so that icons are not worshiped or treated idolatrously. No ecumenical council rejected icons.

MR: As an Orthodox person, how do you respond to the obsession in contemporary culture with relevance, being "postmodern," etc.?

FMG: I think it’s entirely misguided. Even two old boomers like my husband and myself knew ten years ago that we didn’t want to join any church that prioritized being relevant. The Gospel is already relevant, because it’s timeless; hitching it to time-bound fashion only trivializes it. I think this insight is the wave of the future, ironically; I think that we will increasingly see it become fashionable to disdain passing fashion, a situation that makes Orthodox heads spin. For example, a friend recently told me that her Southern Baptist church has established a Celtic service, complete with chant, candles, and incense (at least until those with allergies complained). She said that boomers mostly go to the 9:30 "contemporary" service, where they can have all those middle-aged things like rock music and humor and skits. "But the older people wanted an earlier service, and the young people, of course, wanted something more traditional." Those words keep echoing in my mind: "The young people, of course, wanted something more traditional." If the church of the future wants to be up-to-the-minute, hip, and relevant, it had better look into tradition.