I was born into a Protestant family. My parents were committed and devout evangelical Christians, and they brought me up to be active in my faith, and in the Christian community to which we belonged. I cannot remember a time when I did not have faith in God, and certainly when I was about six years old I disagreed with my teacher at school because she had suggested that Noah and his Ark were only a story. A little later, while on a Christian boys camp, and about ten years old, I decided to myself that when all of the boys were invited to speak to the leaders about becoming a Christian I did not need to because I was already a Christian and already had faith in God.
As I grew into a teenager I participated in many of the activities organised in our congregation, and much of my life became centered on the youth fellowship. I helped at an evangelical children’s mission in the summer, and brought back some of the ideas I had learned to begin a children’s ministry at home. I wanted nothing more than to be of service to God. I spent five summers participating in children’s mission work and a couple of years helping with children’s ministry at a major evangelical family event. Eventually I spent three years studying and preparing for an evangelical ministry at a Bible College in England, which included five months in Senegal with an evangelical missionary organisation.
I expected that my life would be taken up with ministry among evangelical protestant communities and to a great extent I was a perfect example of a committed evangelical Christian. I had experience of a wide variety of forms and styles of worship. I was interested in what was called the ‘charismatic renewal’ and attended many large events, including those organised by the American miracle worker, John Wimber. I had audio tapes (we didn’t have CDs in those days) of many worship events, and I knew all of the contemporary praise songs by heart.
I am immensely grateful to my parents and those other faithful Christians who gave me a knowledge of God and a desire to serve Him. I am grateful for many of the opportunities I received to serve God and to exercise a measure of faith and trust in Him. But I gave up all of this evangelical experience, and all of the possibilities which lay before me within the evangelical protestant world and I became Orthodox. I was not a nominal protestant, I was entirely committed to God. I was not ignorant of the faith, but had trained for ministry. I was not without any prospect of service, but had already received an invitation to become a youth pastor in an evangelical church in which I had helped to run a children’s mission.
I gave all of this up because I came to understand and believe that everything which was distinctive in my protestant experience was wrong. I did not, and do not, believe that the protestants I grew up with were bad people. On the contrary many were very serious and committed to their faith, not least my own parents. But it is possible to be serious about the Christian faith and yet be sincerely wrong about many very important matters.
Beginning the journey
My journey towards and into Orthodoxy began properly when I had left home and had begun my studies at Bible College. I took a large collection of books with me but there were only a few which might have been considered Catholic and none which were Orthodox. I believe that at the time I had perhaps only read ‘The Imitation of Christ’, a book on spirituality written in the 15th century by the Roman Catholic writer Thomas a Kempis, and ‘The story of a soul’, the autobiography of Therese of Lisieux, the 19th century French Catholic nun. Apart from these I believe that my shelves were filled with solidly protestant materials ranging from ‘The Institutes of the Christian Religion’ by Calvin, to the latest books on the charismatic renewal by well known British authors of the time such as Colin Urquhart.
There was nothing about my life which could have indicated that I would become an Orthodox Christian and Priest. On the contrary it was expected that I would become an evangelical minister of some sort. Let me speak briefly about my experiences at Bible College, since to a great extent they set the direction of my future life.
Despite the fact that the Bible College I attended was strongly evangelical, there were a number of Patristic, Catholic and Orthodox volumes in the library. I began by turning to some of the Catholic books on spirituality, and despite the fact that I had been brought up to consider the Pope of Rome as potentially the anti-Christ I found these books helpful. They described the possibility of a transforming spiritual relationship with God which had been entirely lacking in my evangelical experience. Nor did I find anything anti-Biblical in these books. On the contrary, they began to help me to see a different way of being a Christian which made sense of the Bible. I wanted to experience some of this for myself and so, in a small way, I began to become more Catholic in my spirituality. I mean this especially in the general sense of becoming more open to the wider Catholic spiritual tradition rather than becoming a Roman Catholic.
Over the three years that I was studying at Bible College I began to use a prayer book regularly. Sometimes it was the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, sometimes it was the Roman Catholic Missal, sometimes it was the prayer book of the Anglican Society of St Francis, and at times it was even a Byzantine Orthodox collection of prayers. It is perhaps not obvious to everyone what a significant step this was for me. I had grown up with no use of any written prayers in my life at any time whatsoever. The evangelical congregation I belonged to did not even pray the Lord’s Prayer. All prayer in my experience had been spontaneous. It was therefore a major change in my life and spiritual understanding to begin praying written prayers.
Over the same period I began to spend time on retreat in a number of Anglican monastic communities. There was a friary, a type of Western monastery, not far from my Bible College, and a number of students, including myself, spent a couple of periods there. I also made the journey on my own to a more remote monastic community on the Welsh borders where I stayed several times with the author and Anglican monk, Brother Ramon. Looking back on these times of retreat I can see that I did not always make the best use of them, but I had no experience of the monastic life at all in my evangelical life. It was all completely new to me. Nevertheless these introductions to the monastic cycle of prayer were very important, and re-inforced in my mind the idea that there was another way of living the Christian life which evangelical protestantism had never shown me.
After the first year at college I chose not to attend the local evangelical congregation for their Sunday service, and woke up earlier to participate in the morning communion service at the local Anglican church. The evangelical congregation worshipped in a similar manner to that which I was used to at home. Everyone sat around a table in the middle of the large room set aside for worship, and anyone could stand up and speak, sharing a reflection, leading a hymn, or offering a prayer. But the Anglican church was entirely different. It used a written form of worship, there was chanting, and the drama of the worship was somehow more transforming, even though the congregation was smaller and the church was always cold. This was my first experience of liturgy and it began to change my sense of what was appropriate in worship. I had been used to modern evangelical worship with a band, lots of jigging about, hands in the air singing a variety of modern worship songs, but after a while that all seemed rather shallow in comparison even to the simple Anglican liturgy I was experiencing early on a Sunday morning.
But I was also beginning to read more widely than I ever had done as an evangelical protestant. I discovered that the Church did not disappear at the time of the Apostles, and that many of the leading Christians of the first centuries had left records of their teaching and spirituality. I was frustrated that I had not been told about any of these writers before. I also began to read many Orthodox spiritual and theological books and found that whereas I had read many evangelical books and found that they were unable to help me become more truly Christian, these books overwhelmed me even in the first chapters with more than I had ever experienced, and with a tremendous sense of the possibilities for spiritual growth. At this time I read ‘The Orthodox Church’ by Kallistos Ware, a British convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. I enjoyed ‘The Way of the Pilgrim’, a spiritual biography of a simple Russian pilgrim which taught me the Jesus Prayer. I was not yet Orthodox, but I was falling in love with Orthodoxy which I had discovered through my experience of Western Catholic spirituality.
By the time I left Bible College I was no longer really an evangelical, but I was not yet Orthodox. Indeed I had only met one Orthodox person, briefly, at a Christian resources exhibition, where he was selling some books. I bought a copy of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom in English from him. I wasn’t even sure that there WAS an Orthodox Church to join, or at least one which had anything to say to an English person. As I thought about my situation at that time I knew that I still believed the Bible and the basics of the Christian faith, but I also wanted to have a deeper and richer experience of God.
Let me say briefly that I returned home and no longer fitted in at my evangelical congregation. It wasn’t their fault. But I no longer believed those things they taught as being distinctively evangelical and protestant. I wasn’t even Orthodox but I could not accept them any more. Over the next few years I did make contact with some of the Orthodox communities in the British Isles, and I was blessed indeed to be able to meet with Abba Seraphim, who has become my own bishop. Through his careful and considerate attention to my instruction in the Orthodox Faith he brought me to the point where I wanted to become Orthodox but was not sure how God’s will would be worked out. There were a number of Orthodox groups working in the British Isles with Christians who were seeking to explore Orthodoxy and I did not want to rush ahead of God’s plan for my life. But I was already committed to becoming Orthodox when God made His will clearly known to me. And in 1994 I learned that the British Orthodox Church would be entering into a union with the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, and immediately I asked to be received into the Church and in June of 1994, after Abba Seraphim had become Metropolitan Seraphim of the British Orthodox Church within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, I finally became Orthodox.
Reasons for the journey
It seems to me that it took perhaps nine years to travel the spiritual road from being a committed evangelical protestant, to becoming a committed Orthodox Christian. The length of time is not a measure of any particular doubts about the direction I was taking, rather it was due to the lack of resources I had in making the journey at all. There was no internet for me to turn to in 1985 when I began to look at a more traditional and Apostolic way of being a Christian. Book by book, contact by contact, I had to make slow progress. Nor was this necessarily a bad thing in retrospect, since I had to think and pray about each step I took.
But the overwhelming reason for my persistence in this journey was that the things I was learning were making a real and transforming difference to my spiritual life. It is very easy to be a busy person as an evangelical protestant, it is very easy to move from the latest spiritual idea to the next, but there is not a depth to spirituality in evangelicalism. I say this as a person who was committed to becoming the best Christian possible while an evangelical. I have participated in thousands of evangelical meetings and services and experienced many different styles of worship. I can remember events which left me excited, others which left me bored, and some which left me disturbed by what I had seen. But there was nothing in my many years of evangelical experience which offered me a real experience of lasting depth in my spiritual life. Believe me, I looked in many places. I was a charismatic. I sometimes played in the worship band. I insisted we sang each worship song ten times. At best we reached an emotional pitch which could not be sustained and which led to disappointment and frustration with our normal, ordinary Christian experience.
Even on the beginning steps of my journey to Orthodoxy it was clear that there was a world of spiritual experience which had been denied me as an evangelical. Why had I been denied the treasures of the written prayers which the Church had composed? Why was I taught that the Church had died out at the time of the Apostles, falling into error which was only corrected when my little evangelical group started in the 1830s? Why was I denied the beauty of the liturgy? Why was I taught nothing about how to pray, or how to grow as a spiritual person, beyond spending a few minutes reading the Bible and praying in the morning? Why was nothing said about fasting?
These were some of the frustrated questions I asked myself. What was clear to me was that I could not go back. Having been exposed to even a little of the spiritual tradition of the Church, and having been enriched by it, there was no possibility of me acting as if it meant nothing. Increasingly it came to mean everything. I did not begin this journey because someone had persuaded me. I began the journey, and persisted in it against various obstacles, out of a genuine desire to know more of God, and be transformed by a deeper experience of Him than I had found possible as an evangelical protestant.
Compare and contrast
I ceased to be an evangelical protestant because I no longer believed those things which define evangelical protestantism, and indeed all the varieties of protestantism. In my own experience I had to compare and contrast many of the beliefs and practices of the protestantism I had grown up with and embraced enthusiastically as a young person, with the growing experience and understanding of Orthodoxy which I was gaining as an adult. Almost every aspect of my Christian life was challenged by this experience of traditional Christian spirituality, firstly through my contact with the Western and catholic tradition, and then increasingly as I explored Orthodoxy.
The protestantism I had grown up with taught that salvation occurs in a moment. A person need only pray a short prayer accepting that Jesus Christ died for their sins and they would be saved, and saved forever. I was taught that we should do good works and make an effort to be spiritual as a means of thanking God for saving us, but that having prayed this short prayer I was and always would be saved. As a confirmation that I did not need to do anything, after having been saved, I was taught as an evangelical protestant that baptism was entirely separated from salvation. I should be baptised because this was the way I showed people that I had already been saved, and it was a means of being allowed to participate in the adult life of the congregation, but it did not make me any more a Christian than before.
I can remember as a teenager telling a close friend how he could become a Christian, and after I had shared the good news that he just had to accept that Jesus Christ had died for his sins he laughed at me and said I was being ridiculous. Even a non-Christian realised what I did not at the time. Believing things about Jesus Christ is not the same as having faith and trust in Jesus Christ. I have not mis-remembered or mis-represented what I was taught. Just recently I drove past an evangelical protestant church building and it said in large writing on a poster outside, ‘Believe that Jesus died for your sins and you will be saved’. A quick google shows that there are 124,000 websites that proclaim the same teaching.
But I came to realise that it is a false understanding of salvation, and that it is neither Biblical, nor the teaching of the Church, the Orthodox Church, through the ages. There are many sincere evangelical protestants who believe that Jesus Christ died for their sins, and who make every effort to serve God and develop a relationship with Him. I hope that I was one of those evangelical protestants who did seek after God. But salvation has never been understood by the Orthodox Church as being simply a matter of believing things about Jesus Christ. I came to see that salvation in the Orthodox understanding, and according to the teachings of the early Christians, is a matter of being united with Christ in a spiritual, sacramental and mystical manner so that we are reborn by becoming one with Christ and by receiving the indwelling Holy Spirit.
It is not surprising that together with many other evangelicals my faith had been a matter of an external relationship with God as someone I believed things about, and my spirituality had been expressed in terms of being active, even in worship. How could it be otherwise when I had not been able to experience salvation as the Church has always understood and taught it. My journey showed me that salvation is not a matter of a moment, but of a lifetime. It properly begins in the waters of baptism, and the anointing with holy Chrism, by which the believer is truly renewed in his humanity, made a bearer of the Holy Spirit, and united with Christ. This is surely no more than the Scriptures teach when they say, ‘Repent and be baptised for the remission of sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’. But this is not what evangelical protestants teach, nor what I had been taught. On the contrary I was taught, ‘Repent for the remission of sins, and later be baptised to show you are a Christian, and it is best not to mention the Holy Spirit’. Essentially the evangelical view of salvation is no more than the baptism of John the Baptist, and consists only of repentance. Of course repentance is necessary, but we are not saved by repentance but by being united with Christ in baptism and by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, just as the Orthodox Church teaches.
It seems to me that the deficient view of salvation which I was taught leads to a number of other problems. In the first place there is no place for the sacraments, and even where baptism and communion are practiced it is not as true sacraments but as symbols and memorials. In my own evangelical congregation we did practice baptism but it was not a sacrament, indeed in common with most protestants we denied that it had any spiritual effect on a person at all. It was simply and only a means of bearing witness to the fact that we had been saved already. If such a baptism is not a sacrament then it cannot communicate the grace of a sacrament. It is certainly a religious act, even one performed with sincerity and seriousness, but it cannot renew the life of the one being baptised. It cannot unite such a person with Christ. And if there is no true sacrament of baptism then there is also no sacrament of chrismation and therefore no giving or receiving of the gift of the indwelling Spirit.
All of this made sense to me when I was a evangelical protestant. If faith is essentially believing things about God and about Christ then there is no place for the mystery of God acting in the sacraments. Salvation becomes a matter of knowledge and the mental acceptance of certain facts. This was why children and infants were never baptised in my own evangelical congregation, nor in most protestant communities. It is considered absolutely necessary for the person being baptised to have understood and accepted the fact that Jesus Christ died for their sins. But as I journeyed towards Orthodoxy I came to understand that salvation is about God acting for us and with us, and that none of us can ever properly and fully understand what any aspect of God’s gracious activity for our salvation means. Therefore an infant is a proper candidate for baptism, even more than an adult, because a baby cannot do anything other than be the subject of God’s grace. Baptism, in the Orthodox understanding, is the beginning of the Christian life, it is not the end, nor the only thing which is required.
It was the same attitude towards salvation which led to the sermon becoming the main content of many services. In our Orthodox tradition there is a homily during the Liturgy, but the homily is not the point of our gathering together. This has been the case throughout the ages. The homilies of St John Chrysostom or St Severus would have taken about twenty to twenty-five minutes to preach, and they would have been just one part of the Liturgy. When St Cyril of Jerusalem gave his Catechectical Lectures to those preparing for baptism it was during gatherings apart from and outside the Liturgy. Indeed those who were not baptised were only allowed to attend the first part of the Liturgy. The Liturgy was, and is still considered by Orthodox Christians, to be the spiritual and mystical means by which our Lord Jesus Christ becomes truly present to us in Bread and Wine, which become His own Body and Blood. We grow in the Christian life and experience by receiving Christ in these elements of the Eucharist. Indeed our Lord says clearly enough, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me”.
In my evangelical protestant experience all of this was denied. It was insisted that there was no connection between the bread and wine we shared and the body and blood of our Lord, except in a symbolic sense. But our Lord could hardly be clearer, and the Orthodox Church has always understood this passage as it stands. The flesh of our Lord is real flesh, and the blood of our Lord is real blood, and we must eat of this flesh and drink of this blood if we wish to receive eternal life. It is not possible to turn to the writings of the Fathers of the Church and discover any other view. Evangelical protestantism can only support the idea of the communion as a simple memorial meal by ignoring the Fathers of the Church and teaching that they had all fallen into error a few centuries after the time of Christ.
But of course the communion has not only been reduced to a memorial, it has often become an occasional service which takes place after the main service of such protestant communities. For the Orthodox Church it is the central experience of the life of all Christians. It is above all else the time and place when the Church experiences the presence of her risen Lord seated in glory upon the throne of the altar. The Bridegroom in the midst of the members of His Bride. But within most evangelical protestant congregations it has become an optional service because the main activities of the community take place apart from it. A local evangelical congregation adds communion twice a month to the normal morning service. It is not the main service of the day and occupies only a few minutes. Indeed it is not clear to many modern evangelicals why it need be celebrated at all, since it is only a memorial of the death of Jesus Christ, and this can be remembered, some will say, whether or not we use bread and wine.
And of course when there is no sense of the communion being a sacrament then there is no need for any elements of the celebration to be preserved faithfully. One modern evangelical congregation describes on its website what it thinks about communion. It says,
We believe that communion is meant to be a symbolic ceremony in which the bread is associated with the body of Christ and the wine (or any drink) is associated with the blood of Christ. We believe that within the context of communion, the bread is to be eaten in remembrance of the body of Christ which was broken for our transgressions and the wine is to be drunk in remembrance of the blood of Christ that was spilt for our sins….it is perfectly fine for a youth group to hold a communion in the youth pastors house, using gram crackers and soda.
Such sentiments might appear shocking to most Orthodox Christians, but since evangelical protestants do not consider that the teachings of the Church have any authority, and since they believe that they are free to interpret the Bible as seems best to them, this is a natural outcome. If the sacraments are only reminders, and therefore not sacraments at all, then evangelicals would say that they are free to change the elements and nature of the reminder in whatever way they choose.
None of these points are made with any sense of arrogance or any desire to condemn individual evangelical protestants. They are believing as best they can with the materials they are being taught. I thought very much like them. But my journey towards Orthodoxy and towards the Truth showed me that if the sacraments are not sacraments then they cannot be any means of salvation at all. And if they are sacraments then we cannot ignore the Orthodox Church which has provided and preserved them for us. I came to realise that the community I had grown up in, despite the kindness and sincerity of so many people who genuinely wished to know and serve God, was built in error, built on untruths, built on the unwitting acceptance of lies.
If there was no connection with the early Church Tradition, if there was no priesthood, if there was no sacrament of baptism, if there was no sacrament of the eucharist, if there was no knowledge of the spiritual teachings of the great Fathers, if there was no understanding of the Church, then what was I left with? Only sincerity, and a desire for a richer experience of God. This could never be satisfied within the evangelical protestantism I knew because it was like a house built on sand. It had no foundations. Nor does this mean that I blame anyone in my own experience and life history. My parents taught me about Christ and the Christian life as far as they understood it, for which I am eternally grateful. The members of the congregation had themselves been denied any knowledge of the Orthodox Church and so I do not blame them for not sharing what they did not know. But we were wrong to think that the version of the Christian life we had invented for ourselves was that which Christ intended for us, and preserved for us in His Bride, the Church.
And this is the essence of my journey to Orthodoxy, to the possibility of experiencing the fulness of the Christian life. I needed to come from a place where in the end I could choose for myself how I lived the Christian life. I could pray as I wanted. Worship as I wanted. Believe as I wanted. I could have a faith which was entirely different from the person next to me on the bus who also called himself a Christian. I had to reject this way of thinking about the Christian Faith and come to a place where I received and inherited a spiritual Tradition. Where I submitted to what had been taught in all times and places. Where I came under a discipline, and an authority, instead of setting myself up as the arbiter of truth.
When I was an evangelical protestant I thought that I could change the Christian community I belonged to into the form I myself wanted. I could insist on an electric band for worship, the latest songs, the current ideas. But when I came to Orthodoxy I realised that it was I myself who needed to be changed and transformed by participation in the life of the Church, rather than change the Church to suit my own personal preferences and ideas. It became clear to me that if I wanted to become truly Christian then it was necessary for me to become entirely and comprehensively a member of the Orthodox Church. There could be no half-way house, no modification of the Orthodox way just to suit me. If Orthodoxy is true Christianity, as I believe it is, then nothing less than becoming Orthodox is possible for the one who desires to become truly Christian.
This required in me a decision to choose the Orthodox way. All of my life I had been used to deciding for myself what constituted my Christian faith, but to a great extent I had been worshipping my self, and my own needs and desires. When it came to times of worship the question had always been ‘does it please me’, when I should have been asking ‘does it please God’. We can see this same attitude when we compare Orthodox and evangelical protestant worship in its various forms, and it is possible even for Orthodox Christians to fall prey to the seductive charm of worshipping self while outwardly worshipping God.
One local evangelical church lists the content of its services, and I am not picking on any particular congregation since the same service could be attended in most evangelical congregations around the world. This Sunday there will be a worship song, a prayer, another worship song, a reading from the Scripture, another two worship songs, a sermon, and a closing worship song. This was entirely the sort of service I attended as an evangelical for many years. It consists essentially of a variety of songs and a lecture. There is only one prayer, and certainly no congregational participation other than to say ‘amen’ at the end of that prayer. The fact that the form of the service is more like a lecture than anything else is illustrated by the architecture of the places of worship, in which the pulpit for listening to the speaker will predominate. Of course many modern evangelical congregations now worship in schools and other public buildings, even in lecture halls and cinemas, and often even the place of the pulpit has receded to allow more room for a large electric band. I played bass guitar for a while in such a band. I am not condemning those who sincerely believe that such music provides an acceptable form of worship of God. But the way a congregation lays out their building tells a very clear message about what is important.
In Orthodoxy the altar is central. This is why we have gathered together, to worship God as He descends among us to transform bread and wine into His own Body and Blood. When the pulpit is central it tells us that talking about God is considered more important. And when the electric band is central it tells us that singing about God and entering into a heightened emotional state is considered more important. I had recent duties which caused me to be present in an evangelical place of worship recently. As soon as I walked in and saw that the electric band was placed where the altar should be I knew what sort of event I would be experiencing, and I found it very hard to be present, since the whole atmosphere became one of seeking after an emotional state.
I have experienced all of this, and I have led worship services trying to generate just such an emotional state, believing that I was helping people to worship God. But I was not. I was playing to people’s emotions and passions. And this is what much modern evangelical protestant worship is about. I have participated in a great many different styles of worship, but they have the same ultimate end in view. If there is a rejection of the life-giving and grace-filled sacraments then all that is left is an emotional response to the religious event which a person is participating in. And the emotions are neither a sure guide to salvation, nor a means of salvation. They tell us nothing more than whether or not we have enjoyed something at an emotional level.
I can remember being emotionally moved at a large celebration event in London when I was 15 or 16 years old. It was overpoweringly exciting, but not very much different to attending a rock concert. Many other events involved singing rousing songs for long periods with my hands in the air, or jigging about from one foot to the other and calling it dancing. But I also attended quieter events where there was equally a desire to create an atmosphere and generate an emotional response. Looking back I can see that whether or not the worship was loud and electric, or quiet and acoustic, whether there were lots of bright lights, or we sat in semi-darkness, there was the same sense of missing the point. We do not worship God by creating a mood, or feeling an emotion. We worship God by participating in the sacraments He has Himself provided and in the form which He has preserved in His own Church.
Who was I to tell God how I was going to worship Him? This is the essence of the evangelical protestant error. This is what I have come from, and I have never looked back. To stand at the altar as an Orthodox priest and to participate in the timeless and eternal worship of the Church is not a matter of personal preference, but of salvation. The same renunciation of my own choices has been necessary in every aspect of my spiritual life. This is the narrow way of which the Lord speaks in the Gospel.
May we all find our feet firmly upon it, never falling away from life and truth by choosing to please our own desires and self-will.
To the Glory of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.