Wednesday 27 May 2015
A Spiritual Journey into Orthodoxy
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. My parents were very active in the congregation and organised a children’s club each Monday evening. It was called the Monday Club! I have early memories of being surrounded by many older children when I must have been only about five years old myself. 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 centred on the youth fellowship. My father was responsible for the youth work in our congregation and for many years it seemed that I spent part of every day in a church activity of one sort or another. I helped at an evangelical children’s mission run by Scripture Union one summer, and brought back some of the ideas I had learned to begin a children’s ministry at home. I organised an event which we called the Saturday Special and at our first event we welcomed over 180 children into the church building. I wanted nothing more than to be of service to God. I spent five summers participating in children’s mission work with Scripture Union and a couple of years helping with children’s ministry at a major evangelical family event, Spring Harvest. Eventually I spent three years studying and preparing for an evangelical ministry at a Bible College in England, Moorlands Bible College near Bournemouth, 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 was a very regular visitor to our local Christian bookshop, and had a rapidly growing library. When I travelled to and from Bible College my parents had to help me transport three or four large boxes of books each time.
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 believe that everything which was distinctive in my protestant experience was not as obviously correct as I had been taught. 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. My studies over many years led me to conclude that many of the things I had been taught were indeed wrong.
That is hardly surprising. Had I become an Anglican I would also have had to conclude that many of the things I had been taught were wrong. Had I become a Methodist it would also have required me to reject the things I had been brought up to believe, while never rejecting the people who had been my family in Christ. Even as a young man it seemed impossible for me to imagine that the great diversity of contradictory views on important doctrinal and spiritual matters which were held by the Christian groups I knew about could all be correct. Even as a young evangelical it was clear that I was having to make choices about what was true, and what was error, even when held by good people.
The issue for me then, was not one of rejecting my childhood faith and seeking something exotic an unusual in Orthodoxy, at the beginning of my spiritual journey I didn’t know anything about Orthodoxy and the Orthodox Church at all. It was rather that I was always seeking truth, and a deeper, richer experience of Christ, and this forced me to ask questions about the things I had been taught at various times.
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 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.
In my own evangelical congregation, where all written prayers were considered to be un-spiritual, I was the first to ask the congregation in praying even the Lord’s Prayer together. I was leading a service of worship and I put the prayer up on the overhead projector and invited the congregation to pray it together. There was an intake of breath, as if we were pushing the envelope in some dangerous manner. But we prayed it together. I don’t recall ever praying a written prayer together at any other time, and I was a member of that congregation for half of my life.
Since we didn’t promote the use of any written prayers I grew up with no template for my own spiritual life. I had to make the best of what I could produce myself, and this didn’t lead me very far at all, despite my best intentions. This is why it was so significant that at Bible College I discovered a variety of collections of prayers, both formal and informal, and found in them a blessed means of learning the language of prayer.
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 my own experience of evangelical Protestantism had never shown me.
After the first year at college I chose not to attend the local evangelical congregation to which I had been assigned 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, and hands waving in the air with the singing of a variety of modern worship songs, but in my own experience, and I can only speak for myself. after a while that all seemed rather shallow in comparison even to the simple Anglican liturgy I was experiencing early on a Sunday morning.
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.
That paints a rather straightforward picture of my becoming a committed Orthodox Christian from a committed evangelical background. But the path was certainly not so easy. I will talk briefly in a moment about some of the obstacles that anyone interested in Orthodoxy has to face.
But I would like to consider in just a little more detail some of the main reasons why I became and have remained an Orthodox Christian. I am not accidentally Orthodox. I was not born into an Orthodox family and there was no Orthodox influence in my childhood, not even any holidays in Cyprus or Greece that could have laid the seeds of a later interest. I have become Orthodox because I am convinced and persuaded by several important aspects of what I have discovered.
The first aspect is historical. I love history and have always been interested in the past. Yet I was brought up in a Christian community that denied the history of the Church, and many Christian communities adopt just such an attitude to the past, whether they acknowledge it or not. The Brethren took the view that even as the Apostles were coming to the end of their lives the Church fell into apostasy and error. This was a convenient historical model since it meant that anything in Church history which ran contrary to the way we did things was due to the apostasy of the Church.
Indeed it was assumed that it was not until 1828 and the establishment of the first Brethren congregations that the history of the Church started being written again. Of course there was always the sense that there were believers in God throughout all those dark centuries, and there was a vague idea that Martin Luther was an early Plymouth Brethren, but to a very great extent I was taught that really the history of the Church was one of a great historical and spiritual chasm which lasted from the Church of Apostles to that of the early Brethren.
This isn’t so extreme a view. Many of the modern Christian groups to which we belong or which we know well, either have adopted such a view, that the Church fell into error and was only restored at some much later date by the founders of the various Christian denominations, or ignore church history as having no practical application. It was not until I was a young man that I discovered that in fact the leaders and teachers of the earliest Church, those who had been taught by the Apostles themselves, had left us many writings which described their faith and spiritual practice.
This was a surprise to me. Indeed as a young man I was rather angry that such important documents had never been placed before me. I grew up with no sense of history, as if the community I belonged to had fallen from the sky, and as if it was impossible for us to know how the early Church lived and believed, and yet here were many important and significant texts, published together in a collection by Penguin, and with the clear title, Early Christian Writings. I bought a copy in my local bookshop. Why did we not know and read and speak about these documents?
My search into the historical roots of the Church began when an elderly and much respected member of the congregation was upset over some matter. It is of no consequence now. But it started me thinking and asking the question – Why is our congregation organised in the way it is? Why are these men in leadership positions and not some other men? To a great extent this personal reason was the origin of my historical studies.
I knew the Church of the Apostles to some extent. I found it described in the New Testament. And I knew my own congregation and much of the history of the Brethren movement. But how had we got from there to here? There were several books that helped me begin to understand. The first was Early Christian Writings, a little volume that is still in print, and the second was Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church, also still in print. I don’t want to paint too simplistic a picture. I didn’t read these books and become Orthodox. Far from it. But I discovered that in fact the early Church had not disappeared, and had not fallen into apostasy and error. Quite the contrary. It had developed for hundreds of years, facing violent persecution, and with a coherent integrity of faith and spiritual practice. And it was not very much like my Brethren congregation at all!
There were several texts in the Early Christian Writings book which especially impressed me. The letter of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, and the account of his martyrdom were moving. I learned that he had been a disciple of the Apostle John. The collection of letters by Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, sent to the churches of Asia Minor as he was taken to Rome where he was also martyred. I learned that Ignatius had become bishop of Antioch in 67 AD, while the Apostles Peter and Paul were still engaged in their ministry, and had known them both. And I read the Didache, or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, a very early, first century manual for Church life. Simply written, but describing a way of life that was different to my own.
What did I find in these early documents? It was surely that the early Church was very careful to preserve the teachings and spiritual life which it had received directly from the Apostles, and that unless I was willing to say that the Apostles had got everything wrong, I had to accept that these early Christian writings described the Apostolic Christianity they had been taught. I found that the Church was already organised around bishops, priests and deacons. Indeed the Greek words for these ministries – episkopos, presbyteros and diakonos – are all in the New Testament itself as well as in the writings of these early Christian leaders. I found that their view of the sacraments, of baptism and the eucharist, were not those of the Plymouth Brethren.
I am not going to go into any detail at all on these points. But I was faced with a stark question, even if I did not know what to do with the answer that came to mind. The question was simply, if there is a difference between what is taught by the earliest Church and my own community, which did not begin to exist until 1828, then who is most likely to be presenting the truth of the Apostolic Christian Faith? I have had to ask that question many times because I also became associated with Christian groups that were of even more recent origins than the Brethren, groups that only came into existence in the 20th century, and even in recent decades.
If there is a difference, a significant difference, between the faith of this earliest Church, taught by the Apostles, and the modern groups I have associated with, who has most authority to speak for the Apostolic Faith? The answer that seemed necessary for me was that it was the early Church, led by men who had sat at the feet of the Apostles, which had that authority. Of course not everyone will be convinced by such an argument, but I am describing my own journey towards Orthodoxy.
This historical aspect did not lead me to become Orthodox immediately, and it did not lead me to become part of the Coptic Orthodox Church, or any particular Orthodox community. But long before I became Orthodox it convinced me that I had to become like this earliest Church if I was to become properly Christian. Indeed I still have this attitude to a great extent. I do not want people to be convinced by any argument I might make to become like me. It seems to me much more important that we all seek to become like the earliest Church and see where that journey leads us.
It led me to disagree with many of the things we were doing. Not in an objectionable way I hope. But our view of baptism was not at all the same as that of the early Church, nor our view of the Eucharist and the manner in which we conducted it. Our leadership structure was not the same as that established by the Apostles. Our attitudes towards so many things seemed based only on personal opinion and an individualistic interpretation of the Bible. We continued to be oblivious of the teachings and example of the earliest Church.
Over a number of years my historical enquiry broadened in scope. I started to ask myself where this early Church had gone. Was it true that it disappeared into apostasy, at a later date certainly than the Apostolic times, perhaps under the Emperor Constantine? I had already gained a greater understanding of the teachings of many more early Church leaders, and new the names and writings of other significant figures who had been the disciples themselves of men like Polycarp who had learned the faith directly from the Apostles. They also faced persecution and martyrdom. Were they apostates simply because what they taught was not the same as I had learned in a variety of evangelical communities?
In fact in my studies of the persecuted Church of the first few centuries I found a detailed explanation of their Christian faith. It was characterised by a coherence, a lack of great diversity and difference of opinion, so much so that one of the early writers pointed out this agreement in the faith as being a mark of the Holy Spirit. In the early years of the 3rd century, in about 220 AD, this writer pointed to the presence of Christians even in Britain, having the same faith and teachings as those in Rome, and Egypt and Antioch, as a mark of the truth of the Christian message.
I found this unity of belief also rather compelling. And it was a coherent set of teachings which I found preserved in the Church after the Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity, as much as before it. Indeed it is the same coherent set of teachings which I found in Orthodox Christianity to the present day. This was one of the most important reasons for me eventually becoming Orthodox.
The present senior bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the ancient Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, is Tawadros, or Theodore. He is the 118th bishop to lead the Church of Egypt. can give you the names of his predecessors. They were Shenouda III, Cyril VI, Joseph II, Macarius III, John XIX, Cyril V….. and that takes us only back to 1874. A long line of named and known men stretches back to the early centuries, through the great theological saints such as Athanasius and Cyril in the 4th and 5th centuries, back through Peter the Seal of the Martyrs, who was the last to be martyred for his faith in the great persecution ending in 310 AD. All the way back to the first bishop of Alexandria, a man called Anianus, and the first convert of the Apostle Mark when he brought the Gospel to Egypt.
We know the names and histories of these men. We know the things they taught. We know the prayers that they prayed. And as I studied this history I discovered quite clearly that those things I found in the teachings of the earliest Church, the Church which had been taught and established by the Apostles, were found throughout the history of the Orthodox Churches, and could still be found today in those same Orthodox communities.
There was an historical continuity, as far as I could see. The early and Apostolic Church had not just disappeared, it had continued. What is the modern Coptic Orthodox Church if it is not the same Church as that of Anianus, the first bishop. It has a continuity of history. It has a continuity of doctrine. And it has a continuity of spirituality.
The continuity of history was self-evident. The modern Coptic Orthodox Church had no beginning other than that of the first century. It did not spring into existence at a later date, as the Brethren had done in 1828. The continuity of teaching was also evident to me, as I read many of these ancient writings, translated into English. Athanasius, the leader of the Church of Alexandria in the 4th century, is often commended for having settled on a list of New Testament books which has become the standard in most of our English language Bibles, but he also presented a thorough and detailed description of the doctrines and teachings of the Christian Church. We cannot, it seems to me, respect him as a spiritual giant who gave us the New Testament, and then ignore or reject the understanding of the Christian message he so carefully presented.
In fact his teachings represent an explanation of that which is found in the centuries before him, and provide a foundation for the teaching of the Christian message in the centuries that follow. He says nothing new. And the modern Orthodox Church says nothing new. Rather I have found that it preserves always and everywhere that teaching which is found from the beginning.
I found this unity of faith, this continuity of doctrine over twenty centuries as compelling as the historical continuity I had found.
But there was also my increasing experience of the spiritual treasures of the early Church. This certainly began with an exploration of the written prayers and the daily office of both Anglican and Catholic traditions. Even with my ignorance of so much of liturgical and spiritual history I could see that there was a great deal in common in both these traditions, in so far as they were both established on a more ancient foundation of Christian spirituality.
Despite my best efforts, and I can only speak of myself, trying to be a spiritual person had led me to confuse emotionalism and heightened emotions with spiritual experience. And had deceived me into thinking that my understanding of a passage of Scripture must necessarily be inspired by the Holy Spirit, even if it ran counter to everyone else around me. At some point I understood that when the Apostles asked our Lord Jesus, teach us to pray, they were revealing to me that in fact Christian spirituality is also something which is to be taught, but we must careful how we select our teachers.
I looked at the early Church again, and found writers on spiritual subjects that belonged to this Orthodox community that I was starting to understand as having a continuity of history and doctrine. Some of the earliest spiritual writings I found were by the Desert Fathers, the monks who gave up all and sought to learn how to pray in the deserts of Egypt in the 4th and 5th centuries. I found their explanations overwhelming in clarity. Here were people who had learned how to pray, and who could explain it to others.
Their words were entirely practical, not super-spiritual in any sense, if that means unrelated to life. I have read many books on spirituality, but usually I have read such books quickly and not found grace to see my life transformed. Now, in many of the books I studied, I would read a single page, and find so much richness that I had to put the book down and seek to begin to put its instruction into practice before I continued.
Even before I became Orthodox I found that materials such as I was slowly acquiring, and there were not so many books available in English and in local bookshops in the 1980s, were transforming my life, and gave me hope for a greater transformation.
I was convinced about Orthodoxy long before I became Orthodox, but 25 years ago it was not clear how a British person could become Orthodox. I could see the unbroken historical continuity. I had understood the doctrinal continuity from the earliest times, and the authority that a coherent set of teachings, deriving from the Apostles, seemed to demand. And I was experiencing in my own life some small changes for the good as I studied and applied what I was learning about the Orthodox spiritual life.
But I came to realise that there was a limit to what I could experience of Orthodoxy from the outside. If Orthodoxy did represent ancient and authentic and Apostolic Christianity, as the historical, doctrinal and continuity seemed to indicate, then at some point I realised that I needed to become more closely identified with this Church and all it represented.
I suppose this transition from someone enjoying Orthodoxy from the outside to someone wanting to learn how it might be experienced from the inside, was represented by my taking up a pen and paper, there were no emails in those days, and actually writing to some Orthodox organisations. That was hardly the end of the journey. Far from it. But it marked an important personal commitment to going further into an exploration of Orthodoxy than I had so far.
I was fortunate to contact some Orthodox people who were willing to help me experience more of Orthodoxy. I started attending an English language service every six weeks or so, and receiving instruction in a simple manner about what it means to be Orthodox. I was not yet Orthodox, and I found myself under no sort of pressure to become Orthodox, but I knew that it was only by experiencing more of Orthodoxy from the inside that I could possibly come to understand it properly.
After some time I knew that I wanted even more than being able to attend and participate in services and instruction. I wanted the opportunity to receive for myself all that Orthodoxy offered, and so I asked to become Orthodox, and in 1994, 21 years ago, that is what happened for me. I made the transition from someone looking in on other’s experience to someone who as invited to experience it myself and directly and immediately.
I was baptised and anointed with holy oil so that I might receive the Holy Spirit in a fullness I had not experienced before. I received and continue to receive the life of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist, in the body and blood of Christ, and I have made my own, weak and sinful as I am, the spiritual life which is preserved faithfully in Orthodoxy, seeking the goal of the Orthodox and New Testament way of prayer, the constant and unceasing prayer of the heart.
At some point, it seems to me, and known only to ourselves, we receive an invitation to enter more fully into an opportunity that unfolds before us. I found that opportunity unfolding before me. The way was not entirely clear. There were those who thought me mad, or that I had abandoned Christianity entirely. But I saw a possibility in Orthodoxy of experiencing the fullness of life in Christ, a fullness I had always sought but had not found elsewhere. And not knowing entirely the way that still lay before me, I took the first steps, in faith and hope, down a narrow path that has led me to where I am now.
I would not be elsewhere. With all the varied experience I still carry within me, with my happy memories of service in other communities, with my wide knowledge of the Christian world in its diversity, I am convinced in my own heart and mind, that I have followed a path which has brought me to the experience of those earliest Christians, whose life and faith was described so surprisingly for me in the little book, Early Christian Writings, and which opened up to me an authoritative way of reading the Scripture and understanding faith, which was tested in the first centuries of persecution and martyrdom.
I have been united to this ancient and Apostolic Christian community, and I continue my spiritual pilgrimage, in company with those writers who describe the same life and faith through the ages to the present times.
I had a choice to make, in faith. I could have certainly remained an evangelical with an interest in Church history. But I wanted more, and I have found it in the life and the ministry that has opened up for me in the Orthodox Church, and especially within the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, this Coptic Orthodox Church. May we each of us be granted that grace and courage to take the next step, wherever it leads, in our obedient pilgrimage of faith with Christ in the strength of the Holy Spirit.