Conversion

A number of people over the past few months have asked about my reasons for converting to Orthodoxy, and a few have actually been interested in the detail of my journey. I think that it would be rather a healthy exercise to assess my journey thus far and put my thoughts down in writing, so here we are.

Now, where to start?

I suppose the beginning is as good a place as any. I was born here in the UK, in Manchester, into a predominantly Anglican family that had various degrees of church attachment. My mother died when I was quite young and so I was raised by my very devout grandmother. She is the reason that I am a Christian and I owe so very much to her. We were part of the worshipping community at a middle-of-the-road parish – the sort of place where people speak of “going to church” rather than “going to Mass”. It is your standard, suburban MOTR sort of parish, with wonderful people.

At the age of seven years, I moved with my grandmother back to her home country of St Kitts & Nevis, in the Caribbean. The historical tradition of much of the Anglican Province of the West Indies, and certainly of the Diocese of the North-Eastern Caribbean and Aruba, is Anglo-Catholic. The theological college was founded by the Mirfield brothers, and copies of The English Missal, while now unused, can still be found in many a church sacristy. There were nine parish churches on the island, and the Patronal Festival of each was marked by a Solemn Mass to which at least one minibus-full from each of the other parishes made an appearance. We were taught the Angelus, (which, incidentally, was the name of the diocesan newsletter) and we said the Anima Christi corporately after every Mass. This is the point where I stopped going to church because I had to and started going to Mass because I wanted to. This was after the first year I lived in St Kitts when I went to Mass with my Catholic cousins.

It was in this context that I was formed in Christianity. I was an altar server, ardent Sunday-School-goer, and took myself to about every service that was on (except for the weekday Mass which was on Tuesdays at 6 a.m.). I was surrounded by the awe and mystery of a sacramental community of faith, who sought to become one with God. I was taught a great reverence for the sacraments and my faith continued to grow. I thank God for those years.

In Confirmation class, (yes, we actually had classes where we were taught Christianity and not the informal get-togethers popular nowadays, where people “share their experiences of Jesus”), we explored the Creed and were taught what I came in later years to understand as a development of the so-called “branch theory”. In this version, the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” was a collection of various bodies of varying beliefs and practices. Each was a “branch” of the church and, while each branch held different beliefs about even the essentials, they were all part of the church, despite their various errors, because they all sought to follow Christ. This all sounds very nice and sweet, and, as I was nine years old at the time, and as I had no reason to question what I had been told, I didn’t. I was, however, fully aware that this was not the view held by all Christians as I had spent a year with my Catholic cousins. Anyway, more about that later.

I moved back to Britain in 1998 at the age of fifteen, and went back to the church that we had gone to before. I got involved, again as an altar server and chorister, and was elected to the Parochial Church Council. I tried to fit in but the “meat and two veg” religion that exists in middle-of-the-road Anglican churches just seemed devoid of much of what my faith was based on. This was a culture shock to me. In St Kitts, talk of Anglo-Catholicism will get you stared at blankly. It’s a term that doesn’t exist there at all because the concept it refers to doesn’t exist as something separate from "mainstream" Anglicanism, and so they have never needed a word for it. What is known in Britain as Anglo-Catholicism, in St Kitts, is simply Anglicanism. It’s all they’ve ever known and the concept of a middle-of-the-road Anglican church would be very foreign to them indeed. Evangelical Anglicanism would simply be beyond comprehension to them as indeed it was to me for many a year, even after I first came across this phenomenon after my return to the UK.

One thing after another happened that started me looking elsewhere. There was no Good Friday Liturgy, no Easter Vigil, no incense, and no devotions to Our Lady. When I asked for the prayers of “Blessed Mary, the Virgin Mother of God” while leading the intercessions one Sunday, I was approached afterwards by the parish priest to be told that there had been a complaint, so next time I asked for the prayers of “Blessed Mary, the Virgin Queen of Heaven”. When I was approached again, I explained that just as some people found my inclusion of this unacceptable, so I found their omission of it unacceptable, yet I had the courtesy not to make complaints about prayers they obviously put a lot of effort into. (I was an arrogant 16-yr-old so please allow me some leeway). As it happens, nobody commented on my prayers again, except for a few closet spikes who thanked me for them. There wasn’t even a fuss when the thanksgiving for the lives of the departed turned into prayers for the repose of the souls of the departed. It was the custom at this parish to leave the blessed sacrament on the altar after the mass as the aumbry was in the chapel which was some way away (it was a modern building of unique design). After the mass, one of the servers would take the sacrament to the chapel and reserve it. One Sunday, as I was doing this, I followed the custom that I had been brought up with and held the ciborium high, walking with my head bowed. As I was approaching the chapel, two ladies who were chatting saw me, pointed, giggled, and one of them asked, ‘Ooo! What have you got there?’ I said, ‘The Body of Christ’, and went on my way. I look back at this and find it unbelievably rude and self-righteous, and I would never do that today, but as I had been brought up, those ladies should have been on their knees and, at 16 years of age, I was disgusted by their pointing and giggling, which I saw as unashamed irreverence of a sort I wouldn’t have expected in church. The thing is, they obviously saw nothing wrong with it and were genuinely asking what it was.

How could I continue worshipping there?

I began to go to the Saturday evening vigil mass at the local Catholic church in addition to my Sunday mornings at the Anglican church. I went for a few months and became quite involved there as well. I look back and wonder how I did it on Saturday evenings and then all over again on Sunday mornings but I suppose it’s possible when one is in one’s teens. This didn’t prove to be much better. There was certainly more reverence for the sacraments and holy images but the music and liturgy were dire. Still, I approached the parish priest about catechesis, and he put me in touch with the parish deacon. Well, that was fun! We had a few one on one meetings during which he explained the differences between what Anglicans believe and what Catholics believe, and as we went through various topics, time and time again I had to point out that what I was taught as an Anglican bore little resemblance to what he was attributing to Anglicanism and was almost identical to what he was attributing to Catholicism. I’m not entirely sure he ever understood Anglo-Catholicism and must have wondered at this rather eccentric young man who came to see him once per week. Eventually, I got rather fed up of it all and dropped Rome.

At the ecumenical Good Friday service in the civic centre, I mentioned in passing to somebody that I was looking for a church that did an Easter Vigil. It turns out that, while she worshipped at an Evangelical church (because it was nearby and she had toddlers), she had been brought up at a church that does a “cracking Easter Vigil”. I went along and she was right. Four weeks later I went again, and decided that was where I wanted to be. I resigned from the PCC and left, having got utterly and completely fed up. (As an aside, my advice to anybody unhappy with his church is to leave before you become bitter towards it. It really isn’t healthy).

To cut a long story short, I moved about a bit in terms of where I lived but managed to keep my sanity in churches of a decent tradition. During this time, I came across a Christian discussion forum where I spent a fair amount of time and where I first came across Orthodoxy. I had known it existed but that was the extent of my knowledge, as there was no Orthodox presence in St Kitts. I also began to explore a vocation to priesthood. However, due to a number of reasons, that was placed on the back burner. Things were not helped by a member of this forum making malicious use of his knowledge of my real life identity. Anyway, I re-registered on the site under a different name and continued to learn about some elements of Orthodoxy from some of the Orthodox members. I never thought of converting, though.

During this time, I had been a supporter of the ordination of women. Without going into too much depth here into the theology, I saw that a person needed to be human in order to be the image of Christ as a priest and that any further requirement was unnecessary. (At the time, I had not been exposed to the idea of sex as being an intrinsic part of who we are, but I digress). The only objection to the ordination of women that I ever had any sort of sympathy with was the argument from authority. If we, as Anglicans, claimed to be part of the same catholic church as our Catholic and Orthodox brethren, and claimed to have the same Orders, then by what authority could we change them without the consent of the other two major “branches” of the church? I placed these thoughts on the back burner and left them there until a couple of years later, when the furore surrounding the consecration of Gene Robinson, when the same issues were raised yet again.

I began to seriously question all of this. Is Anglicanism right and Catholicism and Orthodoxy wrong? Who says? Where does authority in the Church come from? Where does unity in the Church come from? Indeed, what is the Church?

Well the problems came when I began to find answers. It all began at about November, 2004. Looking at the history of what actually happened in the centuries leading up to the Schism, I arrived at the conclusion that, contrary to what I had been told about Anglicanism and Orthodoxy having much in common because they both split from Catholicism, the reality was that it was quite the other way round, and that it was Rome that had split from Orthodoxy. At the time, this didn’t mean too very much as I still accepted the “branch theory" that I mentioned above, that, despite our differences, we’re one big happy family, honestly. However, even this began to grow less and less convincing as I delved deeper. I looked at the Oecumenical Councils and the various heresies that they dealt with. I looked at how those who had left the Church to follow Arius and Nestorius, among others, had been reconciled with the Church, at the various methods laid down for receiving into the Church people from various heretical sects. I looked at modern Orthodox essays about unity and the Faith and it all seemed to make sense. God is Truth and all we know of the Truth comes from God. Christ prayed that we may all be one and promised us the gift of his Holy Spirit to lead us into all Truth. Therefore, a separation from the Truth does not constitute the formation of a new “branch” within the Church, but rather, it constitutes a separation from the Church. I looked at Scripture and began to realise that what I had been taught about the nature of the Church didn’t seem consonant with what I read in both Scripture and the writings of the Fathers.

At about this time, I got in touch with an Orthodox priest via e-mail and I explained my journey. He was very gentle about the whole affair and wasn’t at all pushy. Having been an Anglican priest himself and having moved for many of the same reasons, I think he understood. (He is now my parish priest). He would e-mail me every now and then to make sure that I was all right and to see how I was getting on, and one of the Orthodox members of the aforementioned Christian forum, who is a local priest, was also a helpful presence for me.

Still, I tried to convince myself of the truth of the branch theory. Of course I did! I had a vested interest in proving it true, as do all Anglicans. My entire life had been outside of Orthodoxy, my formation in the Christian faith had been outside of Orthodoxy, my baptism, my confirmation, my exploration of a vocation to priesthood. My family were all outside of Orthodoxy, my friends, those I knew and loved. These things meant a great deal to me. Surely, this was the reason the branch theory was invented in the first place - as an attempt to justify a situation that was not in keeping with the traditional self-understanding of the nature of the Church. Of course I didn’t want to accept it, but the reality of it is that none of the above made it true – none – and I realised that the sooner I came to terms with it, the healthier it would be for me personally and for my relationships with others.

Having accepted that I was outside the Church, I began to explore the implications of this. Do Sacraments exists outside the Church? Was my baptism a Baptism? Was my confirmation a Confirmation? Had I, in fact, ever received the Eucharist? Was my parish priest even a priest? It got to the point where I was kneeling at the mass on Sundays, not knowing whether what was coming towards me was the Body of Christ or a piece of bread. Do I adore and reverently receive a piece of ice-cream wafer? Do I decline to receive and risk turning my back on my Lord and my God? What was I to do? I was in tears on more than one Sunday.

This is where I began to grow bitter. How dare the Anglican church put me in this situation! I had trusted it. For years, I had been taught by it and had been willing to serve it. Now, suddenly, I realise that what it had taught me over the years was untrue, and I was now left in a position where I was torn in two at the moment which for me, had been the summit of my Christian life Sunday by Sunday. How dare it do this to me! I felt hurt, angry and betrayed. Of course, I knew that the people who taught me what they had actually believed it, and that, logically, I had no reason to be angry. To be fair, I wasn’t angry at any individual but rather at the institution. This soon passed though. The time was ripe for me to leave and this decision was a great step on the healing process because the relief caused by it far outweighed the bitterness, although the anger was to resurge later on for a short time.

Therefore, after many years of moving about and after six months of specifically moving towards Orthodoxy, I left the Anglican church in August, 2005. I was made a catechumen the following month and spent the next few months learning more and more about Orthodoxy and settling into a new way of being. Then I was Baptised, Chrismated, and received the Eucharist for the first time in February of 2006. Blessed be God!

I still hold to the belief that the Sacraments are God’s means of grace within the New Covenant – the Church - and that while He is not incapable of bestowing it howsoever and wheresoever He pleases, it is not our place to claim to know if, where and how He does that. All we can know is what we have in his Covenant with us – the Church. I firmly believe Orthodox ecclesiology as part of the Christian Faith and believe the branch theory and ecumenism based on it to be an ecclesiological heresy. I have no qualms about expressing this where it comes up in discussion in Christian circles. I do not wish to be responsible for furthering the same sort of fallacy that I was subjected to by people who, in turn, had been unwittingly subjected to it themselves and genuinely believed it. I pray for God’s grace on those outside the Church, including my friends and my family, as I trust in the mercy of God, and I take comfort in the verse from the Dies Irae:

Through the sinful woman shriven,
Through the dying thief forgiven,
Thou to me a hope hast given.

Now, I have my own salvation to work out, and that is what I strive and struggle to do, while at the same time trying to raise an awareness of the Church and the need to come to Her for our salvation.

As for other issues, such as the ordination of women and others, I believe the Church to be true for that is Christ’s promise, and I do not have the arrogance to place my own personal conclusions above those of the Church. At the same time, while I am happy to subscribe to a “The Church teaches…” form of Christianity, (for I believe it to be the only one), this does not mean that I left my brain in the font when I was Baptised. I try to understand why the Church teaches what She does and pray for the union of my will with the will of God. Therefore, I continue to study and read and discuss. The difference now is that what I believe is no longer down to me alone and my own limited reasoning but to the glorious witness of our Holy Tradition – the guidance of the Spirit as promised by Christ. If my own reasoning were the basis of Truth, we would be in a sorry state indeed. I don’t believe that 2000 years of Saints have got it wrong and I have come to set the Church right. It isn’t true because I believe it: I believe it because it is true. If this gets me accused of having been assimilated into the Borg mentality, then so be it. I think that sort of accusation betrays a gross ignorance of Orthodoxy but we can only pray for those who have already made up their minds and commend them to God’s mercy. To those who are still questioning and exploring, mine is just one of many journeys, and I have posted it here, not out feelings of self-importance, but at the request of others. There are many, many other journeys into Orthodoxy and many of the regular contributors here will, no doubt, be able to share their own, much more spiritual paths.

As for me, I’m just thankful to God for bringing me to this point, for providing so many angels along the way, and for giving me support in the persons of those here and elsewhere who have tolerated my questions, assertions, confusions, and got completely frustrated with me at times as well. Thank you.

O heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life, come and abide in us, cleanse us from all impurities, and save our souls, O Good One!

15 responses:

Paul White said...

Hi Michael,

as one of those who has asked you for this story - Thank You!

Whilst sharing your ideas on Ecclesiolgy (especially as I am also writing an essay on Newman who went through the same deduction about 150 years ago!) I also hope and pray that in the Economy of God that there is sufficient Grace left over for the Anglicans, no matter how imperfect we undoubtedly are!

Having said that I may end up crossing the Bosphorus one day - I may see you on the other side.


God Bless

Paul

Ian said...

Thanks Michael: it is always a great blessing, to me, to hear of others' journeys.

May God bless and guide you always.
Ian.

seasick said...

Thanks for this. It's very interesting to read how you have journeyed.

All the best,

Mark

Michael said...

Thank you, Paul. My first visit to an orthodox church involved staying over at the priest's house, and helping preparing the church for the celebrations of that night (it was the day before Pascha). I arrived on the Saturday and caught the Liturgy at mid-day, and this was followed by a Baptism. As we were readying the church that afternoon, Fathe Paul and I had a good long talk about all of this, and I raised the concern that I had about my non-Orthodox family, friends, &c. His response was to point out a line that is repeated numerous times throughout the Liturgy and is still one of my favourite lines to this day. Many prayers are concluded with a doxology which includes '...for Thou art a good God and a friend of man...'. If I didn't have the hope provided by this, I couldn't pray for God's grace on my non-Orthodox friends, for what would be the point? However, I do have that hope in God's mercy and so I do feel it "meet, right, and my bounden duty and service" (see, I can still hold onto my Anglican roots :-D) to pray for my non-Orthodox friends who strive, as we all do, to live according to what God wants for us.

Ian. You should put something like this together. It would be good to actually sit down and read it one day as I know that your starting point was very different to my own. Please do, in time.

Mark, thank you for that. I do mean that. I know that you and I differ quite strongly on many of the points I made above and I know that what I firmly believe can be offensive at best and damn frustrating at worst. You've always been very gracious in our exchanges, which is something I can hardly claim. I'm glad to have you around.

Michael

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

Michael, it sounds as if you were most truly blessed to have spent your formative years in such a nurturing Catholic environment on St Kitts; it sounds so much like my own Welsh childhood parish!

I suspect you might have inspired a stream of Mystery Worshippers to invade St Kitts, though, LOL.

It was good to read your spiritual journey; thanks for posting.

Michael said...

lol

I'm sure they'll be glad for the tourism, Elizabeth. :-) I hear the sugar crops isn't doing as well as it was a few years ago, and that and tourism are the country's two main sources of income. One of the by-products of the sugar manufacturing process provides the raw materials, would you believe, for the national rum. :-) I have recently discovered that it can be obtained on this side of the pond.

I loved that place for so many reasons and yet could never bring myself to go back for so many others. Perhaps one day, if my bishop decides he needs a lay missionary in St Kitts, who knows? ;-)

seasick said...

Thank you for your kind comments. I would have put the remark about graciousness the other way round I think. I'm sure that my firmly held beliefs on many of these matters are just as potentially frustrating and offensive from the other side.

Mark

Ian said...

I might do that one day soon, Michael.

And I'd happily worship St Kitts :): I'd love to see the Caribbean one day.

Merseymike said...

Thats a very interesting and well written story.

Isn'tit curious how people can be at one time in about the same place but end up in radically different places? When we first met online, we were both , I suppose, moderate/affirming Anglo-Catholics.

You are now Orthodox, I am on the fringes of Christianity, attend Quaker meeting but regard myself as a christian humanist/non-theist on Jack Spong lines.

Michael said...

Thanks Mike.

Yes, it is funny how people move in different directions. I actually used to be a great fan of Jack Spong, and I have his autobiography, [i]Here I stand[/i] on my bookshelf, (incidentally, right alongside Martin Luther's biography of the same title).

I hope things are working out well where you are. Things are much better with me now than they were at the time of the great cock-up a few months back (of which we will not speak ;-) ).

Good to still see you about here. :-)

Anonymous said...

Michael,
I have seen your posts on SoF, but this is the first time I have followed your link and visited and read your Blog.

Your story of Conversion is very moving,and very interesting. I pray that you may continue to grow in Faith.

Best wishes, and God Bless
RN (aka Aggie on SoF)

PS The Anglo-Catholic worship on St Kitts sounds wonderful!

Michael said...

Aggie! great to see you. Yes, it was truly wonderful. There are times that I miss it. I'm glad you've visited. :-)

Monkeywrenchmel said...

I am so glad Mersey Mike is STILL attending church, Quaker it may be!

had to get my 2 cents in there.

Mark said...

In Confirmation class, (yes, we actually had classes where we were taught Christianity and not the informal get-togethers popular nowadays, where people “share their experiences of Jesus”), we explored the Creed and were taught what I came in later years to understand as a development of the so-called “branch theory”

- As late as last year this happened to me - the formal classes, I mean. I was grateful for it, but in hindsight dislike the branch theory. :(

Re going to the Saturday Vigil, and then the Anglican Church the next day - been there, done that; it doesn't work! :-( ...plus it depends on the Priest.

I know what you mean about the questions about the Sacraments. I am now feeling some of the same things, albeit without the bitterness. I doubt that what the Anglican Church calls Mass is that (that makes me feel empty), and my Confirmation, well... I refer you to a famous 1896 Latin document.

Anonymous said...

Hello Michael,

What a wonderful story! You commented that evangelical Anglicanism is very strange and difficult to understand. I grew up in an Anglican vicarage, descendant of many priests, so Christian belief and worship were second nature to me in my childhood. A major stepping stone for me at university was when I made a personal commitment to Christ, and came very much under the influence of the evangelical tradition, something I've never regretted. What was distinctive to me was the emphasis on the teaching of the Bible and the need for personal commitment/ conversion, together with the retention of the Apostolic Succession, by way of contrast with the other Protestant churches.

Sadly the Anglican church has thrown away what opportunity it orginally had to restore the fullness of the Orthodox faith, and its ruptures in recent decades mark its increasing descent into apostasy. Nevertheless, there are thousands, if not millions, of Anglicans and members of other churches/ denominations who are best described as heterodox, children of churches in heresy who are deprived of the fullness of the faith through no particular fault of their own, but being ignorant of the true faith and Church. My heart reaches out to them, and I believe we have a great mission to seek them out and restore them. May God bless our work.

Finally, I was steered on my journey home by two great Christians, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, whose books convinced me of the truth of the Orthodox faith and started me on the journey; and Archpriest Michael Harper, whose books showed me that it was possible for evangelicals to find the way home. Blessed be both their names for evermore!

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