Audio length: 27:50 minutes
Transcript published: April 26, 2013
Dr. Bouteneff examines the specific phenomenon of Episcopalian converts to the Orthodox Church.
Hello and welcome. There have been a lot of articles, commentaries, podcasts about the difference between cradle Orthodox and converts, and, like all generalizations some may have a grain of truth to them and some may not. There are observations that don’t take any particular genius of insight to make, such as: Newcomers are quick to criticize or Their criticism is often right, but often unreasonable, etc., etc., and you really wonder in all of this chatter about converts versus cradle Orthodox if there’s anything new to say or anything worth saying.
I would posit that there is a factor that might merit more attention in all of this, and that is the factor of what church a convert has come from. It’s no great surprise that converts will bring different experiences and different expectations if they’ve come from the Roman Catholic Church, from an Evangelical experience, from Church of the Brethren, or from the Episcopal Church, U.S.A. There are different experiences in the fabric and sensibility of each of these that will impact, naturally, a person’s experience of Orthodoxy and their expectations of Orthodoxy.
Today I would like to focus on a particular experience, namely, that of converts from the Episcopal Church, the main American manifestation of the Anglican Communion. That is a very particular phenomenon owing to what has happened in that church in the past couple of decades, the recent history of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A. What I would like to offer to say about this group of Episcopal converts to Orthodoxy will be said in a spirit of simple observation, also a spirit of genuine compassion, and also some criticism or caution, and I hope that all three of these dimensions manage to convey themselves in the right proportion and that I cause no offense, because I mean no offense, but I hope to be of some kind of use perhaps, by God’s grace.
Like all conversions, you have different kinds of converts from the Episcopal Church. As in all conversion subgroups, you have a blend of motivations. One motivation is to run towards Orthodoxy as the true Church. Another motivation is to run away from a church that people have seen as gone astray or gone amok. So running towards or running away, and for most people, it’s something of both, because presumably you wouldn’t be running towards Orthodoxy as the true Church if you didn’t sense somehow that your current church was lacking in some serious way.
All of this, I continue to suggest, is greatly amplified in the case of the Episcopal Church. The reason is, at least we Orthodox and others would observe, a marked and serious and rapid decline in theological and moral rigor in the late twentieth century in the Episcopal Church. That decline is something that many former Episcopalians, as well as some current ones, see as a tragedy.
Some examples: In the Episcopal Church, one is no longer bound to teach that Jesus Christ is divine, true God from true God, as we confess in the Creed. This teaching, if I understand correctly, is no longer theologically binding in the Episcopal Church; neither is the teaching that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That is being seen as too exclusive. The practice of ordination and consecration to the episcopate has testified to a sexual morality that was once completely foreign to Anglicanism, and the Episcopal Church stands against any governmental limitation of abortion rights. I’ll stop there.
The point, for our purposes today, isn’t just that these teachings run entirely counter to the theology and life as understood in Orthodoxy. My point for now is to stand in sympathy with those former Episcopalians who so loved their church for its fidelity to the apostolic faith, for its liturgy, for its life here in America, and who watched that church change so radically and for the worse in a relatively short period of time.
We all know what good Anglicanism can look like. Call it Orthodox Anglicanism if you like. It is the Anglicanism that has been, and continues to be in some places, in a very close relationship with orthodoxy and also with the Orthodox Church. For example, through the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, the Anglicanism of the Oxford Movement, the Anglicanism of, I don’t know, Michael Ramsey, with a glorious liturgy and a centered, clear theology, rooted in the Fathers and the Councils. That still exists in some places. I know, of course, I’m simplifying, but there are countless current Anglicans, as well as former Anglicans, who are asking themselves, “What the heck happened in the Episcopal Church?” And a lot of people ran to Orthodoxy away from what happened in the Episcopal Church.
So former Episcopalians, at least many of them, not all, they’re like refugees from a war-torn country, and I’m going to stay with that war and battle imagery for a bit, because it’s apt—and I’m not the only one who uses it. Just like a real war-torn land, depending on what region they came from or where they stood, some of these folks came out pretty much unharmed or without any particular scars, without a great deal of hurt, and they came to Orthodoxy simply to find in its purer form what they had already been experiencing in Anglicanism. A classic kind of running towards.
But others came to Orthodoxy with stories of battle, with wounds. You can say that some former Episcopalians are suffering from a kind of a post-traumatic stress syndrome, that affliction that makes war veterans jump in horror from a sharp noise, whether the noise comes from a gun or from a door-slam. So it’s a super-heightened sensitivity. It’s genuine; it’s not an imaginary phenomenon.
Other close friends of mine who are in this position describe their past and their present in no less dramatic imagery, namely, the language of abuse. There are many former Episcopalians who, long after they left that church for the Orthodox Church, are experiencing life as victims of abuse and betrayal—not an exaggeration, trust me. This kind of pain and sensitivity is difficult for some of us to understand. It’s taken me years to get to the point that I’d even treat this as a subject of reflection.
Myself, as I watched things go on in the Episcopal Church, I did watch in considerable dismay, but I watched, as it were, from a distance, as an observer. I certainly care about Christianity outside the Orthodox Church. I’m ecumenically committed, as many of you know, but I can’t say that what I experienced in looking at the rises and falls of the Episcopalians, I experienced as my own, as if it were my own reality.
So it has definitely required some time and experience, and some close friendships, for me to understand the depths of that feeling of betrayal, of lost battles, of deep disenfranchisement that Orthodox former Episcopalians feel, together with some current Episcopalians. I’ve watched people literally weep over it, and I’ve watched people in a state of rage about it. It’s intense.
I’d say there’s a lot to be learned from giving a deep hearing to that voice, that scarred voice, because it’s all too easy to look at one of these Episcopalian exiles and tell them to “leave their baggage at the door.” “Oh, look, you’re still carrying all this baggage; that’s why you’re so radically whatever.” “Leave your baggage at the door”: yeah, right. It’s not so simple.
The first part of my podcast here is to call attention to what a lot of people are experiencing: people we might know well, people in our church, including many of our clergy, leaders. This first part of my message is an urging to truly listen to what has happened, both in order to be a truly Christian brother [or] sister to such people, but also to draw appropriate lessons for our own church scene.
This is where I get to the second part of my essay here. What are the right lessons that we Orthodox can draw from what many people see as the great Episcopalian fiasco, one that resulted in a theologically and morally weakened church whose membership has declined sharply? What can we learn from the Episcopalian experience?
As I’ve just said, Episcopalian membership is on the decline despite its attempt to keep in step with modern times and modern morality, so maybe that’s one useful tale, that a slackening of moral and theological rigor is not what people are looking for from their church. That is an important lesson.
But alongside the worthy cautions, I think some of us have seen their caution turn into something like paralysis, and that reaction, however understandable under the circumstances, has to be scrutinized very carefully, because if you’re telling me that the Episcopalian experience means that we can’t handle a certain diversity of opinions in the Orthodox Church or if you’re telling me we can’t even raise questions in the Church, for example, about the theological meaning of gender or what ministries women can and cannot fill in the Church, etc., if you’re telling me that the very raising of these questions is the first step on the slippery slope to rainbow mitres and syncretism, I disagree. I think that would be an inappropriate lesson. I think this kind of paralysis is foreign to Orthodoxy, and, of course, now I have to tell you why I think that.
Let me digress just a bit. I’ll ask myself, and you, the question: Is Orthodoxy the rock of faith and the refuge of the storm-tossed? Yes, it is. It is a rock and a refuge whether you are running towards it or running away from something else. We rightly, all of us, rightly expect from the Orthodox Church a clear and solid adherence to the apostolic faith. But some people expect of it an equally clear and unquestioning set of conclusions about everything. Everything from the one and only one way to read the Bible or supply-side economics.
They’ll tell you there’s only one Orthodox way to vote, only one Orthodox approach to taxation, only one Orthodox approach to government. Coming from a church that has strayed from providing a reliable moral compass, they seek from Orthodoxy not just a compass, but a comprehensive rulebook that comes with a voter’s guide that should be plain for everybody to see. Everything is spelled out, and any questions about it are an apostasy. I’m exaggerating a bit here for effect, but I’ll say it again: Orthodoxy is the rock of faith. It is a place of dogmatic precision, clarity, and truth about God and his Christ and his Spirit. It is a place of theological, liturgical, spiritual dependability.
But guess what else? Orthodoxy has also, throughout its history, embraced a certain latitude as to things like how some of the biblical passages may be understood. Look at Genesis 1-3. I’ll talk about that in another podcast, I’m sure. A latitude as to how exactly one should interact with society and politics as an Orthodox Christian. These matters have always been a topic of discussion and diversity within the Orthodox Church. Even today, for example, the worldwide Orthodox Church takes some very different stances on political questions. Look at the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, the U.S., Canada—their stances in the Orthodox Church on the Iraq war, on government, on Church-state relations. Diversity.
Just pointing out this fact, though, of diversity within Orthodoxy on certain positions freaks some people out, but it’s an undeniable fact. Orthodoxy is a rock where it counts, but in some other areas, it’s more like a map that has some very clearly charted areas and some dotted lines. Some of the fear and paralysis that I caution against has to do with the so-called “slippery slope” argument, the idea that once you start asking questions, you’ve already started down an inexorable path to their starkest conclusion. So there’s a sense that as soon as you raise a question, for example, about the theological arguments for a male-only priesthood, once you’ve raised that question you’ve already capitulated to the complete relativism, or you’ve already decided that women need to be ordained to the priesthood and to the episcopate. No.
Anyway, I’ll give an example from personal experience. This past June, I helped to organize a conference at St. Vladimir’s Seminary on the roles and vocations that women have filled and are currently filling in the life of the Church. Now, this has the potential for being a controversial issue, and it definitely sets off some warning bells for some folks. Among the reactions I got to the conference, before it even took place, were the following (actual quote here):
I saw what conferences like this did to the Episcopal Church, and I left that battle 20 years ago. I’ve been there; I’ve done that. Don’t care to go back. I will not endorse this conference.
Conferences on this very theme were the camel’s nose under the tent that has given us the Episcopal Church of today which grows smaller every year.
These reactions were surprising to me, since the only data on which they were based as a draft program whose lecturer and workshop titles included—and I quote—“The Joy to Serve,” “Learning from the Saints about Ministry,” “Light from the Past on Vocations Today,” “Women, Children, and Theology,” “Helping Moms in Crisis.” So we’re not talking radical feminism at this point. This is not church-rending material, at least to my glance. True, the word “ministry” was used, but never was the ordination of women to the priesthood even mentioned, either in the program or, in fact, at the conference itself. The historic female diaconate, [which] existed in history, that’s another matter, and it did generate a discussion that wasn’t always comfortable at the conference, but that’s okay; it was good.
The point here is that however pious, and even tame, this conference sounded to a large number of Orthodox, the very fact of a conference about “women in the Church” set off terrible warning bells for other people, former Episcopalians specifically. After the conference, another very good friend of mine explained to me his own apprehensions about this same conference. He said, “For us former Episcopalians, this is like Vietnam. We hear of discussions like this—even when they don’t sound scary to anyone else—I can hardly tell you what a panic we feel.”
Vietnam. His words. Post-Episcopalian Stress Syndrome, plain and clear. My dear friend. This has to be listened to, and it has to be taken to heart. It has to be taken seriously, but it should not hold us hostage in the Orthodox Church. It shouldn’t hold us hostage. Your trauma, while genuine and based on real battles, cannot define the whole Orthodox reality. Your Vietnam was awful, and to an extent it changes us all, but it doesn’t mean that everyone has to suddenly start walking on eggshells, and if you’re telling me that we can’t even have a conference that identifies and celebrates the gifts that women are bringing to the Orthodox Church here and now because of where that led in the Episcopal Church, I disagree. A lot of people are not only ready for that conversation, they desperately need it. And guess what? It’s going to be okay.
Why do I say that? Maybe you think that I’m smug, dismissing the fear of the slippery slope. Maybe I am; maybe many of us are naïve in trusting that no question ought to be feared or avoided, and that we’re always going to do the right thing in the Orthodox Church. “We’re superheroes! What could happen?” A fateful line in any story. Believe it or not, I’m not suggesting that we throw all caution to the wind. There is a sense in which the Orthodox Church, being the Orthodox Church, is, by nature, the space within which any and all questions can be raised. We are Orthodox, and yet we have to recognize that some folks like to raise questions in a disingenuous way.
It’s true, and it’s also true that not all questions are the right questions to ask in a particular, given time. St. Paul puts it perfectly, as always, when he says, “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up.” And that’s very true; that’s very applicable to this whole question about what questions can be raised, what questions can be discussed. In one sense, all questions can be; in another sense, not all are helpful at every given moment.
So should we fear the slippery slope? Well, I think the relevant question here is: Is what happened in the Episcopal Church bound to happen in the Orthodox Church, or are the climates of these two churches different enough that the discussion is going to take on a different character and are the results going to be radically different? As you might guess, I’m going to argue the second, namely, that the Orthodox Church is a radically different context, which would mean that the Episcopal cautionary tales are limited in their applicability.
I would make the bold assertion that whatever debates over gender, orientation, ordination, abortion, that have taken place in the Episcopal Church, these debates have had and will continue to have a radically different character within the Orthodox Church, even if some of the questions might look the same at the outset, even if it sometimes gets messy as we progress in the conversation. It’s going to be different, because within Orthodoxy the debate will properly take place seeking full obedience to Scripture, the Fathers, the Councils, the Liturgy, with an undying reverence to them as authoritative witnesses. I would argue that, by contrast, when Episcopals were taking their decisions about the divinity of Christ or what have you, the Church Fathers never stood a chance. They were not in the picture.
So I’m convinced that we’re talking about two radically different battlefields here. You might tell me that I have blinders on, I’m living in an Orthodox dreamworld, but listen: The Episcopal Church had embraced—I’m sorry, but—an untenable diversity long ago, long before it began enshrining it in unacceptable theologies and practices. Do you really think Orthodoxy is that diverse, or that it ever could be? When you look at Orthodoxy from within the constellation of religious and political expressions in America, Orthodoxy doesn’t actually have a far-left or extreme liberal position. It just doesn’t have one.
If you think that our Church is dangerously diverse, let me ask you: How many people within Orthodoxy are seriously advocating for restriction-free and state-funded abortion? We may be disappointed with some Orthodox politicians, too soft on moral positions, absolutely, but there is no viable Orthodox extreme liberal contingent that is shaping Church policy. If you think that I or my seminary are liberal, I would sharply challenge the scale against which you are measuring us. No, Orthodoxy and the Episcopal Church are two different contexts.
Here’s another example: Roman Catholicism and the Episcopal Church: also two different context where raising the same questions has yielded vastly different outcomes. Roman Catholics have been discussing the roles of women, the phenomenon of same-sex attraction for a long time. Their debates have gone on longer and have gone on deeper than ours, to be honest with you, but the results are nothing like what they were for the Episcopalians. The great change within Catholicism that might—might—be imagined in the coming centuries would be the restoration of a married priesthood. In other words, not every discussion of women’s roles in the Church or about sexuality have to end the same way that they did in the Episcopal Church, and I can only hope and pray that all of this is taken in the right way. It’s just an opinion, an idea. I’m sure to get some reaction from you about it, but, my dear former Episcopalian brothers and sisters, do continue to keep us on our toes, and I promise to listen. We should all listen.
But I would ask that you please consider how forcefully you push the panic button. Consider whether you really need to clutch all the weaponry that you carried from the Episcopal Church battles. You’ve come to the right place in the Orthodox Church. We all thank God for that. So let’s all be Orthodox together. We are, always and forever, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, one and the same Lord, fully divine and fully human. Trust the Church, and let’s proceed together with courage, inquisitiveness, freedom, love, care, and reverence. Thanks for listening.