Looking to the EastFed up with modernism, some Evangelicals are turning to pre-modern Orthodox churches for worship that "engages all the senses."
Bruce Anderson had attended many different churches before he stepped inside an Orthodox parish for the first time. After spending time with the United Church, the Baptists, and The Salvation Army, he attended a Pentecostal Bible school—and it was during his time there that he joined some Greek Orthodox friends to see what worship was like at their church.
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The experience blew him away. "There was so much visual stimulation," he says, but it wasn't just the icons that caught his eye—the movements of the priests and deacons, the non-stop congregational singing, and the smell of incense all contributed to the interactive nature of the service and what Anderson now calls "the sensual nature of Orthodox worship."
"I found I really liked how it engaged all the senses," he recalls. "Everybody at school knew I was going to this wacky church, and they asked me what it was like, and I said I felt like I was in a musical, because the priest sings and the deacon sings and everybody else sings."
While some churches have looked for ways to tap into the post-modern hunger for experience, tradition and active participation in worship, some Evangelicals have been turning to decidedly pre-modern churches—churches where the liturgy was not created yesterday, but has been actively followed for centuries, going back to the early days of the faith.
"I think that is one of the strengths that the Orthodox church has, and one of the areas where the Orthodox church is really going to grow," says Anderson. "A lot of people who are fed up with modernism are going to go pre-modern and go into the Orthodox church."
Graham Scott, also known as Father Deacon David, was a minister with the United Church for 34 years before he converted to Orthodoxy four years ago; he now leads St. Ignatius of Antioch, a small mission that meets in an Anglican church in St. Catharines, Ontario. He says one of the key appeals of Orthodoxy is the "continuity" it offers with other Christians "down through the ages."
"Generally, Protestant churches think of the Church really beginning around 1517," he says, "but obviously it had 1,500 years of history before that. So, continuity between the liturgy and the sacraments, continuity of doctrine and morals, even continuity of music—there is evidence that Byzatine chant is based on Hebrew melodies. To me, that was a big factor in my moving to the Orthodox church, aside from the fact that I thought what it taught to be true."
Orthodoxy has had an increasingly high profile in recent years, thanks in part to the prominent Evangelicals and Protestants, such as Frank Schaeffer, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Terry Mattingly and Jaroslav Pelikan, who have joined Eastern churches. And as more converts have come into the Orthodox fold, it has gradually come to be known as much for its distinctive brand of theology as for the ethnic trappings that are often attached to such churches.
Cheryl Zacharias, the daughter of two charismatic missionaries, first came into contact with Orthodoxy while studying at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C.
There she befriended an Anglican youth pastor who was beginning to explore Orthodoxy after a "bad experience" with his home church. "He decided to use me as a sounding board as he pursued Orthodoxy," she says. "We would meet for coffee, and he would talk about Orthodoxy, and I would raise objections, which gave him an opportunity to argue in favour of Orthodoxy instead of against it, which is what he had been doing up until that point."
But eventually Zacharias came to believe that Orthodox theology solved some of the problems that she, too, had with certain strands of Evangelical thought, such as its tendency to define salvation narrowly in terms of justification, to the near-exclusion of sanctification.
She says she had an "Aha!" experience when she came across the Orthodox belief that Christ died not to pay a penalty for sins—a belief that many Orthodox writers ascribe to Anselm, whose views took hold in the west after the Orthodox and Catholic churches went their separate ways in the 11th century—but, rather, to conquer death. "That really intrigued me, and I basically decided that that was the theology that I had had all along," she says.
Anderson, too, says he was impressed by what he considered the Orthodox church's more positive view of God's relationship with human beings.
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"The Augustinian doctrine of original sin is such a gloomy view of humankind, and the doctrine of theosis [becoming united to God] is so much more of a positive view of mankind," he says.
"We're still sinners and we're still in need of grace, but there is not this whole idea of 'You wretched worm.' There's an English hymn which talks about God coming down for 'such a worm as I,' and you wouldn't ever find anything like that in Orthodox theology, I don't think."
Scott says he was drawn partly by the "maximalist" approach of Orthodoxy. "The best part of the Anglican church today in Canada would be the Essentials movement people, but the Orthodox would never talk about 'essentials,' because we think the whole thing is essential! We would not want to cut off any article of the faith.
"To be fair, there are Anglicans who have that attitude, but most Protestants seem to like to be able to boil things down to 10, 15 or 20 basics. And in a way, there's nothing wrong with that—that's the way you teach—but to have a church that's going to last for 2,000 years, you need the whole Christ and the whole faith and the whole Church of the past."
However, he says the Orthodox also place an emphasis on mystery that prevents them from adding too many articles to their faith. "The Orthodox church remembers that God is the mystery, and what is revealed to us is still surrounded in mystery, so this mystical emphasis keeps us from overdefining things and trying to explain things that cannot be explained—and we see that as one of the chief dangers of the Roman Catholic church. It seems they try to explain everything, and they have too many definitions and go far beyond where you need to go."
While some Evangelicals have found Orthodoxy attractive for reasons like these, even some converts have struggled with other aspects of the faith that are more challenging to the 21st-century mind. Zacharias, who now attends the St. Herman of Alaska parish in Langley, B.C., says she has struggled with the fact that only men can become priests.
In addition, while she appreciates the way Orthodoxy has fed what she describes as "a hunger for discipline that would set me free to pray and worship in a way that I longed to but never could," she is concerned about the way Orthodox churches may "colonize" other cultures by bringing their own culture—their own music and modes of expression—with them.
"I love the music, but having grown up in a charismatic Evangelical setting, expressiveness in worship is important, and expressiveness comes out of unique styles and tastes and your culture. Coming out of a missionary perspective, it's been really hard for me to see how what I've encountered in Orthodox worship could be relevant to all cultures," she says.
"Being a missionary kid, the benchmark for 'Is it essential Christianity?' is 'Would it work for an indigenous tribe in Indonesia?' That is, could they authentically worship God in their own language and in the language of their own culture and be consistent with the canons of the Orthodox church without being culturally colonized in an oppressive way?"
For his part, Anderson joined the Orthodox church about a dozen years ago, but left in 1997 when he began dating a non-Orthodox woman—now his wife—and, in the course of trying to explain Orthodoxy to her, realized he did not believe it was "the true church."
… in my interpretation of baptism and communion, I think there's a lot more going on than most Evangelicals do."
However, he still holds to many Orthodox beliefs and practices that might make some Evangelicals uncomfortable. He has icons in his house, and he says he still holds to a more "mystical" understanding of the sacraments.
"I'm probably one of the more mystical Evangelicals around," he says, "and in my interpretation of baptism and communion, I think there's a lot more going on than most Evangelicals do."
Going to a Protestant church again, he found it "cold and sterile," and he says Evangelicals could stand to learn several things from the Orthodox. In fact, while he continues to attend Living Hope, an Evangelical church plant in Saskatoon, in the evenings, he recently began spending his mornings at St. Vincent of Lerins Orthodox Church again.
"I am firmly involved in Living Hope, and have no intention of leaving," he says, "but I enjoy the Orthodox liturgy and fellowship too … I am enjoying the mix of modern and ancient worship from my two churches."
Peter T. Chattaway attends St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church in Langley, B.C.
Originally published in ChristianWeek, March 18, 2005.
Used with permission of the author. Copyright © 2005 Christianity.ca.