Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Converts to Orthodoxy

Малогоспојински снепшотI promised this post a while ago when I mentioned that I'd been reading about a number of converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, some that were quite surprising. Supposedly over 70% of priests in the Orthodox church in America today are converts, which is a pretty stunning statistic, particularly in light of the fact that that is up from 10% a few decades ago.

I've mentioned Frederica Mathewes Greene before, and I just finisher her book Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy. Greene's husband was a priest in the Episcopalian church when they converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, and their story is fascinating to me, and seems pretty classic. They are a part of the recent wave of converts from the Episcopalian/Anglican and Catholic church.Another convert from the Anglican church is Kallistos Ware, an Oxford-educated scholar who intensely encountered Orthodoxy when he traveled through Greece. He is now an Orthodox Metropolitan.

A truly watershed conversion was Jaroslav Pelikan, who was a preeminent church historian and a professor at Yale. He was born in Ohio to a strongly Lutheran family, he also became a church historian and  Lutheran scholar, earning a PhD by the age of 22. He was known for the great breadth of his expertise, which included study and books on the early church, Augustine, Luther, the development of doctrine, Kierkegaard, medieval philosophy, etc. He came out with a five-volume work of church history and was the first Protestant scholar to include Eastern Orthodoxy in their work on church history.

After being such a strong scholar and Lutheran for so long, it was shocking to the Protestant world when he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy at the age of 70 years old in 1996. He didn't talk much about his conversion, but a few quotes caught my eye. He said: "I was the Lutheran with the greatest knowledge of the Orthodox Church, and now I am the Orthodox with the greatest knowledge of Luther. " He also said that he didn't so much find Orthodoxy as much as return to it, "Peeling back the layers of my own belief to reveal the Orthodoxy that was always there."

Even more surprising to me than Pelikan was the discovery of the story of Peter E Gilquist, who was not so much a high church scholar as much as a low church evangelical leader. He got involved with Campus Crusade in college and became a born-again Christian. He pursued graduate studies at Wheaton and then Dallas Theological seminary (where my husband is now). He began working for Campus Crusade based in Notre Dame, and eventually became a regional director.

While with Crusades Gilquist and some co-workers began studying historical Christianity and reading the Church Fathers, and eventually became convinced that the Orthodox church was the only unchanged historical church. They initially formed house churches that intended to recapture the historical practice of the early church, but most ended up joining the Antiochian Archdiocese. When Gillquist finally converted in 1987, he led 17 parishes and 2,000 evangelicals with him. Holy cow. That story stunned me.

Another convert from low-church evangelicalism is Frank Schaeffer, the son of Francis Schaeffer. Many don't know the name Francis Schaeffer, but for evangelicals in the 60's he was writing books like A Christian Manifesto, How Should We Then Live?, and True Spirituality. He was a BIG name. He went to Switzerland and started L'abri, a center for discussion and debate about faith and spirituality. He was super influential. His son Frank became an artist and filmmaker. He picked up the reigns and followed his father's path, until the mid-1980's when he publicly stepped away from the Religious Right. I knew about that part of his story and have appreciated his critique of the Religious Right. I did not know, however, that he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in 1992. He's a bit of a controversial figure these days and I'm not sure Eastern Orthodoxy wants him representing their name! 

Kallistos Ware, formerly Timothy Ware, was Anglican clergy when he traveled through Greece and deeply encountered Orthodoxy at some churches there. He is now a preeminent Orthodox theologian, author, and Metropolitan. 

Peter Jackson was an evangelical and Wycliffe Bible Translators missionary to Columbia. As he dealt with translation difficulties he began to look for clarity in authorial intent by studying church history. He really took a look at the East as he searched further for rationale against Calvinism. They actually joined an Orthodox church while on the mission field, even though the Orthodox community was tiny and didn't even have a priest. The last thing I read was that he was studying at an Orthodox seminary with the intent of starting an official Orthodox church back in Columbia, but that's very outdated. 

Matthew Gallatin was part of the Jesus movement. He was a singer/songwriter, youth minister, and Calvary Chapel pastor. In this position he struggled with the huge range of Protestant opinions, all brought from the same belief in the final authority of scripture. This drove him to a study of the early church, which lead him to the place that he believes still holds the beliefs and practices of the early church: Eastern Orthodoxy.

Joel Kalvesmaki was an eager young evangelical who also became a missionary with OM. When a fellow Wheaton grad and OM missionary shared his search into the Orthodox Church with Joel, Joel was skeptical. He began to read up on the Church Fathers to argue again his friend's journey, and was indeed initially very anti-Orthodox. The more he read, the more humbled and surprised he was at the lack of understanding in his own evangelical faith. He considered Anglicanism and strongly considered Roman Catholicism. He saw other history-hunting evangelicals journeying the same way and landing in a variety of places. Eventually the belief that the Orthodox best hold to the simplicity of early faith rather than adding to it led him into Orthodoxy.

John Maddex has been mentioned on my blog before. He helped run Moody Radio for years, and his daughters attended Moody and Wheaton. One daughter and her boyfriend began exploring Eastern Orthodoxy after some church history courses, and the other daughter and her boyfriend followed. John began attending with them purely to be able to argue against their journey into Orthodoxy. His wife immediately felt at home in the Orthodox church, and as he began to read the Church Fathers his arguments also melted away. After the whole family converted he ended up starting Ancient Faith radio for the Orthodox Church, and I got to hear him speak in a spiritual formation course while I was at Moody. 

Fascinating, eh? The theme of nearly every conversion to Orthodoxy is a study of the Early Church. I seems to be rather earth-shattering for most Protestants.


s-p said...

As an EO convert (former pastor, seminary grad etc. etc.) I think I should point out that the laundry list of "famous converts" is a two edged sword in many ways. "Orthodox converts" are often portrayed (or can be seen as)an elite "boutique" group of people who might leave the impression that you have to be "smart enough to convert". The other issue is, it looks like "Orthodox evangelism" is really just prosyletizing non-Orthodox Christians from other Churches. And, truth be told, most of our "apologetical literature" is "Orthodoxy-contra- other Christian doctrines".... which is important if you are a Christian looking at the OC, of course. The people you don't read books or blogs about are the folks like some at our Church, the mildly "retarded" woman, the one with barely a high school education, the brain damaged young man, the GenXYZ-ers, the children, who all engage the OC not because it is "correct" intellectually, but because it is material, sensual, experiential and "not of this world". It is the reasoning of the heart the mind cannot explain.

Young Mom said...

That is fascinating! Very interesting about the Pastor in 87! It reminds me of a book I read recently called "No Price to High" about a pentecostal preacher of a small church who tried to replicate the early church and ended up cenverting to Catholicsm.

Kacie said...

S-P -
valid comment. For me the power of this list and their stories is not so much their intellect, but that they were people from similar backgrounds to me, they asked similar questions to me, and they ended up in the Orthodox church. It makes it feel less "other" and unreachable and foreign.

s-p said...

Indeed Kacie, I found the "conversion stories" comforting too along the way and I may not be Orthodox today if I didn't have some assurance that I would fit somewhere, so I'm definitely not saying they are a bad thing. But "Orthodoxy on the internet" is a thin slice of the realities you find when you actually visit and begin integrating into a parish and interacting with real people incarnationally and not just digitally. Depending on where you land it can be a totally wonderful or totally off-putting experience... just like any other Church, except there's a lot more weird stuff to overcome than just the crappy lead player in the worship band and the pastor's misspelled words in his sermon's powerpoint slide show. :)

PresterJosh said...

"Fascinating, eh? The theme of nearly every conversion to Orthodoxy is a study of the Early Church. I seems to be rather earth-shattering for most Protestants."

Indeed. As another well-known convert (to Catholicism in this case) said: "To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant." :-)

DebD said...

I'm enjoying the conversation - but I did want to point out one error. Met. KALLISTOS first encountered Orthodoxy when he went away to college in England. I don't think he went to Greece until after he had converted. Here is a nice account of his first encounter with the Orthodox church.

DebD said...

"The Illumined Heart" with Kevin Allen devotes much of his time to interviewing Orthodox converts from all different types of backgrounds (Christian and non-Christian). You may enjoy his podcasts at Ancient Faith Radio.

I agree with s-p that sometimes internet Orthodoxy seems like intellectual Orthodoxy. It can be a little misleading. I suspect it is that way with just about all the Christian traditions, though.

But, don't let those little old church ladies fool you. Met. JONAH told a humbling story once: When he was in seminary he was part of the seminary choir which traveled around the US. Of course, they took along boxes and boxes of books from the sem bookstore. Once, when they were heading to rural OH or PA and he was lugging boxes he complained, "Why do we have to take all these books with us - do those people even read??!". When they got to the church one of the little old babushkas wanted to get into a discussion with him about Christological debates that occurred during the time of St. Maximos the Confessor. He said he came face to face with his own intellectual snobbery and learned his lesson.

evision said...

Anonymous said...

Hello, please have a read of the following article entitled "On Orthodoxy East and West". I hope it will be a blessing to you and will lead to further discussion and dialogue.
Blessings in Christ.

Anonymous said...

Article: 'http://

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. When I became Orthodox (definitely low church upbringing) many of these same stories (and more) had an impact on me.