Eastern Rite Lures Western Seekers
Uwe Siemon-Netto, UPI Religion Correspondent
Source: UPI - Date: July 2001
If you stand on the shores of Lake Michigan and watch a man with a
long gray mane and beard labor on sailing boats, don't automatically assume that he's an
aging flower child. He may just be Father Luke, an orthodox cleric, trying to make ends
Luke, 58, could not even pay his rent with a mission priest's $1,000
stipend. So he has two other jobs. He works for a boat vendor and keeps book for the
Chicago Diocese of the Orthodox Church in America. Three years ago, when Luke was known
as the Rev. Robert Nelson, his material life was easier. Then he was the pastor of
Salem, a Lutheran congregation on the South Side of Chicago. He had a reasonable income
then and some 300 parishioners, chiefly black, who loved him and whom he loved.
"Leaving them was the hardest part about converting to Orthodoxy,"
he told United Press International Tuesday. But leave he did, driven by his "search for
a spiritual source," as he described it. Now he is pastor to 30 faithful in Christ the
Savior Orthodox Church in the center of Chicago.
Luke is anything but an oddball. In the Midwest alone, the OCA
maintains a dozen mission churches among whose priests are four former Lutheran
ministers, one former Episcopalian and an Amish. And if you look beyond, converts are an
increasingly important feature in two Eastern-rite denominations in America, the OCA
and the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese. "About half our bishops come from
other traditions," said Archpriest Leonid Kishkovsky, the OCA's ecumenical officer.
Kishkovsky ticks off some names: Dimitri Royster, bishop of Dallas, a former Southern
Baptist; Seraphim Storheim, bishop of Canada, formerly Lutheran, then Anglican; Pierre
(now Peter) Huillier, bishop of New York and New Jersey, a former Catholic from France.
Most stunning perhaps was, in 1996, the conversion of Jaroslav Pelikan, Yale University's
celebrated church historian and Luther scholar. Here is a man who has co-edited 22 of
the 55 volumes of Luther's Works in English, and then late in life he "moved East," as
some theologians like to say. "I was the Lutheran with the greatest knowledge of the
Orthodox Church," Pelikan reportedly quipped, "and now I am the Orthodox with the
greatest knowledge of Luther." He is has also been quoted as saying, "When the Lutheran
Church-Missouri Synod became Baptist, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
became Methodist, I became Orthodox."
Presumably, his implication was that the former two denominations
were on the verge of losing their doctrinal clarity. But he does not talk to the media
about this move that exemplifies a trend of sorts among some Protestants and Roman
Catholics. "I have received hundreds of requests for interviews and decided not to
respond to any of them," he told UPI Tuesday. Some former associates say that he simply
does not wish to hurt his former Lutheran coreligionists. But a ranking OCA cleric gave
a clue: "Pelikan said he joined us after he had read a work on the Cappadocian Fathers
for a fifth time in the original Greek." The Cappadocian Fathers were St. Basil the
Great, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa, three brilliant leaders of
philosophical Christian orthodoxy in the late 4th century. The study of such church
fathers is, of course, en vogue among seekers in the West, who are often disenchanted
with Protestantism and with what some call the tainted teaching of modernist Catholic
Outsiders aver three principal motives for the conversion of Western
Christians to Orthodoxy, according to journalism professor and religion columnist Terry
Mattingly, a Southern Baptist pastor's son, who has himself journeyed this way. "First,
people allege that converts are those who could not live without certainty," he said.
"Second, there is supposed to be the attraction of the liturgical beauty, the smells
and bells, the icons. "But in my case, the third reason applies: the beauty of the
doctrine and faith."
Purity is what Mattingly's former pastor, Father Gregory of Holy
Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church outside Baltimore, was seeking. Father Gregory, whose
congregation, like so many Antiochian parishes in the U.S., consists predominantly of
converts, was once Gary Mathewes-Green, an Episcopal priest. His wife, Frederica, a
prolific writer, described in one of her books how he became a "spiritual wanderer," to
use Mattingly's words. She wrote, "It became fashionable to doubt Jesus' miracles, the
Virgin birth, even the bodily resurrection ... Gary at last decided he could no longer be
under the authority of apostate bishops." A meeting with another, by now famous,
"spiritual wanderer" ultimately swayed this Episcopal clergyman to become one of 5
million Orthodox Christians in America, Frederica Mathewes-Green said. That man was
Peter E. Gillquist, a former Campus Crusade for Christ staff member, who led more than
2,000 evangelicals into the Antiochian Orthodox Church.
Back in the late 1960s, Gillquist and some friends were "looking
for the true New Testament church," said his wife, Marilyn, who participated in this
venture. "We had become convinced that the church was the means to fulfill the great
commission," he later wrote. Gillquist and his fellow evangelicals then became, in a
sense, forerunners of one particular set of contemporary seekers: the ones who
systematically study what most non-liturgical Protestants have been deprived of -- the
Church Fathers. "Our background as evangelical Christians meant that we somewhat knew
our way backward to the Protestant Reformation, and that we knew our way forward to A.D.
95, the end of the New Testament era," he wrote. In other words, they had missed out on
what happened theologically between the 2nd and the 16th centuries.
What Gillquist and his friends found out was this: "From the start the
church of Christ and his apostles were liturgical and sacramental, with a clearly
defined laity, governed by bishops, presbyters and deacons." So they founded, in a
sense, little orthodox house churches, vested, burned incense, celebrated the liturgy,
and became the Evangelical Orthodox Church that was eventually accepted by the
Antiochians. If there is an amazing story about American Christianity in flux, this is
it. Here were low-churchmen, whose pastors did not even wear a preaching gown, much less
vestments. Here were people whose churches had a congregational polity and frowned on
distant hierarchs. And now they are under the roof of an ancient church whose patriarch
lives in Damascus and whose primate in America, Philip Saliba, reigns from Englewood,
N.J. And now Father Peter E. Gillquist is archbishop Philip's director of Mission and
Evangelism, doing what he used to do for Campus Crusade for Christ: gathering souls,
except this time for a church where the Apostle Paul had his own conversion experience,
which changed him from a persecutor of Christians to the Church's first and most