To Members of the Church of England who are Unhappy at the Degradation of their Communion and might consider ‘the Orthodox Option’
A few days ago it was announced that seven Anglican clergymen and 300 of their parishioners are to join the new Ordinariat of the Roman Catholic Church through the local Diocese of Brentwood alone. This follows the ordination of three former Anglican bishops as Roman Catholic priests at Westminster Cathedral a few days before. No doubt many more will follow them into the Roman Catholic option, understandably having been scandalised by the apostasy within Anglicanism. What is the point of view of members of the Orthodox Churches with regard to these events? Indeed, what are the Orthodox Churches?
The Orthodox Churches
The Orthodox Church is a Family or Confederation of fifteen Local Churches, as were the Churches of the Galatians, the Ephesians, the Romans, the Thessalonians, the Corinthians etc, as described in the letters written to them by the holy Apostle Paul 2,000 years ago. Today, however, instead of covering small communities grouped in cities around the Mediterranean, the Orthodox Churches cover countries and different ethnic groups all over the world.
Today, the Orthodox Church worldwide numbers 217 million. She ranges from by far the largest, the Russian Orthodox Church with 164 million members, to the Czech and Slovak Orthodox Church, which is confined to the Czech Lands and Slovakia and has only 110,000 members. On the other hand, the Russian Orthodox Church is spread over 62 different countries, uses nearly as many languages in Her worship and a third of Her members were born and live outside Russia. Just as you do not have to be Roman to be Roman Catholic, so you do not have to be Russian to be Russian Orthodox.
Throughout our history, Orthodox have been persecuted by all sorts of groups, pagan Roman emperors, heretics, intellectuals, Muslims, iconoclasts, Roman Catholic crusaders, Mongols, Ottomans, Communists, freemasons, Nazis, sectarians etc. For example, the largest Orthodox country, Russia, was invaded no fewer than four times between 1812 and 1941, by the French and their allies, then by the French, the British and the Turks, then the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, and finally by the Nazis. This is in accordance with our Lord’s words of warning to His disciples in the Gospel that, ‘all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet’ (Matt. 24, 6). The main thing is that the Orthodox Church is still here, for ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail’ (Matt. 16, 18).
Orthodox Christian Views of Non-Orthodox Christians
For those accustomed to the rather cosy, inward-looking Catholic-Protestant view of the Church, the Orthodox view may come as a shock, a disturbing reminder that there is ‘a third way’. This Orthodox view is that Roman Catholics are lapsed Orthodox. As for Protestants (therefore Anglicans), they are lapsed Roman Catholics. In other words, Catholics and Protestants are two sides of the same lapsed coin. As an outsider to the Catholic-Protestant view of the world, it took me many years to realise that this is why many Anglicans have to become Catholic before they are ready to knock at the door of Orthodoxy. It is phase that many have to go through. On the one hand, it is true that all that Protestants reject in Catholicism is also rejected by Orthodoxy, because it consists of deformations introduced in the second millennium. However, it is also true that for Orthodox, Protestants threw the baby out with the bath water and we still feel that Catholicism is closer to us than Protestantism.
This is why the Orthodox Churches have a reserved attitude towards those who come to us and ask to be received, simply because they are unhappy with their present situation. Thus, in 1995, when a group of about ten Anglican clergy and some 200 followers asked to be received automatically into the Orthodox Church on account of the Anglican ordination of women and that the clergy be automatically ordained as Orthodox priests, they were refused by both the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches in this country. Why?
Both Orthodox Churches felt that the reason for wishing to join the Church was negative. For example, their request could have been out of misogyny or clericalism, rather than for Biblical and theological reasons. Certainly many Orthodox found this all strange, when, after all, the doctrine of the Church of England had largely been dictated to it by a woman and the then head of the Church of England was a woman, the namesake of the first, and had been its head for over 40 years at that time. In order to join the Orthodox Church, first you have to love Orthodoxy. And love for Orthodoxy is proved by waiting, being prepared, being trained. And although another Orthodox bishop did later receive those Anglicans as a separate ex-Anglican grouping, the point had been made.
The Grace of God Brings us to the Church
The Church does not come to us. This is a Protestant view, with the superficial emotionalism of ‘outreach’ and contrived, short-term, all too human proselytism. The result? Here today, lapsed tomorrow. Rather, the grace of God brings us to the Church. It is rather like the young man who wants to join a monastery. He may be kept waiting at the monastery gate for many days and weeks to test how serious he is, whether he has come for negative reasons or positive reasons. Why does he want to join, for negative or positive reasons? That is the question.
For example, the young man in question may have had a failed love affair. That is hardly a serious or positive reason to join a monastery. Thus, someone who has never been to Orthodox churches many times and is not familiar with Orthodox worship, values and civilisation is hardly prepared to join the Orthodox Church. If someone who comes for negative reasons (disliking the policy of his current communion / ‘a failed love affair’) is allowed to join, he will not stay, because technically joining the Orthodox Church is not at all the same as becoming Orthodox and remaining Orthodox. And it is the latter that interests us.
For if you do not become Orthodox and therefore remain Orthodox, how will salvation be achieved? Certainly, not by lapsing from one communion, then coming to the Church, and lapsing from Her as well. Salvation will not come to us if we are not ready to accept the Church as She is and all we want to do instead is to make the Church in our own image. It is no good diluting Her for the sake of our own comfort and egoism, creating a ‘diet Orthodoxy’, because we cannot stand up for Christ at services or go to confession regularly. If people do not love the Orthodox Church as She is, then they must stay with the Protestant-Catholic world.
It is our belief that most of the understandably distressed people who are moving from the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion to Roman Catholicism are making the right move for themselves. (However, we also believe that their move and the ordination of married men, former Anglican clergy, as Roman Catholic priests will cause great problems for Catholicism itself, given its obligatory celibacy for its priests). For some Anglicans we see this move as a necessary preparation for Orthodoxy. We know full well, from nearly forty years of experience, that some of those who today are undertaking the move to Roman Catholicism will one day come knocking at the doors of the Orthodox Church. And they will have been made ready for that initial step only by the experience which they are setting out on now.