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Does the Orthodox Church Proselytize?

"I noticed in the press that the Greek Archbishop has stated that the Orthodox Church is against proselytism. This cannot mean that the Orthodox Church does not receive converts, because I know that there ore numbers of converts to Orthodoxy, yourselves among them. I am confused about this, and feel as if we are being rejected; have you anything to say?" T.P., Leicester.

As a rather horrible modernism would have it, "I can identify with that"! When, back in the sixties, I wished to make inquiries about becoming Orthodox, I wrote three times to the Greek Cathedral and received no reply. I then found the address of a priest and wrote to him, and received the "we do not proselytize" reply. It can be extremely discouraging, and I began to wonder about these people who claimed that they were the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and yet seemed to manifest no interest in helping people join that Church. However, subsequent events have proved that perhaps that depressing lack of response was providential—so do not lose heart.

First of all, as with everything in the press—be extremely careful! So many things are taken out of context or highlighted in a way that was never intended. The matter to which I am sure you are referring was covered in "The Church of England Newspaper" of Friday, February 11th, 1994, under the heading "Greek Orthodox raise barriers for converts." And this was followed up by "No proselytizing and no Western rite, Archbishop tells Anglicans." Certainly it seemed a message of rejection, but let us try and get a few things in perspective.

Some years ago I was present when Archbishop Gregorios was asked about his Church's policy on converts by a fellow Orthodox Bishop. He stated quite categorically and repeatedly that they were not encouraged and he gave his reasons for this. So we might presume that the angle of the press reporting does not altogether misrepresent the Archbishop's views. They are views that we believe are mistaken, but then we do not expect our hierarchs to be infallible, not even one of them.

Such an attitude might seem incredible to someone like yourself, outside the Orthodox Church, but I think that in all fairness to those who hold the views attributed to Archbishop Gregorios, that we must make some attempt to understand their position. We must start with the reason that I heard the Archbishop himself give, that converts lose their own roots and rarely really became truly Orthodox. Even as a convert myself, I have a certain sympathy with the Archbishop's remarks in this regard. So many of us seem to come into Orthodoxy and then want to tell the Orthodox how they should be; we bring with us loads of spiritual luggage from our heterodox past and often seem intent of not budging from our own preconceived (and conceived outside of Orthodoxy) ideas.

But that being the case, it is still not an excuse for not welcoming converts to the Faith. All it means is that more has to be done to help them, and I suspect that that brings us to another problem for the non-proselytizers. They simply do not know how to cope in that regard. They are not in any way to be blamed for that; most of them are themselves immigrants to this country; many of them speak little English, and have little or no idea of what makes Englishmen tick. I have found myself in a mirror-image kind of situation in trying to minister to largely Russian / Ukrainian congregations. The problems are further confounded by a kind of over-weaning ethnicism. I do not speak against a proper and moderate love of one's home-country, its culture and its spiritual tradition. All these things can be healthy and can be vessels in which to hold the precious perfume of Orthodoxy. Many converts in their arrogance are insensitive to this and so aggravate the situation. But there is a tendency, with the gut if not with the head, for Greeks to think that Orthodoxy is essentially Greek and for Greeks. A similar thing is found in the other Orthodox national Churches. And so they simply do not see why anyone not of the same ethnic background, or at least enamoured of that cultural heritage, would want to join them. I think that quite genuinely they feel at a loss as to what to do.*

Now of course, the present situation has arisen because there are a number of Anglicans disenchanted by the acceptance of women priests within the Church of England who are looking to Orthodoxy as a possible recourse. Probably experiencing the sense of rejection that you feel from the major jurisdictions established in this country, they have turned to the Antiochian Archdiocese, headed by Metropolitan Philip in America. This has caused a flurry of problems! We cannot investigate them all at length. There are quite genuine worries about the propriety of Metropolitan Philip's intervening in affairs in Britain. Even within the Antiochian Patriarchate, his diocese does not encompass Britain, and it is not proper for an Orthodox bishop to operate in another's diocese. It is widely feared that the Anglicans contemplating joining Metropolitan Philip will be brought into his Archbishopric without proper preparation and without proper procedures as was the case when a similar thing happened some years back in America. No doubt Metropolitan Philip would argue that extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary measures, and that the pastoral need to do something to help these poor people was compelling.

There are also worries about the expediency of the Western Rite. Our own jurisdiction, the Russian Church Abroad, does have a Western Rite community in America, but, although one would hesitate to rule out the use of Western Rite out of hand, as it seems Archbishop Gregorios has done, there are sober reasons to have misgivings about the introduction of a Western Rite on a large scale. We cannot cover that topic now, but should perhaps add that another area of grave concern in this regard is the particular rites that are being offered as options by the Antiochians. There seems to be no attempt to reach back to the pre-schism Orthodoxy of the West, and there is real cause for fear that a kind of "continuing Anglicanism" under an Antiochian bishop is being promulgated.

We must say that we are left in two minds about the Antiochian initiative; one can hail the evangelical spirit which prompts Metropolitan Philip to reach out and try and help these people. But we have the gravest misgivings about the soundness of the jurisdiction into which they will thus be invited, and we fear that the intending converts will in any case find themselves in a kind of ecclesiastical limbo and, for good as well as base reasons, not be fully accepted by other Orthodox. Perhaps the brightest hope is that maybe this move will be for those who truly desire salvation and thirst for Orthodoxy just one more step on their Pilgrimage to Orthodoxy.

It is widely believed, among many observers within the Orthodox Church and outside her, that the "major established jurisdictions" in this country also entertain fears of the intrusion of another Orthodox presence outside their own dominion and beyond their control. Although such fears would be base, it seems that rumour of them is not without foundation and indeed, even down here in the deadlands of Surrey we have heard distant echoes from the Thames basin of the clash of the dinosaurs!

All of these things have doubtless contributed to the raising of the "no proselytism" flag; but there is also another and perhaps overriding contributory factor. In response to press coverage such as you cite, it is reported in the "Church Times" (18/3/94) that an Inter-Orthodox Committee, chaired by Archbishop Gregorios, has been set up to help people leaving the Church of England through the process of catechesis and reception into the Orthodox Church. This seems laudable if rather late in the day, and there are worries that rather than being an enabling committee it is purposed to be a blocking one. We hope these worries are unfounded, but have so far heard nothing of the Committee's work and cannot comment.

Thyateira House in Bayswater, the administrative centre of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain, has also issued a press release, which was published in "Orthodox Outlook" (volume VII, No 5, 1994). Perhaps in fairness we should quote it in full for you:

"The present troubled state of the Church of England is a matter of great sadness. The Greek Orthodox Church regards the Church of England with affection and with gratitude for its help to Orthodox communities in this country. Our first duty in its present troubles is to pray for the Church of England and to offer what spiritual support we can.

"The Orthodox Church has never sought to proselytize amongst other Christian communities and deplores off forms of sectarianism.

"There are many Anglicans who know and love the Orthodox Church, but who remain loyal members of the Church of England. They have our friendship and our respect. We will maintain and extend our good relationship with them.

"There are also Anglicans, both lay-people and clergy, who wish to be received into the Orthodox Church. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese seeks to respond to intending converts with loving understanding, supporting them with appropriate catechesis. We are not prepared, however, to compromise the integrity of the Orthodox tradition by approving the establishment of a 'Western Rite' or by giving any support whatsoever to groups seeking to conduct 'mission' to proselytize amongst other communities in the British Isles."

This statement is really troubling, one feels that one can heartily endorse only the first two sentences of the last paragraph. It is not at all clear how the establishment of a Western Rite in itself "compromises the integrity of the Orthodox tradition." However, even the casual observer will notice that the greater part of the release is not concerned with "responding to intending converts with loving understanding, supporting them with appropriate catechesis," but with maintaining friendships with the Established Church, which by the ordination of women has taken a further and irrevocable step away from Orthodoxy. The statement twice reiterates the condemnation of proselytism, but nowhere gives a Scriptural or Patristic basis for this condemnation. In fact there is little Scriptural or Patristic support for most of the sentiments expressed in this short communication. On reflection much of it indeed seems to be based on propositions which are neither Scriptural or Patristic and run counter to Orthodox confession of the Faith.

Two things need to be said in this regard. First of all, what is meant by the apparently offensive word "proselytism"? Of course, no sober Orthodox Christian would desire to exert undue pressure upon anyone to convert, to harass them, or badger them,—but the word does not carry any of these connotations. It simply means to convert, and surely it is incumbent upon us to try to convert people from error to the Truth, from heterodoxy to Orthodoxy?

But here we meet our second obstacle, the Greek Archdiocese of Thyateira is compromised in this regard by its, and by its Patriarchate's, adherence to ecumenism. It is impossible to be ecumenist and missionary. Regard and respect for those who continue in error takes over from love of what is true and salvatory. Friendship and maintaining good relations with those outside the Church kills true love for souls that are languishing without the grace of the Holy Mysteries. Such love, regard and friendship are man-pleasing rather than God-pleasing.

See now the contrast in a statement by an Orthodox hierarch, who is not snared by the delusion of ecumenism. Metropolitan Cyprian of Oropos and Fili in his short pamphlet, "The Panheresy of Ecumenism," published in English translation by the Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, says something quite different from the Thyateira release. He writes:

What is the greatest expression of true love? The salvation of man in Christ. God became man in order to save mankind from the eternal death of falsehood and sin. Our Lord Jesus Christ, after the Resurrection, said to his Disciples: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded" (St Matthew 28:19-20). Not only the Holy Apostles, but their disciples, that is, the Orthodox, consider proselytism the most essential work of love In Christ: indeed, the return of heretics and other deluded people of this world to the truth of right belief and the Grace of Orthodoxy!

This is a statement from an Orthodox hierarch which speaks to the heart truly and without dissimulation. It, and not the statements presently emanating from Thyateira, truly represents the Orthodox position on proselytism.

From "Points from Correspondence" section of The Shepherd, Vol. XIV, No. 7 (April 1994), pp. 15-20.