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 providentialso do not lose heart.
First of all, as with everything in the pressbe
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
"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
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
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.