When Joshua and I walked through the doors of St. Mark Orthodox Church, I had never met a practicing Eastern Christian. I was pretty sure Dmitri from my Victorian literature class at Valparaiso University mentioned attending a dull Russian service at Christmas and Easter time with his parents. These were the same parents who instructed Dmitri never to blow into a breathalyzer, even if the cops insisted. Dmitri was paying for business school with ill-gotten money he made selling electronics that “fell off the back of trucks.” Joshua and I shuffled into one of the back pews and breathed in the rich smell of incense. Fyoder Dostoevsky’s conversion and amorous commitment to the Russian Church captured my imagination years earlier and colored my expectations for the upcoming Vespers service. The priest sang the service and invoked Mary and the Saints in a way that was foreign to us. As the choir sang the Phos Hilaron, thanking God for the gladsome light, the pure brightness of the everlasting Father in heaven, I turned to Joshua and commented in a hushed tone, “what are the chances? We just said this prayer at the Church Fathers study a couple weeks ago.” Little did I know that Christians have been saying this prayer every night for the past 1800 years. The priest preached on the communion of saints, describing the ways the icons in front of us served as windows into heaven, windows to Jesus. On the car ride home, Joshua said that he expected the talk about the saints to seem idolatrous, but the priest focused on Christ more than he anticipated.
Trevor and I continued this search for the Church of the first Christians. We returned to St. Mark for another Vespers service a couple weeks later. I insisted on us fitting in as much as possible, so we wore ties and prayed quietly before the procession. We only saw one person in our age range, a teenage boy with a black hood pulled up over his head. I closed my eyes and felt the sunlight coming in the windows and tried to adjust to the quiet. The priest interrupted us and asked if our professor tasked us to observe and take notes. I explained that Trevor and I hosted a study of the Church Fathers and wanted to experience traditional Christian worship first hand. The priest seemed puzzled. He asked if we attended college and insisted that we looked like the college students who observe for their world religions class. After the service, as Trevor and I walked out to his car, we remarked on the beauty and serenity of the liturgy. I shook my head and wished I had the sense to explain that we came to worship and pray. I needed to write the priest and clarify our situation.
As we continued to study the history of the Church, I became convinced that my professors were wrong. Christianity was not the chief oppressor of the weak or preeminent champion of ignorance in the West. The Church, at times stumbling and faltering, called men to pursue truth, live lives of sacrificial love, and reflect the beauty of the divine in art. The Church gave us the University of Paris, the Hospital of the Holy Spirit in Montpellier, and The Divine Comedy. She is the Bride of Christ.
I started listening to Eastern Orthodox podcasts on my daily walk down the Paint Creek Trail. One series about the relationship between Anglican and Eastern Christians particularly sparked my imagination. Listening to these podcasts, I discovered that conservative Anglicans around the world formed a new province in America a few years ago called the Anglican Church in North America. This opened up possibilities for Eastern and Anglican Christians to seek closer union with one another. Apparently Saint Grafton and Saint Tikhon inspired this movement. As much as I admired the Eastern Fathers and theologians I had been studying, I pondered the two traditions and realized that much of my formation came from Anglicans. I attended a Wesleyan High School and the Wesley brothers died faithful Anglican priests. My favorite books in my High School apologetics class were C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and Screwtape Letters (the latter of which I found equally gripping and disturbing). Back when I took Critical Theory, an introduction to the trendy sort of French philosophy that informs contemporary readings of literature, it was John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory and Alan Jacobs’ A Theology of Reading that helped me understand the Christian alternative to the hermeneutics of suspicion. Come to think of it, I was currently memorizing works by T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. If there were an Anglican church in my area that conserved the patrimony of the first Christians, perhaps that was where my friends from the study and I should worship.
I wrote an email to the local Eastern and Anglican priests. The priest at St. Mark never responded. Fr. Moore, an Anglican priest on the East side, wrote me back promptly and took an immediate interest in our study of the Church Fathers. He offered to meet for coffee at the Desert Oasis the following week.
Fr. Moore already had his coffee when I arrived. I had a lot of questions. I explained that I was new to the whole traditional church scene and wondered how closely Anglicans sought to follow the example of the early Church. I noted having attended a couple Eastern services in the past month. Fr. Moore rested his elbows on the table, a table covered in pictures of Bob Dylan, and cleared his throat. I mentioned the Eastern priests strange reaction to our visit and confessed I was still waiting on a response to my email. Fr. Terry cleared his throat again. Then he asked me if I was Russian. I answered in the negative. He asked if I was Greek. I explained that the Collisters emigrated from the Isle of Man. “Well, that’s the problem,” he told me, “stop hanging out at the Russian club.” I sipped on my house coffee and turned this over in my mind. I wanted to know exactly what Fr. Terry meant. He made it clear that the Anglican tradition is the Orthodox faith in the English speaking world. If I wanted to see more people follow Jesus in the ways of the first Christians, if I wanted to help other people discover the treasures of the Church, I should become Anglican. Considering my thoughts before this meeting, I was open to this argument.
Archbishop Robert Duncan, leader of the Anglican Church in North America, had challenged every Anglican parish to start a mission in the next five years. I asked Fr. Moore if his parish would consider planting a church in Rochester. Fr. Moore cocked his head to the side and folded his arms in that way he does. Then he informed me that young men climb mountains. Young men fight wars. He was too old, too tired. But I could start a mission with these young men from the study. I made it clear that I wasn’t an Anglican, let alone confirmed. I hoped St. John had a deacon or assistant priest who would suit the role.
Before we shook hands and headed home, I asked Fr. Moore what he meant when he said St. John the Apostle was Evangelical and Catholic. Even after he clarified, I still had questions, so I asked for some books to explain what it meant to become Anglican. He told me to read Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s The Gospel and the Catholic Church, Bishop Tom Wright’s Simply Christian, and Vernon Staley’s The Catholic Religion: A Manual of Instruction for Members of the Anglican Communion. He also told me to come experience the liturgy. If you are reading this and new to the Anglican way, I second Fr. Moore’s instructions.