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Anglo-Catholics and Orthodoxy

1 August 2012

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post called The end of an era -— Anglo-Catholicism rides off into the sunset, which has proved surprisingly popular, as it remains on the list of top-rated posts on this blog. In it, among other things, I explained why we left the Anglican Church and became Orthodox more than 25 years ago.

A fellow-blogger recently drew my attention to some research being done on Anglo-Catholics who have become Orthodox, or have even thought about doing so: The road less travelled: Anglo-Catholics who consider converting to Orthodoxy.  Deacon John Saturus writes:

I am Deacon John Saturus, a deacon of the Orthodox Church, and am working on a Master’s degree in Theology. My thesis topic is “The Conversion of Anglo-Catholics to Orthodoxy”. If you have ever been an Anglo-Catholic who considered converting to the Orthodox Church(whether you became Orthodox, remained Anglican, or joined some other Church), I would very much appreciate your sharing some of your thoughts and experiences with me.

I have prepared a sort of questionnaire, which you can either fill out online, or have emailed to you. You don’t have to answer every question; if you do answer a question, you should feel free to answer as much or as little as you like. And if there’s anything I’ve forgotten to ask, where you think your thoughts or experiences might be interesting to me or helpful to my research, I’d be very glad to read and think about whatever you’d like to share.

It seems to be an interesting topic, and one that would be worth having more information on, so if you consider yourself Anglo-Catholic, and have ever thought about possibly becoming Orthodox, please take part in the survey. If you achieve nothing else, you’ll be helping Deacon John to get his degree! This is the kind of research topic where the more information is available, the more accurate the research becomes, so the more the merrier.

I’ll also, without, I hope, prejudicing the research, make a couple of observations of my own.

One of these observations is that, of all the Western Christians who might be interested in Orthodoxy, and try to learn something about it, Anglo-Catholics are among those least likely to become Orthodox.

Fr Martin SSF Fr R D E Jones SSC Fr. J Caster SSC processing the relics of SS Peter & Paul. An Anglo-Catholic procession

This might come as a surprise to some. The Orthodox are, after all, “liturgical” like the Anglo-Catholics. There is lots of incense in the services, and colourful vestments, and to a casual observer there might seem to be a very close match.

The late Fr Alexander Schmemann once wrote that at some ecuenical gathering he attended he was seated with the groups perceived as “high church” and “liturgical”, because that was the dominant Western perception of the Orthodox Church. Yet he said that he might have felt just as much at home, or more at home, among the Quakers, with whom he, as an Orthodox Christian, felt he shared an affinity.

I have had similar experiences. I have sometimes been at ecumenical gatherings, among groups of Western Christians whom I don’t know very well, and the ones I have felt most at home with, as an Orthodox Christians, have been Mennonites and Zionists.

I was once involved with a quango called SAQA (the South African Qualifications Authority), working to develop standards for theological education, and the one I felt most at home with, and whom I worked with late into the night, was a Zionist bishop. I invited him to visit our church, and one Sunday he came, with his wife, white robes and all. He felt right at home. He later told me that a couple of weeks after his visit there was a thunderstorm in the middle of the night and he was awakened by a very loud clap of thunder, and he jumped out of bed and made the sign of the cross. His wife joked that he was becoming Orthodox.

Anglo-Catholics, on the other hand, often seem to be rather uncomfortable when they come to Orthodox services. It is the awkwardness of the almost-familiar. When Zionists or Pentecostals come, they come expecting everything to be strange, and are then surprised by things that are unexpectedly familiar. The scriptural imagery in the hymns grabs them, and they find the whole thing biblical, but in unexpected ways.

An Orthodox procession: At St Thomas’s Church, Sunninghill, Johannesburg, for the feast of St Thomas, October 2010

Anglo-Catholics, on the other hand, have the reverse experience. They come expecting things to be familiar, and suddenly unexpected things happen. At a point in  the service where they might expect to genuflect, the Orthodox either do nothing, or might bow down rather than bending the knee. They tend to find this unsettling, and depending on the rigidity of their Anglo-Catholicism, might find it totally off-putting. Orthodox services are not run according to Ritual Notes.

Orthodox services tend to look untidy to Anglo-Catholic eyes, especially white South African Anglo-Catholics (if there are any left). Black Anglo-Catholics might find it more familiar.

An Orthodox Christian who lived a long time in England (he was an exile from Bolshevik Russia), Dr Nicolas Zernov, once remarked, “The Anglican Churches look like fortresses, and inside also it is very military.”

In England there are many Anglican Churches with battlements around the tops of square towers, and sometimes all along the sides of the nave as well. Inside, there are sometimes miliary paraphernalia like flags, regimental standards and so on, but even more, the congregation tends to sit, stand or kneel in unison. Altar servers move in straight lines, with military precision, and the server who carries the thurible handles it like a drum major’s baton. Orthodox services, to an Anglo-Catholic eye, tend to look messy, and in need of a good sergeant-major to get them to shape up.

But that is all based on my own subjective impressions. Perhaps it’s all quite wrong. To get a true picture, lots of people need to complete the survey, so, if you are or have been an Anglo-Catholic, and have ever thought about becoming Orthodox, click here to do it now.


9 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 August 2012 2:49 pm

    Took the survey myself a few days ago… it’s done by a friend’s father or uncle out in Colorado.

    Like your description of “military precision”… and I’d offer that the Antiochian Western Rite’s liturgy is imbued with the same sensibility. Served there myself as an acolyte swingin’ the ol’ thurible until acclimation allowed me to comfortably jump to the mainstream in an OCA parish a year-plus ago. LOVE it so much more. Though my OCA priest has suggested our liturgy of St. John is chaotic by comparison, I see it in some ways as more iconic… and we have multi-tracks… where we display how God is doing different things with different people simultaneously… even and especially in public worship for a very good reason: so we don’t get the idea that God works only in a linear, one-track (all too often “my track… NOT yours”) and only with one person. And that seems more real to me… and a visual teaching within the liturgy (of which there are many more).

    The problem you nail is quite real: IF you allow yourself to become fixed in these things, and hold on to this in a church which is admittedly hostile to your manner of worship (true for AC’s whether in Anglicanism/Episcopalianism, Roman Catholicism, or Western Rite Orthodoxy) your grip tends to become very, very firm of necessity… for in a sense, you are conditioned equally as well to a certain hostility or defensiveness to your own hierarchy as a result. Been this way for AC’s since the beginning of the “Catholic Revival”. I found it becomes quite hard to re-orient and allow a truly genuine Orthodox theology to drive. And in our wider Orthodox Church, I think many of the references of the saints to prayers and liturgy we read simply remain incomprehensible without deep experience of the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. And so I’d suppose to an AC, it just remains “wrong”… unless they relax and give it time. Which when you’re convinced you’re “right”… well I think it goes against your tendency. More than that, Anglicans – whether High, Low or Central church – are looking for affirmation of the “correctness” of their worship much more than a call to engage more deeply in the cycle or repentance and conversion… so the suggestion of “need” or “one thing needful”… just isn’t going to wash very much. And our worship might seem to be by comparison as a consequence, quite wrong at its core.

    Very good of you to resist the temptation to assert doctrinal contradictions and other theological matters between AC and Orthodoxy and focus strictly on the post-modern experiential issues at the core of today’s conversions? Yes… I think so… as we probably convert here… on the experience before we begin looking at the rest.

  2. Harold Stassen permalink
    1 August 2012 11:47 pm

    What about all the openly gay clergy in Anglo-Catholic churches in the West? What do the Orthodox think of this?

    • 2 August 2012 5:33 am

      What the Orthodox think of that is much the same as what they think of openly gay clergy in any other denomination or sub-denomination, which is probably not much. The survey is concerned with what Anglo-Catholics think of Orthodoxy, rather than with what the Orthodox think of Anglo-Catholics.

      Homosexuality appears to be an Anglican obsession at the moment (see Notes from underground: Recurring issues), but it is not, as far as I can see, an Orthodox one.

  3. Dale permalink
    3 October 2012 3:56 am

    One really, really tires of these attacks against the Church of England, or any non-Byzantine expression of the Faith, from rather insidious self-loathing converts to Byzantium.

    Zernov’s comment makes no sense, if one wishes to see liturgical military precision, I suggest going to a Russian service. A real Russian service, especially amongst the Yedinovertzi, makes an Anglican high mass look like a free for all. The operatic music, the self-inflated importance of basso profundo deacons bellowing in the middle of the church etc., etc. (Well, at least the Yedinovertzi have preserved real chant). This is a denomination that has made worship into simply a spectator sport.

    And finally, a denomination that is limited to a single ethnic tradition, Byzantine, is really not much more than an ethnic sect.

    I would suggest in the future to deal with your own denomination…it has enough problems without attacking others.

    Thank God there is at least Oriental Orthodoxy which continues to preserve the fullness of Catholicity in a multitude of differing liturgical traditions, united not by culture, but by Faith. Too bad this is beyond the pale for imperial Byzantium.

    • 3 October 2012 6:32 am

      One gets the impression that this comment tends to confirm the thesis that Anglo-Catholics are not attracted to Orthodoxy.

    • Anastasios permalink
      31 July 2013 5:27 am

      Yes, because Anglicanism (whose very name means “English”) is SO much more liturgically and culturally diverse…

      Also, most Eastern Orthodox no longer find Oriental Orthodoxy to be “beyond the pale”. In fact, there is serious dialogue aimed at restoring communion by clarifying the Chalcedon controversy going on right now, and I suspect we may see a union between the two families very soon. Then you will no longer be able to use that excuse 😉

  4. Zim permalink
    11 August 2015 4:33 pm

    I sort of stumbled upon your blog and I will surely bookmark it. I’m an Anglo-Catholic who is really drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy but I feel that it caters more to certain ethnic groups. Where can one find an Orthodox church in the Johannesburg East area?


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