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"Anglo-Orthodoxy": Why some Episcopalians are turning to Eastern Orthodoxy for spiritual enlightenment

William DiPuccio, Ph.D

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After decades of relative isolation, Eastern Orthodoxy in America is breaking out of its ethnic enclaves and becoming an indigenous church. Within the last two decades, Orthodoxy in America has seen an influx of  converts from evangelical, Anglican, and Roman Catholic backgrounds. By one estimate, 25% of recent converts are Anglican. There are entire  Orthodox churches where the majority of the congregation, including the  priests and deacons, have converted from other Christian churches.

While Episcopalians are not defecting in droves, there is a small, and  I believe, growing contingent of people who find Eastern Orthodoxy an attractive alternative to post-modern revisionist theology and even to Anglo-Catholicism which is emphatically aligned with the western church. But, not everyone fascinated with Eastern Orthodoxy chooses to leave Anglicanism. Those who regard themselves as "Anglo-Orthodox" continue to function within the confines of Anglicanism, albeit with a wistful eye on the east. The issues here are not simply theological, but liturgical. In fact, as we will see below, there is probably a greater theological affinity between Anglicanism and Orthodoxy, than there is between Anglicanism and Rome. But, because the Episcopal liturgy is virtually identical to the modern Roman liturgy, many of those oriented toward the Eastern church are all but forced to leave the Anglican communion if they want to worship in Byzantine style.

These liturgical obstacles cannot be marginalized. In Orthodox thought, worship is at the center of the Christian life, and orders both theology and practice. This is an issue that the Anglican communion must address if it is to function as a "via media" in the true sense of the word. Surely, in a church where revisionists can proffer feminist, gay, and syncretistic liturgies, there is room for the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (the prevailing liturgy in Eastern Orthodoxy)!

The Attraction of Orthodoxy

What is it about Orthodoxy that some Episcopalians find so attractive? In brief, theological integrity and worship. Orthodoxy is a place of solace from the theological and moral storms which continue to batter the western church. These upheavals have turned western Christendom upside-down and diverted its energy from the church's true mission (making disciples) and final destiny (worship). Unruffled by these vicissitudes, Orthodoxy continues steadfast in apostolic doctrine and morality. In some cases this tranquility may be the result of continued insularity (and even oblivion) which has been part of the immigrant mindset of many Eastern Orthodox churches in America.

However, whenever Orthodoxy does engage our post-modern culture, it does so not in shrill tones, but with a quiet confidence which reveals its true depth and breadth. Since the collapse of the Enlightenment in the late 18th century, Protestants and Catholics alike have wrestled with issues of revelation, hermeneutics, and Biblical interpretation.

Many modern theologians have abandoned the belief that Scripture constitutes an authoritative and universal revelation of God's character and intent. Moreover, the idea that there can be an authoritative interpretation of Scripture (or any other text for that matter) has been rejected in favor of a more subjective hermeneutic. Meaning does not belong to texts but emerges from the individuals and (oppressed) communities who interact with the text. The Orthodox response to this innovation demonstrates a certain affinity with historical Anglican theology that cannot be ignored.

Unlike the Roman Catholic church which maintains that interpretive authority is the prerogative of the church's Magisterium, Orthodoxy holds that interpretive authority belongs to the church in its historical entirety. This is the "conscience" of the church or "Holy Tradition" which includes, first and foremost, the Scriptures, then the seven ecumenical councils, the writings of the Fathers, the canons of the church, the liturgy, iconography, etc. Whereas the Roman Catholic Church tends to view Scripture and Tradition as separate sources of revelation (two source theory), Orthodoxy sees Tradition as an organic whole (one source theory) which includes Scripture. Tradition, then, functions as the hermeneutical lens through which we understand the Bible. It is a safeguard against the kind of free-for-all interpretation that permeates many mainline churches today. When approaching Scripture, it is better to trust the collective wisdom of the ages than the myopic vision of contemporary individuals or groups.

One cannot help but to hear, in all of this, echoes of historical Anglican theology which organically unites "Scripture, Tradition, and Reason" over against the tendentious voices of modern Biblical revisionism. And let us not forget the Oxford Movement which appealed to the Vincentian canon (from Vincent of Lerins, c. 434) as a criterion for interpreting Scripture in matters of essential faith and practice: Faced with numerous conflicting interpretations, we hold fast to that which has been "believed everywhere, always, by all" (often summed up in the formula, "universality, antiquity, consent").

But the greatest seduction of Orthodoxy for some Anglicans is its worship. In the liturgy, according to Orthodox theology, we are raised with Christ to the heavenly sanctuary where, along with the saints and angels, we enter into the Holy of Holies to participate in the mystery of redemption and worship in the presence of God (see Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:2; Heb. 12:22). This is the destiny of the church and the genius of the Orthodox liturgy. Though the Byzantine liturgy developed over several centuries, it is intentionally based on the heavenly worship described in the book of Revelation and on Isaiah's celestial vision (see Isaiah, chapter 6). Even the architectural design of the church and the use of icons are intended to be a microcosm of heaven, in which the worshipper stands in the presence of saints and angels (see Heb. 12:1, 22-24).

Once having tasted of this transcendent food, it is difficult to be satisfied with anything less. It is for good reason that the Eastern church refers to its worship as "The Divine Liturgy" rather than the "Mass" or "Eucharist." If you have ever wondered why Eastern Orthodoxy is not interested in liturgical renewal, it is because they are waiting for the rest of us to catch up. Though the Eucharistic portions of Anglican and Roman liturgies hint at this notion of a heavenly ascent (beginning with the sursum corda-"lift up your hearts"), it is all but invisible to most participants and plays a relatively minor role in shaping their overall theology and practice. However, if worship is the eschatological destiny of the church as Scripture teaches, then, according to Orthodoxy, it must order and condition our theology, our method, and our practice in the present.

Orthodoxy and Anglicanism on Common Ground

These differences notwithstanding, there are a number of remarkable similarities between Anglicanism and Orthodoxy which have not gone unnoticed. In fact, some Anglican converts to Orthodoxy even claim that the Eastern church is the fulfillment of Anglican ideals. Ecclesiastical attempts at rapprochement pepper the historical landscape over the last century. The most recent attempt is the ongoing Anglican-Orthodox Joint Doctrinal Commission which was commended by the 1998 Lambeth Conference of bishops. Unfortunately, outside of a handful of people, the existence and work of the Commission is virtually unknown.

Among the similarities shared by Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, organization is the most visible. Both communions lack a centralized bureaucracy or governing authority as is found in Roman Catholicism and some Protestant churches. Orthodoxy, like Anglicanism, is a communion of autonomous ("autocephalous") national churches governed by bishops. And, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, the patriarch of Constantinople is a historically important but symbolic figure who has no jurisdictional powers over other bishops. So too, the decisions of ecumenical councils within Orthodoxy are not canonically binding until they are reviewed and accepted by each national church. In Anglicanism this same bottom-up arrangement has precipitated a crisis of unity. The recent Lambeth resolutions, which affirmed traditional, Biblical norms of sexual morality, were passed by a majority of bishops throughout the world. Yet, they have been ignored or rejected by some bishops in the ECUSA and Canada. Historically, Orthodoxy has fared much better under this organizational configuration than Anglicanism.

These structural similarities emerge out of a similar ethos. Unlike Roman Catholicism and some forms of Protestantism which have a penchant for precisely defining nearly every aspect of doctrine and practice, both Orthodoxy and Anglicanism are content to leave many non-essential questions open, appealing rather to mystery. For example, while Orthodoxy and historical Anglicanism maintain the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, neither is willing to embrace the Roman  explanation of transubstantiation. The mode of Christ's presence is, as the Orthodox are wont to say, "holy mystery."

Consider the issue of artificial birth control. Whereas Catholicism categorically forbids all forms of artificial birth control by pressing the principles of natural law to their logical conclusion, neither Orthodoxy nor traditional Anglicanism are willing to go this far. Instead they exhibit an openness (or at least toleration) to using contraceptives for family planning within marriage so long as the procreative design of sex is not inhibited altogether. Time and time again both Orthodoxy and historical Anglicanism manifest, what Anglicans sometimes call, a "pastoral" mindset which holds fast to the core principles of faith and practice while allowing considerable latitude in working out circumstantial details under pastoral guidance.

Historically, Eastern Orthodoxy shares many Anglican concerns about the Roman church such as the papacy, the use of statues ("graven images"), purgatory, works righteousness, clerical celibacy, and divorce. In fact, many Orthodox would agree that the 16th century Reformer's had legitimate complaints against the Roman church and its medieval system of works righteousness. The problem is that their reforms went too far-a sentiment shared by a number of Anglicans, especially Anglo- Catholics. Given these remarkable historical similarities, it is amazing that Orthodoxy is so unfamiliar to most Anglicans.

Since the Oxford Movement of the mid-nineteenth century, some sectors of Anglicanism have, by degrees, become more liturgical, sacramental, and incarnational in their theology. While this trajectory moves in tandem with Roman Catholic theology, it also runs parallel with the theology of the Eastern church. This is especially true of the doctrine of the incarnation which, in Orthodoxy, is the Rosetta Stone for deciphering the theology of the sacraments, icons, and the liturgy. These are embodiments of divine grace and "divine energy", modeled after (but never repeating) the incarnation. Whereas the western church, including Protestantism, has focused more narrowly on the sacrifice of Christ and the problem of justification, the eastern church has concentrated on the creation, the incarnation, and the resurrection. Atonement and justification are also important, but they are intermediate steps along the way. They are a means to an end. This is echoed in some quarters of Anglicanism as well. Unfortunately, it is sometimes fueled by a post-modern distaste for the idea of sin and the misguided notion that the incarnation is not unique, but repeated in each of us. However, even among Anglican traditionalists, there is a resemblance between the liturgical, sacramental, and incarnational theology of Anglicanism and that of Eastern Orthodoxy, thanks in part to a renewed interest in liturgics and worship.

Finally, the object of our salvation, according to Orthodoxy, is not simply salvation from sin, but a mystical union between the believer and Christ (see John 17:21-23 and 2 Pet. 1:4). This is part of the theology of divine ascent, called "deification" or "theosis", whereby the believer is drawn up into the grace and "energies" (but not the essence) of God. This is not simply an eschatological destination, but a present process which is made evident in the Divine Liturgy. One may find similar ideas in the west, but you must dig deep to find them. In Anglicanism there are a number of thinkers and devotional writers from the seventeenth century including the Cambridge Platonists and Henry Scougal ("The Life of God in the Soul of Man") that come to mind. The modern evangelical emphasis on having a "personal relationship with Christ" conveys a similar reality. By comparison, though, it lacks depth, mystery, and theological grounding in the church Fathers. Clearly, the Orthodox notion of "theosis" can enrich our understanding of salvation by focusing our attention upon the ultimate purpose of God's grace. One can only wonder what western theology would look like if controversies over faith, works, and justification had not consumed its attention for so many centuries. Though these are crucial issues and needed to be addressed, from an eastern perspective, we have too often lost sight of the forest through the trees.

Anglican Concerns about Orthodoxy

While similarities between Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism abound at many levels, there is a lot about Orthodoxy that some Anglicans- especially evangelical Anglicans-find distasteful. This explains, in part, why not all those who find Orthodoxy attractive are ready to join the Orthodox church (we see the same reluctance among many Anglo- Catholics). Eastern Orthodoxy comes as a package and must be received without alteration or duplicity. Private opinion yields to the collective Tradition of the church in matters of doctrine, practice, and biblical interpretation. By contrast, Protestants, and especially Episcopalians, are accustomed to a "cafeteria religion," selecting beliefs and practices they find appealing and marginalizing or setting aside the less attractive ones. Some would chafe at the very idea of an authoritative tradition.

The Protestant principle of liberty of conscience is, in part, responsible for the splintering of the church into many denominational branches. Depending on your point of view, this division may be seen as a supreme evil, or as evidence for the diversity of Christian truth. Orthodoxy, however, disavows the so-called branch theory of Christendom, maintaining that the fullness of truth is to be found only within her walls. Historically and ecclesiastically Orthodoxy is the only legitimate successor of the apostolic church as demonstrated by her continuing faithfulness to apostolic faith and practice.

Despite this seeming intolerance, Orthodoxy is actually a closed communion with blurry edges. Most Orthodox clergy and theologians are provisionally willing to recognize the faith of individual Christians outside of the church's jurisdiction, while refusing to acknowledge the ecclesiastical legitimacy of the "churches" to which they belong. In an age of diversity and pluriformity it may not be polite to question the legitimacy of other churches; but, historically Eastern Orthodoxy is on solid ground in raising this thorny question which vexed both the early church (in the face of heresy) as well as the Reformers (in the midst of schism).

For Orthodoxy, Christian life and practice is centered more upon the church and the liturgy than upon Scripture. This mindset arises, in part, from a high view of the church and its sacraments which is foreign to many Protestants. But, not everyone in Orthodoxy is happy with the deficiency in Biblical education. Though the church's ecclesiology is not negotiable, there are a number efforts underway in some Orthodox churches to emphasize the necessity of Biblical education and personal spirituality. But you won't find an "inductive" Bible study in the Orthodox church. Interpretation, as I mentioned above, is not simply an individual matter, but must be undertaken within the historical context of the church's Holy Tradition.

Though much progress has been made in the last few decades, Orthodoxy still retains many of the characteristics of an ethnic church. Nearly all of the Orthodox churches in America are still under the authority of foreign patriarchs who have overlapping, if not competing, jurisdictions (originally, the result of immigrants settling here from various parts of the Orthodox world). Despite the amazing theological and liturgical congruence between the various Orthodox churches, there is still a degree of ethnic tension between some of these churches. In fact, for some laity, ethnicity is more fundamental than the church itself. Centuries of ethnic strife and nationalism continue to cast their shadow even among Orthodox churches here in the United States. Add to this the numerous (but relatively small) schisms precipitated by traditionalists over calendars, liturgical books, and ecumenism, and Orthodoxy begins to look a lot like any other church. As a friend of mine once said, this discord, which is largely invisible to those outside of the church, may be Orthodoxy's "dirty little secret."

Ethnic insularity and division are one reason why Eastern Orthodoxy has been unable or unwilling to communicate the Christian faith to American society. For example, while Protestants and Catholics have been using radio and television since its inception to communicate the gospel, Eastern Orthodox churches are just now launching a nationally syndicated radio program, "Come Receive the Light." You can be sure that the influx of Protestant evangelical converts who are eager to share their new-found faith will continue to raise the public profile of the Orthodox church here in America. But more importantly, as the stream of immigrants wanes, Orthodox leaders have realized that they must reach out and make disciples if the Orthodox church is to continue here in the United States. In some areas Orthodox churches have taken this process one step further by starting Orthodox schools as an alternative to public education. Like their Roman Catholic and evangelical counterparts, Orthodox parents and clergy realize that more than Sunday School is needed in order to perpetuate a Christian world view.

Finally, despite the many similarities between Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, Orthodoxy shares much in common with Roman Catholicism-a fact which some Anglicans find deeply disturbing. Like the Roman church, Orthodoxy will not ordain women to the priesthood or diaconate.

Among the practices that evangelical Anglicans have historically rejected, Orthodoxy promotes the invocation of saints, prayers to Mary, and the veneration of icons. The Orthodox church maintains that Mary was a perpetual virgin, lived a sinless life, and was bodily assumed into heaven at her death. Her ministry of intercession is at the core of Orthodox tradition and piety (though, unlike Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy has not chosen to canonize these beliefs). One convert to Orthodoxy, now an Orthodox priest, told me that as an evangelical Lutheran the Mariological traditions were one of the greatest obstacles to his conversion. For him the early development of these traditions (beginning in the late 2nd century), coupled with the fact that they did not contradict Scripture, were important factors in finally accepting them. Orthodoxy does not pretend to have Biblical "proof" for these beliefs. Rather they are said to be part of the "fullness" of faith found in Holy Tradition. This fullness is part of the aesthetic dimension of the Orthodox faith which, as Sergius Bulgakov (a Russian Orthodox theologian) remarks, stands in contrast to the cold, functional theology of many Protestants and evangelicals.


The recent embrace of mystery by western culture and theology is, in my view, preparing the ground for a major revival of interest in Eastern Orthodoxy. Within the human spirit, there is an indomitable hunger for the transcendent that western theology, in its quest for theological definition, has often neglected. Like the Pharisees who were careful to tithe even a sprig of "mint, dill, and cumin", many of us in western theology have spent a great deal of energy refining the finer points of Christian doctrine while neglecting these weightier provisions" of the faith. This neglect has opened up a vacuum in the Episcopal church, and other mainline churches, which is now being filled by a self-styled form of mysticism informed by "New Age" and even Wiccan spirituality.

By contrast, Anglo-Orthodox believers find in eastern Christianity not only a theologically solid faith, but an ancient, doxological faith that satisfies their innate yearning for mystery and transcendence without the trappings of revisionist theology and post-modern spirituality. With the threat of schism hanging over the Episcopal church, and the continuing exodus of conservatives to other churches,

Eastern Orthodoxy offers an alternative paradigm which we can no longer afford to ignore.

It is time for Anglicans to tear down the walls which separate eastern and western Christianity, along with the naive and even condescending assumption that "east in least and west is best." Given the many similarities between Anglicanism and Orthodoxy, the Anglican church is ideally positioned to fulfill its historic role as a via media here.

It is my hope that as our consciousness of Eastern Orthodoxy gradually emerges, the day will come when Anglo-Orthodoxy takes its place beside Anglo-Catholicism as a major force for change and renewal in the Anglican communion.

William DiPuccio, Ph.D. is the Director, Institute for Classic Christian Studies

Read this article on the Episcopalian.org website.

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