Church's future tied to conversions Episcopal priest takes a new path

February 01, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

"Father Gary" became "Father Gregory" yesterday, but a lot more than a name change was involved.

While the Rev. Gary Mathewes-Green, former rector of an Episcopal church in Ellicott City, was being ordained an Eastern Orthodox priest and given a new name in Bethesda, an Orthodox bishop from England -- himself a former Anglican -- was telling a Baltimore congregation that Orthodoxy's future depends on people choosing it rather than being born into it.

At the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, at Preston Street and Maryland Avenue, Bishop Kallistos Ware, an Oxford University teacher, author and leading exponent of his faith, said, "Orthodoxy will only survive in the 21st century if we choose to be Orthodox . . . by inner conversion, by commitment.

"In the past, Orthodoxy survived by inertia," he said.

His round of speaking engagements in Washington, New York and Princeton, N.J., as well as Baltimore, has come at a time of growing numbers of conversions in the United States to this ancient branch of Christianity.

It was coincidence, but also in Maryland yesterday was the Rev. Peter E. Gillquist of Santa Barbara, Calif., one of some 4,000 former Campus Crusade for Christ evangelicals who have converted to Orthodoxy.

Father Gillquist is now the head of missions and evangelism for the Antiochian Orthodox Church in America.

More than half of its clergy are former Protestants, many of them former Episcopalians, he said.

Until 1987, Father Gillquist was a Baptist. He came to Maryland to support the decision of Father Mathewes-Green, the rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, to move to Orthodoxy along with 19 members of his congregation.

It was in the ordination ceremonies at Bethesda's Sts. Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church that this man known as "Father Gary" in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland for the last three years became "Father Gregory."

Taking a new name is not mandatory in such conversions. He did so "to signify a new beginning," the eighth-generation Episcopalian explained.

On Dec. 30, he told the members of his Ellicott City congregation of his decision in a letter that he described as "the hardest one I've ever had to write."

"As I see it, spiritual and theological chaos are running rampant in our denomination," Father Mathewes-Green said. "And while I have always opposed these trends, now I see them as inevitably triumphing."

The blessing of homosexual unions and the neglect -- even rejection -- of such bedrock biblical beliefs as the Virgin Birth and Resurrection of Jesus Christ by some Episcopal Church leaders were among the particulars of his disillusionment, he said.

Father Mathewes-Green is one of the six priests of the local Episcopal diocese who issued a controversial document last year they called the Baltimore Declaration, pointing to what they saw as their bishops' abandonment of essential truths of Christianity.

L He is the only one of the six to leave the Episcopal Church.

As explained by another of the signers, the Rev. William N. McKeachie, rector of downtown Baltimore's Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church, their hope was to influence a return to "the conviction that God acted in the person of Jesus, himself a Jew, to offer reconciliation and redemption of all humanity -- male and female, Jew and gentile, black and white, one and all."

Much of the controversy over the Baltimore Declaration, seen in some quarters as hurting relations with other faiths, was caused by its uncompromising emphasis on words of Jesus in John's Gospel: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

Father Gillquist, explaining the compatibility of his new liturgical, sacramental and patriarchal beliefs with his old evangelical Protestantism, told an audience Friday night at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Catonsville, "Orthodoxy is the only place where the faith is not negotiable."

He described it as unchanged for 2,000 years -- while Roman Catholicism and its Protestant offshoots, he said, made many additions through the centuries that have altered Christianity fundamentally.

The man-made additions included such dogmas as papal infallibility in the case of the Catholics and rejection of the centrality of the Eucharist by many Protestants, he said.

As did the authors of the Baltimore Declaration, the former Campus Crusade for Christ leader saw problems in the social revolution of the 1960s.

"Our whole moral structure changed," he said. "They called it the new morality, and all it was, was the old immorality."

Now, Father Gillquist said, change is needed again -- back to the "basics."

"I believe America needs to be Orthodox," he said. "Orthodoxy has changed people, and we need this kind of change. We're at a spiritual and philosophical crossroads.

"Looking for a good nondenominational church? How about one [Eastern Orthodoxy] that started before there were denominations?"

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