A different drummer

November 10, 1997|By Mike McManus

TWO WEEKS ago my wife and I attended the Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church in Linthicum. The church has been made famous recently by ''Facing East,'' a new book written by Frederica Mathewes-Green, the wife of the pastor.

Something different

The service had already begun when we arrived that Sunday morning. Our first impression was that everything seemed different.

First, there was the heavenly singing by an a capella choir and Father Gregory Mathewes-Green. The words were in English, but the tunes were 1,500 years old, focusing our attention on the majesty of God. In the service, called a ''Divine Liturgy,'' even the Gospel and Epistle are sung (though the sermon was spoken). It is deeply moving.

Second, most of the congregation stood the entire time, except for the sermon. There were no pews, only a few chairs on the left and right, which we slipped into. In the center, families stood, holding their small children, or letting them play on an oriental rug.

Dressed in his golden vestments, with a patriarchal white beard, singing in a deep baritone or swinging incense, Father Gregory seemed a born Orthodox priest. Yet, only six years ago he was an Episcopal priest.

With Episcopal bishops writing books doubting Jesus' miracles, the Virgin Birth and even the Resurrection, and ordaining homosexuals as priests, Mr. Mathewes-Green concluded there was only one way he could keep the vows he had taken to uphold the faith. He would leave the denomination. What's remarkable is that he and a dozen other Episcopalian priests not only converted to the Antiochian Orthodox church but they also brought with them many members of their churches.

Flower child

Few seem more surprised than Frederica Mathews-Green, a former ''flower child'' who lived with her husband two years before marrying him and went through a ''Hindu phase.'' Then she underwent a conversion experience, followed by ''Gary'' as he was then known. They attended Episcopal seminary together and initially enjoyed 15 years in several parishes.

His concern with ''apostate bishops'' had led him to consider becoming a Roman Catholic priest, like nearly 100 other married Episcopal priests received as Catholic priests -- but as chaplains or high school teachers, not pastors. Then Gary met Father Peter Gillquist, a former leader of Campus Crusade for Christ, who converted with 17 other pastors and 2,000 church members to Antiochian Orthodoxy a decade ago. Mr. Gillquist has since led 55 clergy and their churches, 80 percent of whom were evangelicals, to Orthodoxy.

What makes the Orthodox faith so attractive? Frederica writes about its history: ''For the first thousand years, the thread of Christian unity was preserved worldwide through battering waves of heresies. The method was collegial, not authoritarian; disputes were settled in church councils, whose decisions were not valid unless 'received' by the whole community. The Faith was indeed common . . . believed by all people, in all times, in all places.''

Bishop's action

Then the bishop of Rome began to act unilaterally, forcing a split with the bishops of such eastern centers as Jerusalem, Constantinople and Antioch in 1054. That, in turn, sparked the Protestant Reformation and its hundreds of sects. But Orthodoxy has remained intact.

Gary found truth in the faith, but Frederica confesses ''aching feet'' at first. But now she writes eloquently about the ''rich mystical beauty of Orthodoxy.'' Her book is a personal story of a year in the church. She speaks of the Lenten fast, when meat, fish and milk are eliminated, as ''utterly bewildering'' at first. Her quotes of the changing words sung in liturgy are haunting:

''What caused thee, O Judas, to betray the Savior? Did he deny thee the gift of healing?''

She acknowledges that to a stranger the church ''looks stuffy'' and ritualistic, but for members it's '''a box full of Kissing Bugs'' who kiss icons and each other. ''Like a child in a nightgown, secure in her father's house, we go scattering our kisses with simplicity and love.''

Her son Stephen attended a youth group in a nearby church, but did not like the focus on how ''Jesus can serve us.'' But it's supposed to be about how we can serve him, she says. ''Like the old hymns we had, 'Jesus loves me, this I know' it's all about me, about us. But the Orthodox hymns are about him, about the great things he has done.''

I predict ''Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy,'' published this year by HarperCollins, will inspire many to investigate Orthodoxy.

Mike McManus is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/10/97

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