11 December 2006

Chronicling a Journey (Part IV)

Between my first and second years at seminary, with the knowledge of the administration and the approval of the registrar at the Lutheran seminary I attended, I took a course at St. Vladimir’s Theological Orthodox Seminary as part of their annual Liturgical Institute. During a break while walking on campus, I happened to cross paths with Bishop Kallistos Ware as he was arriving. I knew he was coming, figured out quickly it was him, and followed the two or three people ahead of me in greeting him. No doubt, he noticed my awkwardness in the protocol of asking a blessing, and so engaged me in a brief conversation. I told him I was Lutheran, and was considering Orthodoxy. He told me not to become Orthodox if I was upset with what’s happening in the Lutheran Church because the Orthodox Church won’t fix those problems. He told me not to reject Lutheranism, but to thank God for the good it brought me. And then he said, “If you become Orthodox, do so because you want to be Orthodox.” That was essentially the same message I heard from the few professors I spoke with (Fr Thomas Hopko and Fr Paul Tarazi among them) and from the several priests, deacons, seminary students and laymen that I met. I also heard, both explicitly and implicitly, that the Orthodox Church was not nirvana. And I was told that I should not make such a decision until I had the blessing of my father confessor.

That summer I struggled mightily. I talked with my wife—who was not at all interested in Orthodoxy. I also spoke with several professors. And I spoke with my father confessor. They reminded me that nearly all the practices I desired were permitted and possible in the Lutheran church; they convinced me that Orthodoxy and Lutheranism were not that far apart; and they pointed out what Lutheranism sees as key doctrinal problems in Orthodoxy (synergism, a weak view of original sin, a wrong view on free will, invocations to Mary and the saints, and the pietistic/charismatic sounding hesychast movement). With all this, I agreed. And then I spoke with the Orthodox priest that I knew. He suggested I was not yet ready because I was not yet convinced, so I should stay put. And he told me he’d always be available if I wanted to talk. Little did I know that, for twenty years, he also prayed earnestly for me. Yet this is the key: he left the door open, but he never pressured me or tried to strong-arm me to enter. Above all else, he never allowed me to think or believe that the prayers I said, the sacraments I received, the faith I held was not of the Holy Spirit. And then, in his usual off-handed way, he identified the key issue—an issue that really didn’t sink in until three years ago. He said, “The key question is ‘Where is the Church?’”

8 comments:

Chris Jones said...

they convinced me that Orthodoxy and Lutheranism were not that far apart

This is evidently an opinion that can no longer be held among confessional Lutherans. I wonder whether those who so counseled you then, would do so now.

and they pointed out what Lutheranism sees as key doctrinal problems in Orthodoxy ... With all this, I agreed.

Presumably you agree no longer. I hope that you will discuss some of these specific doctrinal points as your series of posts goes forward. The "doctrinal problems" in Orthodoxy may be either Lutherans' mis-perception of Orthodox teaching, or actual substantive differences between the two confessions. I am curious to know how much falls into each of those categories, in your current view.

Barney said...

Oh, Fr. John, this is the crux of the matter.

Ecclesiology is just one more extention of Christology and ultimately Theology proper.

This "seamless garment" is a source of joy and challenge. No wonder we pray regularly "Lord, have mercy!"

The Orthodox Lutheran said...

Fr. Fenton,
The key question you wrote at the end of the post is what is constantly on my mind. Doctrinally I see many things that are close between Lutheranism and the Orthodox, but where is the Church in Lutheranism? That's the missing piece for me. In my heart I long to have the Church as well as right doctrine. Thanks for these posts, I know I'm not alone out there, struggling with these same things.
Dave

david+ said...

Fr.,
We've sat through many lectures together. I well remember our Sean Connery doppelgänger summer-before-last, and the struggles we had with his otherwise orthodox theology. The piece that left him out in the cold was his deficient ecclesiology. If what we believe matters, and if how we pastor matters, then how and where we live out that belief is crucial, indeed integral, to the whole of one's life. This is what we're striving for: a faithful way and a faithful place to live the faith. Our respective denominations proved adequate until this great question reared its head.

Eric Phillips said...

> The key question is ‘Where is the Church?’

Presumably, this question implies that the Church is one place (say, Constantinople) and not another (say, Wittenberg). And if THE Church is not where the Lutheran Church is, then neither is the Holy Spirit. So what do you mean when you say, "He never allowed me to think or believe that the prayers I said, the sacraments I received, the faith I held was not of the Holy Spirit"?

fr john w fenton said...

And if THE Church is not where the Lutheran Church is, then neither is the Holy Spirit.

This is a leap that (a) is not necessarily logical and (b) is not necessarily theological. In other words, while the Church is bound to the Spirit, the Spirit is not necessarily bound exclusively to the Church. See Mark 9.38-40.

Also, other parts to this chronicle will make their appearance.

Chris Jones said...

Presumably, this question implies that the Church is one place (say, Constantinople) and not another (say, Wittenberg).

Such an implication is, in fact, unwarranted. There are possible answers to the question that might imply that the Church is not in some particular place. But the question itself has no such implication.

The Orthodox have, in my experience, always stubbornly refused to claim that the Truth is limited by canonical boundaries. Some may feel that because of this they sound inconsistent, if not incoherent. For some reason that does not bother them.

Past Elder said...

I grew up RC pre Vatican II, which has some very clear ideas about where is church. I remember as a kid in parish school being told we should refer to the Orthodox priest (there was an Orthodox parish a block away) as "Father" because he was a real priest and their sacraments were true sacraments. We should also refer to the Episcopalian priest as "Father" even though he was not a real priest since apostolic succession was broken and their sacraments (except Baptism) were not valid, as a mark of respect for their sincere though wrong belief. This was in Minnesota; I do not recall any Lutheran clergy using the term "Father", but like all Protestants they are connected to, though imperfectly and not visibly, and saved by those truths of the Catholic Faith which they do not deny.

My path was from Rome to St Louis via Milwaukee, to continue the geographic metaphor. When I was WELS, I studied the other churches in the CELC, among them the Ukranian Lutheran Church, which has an extensive website including their St Sophia seminary. As I read the chronicle of your journey, I am wondering if any of these Lutheran Orthodox bodies were part of it, and if so why you did not move in that direction, East and Lutheran so to speak.