The challenge for Western converts to Orthodoxy
Why did the Archbishop of Canterbury not become Fr Roman?
The Times of London of Saturday, 12 November 2005, carries an interesting article about the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, entitled: “Archbishop reveals his unorthodox way to God.”
The article reveals that the Anglican Archbishop’s first encounter with God was at a liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church, when he was aged 14. Here he met the “living God” and when he left he felt that he “had seen glory and praise for the first time.” “I felt I had seen and heard people who were behaving as if God were real. I came away with the sense of absolute objectivity and majesty and beauty of God which I have never forgotten. If people worshipped like this, I felt God must be a great deal more real (than) I have ever learnt him so far.”
The question that arises is why the teenage boy, like many before and since, did not join the Orthodox Church? In order to answer this, let us imagine for a moment that he had done so. What would his future have been?
First of all, he would probably have had to wait to join the Orthodox Church until he was eighteen years old — unless of course his parents had given him permission to join the Church as a minor and the receiving Orthodox priest had agreed to receive him at such a young age. Secondly, he would have had to take the name of a saint, rather than that of a tree. For the sake of argument, perhaps the name “Roman”, sufficiently similar to his first name, would have done.
With his academic bent, the young Roman would have gone to University and perhaps studied theology. He would not have studied in the theoretical way he did study, but, as an Orthodox, he would have lived theology. Given his inclinations, he would have gone on to do a doctoral thesis, perhaps on a Church Father, either ancient or perhaps contemporary. He would have made pilgrimages to Orthodox lands and monasteries. He would have learnt not only Patristic Greek, but also perhaps Russian. Had he wanted to serve not only as an academic, but also as a priest, he would have married an Orthodox. Given his religious inclinations, he would eventually have become a priest — Fr Roman Williams.
So far we can see several parallels between his real life and his imaginary life. But at this point all parallels stop. Firstly, as a married Orthodox man, he would never have become a bishop. Secondly, as a non-Russian and non-Greek (and non-Serb and non-Romanian), he would have been treated as a second-class citizen by whatever jurisdiction he belonged to. Without the right ethnic surname and background, he would have ended up as an unpaid priest in a small parish, living off the fruits of his secular labours, struggling by himself to fund the purchase of a family home, and the establishment of a small parish church, juggling to balance priestly, professional and family life. After thirty or forty years hard labour, he might have received some small token of appreciation, which, had he had an ethnic surname, he would have received after thirty or forty months.
It now becomes very clear why Dr Rowan Williams did not become Fr Roman Williams. His mind told him, consciously or unconsciously, that he would be a fool to renounce a paid career, a free house and Episcopal promotion in the Anglican Church for continual suffering in the Orthodox Church.
Such indeed are the reasons why thousands of Western people have not joined the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church is the bearing of the Cross. As so many people say to me: “It is too hard.” Unfortunately, the Western mentality is such that, although its heart may be touched by Orthodox Christianity, its rationalistic mind calculates that Orthodox Christianity is not for it. As the Russian saying and the writer, Griboyedov, say: “Grief comes from the mind” (“Gore ot uma”). The greatest barrier to the Conversion of the West is this very problem. Many in the West have a believing heart, but, after a thousand years of cultural deformation, the Western mind, more often unconsciously than consciously, is profoundly atheistic and calculating. When the future Archbishop saw in Orthodoxy “the living God,” saw and heard “people who were behaving as if God were real,” he saw true. But his mind could not, and did not, accept the true sacrifice that Orthodoxy involves.
When I met the doctoral student Rowan Williams in Oxford in late 1976 or early 1977 and had a conversation with him about St Gregory Palamas, I met an interesting man. His heart was surely in the right place, but unfortunately his mind already seemed to have been distorted by the intellectual and cultural prejudice of Western academia. Since then it has been disfigured further by studying political correctness à la Guardian, which has led him into all manner of doctrinal incorrectness, and indeed actual heresy. And the problem with heresy, the result of spiritual impurity, is that it blinds the mind to the truth and then infects the heart, blinding it too.
Above, I have listed several advantages that Dr Williams has enjoyed in not joining the Orthodox Church. However, in not making the sacrifice, Dr Williams has also missed so much. His mind has not conformed to the faith of his heart; he has not known the quickness of the Spirit; compromise has followed on compromise. Since I have very strong doubts about my own eternal salvation, I would not at all wish to make any judgment about the eternal salvation of anyone else. But I can say this much; that in the bearing of the Orthodox Cross, we see the light of the Orthodox Resurrection. And that is unknown outside the Orthodox Church. And for that grace alone, I have no hesitation in saying that I regret the choice of our lost Fr Roman Williams.
Written by Fr Andrew, Bishop of Britain, of The Holy Apostle Aristobulus Church, 13 November 2005.