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Another Journey to Orthodoxy

by Peter Cowling

My pilgrimage to Orthodox Church has lasted seventy-seven years.  It has been a process of slow evolution rather than a quick revolution.  It has been a search for the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

My first fifteen years were spent in Methodism, where I learned something of the Bible, and to sing Methodist hymns.  I believe I learned more of the Bible, especially some of the Old Testament stories, from my Anglican primary teacher, from whom we also had a good introduction to music and literature. At the age of fifteen I followed my brother, who wanted to be an Anglican priest, into the Anglican Church.  Our Rector taught us the Catholic religion of the Church of England.  The belief was that the Anglican Church was part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  This was supported by some of its formularies, and its inclusion, in the Book of Common Prayer, of the three creeds - the "Apostles Creed", the Nicene Creed (including the filioque phrase), and the so called "Athanasian Creed" with its strong exposition of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.  As a student at Nottingham I attended a church staffed by members of the Society of the Sacred Mission (the "Kelham" Fathers), where their practice and teaching certainly assumed that the Church of England was part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  My later contact with other Anglican Communities e.g. the Society of St. John the Evangelist (the "Cowley" Fathers at Oxford), and the Anglican Benedictines at Nashdom Abbey in Buckinghamshire, indicated that their way of life and profession of religion was based on the same assumption. 

During wartime service with the R.A.F. in India and Burma I found something of what it meant to live in countries in which Christianity is not the chief religion, and experienced more fully the fellowship of the Christian Church alongside other religions.   I was impressed during these three years by:-

  1. the sacramentalism of Hinduism - its use of lights, images, incense, chants, flowers and so on in their worship - even of course, and alas, to such destructive deities as Kali.

  2. by the absence of all these things in the empty mosques, and the unselfconscious abandonment of Muslims at prayer.

  3. by the monasticism in Burmese Buddhism, with some of its devotional practices - and other practices, (sacramental, I suppose), such as the Water Festival, at which everyone has permission to drench everyone else with buckets or hoses of water!

I was able from time to time to attend serves of the Anglican Church in India and Burma (the "Church of India, Burma and Ceylon" of those days) which also regarded itself as part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  At one time, in Burma, a friend gave me a book for which he no longer had any use.  It was the "Documents of the Christian Church" edited by H. Bettenson. The last entry in the book was the " Encyclical on Anglican Orders from the Ecumenical Patriarch to the Presidents of the Particular Eastern Orthodox Churches 1922."  I was interested to find that part of the Orthodox Church at that time accepted the ordination of Matthew Parker and all subsequent ordinations in the Anglican Church as valid.  My knowledge of the Orthodox Church consisted simply in that I knew it existed (!); that it appeared in some Russian novels, and that I think I had read "The Way" of the Russian pilgrim who prayed the Jesus prayer as he walked on his journey.

Back in England after the war the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel sponsored my ordination training at St. Chad's College Durham, as it was proposed that I went back to India as a priest.  The selection boards in this country did not accept me as a candidate for ordination, but the principal of St. Chad's at that time kindly allowed me to complete the course.  After my final examination in Christian Doctrine, he invited me to see him, and asked equally kindly, did I wish to be, or ought I to be, a Roman Catholic, as my conclusions and opinions expressed seemed to point that way.  I think the conclusion was "no" or "not yet".

During ordination training we had one opportunity of attending one Orthodox service in a Durham church. My remembered impression was that it seemed to last a very long time. In Church History of course we learned of the causes of the Great Schism in 1054. I also found in using the "Presces Privitae" of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes of Winchester that he had prayed for the "Churches Catholic: eastern; western; British."   In reading some of the Roman Catholic spiritual writers I sometimes felt it was not quite fair to accept their writings and yet not belong to the Roman Church to which they owed allegiance. 

Eventually, I came by chance, or Providence, upon a translation of part of the (volume one) Philokalia. I felt this spoke more directly and straightforwardly than other spiritual writings. This impression increased in later volumes - so I set out to find the living Church in which these writings had been produced.  I began to attend, when possible, the Divine Liturgy at St. Edmund's College, Cambridge, with of course, found it rather bewildering at first.  When I saw the Liturgy was being served in Lincoln, I attended the monthly celebration there.  We found a warm welcome, the Liturgy becoming less bewildering, and Fr. Philip receiving us with great kindness and patience.   After this the momentum towards Orthodoxy increased, and in due course to Chrismation into the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic and Orthodox Church. 

The blessing of being an Orthodox communicant is, first:-

to take part in the ancient but timeless Liturgy, where the two aspects of Christianity - the Church of God and the Kingdom of God - seem for a time as far as is possible on earth, to come together, from the prayer at the beginning "Blessed is the Kingdom…" to the prayer near Communion which we can hear in Louth "Shine, shine, O New Jerusalem…"

secondly:-

to be part of a community whose members take religion seriously, and are generous, joyful and loving.

thirdly:-

to be led more and more into the life to which both the Liturgy and the spiritual writers bear witness - or simply to be a member of the one Holy Catholic Apostolic Orthodox Church.