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My Journey to Orthodoxy

by Philip Pughe-Morgan

I first encountered Orthodoxy about the time I left university in 1967. I spotted a copy of Timothy (now Metropolitan Kallistos) Ware’s little Penguin pocket book ‘The Orthodox Church’ on a shelf in a local bookshop, bought it in a mixed mood of guilt and excitement, and smuggled it home to read.

Why the mixed emotions? Well, I was Anglican through and through. My father’s Welsh family had produced a virtually continuous succession of Anglican clergymen for nearly 200 years, including in the direct line my father, grandfather and both great grandfathers, and there was an underlying, though unspoken and ultimately unrealised, hope that I would follow in the family footsteps. When I was later doing some work on family history, I used to joke that, as a son of the vicarage, I count myself among the sinners rather than the saints, but it is good to know that so many of God’s warriors are on my side! In that context Orthodoxy seemed indeed, in Alexis Khomiakov’s famous words, ‘an apostasy from the past, a rushing into a new and unknown world.’

Anyway, let’s go back to the beginning. I was born just as the last war was ending, and grew up in a draughty old vicarage on the Lancashire Pennines. My childhood was stable and secure, both at home and in church. I can never remember a time when I did not instinctively believe in God, and that Jesus is his Son, was born of a virgin in Bethlehem, died on a cross in Jerusalem, and was gloriously raised from the dead on that first Easter Day! Life was strongly regulated by the Christian calendar, and the liturgical seasons progressed each year in traditional order.

My father’s churchmanship was middling Anglican, but conservative rather than liberal. He had met my mother while working as a missionary in Southern Rhodesia in the 1930s with the SPG, a High Anglican missionary society, so he could celebrate with the liturgically highest of them; however, surplices and stoles sufficed at the Eucharist, good choral singing was the order of the day, no candles but with changing altar frontals for each season. Stained glass saints filled the windows, old friends whom I grew to know and whose company I enjoyed.

The cycle of Matins, Evensong and Holy Communion was engraved on my mind, as were the creeds, the Litany and the historic prayers. Being the North Country, there was also a strong tradition of congregational hymn singing, and I shall always be grateful for the great musical tradition I inherited from both the Anglican and (later) Methodist Churches. Tradition prevailed in all things, and Christian life was secure and good.

One clear memory I have is of our famous Lancashire ‘Whit Walks’ at Pentecost each year. In the case of my cotton mill town, the walks took place on Whit Monday (each town had its own traditional day), and the various churches would meet up on the central market ground to process through the town with bands playing and banners flying. What a peculiar, though thoroughly enjoyable, occasion this seemed to be. As well as my own tribe of Anglicans, I could gaze at folks from other churches – Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and even Roman Catholics. This was the beginning of post-war ecumenism, but these were still strange and alien creatures to a young boy from a protected church background, although I could recognise school friends among them. Naturally enough, of course, for that period, the Orthodox Church did not feature among the dark satanic mills, and so I was totally oblivious to their absence.

That all changed abruptly when I was sent off to boarding school in 1956. Here I came across a new set of traditions. My school in Lancaster was one of the oldest state public schools in the country, founded during the Wars of the Roses, and the whole emphasis was on the pursuit of excellence in order to be of service to the world. ‘Praesis ut prosis’ was the school motto, ‘Lead that you may serve,’ and Christian worship was a hearty and manly religion, inextricably linked with the fortunes of the late British Empire and the wider English-speaking world. I remember that in my first term in autumn 1956, we prayed earnestly for the brave Hungarians fighting off the evil Russian hordes in the streets of Budapest, but somehow we never showed the same spiritual concern for the Egyptians we were shooting up and bombing in the ill-fated Suez invasion!

So life continued for the next eight years. The school day was punctuated by morning assembly with hymns, prayers and a bible reading, and reading and prayers in the boarding house before bedtime. On Sundays we had worship in the main assembly hall in the morning (the day boys escaped all that palaver), then crocodiled up the road to the parish church in the evening. I remember one occasion when we had a visiting Episcopalian priest from the USA. We had been brought up in the strict English tradition of keeping to the straight and narrow, so were very surprised to be urged in strong Yankee accents to ‘curve right, boys, curve right.’ We were extremely puzzled by this new-fangled approach to the Bible’s teaching, and could only attribute it to the strictures of the Cold War!

While I was enduring this prolonged cultural winter, as I regarded it, I learned to keep my thoughts and feelings to myself, including any religious beliefs and sentiment. I wanted to avoid the reputation among my peers of being labelled as the ‘goody two-shoes’ from the vicarage, so I kept my head down and went with the crowd. Not something I’m particularly proud of, but a teenager’s method of survival in a hostile environment in the 1950s.

After my wintertime in Lancaster, my move to York in 1964 was my Prague spring as I later called it (this was a period that coincided with the short-lived regime of Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia, with its tentative appearance of new shoots from the tundra of Soviet Communism.) The new university was in its second year, and I was thrilled to come across a group of young people of both sexes (what a change from my single sex boarding school), who were proud to stand up publicly as professing Christians. The first year students had set out to create one Christian student group, and to avoid a rash of denominational societies, and this seemed initially very attractive to me. However, I quickly came to feel that we spent all our time in intellectual discussion of denominational differences, and very little time in worship and prayer.

Two great things happened in my life during my first year. One was that I met and fell head over heels in love with the most wonderful girl in the world. She was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman and his wife who had also been missionaries in Africa, although this time with the CMS in Nigeria (the CMS comes from the evangelical tradition of the Anglican Church, so that was an interesting contrast with my father’s SPG background). After a few months of heady romance, we agreed to marry in due course, and our plan was to go abroad in missionary service, possibly to South America. I remember a meeting with Cyril Tucker, the then Bishop of South America (now the Province of the Southern Cone – an evangelical citadel within the present Anglican Communion).

The other event, however, was much more important. After a long conversation with an evangelical student friend, I put my intellectual arrogance to one side and took the simple but vital step of committing my life to Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Saviour. My world turned upside down! I was full of the joys of spring (filled with the Holy Spirit is probably a better way of describing this), and wanted to share my new-found faith with the whole world. This was followed by a visit to the annual IVF student Easter conference at Swanwick in Derbyshire, where I listened to great evangelical Anglican preachers such as John Stott from All Souls’, Langham Place, and David McInnes from the Round Church in Cambridge, and a decision by a small group of us in York to establish a Christian Union, in a deep desire to create the simple and biblically-based fellowship and service of the Early Church.

Christian Union activities absorbed much of my time and energies thereafter. At the beginning of my second year, David Watson arrived from a curacy at the Round Church to take over the ministry of St Cuthbert’s, a small church within the city walls facing closure. This marked the beginning of a period of evangelical renewal in York, and soon the church was filled to overflowing with a hall extension to accommodate the eager worshippers, and eventually had to relocate to St Michael le Belfrey, a large city church just across the road from York Minster.

Many Christian students soon began worshipping regularly at St Cuthbert’s, but it took me some time to join them for the main evening preaching service. I found the enthusiasm infectious, but the tendency among my friends to define and separate the ‘saved’ from the ‘great unwashed’ rather unnerving (not from David himself, though). I was still drawn to my mainstream Anglican inheritance, and York was an ideal place to follow this commitment.

The history department was based in The King’s Manor, Henry VIII’s royal manor house in the centre of York, and it was possible on occasion to slip out at 3.45pm and make my way down High Petergate to the Minster for choral evensong. Many converts to Orthodoxy have described giving up their Anglican liturgical inheritance as one of their greatest challenges. Sitting in the cosy comfort of the choir stalls, while the treble voices soared into the great vault of the Minster in Allegri’s ‘Miserere’ and sent tingles down the spine, is one of the great religious experiences of the world, and I’d challenge anyone to remain unmoved by it!

We had our great festival services as well, and I particularly remember Epiphany when all the lights would be switched off at 6.30pm and the choir would then process the length of the nave by candlelight through the crowded Minster. Daytime festival services would bring together crowds of pilgrims from all over the world to this fortress of northern Christianity in worship and celebration.

During my time in York there were three episcopal consecrations, and the majesty of the various clergy and civic processions, followed by the dean and chapter and the bishops of the Northern Province in their scarlet cassocks, then finally by the grand cross of the Province and the Archbishop in his cope and mitre, carrying his shepherd’s crook, was overwhelming. So also were the beauty of worship, the great hymn singing, and the solemn invocation of the Holy Spirit at the moment of consecration in the ancient words and melody of the ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus,’ ‘Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire.’ This was St Ignatius incarnate in his cathedral with his flock gathered around him. Donald Coggan was archbishop at the time, and this great evangelical preacher and pastor was a mighty inspiration, providing a perfect foil and counterpart to Michael Ramsay at Canterbury. I met him once at his home at Bishopthorpe, his official residence outside York, and was deeply moved by his graciousness and Christian love, as well as by his deep learning and scholarship. He later succeeded Dr Ramsay as the 101st Archbishop of Canterbury.

So, as I’ve said, this was my Prague spring, and heady days they were too. However, as they say, all good things came to an end, and the time came to bid farewell to York. I was facing a number of crises in my life at the time. My father had died the previous year after a short illness and, by Anglican custom, the family was required to vacate the vicarage, and my mother had decided to emigrate to Australia with my sister. My fiancée had previously gone out to Nigeria for a year’s teaching work, as she had graduated the year before me, and then had been totally cut off by the outbreak of the civil war, as she was living at the time on the ‘wrong’ side of the lines in rebel Biafra. When she was smuggled out several months later through French West Africa and returned to England at the time of my graduation, the experience had led her to reconsider her future and decide to pursue a single life somewhere in the mission field. (She was tragically killed in a road accident in Uganda three years later.)

So my life was in turmoil, and my immediate commitment and responsibility was to support my mother, who had decided to return from Australia, and to help her settle into a new home and way of life as a clergy widow (a real challenge, as other widows will know, within the social culture of the Anglican Church). I got a temporary clerical job in the local hospital and looked around for a church to worship, but the predominant tradition in the area of the Midlands where my mother was living seemed to be Anglo-Catholic, so I didn’t feel at home there, and other parishes seemed to be preoccupied with all the inducements of the new liberal social church and were a total switch-off.

I decided that I needed a fresh ‘steer’ from God, and literally ‘threw my bread upon the waters.’ The choice lay between applying for theological training and ordination in the Anglican Church, or following up my current job as an outpatient clerk in the NHS and applying for their graduate training scheme in hospital administration. I prayed earnestly to God to show me the way.

In the event, the Church offered me a potential training place, provided I continued to gain further experience of working and living for an indefinite period ‘outside the academic hothouse,’ (by which they meant school and university – a typical case of ‘have your cake and eat it!’) The NHS was prepared to take me on, provided I was prepared to give them a reasonable time commitment in return for their investment in me. ‘Praesis ut prosis,’ remember? I told them I would give them ten good years of my life, and I’ve never regretted it. They ended up with 33 years of my life and service. Hospital administration, or management as it’s now called, has been my life long Christian vocation, so I’ve never regretted not pursuing ordination.

Fast forward some 30 years. During that time I had married and raised two children, and had pursued my career in NHS management. Although my underlying faith had never weakened, I was rather like the seed being corrupted by the cares and pressures of this world, and I had drifted out of active church membership altogether. I had been aware of the storm created by Bishop John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’ while I was at university, and I noticed some of the other events as they were reported at the time, such as the Jenkins affair and the lightning strike on York Minster. However, the other upheavals generally passed me by, although I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with the way in which the Anglican Church seemed determined to rewrite every service book it could get its hands on.

The crunch came when my marriage ended in divorce, and I finally decided that I had to get a grip on myself, and return as the prodigal son to my Heavenly Father. I needed to return to regular fellowship in a Christian community, and recognised belatedly that we are not meant generally to live a Christian life in splendid isolation. I made a deal with my recently widowed elderly neighbour – I would provide regular transport to church if she would introduce me to her local church fellowship. In this case, it was the main Baptist Church in Bath, and I enjoyed two wonderful years of Christian fellowship and spiritual growth before moving down to Devon in 2001.

My move to Devon coincided with yet another major reorganisation of the NHS, the seventh in my career, and my decision to retire from hospital management to devote my life to God’s purposes on a more ‘full time’ basis through voluntary work and other activities. It also coincided with my remarriage. When we arrived down here in Devon, I remember asking a local about the churches in town, and he replied that there were the ‘usual culprits,’ including ‘that lively bunch up the hill.’ ‘Nuff said, I made a beeline up there and found myself a member of the local Methodist Church.

I have been an active member here for the past seven years, and have recently begun formal study and training to become a Local Preacher, one of the distinctive orders of the Methodist Church. Life could have continued in this way indefinitely. However, I have always been conscious that my decision to worship with the Baptist and Methodist Churches has been a holding arrangement to seek a temporary spiritual ‘lifeboat’ in the face of the growing heterodoxy and apostasy of my beloved Anglican Church, and couldn’t continue indefinitely. Somewhere down the line I would have to resume my pilgrimage through this ‘barren land’ (shades of ‘Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer’ to Cwm Rhondda - part of my Welsh inheritance). Also, I grew up in the same mill town as the bandmaster on the Titanic, so I’ve always had a deep awareness of sinking ships and the relevance of lifeboats.

The flash point came last summer when I was trawling the internet. When I had originally read Metropolitan Kallistos’ book some 40 years ago, I had been struck so forcibly by the truth of what he was saying. Clearly the original Church had been quite right in decrying the heresy of the ‘filioque’ and resisting the Papal claims of the time. I had no difficulty in accepting the claim of the Orthodox Church to hold the fullness of the faith. However, my knowledge of the activity of the Church at that time, particularly in Western Europe, was so limited that I could see no purpose in seeking any link with a church which seemed to be restricted to Eastern Europe and Russia. Also, given its emphasis on a ‘rich’ liturgy, it seemed to me as a Protestant to be somewhere in the same league as the Roman Catholic Church with its ‘bells and smells,’ which was something of a switch-off.

However, I now came across the name of Michael Harper, someone I’d known and read as an Anglican evangelical clergyman and charismatic when I was a student, but who now appeared to be an Orthodox priest and the dean of the new Antiochian Orthodox deanery in Britain and Ireland. Could this possibly be the same person? How could someone so strongly and demonstrably a child of the Protestant Reformation have crossed the ecclesiastical spectrum and emerged as a priest of the original Catholic Church? The mind boggled. However, when I searched further, it became quite clear that this was indeed the same person.

The experience was like being plugged into the mains; I shot up in excitement, my spiritual nerve ends were tingling, and life has never been the same since. I trawled further and discovered the story of the great and wonderful movement of thousands of North American evangelicals to the Orthodox Church in the 1980s, and the subsequent similar move by many Anglicans and others in this country in the 1990s. Life is now a feverish round of learning, and my laptop is filling up rapidly with the constant downloading of Orthodox material from any source I can find it.

Quite honestly, I have been completely knocked out by the sheer deep spirituality of all I have been reading, and the Antiochian Archdiocese’s ‘Ancient Faith Radio’ is my constant daily companion as well. Thank God for the internet. Peter Gillquist, Thomas Hopko, Bradley Nassif, Bill & Dianna Olnhausen and the Mathewes-Greens are my American teachers, as are Bishop Kallistos, Michael Harper, Gregory Hallam, Chrysostom MacDonnell, John Marks and Andrew Phillips in this country. Tom Soroka, Steve Robinson & Bill Gould, Pat Rearden, Kevin Allen and Lawrence Farley, among others, fill my study with the sweetness of their radio discourse, and I can rejoice with the whole communion of saints in the wonderful radio worship offered unceasingly to God through the voices of the heavenly choirs who presently are limited to their earthly incarnations.

And what have I discovered from all these new friends? That the Orthodox Church is indeed the True Church that has preserved the Body of Christ since the time of Christ and the Apostles, has maintained the fullness of the faith and has continued to worship God with reverence and glory. As Father Michael Harper has said in his book, ‘A Faith Fulfilled,’ the Orthodox Church is deeply evangelical, impeccably catholic, and is filled with the power and movement of the Holy Spirit of God. What more need I seek?

I have recently approached my local parish in North Devon, which belongs to the Western European Archdiocese of Churches of Russian Tradition, an Exarchate of the Ecumenical Patriarch, through the Episcopal Vicariate in this country. Father John Marks and his people have been very warm and welcoming, and I am looking forward to joining them regularly in Divine Worship. Through this branch of the Church I have also come across the ministry of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of Sourozh, and I am immersing myself in his teaching and deep spirituality.

So, all praise and thanks to God for lighting my path and showing me the way forward. I am so grateful to my Anglican Church for starting me off on the path of faith and giving me such a deep rooted trust in the grace and love of our Heavenly Father and his Beloved Son. The historian’s part of my brain suggests to me that the rise of the Orthodox Church in the West and in this country is no mere coincidence, as the traditional churches sink into decline and apostasy, but part of God’s wonderful plan for the continuing redemption of the world, his world.

Now I believe that God is calling me home to his church, his Body here on earth as well as in heaven. I am looking forward to becoming a catechumen and, in God’s good time, being received into the Holy Orthodox Church. What a privilege and joy it will be to share in his missionary endeavour to his people in the West, and to contribute to the reconversion of England. To him be all praise, honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.