Monday, December 6, 2010

....Entering the Holy Catholic Church....

After much deliberation, soul searching, prayer, fasting, reading and study, my family and I will become members of the Orthodox Christian Church. This has been a long process, and certainly the "decision" (if it can even be called that) was not made today, or yesterday, or a month ago. Which is to say, this is an announcement of intent, but of an intent that has slowly formed and matured over the last six to seven months or so and which has been present for some time now to a varying (and increasing) degree. We are catechumens at present, and will be received into the Church by Holy Chrismation at the Nativity.

We have been attending St. Stephen Orthodox Church in Hiram, Georgia for the period referenced above. Our lives have been innumerably blessed by being among God's people at St. Stephens, but obviously, enriched lives are no basis for choosing a place of worship. One can make new friends and have good experiences in a heterodox tradition. And leaving old friends is not something lightly done, much less leaving a faith to which we swore ourselves at our confirmation and devoted nearly 10 years of our lives, and into which we baptized all three of our children. So what was it that made us leave?

Put simply, we left our (WELS) Lutheran parish because we became convinced that it, and with it American Lutheranism writ large, is not representative of the Church in her fullest sense. Not, mind you, that no semblance of the Church is ever present among Lutherans, nor among that parish -- we certainly rejoice in the Gospel and Sacraments we were fed there for nearly 5 years, and we rejoice even more for our time with her Pastor and parishioners, who also enriched our lives immeasurably. But as we witnessed continued and ongoing departures from the tradition of the Western Catholic Church (which the Lutheran Confessors sought to maintain rather than destroy), both among this parish and in Lutheranism writ large, we became convinced that the Lutheran tradition -- particularly in America -- has in large measure lost what it means to be the Church. Some are unfortunately throwing it away with both hands.

This is not to say that Lutherans in America are a homogeneous bunch. There are certainly degrees of striving to "be the Church" among Lutherans. Our first (LCMS) Lutheran parish still desires and works earnestly to maintain the doctrine and practice outlined in the Lutheran Confessions, and to maintain the catholicity of the Western Church. It is that desire and the authentic Christian Gospel and Sacramental life that flows from it, in fact, that made us want to be Lutherans to begin with. Authenticity in Christianity is something sorely missing in this country. But at the end of the day, our observation and experience teaches us that this parish is the exception rather than the rule. This is not to denigrate our last parish nor their doctrine and practice. Rather, it is to say that in our observation, our last Lutheran parish represents the rule among Lutherans. It is normative, so much so that out of 29 LCMS congregations and 10 WELS congregations in the metro Atlanta area, one cannot find even one Lutheran parish that closely squares with what we were taught at our first parish in either doctrine or practice, but one can easily find any number of congregations that teach and preach what we received in our last parish (unfortunately for the LCMS, all of those are other WELS congregations -- LCMS congregations in our area are too far gone to be realistically considered "Lutheran" in any real sense). So in the end, the lesson we learned over the last 5 years is we are not Lutheran as normatively defined among American Lutherans, and likely never were. We came to recognize this in observing departures from the Book of Concord and the unified tradition of the Holy Catholic Church among our own parish and Synod, which we enumerate, though not exhaustively, as follows:

- a weakened appreciation for and practice of individual confession and absolution
- a departure from the practice of celebrating the Eucharist weekly and on feast days (for example, my wife mourned that over 5 consecutive Easter Sundays at our last parish, we never celebrated the Eucharist once)
- use of an altered liturgy and too-frequent (though, to be fair, still probably infrequent) departure from the appointed lectionary
- use of individual disposable cups for the Eucharist which were thrown in the trash after reception
- a weakened view of the Office of the Ministry

I should note that none of these issues came about recently -- we knew most of these were issues when we joined the parish, and probably naively thought we could start with what we had and work toward greater Confessional soundness. I would further note none of this explains why we have decided to join the Orthodox Church. Being dissatisfied with Lutheranism is not a good reason to join another tradition. Initially, what drew us to Orthodoxy was honestly mere proximity -- the closest Church that we thought would maintain catholicity in a manner reasonably close to what we believed as Lutherans was St. Stephens. After attending a Great Vespers in the late Spring of this year, the familiarity of the traditional liturgy was comforting -- it was, in short, what we had been missing for 5 years. Over time, what we have seen in our months among the people of St. Stephens and what we have come to believe (or, rather, to recognize) is that she has a rightful claim to be the historic Church of the Apostles, the New Testament Church founded by Christ. We have therefore come to believe that the Orthodox Christian Church maintains the faith of the Apostles in the fullest, most authentic sense. We have also come to recognize in her teachings errors we held to as Lutherans as measured by the Book of Concord, among which include, again not exhaustively:

- a weakened understanding of the role and intercession of the departed Saints
- an amended and, we believe, wrongly altered Nicene Creed
- a weaker ecclesiology that damages the unity of the Church
- a fundamental confusion of person and nature in the doctrines of Original Sin and Justification
- a false dichotomy between faith and works

Having said that, I should also note that we have much to appreciate from our time as Lutherans and our study of the Book of Concord, again not exhaustively:

- a strong understanding of the Means of Grace and the sacramental life
- a strong appreciation for the Liturgy of the Church as the best manner to distribute those Means
- a strong appreciation for Church History and patristics
- a strong appreciation for the cycle of the Church year
- a strong appreciation for the Christian life, prayer, fasting and almsgiving
- a strong appreciation for the Scriptures rightly read in their historical context rather than "me and my Bible"

So while it is with sadness that we announce our departure from Lutheranism, it is not with animosity. We have certainly learned much in and loved much about our nearly 10 years in this fine tradition. At the end of the day, it is conscience that binds us, out of concern for the spiritual well-being of ourselves and our children. As Martin Luther famously noted, "to go against conscience is neither right nor safe." We do not leave angry or embittered, but certainly sad in that we leave many friends behind and have surely disappointed no small number of them. And yet it is with great anticipation and joy that we seek to enter the Holy Orthodox Church, for in the end, we are where we belong. We are home. There is much to be thankful for in that.

Your prayers are appreciated as we approach the date of our Chrismation.


Emily H. said...

Many years! Ben and I are so glad for you and your family!

David Garner said...

Thank you so much, Emily! Ben's friendship has been instrumental, and your patience with him taking time away from the family to help me has been much appreciated.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

I rejoice with you! And thank you for this blog.

Jim said...

great! I hope I'm next!