This week is ‘Holy Week’. In contrast to living on Skye, where you were lucky to find at least one ‘Good Friday’ church service – here in Dunblane you have it all. With the Cathedral, St Blane’s CofS, an Episcopal Church, an Orthodox Church, Quakers, the Free Church and a local charismatic church – there is a lot happening on ‘Holy Week’. Of course, being the Free Church we are pretty much ploughing on as usual. Well that’s not quite true, we ran our Easter Craft for Kids and the Case for Christ (which comes to a conclusion on Easter Monday). And this Sunday our text in our Acts series naturally falls on a passage which relates to the risen Christ – so we will have a resurrection message and resurrection themed hymns and psalms. Oh – and the kids will get chocolate eggs.
Anyway, with ‘Holy Week’ being such a big thing here, and with my recent reflections and interactions with the current news pieces surrounding Hank Hanegraaff’s conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy – I decided to take the opportunity to pop along to the local Orthodox Church. I caught half an hour of what was going to be a three-hour service (Holy Thursday The Passion Gospels, FAST) but I couldn’t stay for the whole thing as our own Bible Study and Prayer meeting was starting an hour later. Since I only caught a snap-shot on the Thursday, I also went along for the Good Friday Service (this included Vespers and procession of the shroud) and managed to catch the whole thing.
I’m aware that the concept of a Free Church preacher and elder visiting an Orthodox Church might freak some people out. But let’s just put it in perspective. I was a Religious Education teacher for seven years. I’ve visited mosques, Buddhist temples and I’ve gone to hear the Dali Lama – and I still love Jesus, preach the gospel and hold to Sola Scriptura and haven’t morphed into a tree-hugging, all-religions-are-the-same kinda guy. So, if the Orthodox Church visit makes you shudder. Chill.
The first striking thing about the church (Community of St Nicholas) is its location. Its in a lovely little cottage in the centre of Dunblane. One half of the cottage is the residence of the priest and his wife, and the second half has been converted into the church.
As I arrived on Thursday evening, I was early — no one else had arrived. I had an opportunity to introduce myself to the priest and his wife. A lovely couple. We chatted about a number of things briefly – not least New Testament Greek. One thing struck me about the Priest – he actually came across as a religious man. And it wasn’t just because of his robe or the big gold chain with a cross. It was his countenance. I’ve experienced this a number of times with a certain people. There are some people whose faces radiate a kind of lightness. It’s the kind of person you meet whose presence makes you aware that you need to spend less time reading books or tapping away at a keyboard and more time on your knees.
The bare stone-wall interior, with hanging candles was quite atmospheric. At one point, in the good Friday service, I felt I’d been transported back in time and we were worshipping in the ancient catacombs.
On the Thursday, around 12 people gathered in the small church. On Friday night there must have been nearer 30. What struck me was the fact that there were a lot of young women with children at the service. I was also struck by the fact that it was very multicultural. There were a good few nationalities present. In fact, I’d go so far to say it is the most inter-national church I’ve encountered in Dunblane – although I’ve still to visit a few of the other ones. It was certainly more international than the various Free Churches I’ve visited or been a member of.
This was interesting. As would be expected, there were aspects that made me awkward and other parts I found incredibly enriching. There were also parts that were simply universal i.e. aspects that can be found in all churches in all places. One other thing that struck me is the fact that there were no seats. You stand throughout this service (there are some seats at the side for those who need them). Given the fact that one service lasted three hours, this is interesting in and of itself. How many of our churches get caught up moaning about the discomfort of the pews, or pushing for ‘comfy chairs’? The fact that the normal practice is to stand sent out a clear message — this isn’t about making you feel comfortable. Have evangelicals become too comfort orientated?
The awkward bits….
The first thing I noticed is when some people entered the building, the first thing they did was bow down and kiss one of the Icons. Throughout the service there was a fair bit of veneration of icons, veneration of Mary, and the regular performance of the Sign of the Cross.) I also couldn’t help but notice the central Icon at the altar was Mary, with a small image of Jesus at the centre of her. I guess this is part of the ‘Mother of God’ theme. Again, as reformed believer who sees the supremacy of Christ in the pages of scripture, it is difficult to see how this kind of imagery does not negatively affect our view of the person of Christ. Jesus seems to be overshadowed by his mother. Having said all that, these were very small parts of the over-all whole – which by and large were more universally applicable to all Christians.
In many ways, the Orthodox service was like a more intense version of the Catholic Mass which I attended as a child. The priest, the altar attendants, the incense, the chanting of scripture and prayers were all very similar but in some ways felt more ancient.
Overall, the service was mostly made up of sung/chanted scripture readings. Ironically, these were read from the authorised version. There were readings from Isaiah, the Gospels, the Psalms and the Books of the Law. These were chanted in-between various sung/chanted prayers and responses.
One bit that particularly moved me was a song that reflected upon the impact of the cross upon Jesus’ mother – as a mother. It was a reflection on the words of a scripture “and a sword shall pierce your own soul too.” This was not, in my view Mary veneration, but a valid biblical reflection upon the effect of the cross upon Jesus’ mother. If protestants feel that the EOC/RC over-do the emphasis on Mary, we certainly under-do it. I was deeply moved by the horror and pain that Mary would have experienced as she watched her son being crucified. What mother would not be shattered into a thousand pieces by that?
Really Interesting Interactions
A couple of interesting interactions occurred between myself and other people. A young guy came in on the Thursday night. He had travelled all the way from Glasgow. He informed the priest, and myself, that he had been attending an Orthodox Church for a month. He said he’d been doing some research on churches, and “by process of elimination” arrived at the conclusion the Orthodox Church was the true church.
The priest had to go and get things ready, and myself and the young guy got chatting. Once he found out I was in ministry in the Free Church he began to ask some questions. It turned out his background was similar to mine – he was from a ‘nominal’ Roman Catholic family. I took the opportunity so share some brief testimony as to how I stumbled into a gospel hall when I was 18, and heard the simple gospel and how I encountered Jesus in a very real and life changing way. My prayer and hope for this young man is that he doesn’t stop short of just looking for church, religion, or a denomination – but that he finds Christ. In fact, this was my one concern about the whole experience. Whilst there were crosses, and icons of Jesus and references to him everywhere – my worry was that the gospel and the need for personal faith and repentance were not very clear. My concern, and my experience from growing up Roman Catholic, is that Jesus gets crowded out by religion. That’s not to say that there are not people in these contexts who clearly know Christ (it’s not for me to judge that) but it’s just to say that we cannot under-estimate how important the reformation was. In clearing away the smoke, the images, and the priesthood – it helped us see Jesus more clearly. It helped us hear the message of Christ crucified and the call to repentance and faith.
The second interesting encounter was with a couple I later bumped into on the way home. The woman had been involved in the singing part of the service. It turned out, the husband was an Episcopalian but the wife Orthodox. We were outside the Free Church, and I had the opportunity to introduce myself as the local Free Church ‘minister’. The wife almost fainted. Literally. She was astounded that the local FC preacher would visit an Orthodox church service. The husband excitedly said. “David Robertson has done more to warm me towards the Free Church than any other person”. I agreed and told him that David’s writing was quite instrumental in drawing me to the Free Church also. We then had a chat about the decline of biblical teaching within the mainline churches.
These two encounters are examples of what I like to call ‘Kingdom moments’. The moments where something of the Kingdom of God breaks through in what seems like a chance encounter.
Taking away stuff to apply?
Is there anything to learn from the Orthodox Church for Free Church ministry? Yes, I think so.
James White, commenting on the conversion of Hank Hanagraaff to Eastern Orthodoxy said about evangelicalism:
“The church has become focused on the people pilling in, not the sacredness of what goes on there.”
Well that’s one thing the EOC can’t be accused of. There was nothing seeker sensitive about the EOC I visited. There was on the other hand a strong sense that the purpose of the gathering was religious. I think we have lost something of that. This ties in with a recent lecture from the Rev John Ross at ETS last week. He challenged us to recover our reformed liturgy. He challenged us to recover the liturgy of Knox and the Directory for Public Worship. I think he is absolutely right. Within reformed liturgy there is a strong God-centeredness. After several decades of Rick Warren and Bill Hybels – we have just ended up with shallow church.
Having said that, Ed Stetzer warns about the lack of missional elements within the EOC.
I think the tendency towards (big-O) Orthodoxy and its liturgy is missiologically unhealthy, not just theologically problematic. Many segments of Orthodoxy take Hellenistic (or other) cultural forms, consider them normative to today’s context, and apply them as the “true” or “authentic” way.
That’s not helpful and it actually hinders the advance of the gospel, which in part explains why American Orthodoxy has far more converts from evangelicalism than it does from secularism.
Whilst we need to recover our sense of sacredness, we also need to maintain our missional ethos. A liturgy that is not designed to draw people in and make it accessible is not like Jesus. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus was incarnational. The church should be too.
Finally, we need to do a better job of explaining ourselves ecclesiologically to those who want answers. “Which split was the Free Church – was that the one in the 1800s?” asked a young man who was in the process of looking for the true church. Do we know who we are, where we came from and why we exist as a church? Are we able to articulate who we are in relation to the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopal and Church of Scotland? One of things that causes me to despair is the fact that many evangelicals – including many reformed ones – have such a shallow view truth, church and history. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that not everyone spends their lives watching mind-numbing television. Not everyone wants to go to your church because you are ‘seeker-friendly’ – they don’t care that your services are designed with the first-time visitor in mind – they want truth. They want to know how your church is connected to the Apostles. Are we able to explain ourselves in terms of where we fit on the Orthodox, Catholic and protestant map? Do we know why the Reformation mattered and why it still matters? We need to.
Overall, as you can see, I valued my visit to the local EOC. Dunblane churches have good relationships across the denominations. I hope to meet the leader of the local EOC again sometime. The services did help me reflect upon the cross. The OEC helped me see things that I can do better as a Christian (prayer) and things we could do better as a church and a denomination. It also helped me value afresh the importance of the reformation, and the dual challenge for our churches to be sacred spaces but also missional places.