To speak of ‘converts’ in a Church context should sound strange. After all, we never speak of the Mother of God or of the Twelve Apostles or of the Apostle Paul as ‘converts’. And yet they certainly were converts in the sense that they became Orthodox, not having been born to Orthodox families and brought up as such. And the same is true of millions of other Orthodox, including other saints and martyrs. They found their way and nobody called them ‘converts’. So why should we speak of ‘converts’ today? The problem is simply one of integration – or rather lack of it. The Apostles and all the others integrated the Church, that is, they not only joined the Church but rapidly BECAME Orthodox, with every fibre of their being. Only as a result of lack of integration are there today ‘converts’, that is, individuals who are unintegrated into the Church’s way of life and thinking. They come in two forms. What are they?
Two Types of Convert
Firstly, there is the convert who is not converted. Harsh though it may sound, he is like the dog who returns to his own (spiritual) vomit, in the Apostle Peter’s words (2 Peter 2, 22). He comes to the Church with his personal baggage, his own agenda, his own theories and even fantasies, he has ‘read all the books’, he ‘knows everything’ already and wants to impose his curious personal views or anti-Orthodox Establishment conformist views on the Church (see 2 Timothy 3, 7). He is so proud that he believes that he does not have to change, but that the Church has to change – in order to fit in with him! Since he is part of the Establishment, he is superior to a bunch of immigrants and peasants from Eastern Europe!
Sadly, there are many such individuals and there are those who, without any discernment and psychological understanding, prematurely receive them into the Church, long before such individuals have the necessary simplicity and humility. Such individuals never even begin to think in an Orthodox way, let alone begin to live in an Orthodox way. Their religion is all theoretical, headborne, bookish. They are indeed ‘converts’, that is, unconverted. The saddest cases are among those who, having been members of the Church for a few days (yes, it happens) or at most a few months, are then ordained. The damage they do is incalculable; many are later defrocked.
Secondly, there is the opposite extreme of unconverted converts, but they too are wholly conditioned by pride. This is the over-zealous. We see such ‘converts’ or neophytes (‘there is nothing worse than a neophyte’) in modern Islam; some of the worst suicide bombers are converts. Fortunately, in the Church we do not have violence, but there is intellectual violence. These ‘converts’ are those who suffer from ‘zeal not according to knowledge’ (Romans 10, 2), and, as is often said, what a pity that cradle Orthodox do not have such zeal, but what a pity that such ‘converts’ do not have the practical knowledge, borne of experience and time, of cradle Orthodox.
In reality both zeal and knowledge together are required. Just as the convert who is not converted and does not repent always sooner or later lapses, so the over-zealous also lapses, nowadays often into old calendarist sects. In ROCOR for years we tried to moderate such converts, but some we failed with and they caused us trouble and eventually lapsed, finding themselves outside the Church. Clearly, their problems were never theological, but psychological, sometimes even pathological.
What is to be done? We suggest three remedies:
1. Avoid Separation
What must be avoided at all costs is setting up convert groups separately from the rest of the local diocese of the Church, for example in separate – and indeed separatist – ‘deaneries’. This often happens when there is no local bishop and the bishop of another nationality decides, sometimes through lack of any interest in the local situation, to ‘delegate’ responsibility. Given that the essence of the problem of ‘converts’ is the fact that they remain precisely ‘converts’, they need to frequent cradle Orthodox, not live separately. Otherwise, how else will they learn and live the Faith?
We have seen the pernicious effects of ‘deaneries’ in various jurisdictions. One such cultish and sectarian ‘deanery’, in France, used to order its members to dress in black and the men all seemed to have to have long hair and shaggy beards, as ordered by their guru! The Russian faithful used to call them ‘the crows’…Of course they soon ended up outside the Church. In another case, nearly all the members of a deanery were normal, integrated Orthodox, but it was the convert dean himself who left his deanery and the Church – again the bishop of another nationality lived in another country and did not know what was happening.
In a third case there was an untrained clergyman in a deanery of untrained clergy who gave communion to Non-Orthodox; the dean did nothing about it; the bishop of another nationality was again an absentee living in another country. Other Orthodox naturally refused to concelebrate with the clergyman – so he was totally isolated. One clergy member of this deanery, ordained a few days after joining the Church!, was then arrested by the police for criminal affairs. The scandals went on…..But they could all have been avoided if there had been no administrative separatism. Administrative separatism leads to convert groups becoming marginal, indeed, becoming withered branches. They are on their way out of the Church.
2. Debrainwash First
The second thing to avoid is prematurely receiving those who have ‘baggage’, generally those who have belonged to a heterodox confession, especially clergy who have been trained, or rather brainwashed, into a heterodox way of thinking. They think they know it all when in fact they know nothing. I well remember visiting a group set up by such an individual who had been ordained prematurely. The group certainly was rabidly anti-ecumenist but not Orthodox, but I was never able to put my finger on what felt so deeply wrong and spiritually unhealthy. Another visitor to the group expressed it for me. An ex-Anglican, he described the group as ‘old-fashioned Anglo-Catholics with icons’, with all the strangeness of such a community. Another sectarian little group was described to me as ‘an upper middle-class Anglican club’ and a third group as ‘a clique for well-off Anglicans only’.
Individuals should never be received into the Church, let alone ordained, until they have got their heterodox past out of their systems; and that can take years and even decades. A heterodox past is, sad to say, a spiritual poison, and must be evacuated before the life-giving spring of Orthodoxy can take the newly vacant place. Care must be taken here with age. Age makes it much more difficult to integrate. Why? Simply because there is so much more baggage from the past, so much more to jettison. We have often found that one who is 20 when he is received into the Church often only begins to be fully integrated when he is 40, in other words, it takes one year inside the Church to overcome every year spent outside the Church. This may sound strict, but we know individuals who have been in the Church for decades and they have never integrated – usually because they have refused to mix with other nationalities – with cradle Orthodox – either because they think they know everything and have nothing to learn, or else because they are simply racist. So much depends on attitude, on being open and showing willingness to learn – or not; the one year for one year need not be binding.
Any Orthodox community must be inclusive; sadly this is far from the case. There are several groups where I have never felt at home because, like the mass of English people, I have never been an Anglican or had any heterodox background. Orthodox from Eastern Europe also simply boycott such groups and prefer to stay at home because they there is no spiritual nourishment to be had in such groupings, just very tiresome and ‘clever’ chit-chat. We know that something feels wrong, that there is no prayerful atmosphere. Such groupings are inwardly sectarian, cut off from the mainstream, even though they may be in a canonical jurisdiction. Even sadder is when such groupings actually try to impose their ideology and calendarism (new or old) on cradle Orthodox. True, such groupings do attract a few Orthodox from Eastern Europe, but they themselves are recent and unintegrated converts, uneducated in the Faith as a way of life, or else long ago lapsed. They like such ‘easy’ groups where there is no confession, you can sit down and fasting is little observed.
3. Ensure that Cradle Orthodox Communities are Receptive
the first two problems are brought by converts, there is a third problem and this is caused by cradle Orthodox. If new Orthodox are to be integrated, it is clear that they must frequent cradle Orthodox who want to integrate them. But how can this be done if the cradle Orthodox are themselves closed, preferring to live in a self-created ghetto? Here local anecdotes are countless. One convert was told by a Greek priest ‘to go away’ (actually he used much ruder language than that, but we shall not repeat it). Another was told that he could not join the Greek Church because ‘you are not dark enough’. A third was told that he ‘cannot become Greek’ as he did not have the ’right blood’.
Little wonder that the Anglican Diocese of London has six priests of Greek origin: having been born in this country and lost their Greek language, they decided that the Greek Church was no place for them, even though they were ‘dark enough’. Sadly, these Greek examples that come to mind are only the tip of the iceberg and all nationalities and all countries are concerned. Clearly the people concerned, clergy included, have never understood the last words of St Matthew’s Gospel about ‘teaching all nations and baptizing them’ (Matt. 28, 19). Nobody wants to join a ghetto and in case there is little to learn from the ghetto because it is a club, just as ‘ethnic’ as convert clubs.
Theological ignorance or simply racism? Whatever it is, such churches clearly have no episcopal leadership and deserve to close down – which is exactly what happens to them, as we have seen countless times both here and abroad. The immigrants die out and so do their uncared for churches. That is their own fault. Those who live in the ghetto die in the ghetto. In the words of the Gospel – and however harsh they may sound, these are the words of our Lord – ‘Let the dead bury their dead’ (Matt. 8, 22).
In real Church life, and not sectarian and cultish Diaspora hothouses of a few inward-looking neophytes, there is no such things as ‘converts’, there is simply the Church. Why? Because where the Church is the Church, people seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all other things are added unto them (Matt. 6, 33). In other words, such new Orthodox, not ‘converts’, have a healthy attitude and bring no personal agendas, no impositions on the Church, no racism, remain open-minded, show willingness to learn and mix with cradle Orthodox (if possible even visiting countries where Orthodox parish and monastic life has existed for centuries), putting the Kingdom of God and humble righteousness first. And this is the key to swift integration, this is the end of ‘converts’.