Western Rite Orthodox Evangelism

In a recent article, I made a comment which I believe is true, but which may give some readers pause:

Properly understood and practiced, Western Rite Orthodoxy touches some Western people evangelistically in ways that the Eastern Rite does not. Simply put, there are people who come into the kingdom of God via the Western Rite, who would not come in at all, otherwise. Thus, the Western Rite should exist, especially for these people.

Before I explain this statement, I should acknowledge that I agree with and grieve over Schmemann’s critique that “some western Christians come to Orthodoxy in order to salvage the rite they cherish (Book of Common Prayer , Tridentine Mass, etc.) from liturgical reforms they abhor”. Indeed, some western Christians do that, and it is a very sad state of affairs. I have personally met some people who were only interested in Orthodoxy, insomuch as they could use Orthodoxy to preserve some western liturgy they like. Of course, I would not advocate bringing someone into the Church for so superficial a reason.

Thankfully, there are many western Christians who do not convert to Orthodoxy for such a reason. A case in point is my church in Omaha. When we first looked into Orthodoxy, we were unaware that the Western Rite even existed, and we were fully prepared to become Orthodox anyway. Our first love is the Faith, not a particular rite. We practice the Western Rite because we like it, and because our bishop approves of it. We are not Western Rite because of any demands or requirements on our part.

If 100% of the Western-Rite liturgies were abandoned by the Orthodox Church, then we too would abandon the Western Rite, and we would remain Orthodox. We would all learn the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Our church community is fully committed to the true, historic, Orthodox Faith.

Still, my initial comment stands. I have seen that Western Rite Orthodoxy touches some Western people evangelistically in ways that the Eastern Rite does not. Some people would not become Orthodox at all, if the Western Rite did not exist.

And what are we to think about these people? If Western Rite accommodations are made to people in this position, is there any way to effect a total commitment to Orthodox catholicity at the local parish level?

This is where it is critically important to make a clear distinction between “becoming Orthodox” and “being Orthodox”. Everyone comes into the Church for different initial reasons. Some people find the Church because they have done some significant doctrinal questioning and seeking. Some people join the Church to escape Rome. Some begin attending because they are mesmerized by the icons, incense, robes, and candles. Some join the Church because it happens to be close to home, and some of their friends attend it already. Some are in the Church strictly for ethnic reasons, and they have a whole new world opened to them when they finally hear the Gospel preached clearly. Some start attending because it seems familiar. Others start attending for the very reason that it seems foreign. Everyone has different reasons.

Think of the phrase “becoming Orthodox” as being the first logistical “bump” a person has to overcome in the path, in order to begin attending an Orthodox congregation. “Being Orthodox”, on the other hand, is the level of deep Orthodox commitment which the person finally reaches after spending time in the catechumenate, in classes, in books, in numerous liturgies, and in relationships with Orthodox brothers and sisters.

Of course it would be a travesty to water down the full experience of “Being Orthodox”. A well-catechized believer should have a very firm grasp on the Faith, and should recognize the importance of embracing the Orthodox Faith for life, regardless of whether it happens to be Eastern Rite or Western Rite.

The average Western christian–even one who has never set foot in a Catholic or Anglican church–will initially feel more at home in my congregation, than in an Eastern Rite congregation. I have had experience with a number of people in this regard, on multiple occasions. Our vestments are Western. Our vocabulary is Western. And our music uses tones and scales which are familiar to Western ears. Importantly, these aspects of Western culture are not innovations, but are actually remnants of the West’s heritage from its Orthodox past. This is a significant point to contemplate.

In regard to the initial step of “becoming Orthodox”, I see no problem in making the initial “bump” smaller, and easier to navigate. I do not think the entrance into the Church should be barricaded with unnecessary roadblocks. Unfortunately, according to Western eyes, I believe the foreignness of the Eastern Rite can be a significant roadblock to many (though thankfully not to all).

I realize this critique may sound very strange at first, especially for those who have simply been searching for the true Church, without any regard for whether the liturgy felt foreign or not. But would we be justified in barring the door for people entering Orthodoxy, to grow and learn the depths of the Faith, merely because their initial reasons for being interested were not as pure as we perceived our own motivations to be? Now that a family has joined my congregation, and is now 100% committed to being Orthodox for life–regardless of rite–should we judge them unworthy of being Orthodox, merely because their initial exposure to the Eastern Rite freaked them out a little bit?

Without compromising the integrity of the Faith, I believe we should make it as warm and inviting as possible for people to initially begin considering Orthodoxy. Then, once they become catechumens, we should fill their minds and hearts with the very depths of the Faith, to the point that they would never consider being anything other than Orthodox, regardless of whether it happens to be Eastern Rite or Western Rite.

Some people come into the Orthodox faith without any initial regard for one rite or another. When my Anglican mission converted to Orthodoxy, all 13 of us would have gladly joined an Eastern Rite congregation had there been one nearby.

However, some members of our current congregation have different stories to tell. One faithful man is 70, was raised Episcopal, and Western Rite Orthodoxy was the gateway for him having any interest in Orthodoxy whatsoever. However, after being introduced to Orthodoxy, he has been reading profusely, and he has become much more interested in Orthodoxy for its own sake, regardless of rite. Then there is a family that joined. The mother has visited Eastern Rite congregations, and she told me that she probably never would have become Orthodox if an Eastern Rite congregation had been the first Orthodox church she visited. She said that our Western Rite congregation was just barely familiar enough to keep from scaring her away, and even then, just barely so. Now, however, the family has learned much more about Orthodoxy, and they are committed to remaining faithful Orthodox Christians for life, regardless of rite. They later attended an Eastern Rite Pascha service, and loved it.

That said, I do not think the objections of Metropolitan KALLISTOS are without merit. There could conceivably be some Western Rite congregation that is not merely comforting to people as they enter the Faith, but is watered down in the subsequent catechism and practice of the Faith. This of course would be a real problem, and should be avoided at all costs.

Sadly, I fear that there are many Eastern Rite congregations which likewise fit this latter description . . . one can find Eastern Rite congregations which are not adequately catechized in the Gospel, and in the various doctrines of the Orthodox Faith. It is not uncommon to meet Eastern Rite communicants who are pro-abortion, pro-gay-marriage, Ecumenists, etc. So the challenge of proper Orthodox catechism and discipline is not merely needed for Western Rite congregations, but is a pressing need for the worldwide Orthodox Church as a whole.

For the sake of evangelism, it is wise to have both the Eastern Rite and the Western Rite. In different ways, each rite helps bring people to the point of “becoming Orthodox”.

For the sake of spiritual depth and faithfulness, intense catechism is needed, regardless of which rite is being observed. Only through catechism can people truly be brought to the point of “being Orthodox”.

Deacon Joseph Gleason
Christ the King Orthodox Church

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About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
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One Response to Western Rite Orthodox Evangelism

  1. This is SO true!

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Orthodox Christians – even the clergy – parrot some version of the statement that sounds like it comes from a Calvinist Protestant, “Sola Liturgia! Everything a person needs to know, they can get in the Divine Liturgy.”

    Hogwash!

    The Orthodox Divine Liturgy is beautiful; it is dripping with theology, Tradition and history. But it is not even remotely all-encompassing in its scope. A false belief in the above statement leads many local parishes to either fail to catechize proficiently or even catechize at all, which I’ve heard of at numerous parishes. And then we end up with a situation like what happened to our oldest son when he went to visit an Orthodox Church as he was *becoming Orthodox*. He asked someone at the entrance to the church if they had any information he could read and study. The woman asked him, “Are you Greek?”

    It appears that this woman believes Orthodoxy is a cultural or ethnic religion. It appears that she has not been sufficiently catechized by her priest(s). She may have been a cradle Orthodox Christian (one who has been Orthodox from her birth), but she still needs to be properly catechized – by her parents first, and then her clergy. And a proper understanding of the fact that the Orthodox Church is not an ethnic religion will NOT come from the Divine Liturgy alone.

    Every person in the Orthodox Church – whether coming in as a catechumen and convert, or as a cradle member – needs to have a complete catechism. Even people who have already been catechized would do well to attend (again) every few years the catechism classes offered at their parish, just to stay proficient and well-tuned in their understanding of the Church. And, to tie into the blog post, a portion of the catechism at every parish SHOULD have included in it a study of the different rites along with their similarities, differences and importance of having them all.

    The Western Rite is not:
    –somehow inferior or lacking in scope, beauty or Theology,
    –a modern invention,
    –a man-driven re-emergence of a rite that the Holy Spirit and the Church rightly abandoned centuries ago,
    –a way to superficially “salvage the rite they cherish from liturgical reforms they abhor”,
    –simply “un-Orthodox because I’ve never heard of it”

    The Western Rite is a fully-approved, fully-historical, Holy Spirit-filled liturgy and way of Christian life that is FULL of Orthodox Christian theology, history and Tradition.

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