Fr. James Siemens is a former Ukrainian Catholic priest who recently converted to holy Orthodoxy. Fr. James is originally from Canada, where he studied theology at the University of Manitoba and at McGill University in Montreal. He then moved to Manchester to continue with post-graduate work and has been living in Wales for several years now together with his wife and eight children. Fr. James shared the story of his long path to Orthodoxy with OrthoChristian, as well as his thoughts on what’s more important in the spiritual life and in his pastoral ministry.
—It’s been two or three weeks now since you became Orthodox, correct?1
—Yes, I was received on December 17.
—To begin with, could you share with us your religious history. I believe you were first Anglican, then Eastern Catholic, and now Orthodox?
—It sounds far more complicated than it is. As an Anglican, I grew up in a very Anglo-Catholic home. The faith that was instilled in us was very much what you might call Orthodox-favorable or Catholic-favorable, with images, beautiful hymnody, chant, etc. In fact, my Sunday School teacher was an Anglican by marriage but she was ethnically Romanian. Apparently we were all taught to cross ourselves the wrong way, according to the Western point of view. There were numerous positive influences in that regard.
And although this is a caricature of Winnipeg, I like to say that you can tell the city’s history by the mix of Catholic steeples, Anglican towers, and Orthodox domes, because it has a very strong Eastern European flavor. There’s a substantial Greek community there as well. You couldn’t live there without being conscious of the Orthodox influence over the city’s history.
Then I moved to Montreal for further studies in preparation for the Anglican priesthood, and came under Orthodox influence in a very deep and significant way. There was an OCA priest there who exerted immense influence over me, in a very gentle, fatherly but also friendly way. I started to read the Fathers when I was there, through the lens of the neo-Patristic synthesis—people like Fr. John Meyendorff and Vladimir Lossky—because I was working at a book shop and those were the books that were available—and I simply became enthralled.
So even as I was preparing for Anglican ministry, I was flirting with Orthodoxy, you might say. I paid visits to Orthodox priests to inquire about coming over. For whatever reason, I didn’t at that time. One of the things that I was counseled was to make sure that before I ever left Anglicanism I knew what I was leaving, and that I was leaving out of love—and I think that was profoundly important advice. We probably all know stories of people who have spent their whole life hunting for the perfect church and end up trying out this or that, and I think this advice probably saved me from that trajectory.
But it wasn’t long before I was ordained as an Anglican priest and became close with the Orthodox priest in the West Indies where I was first serving, and then returned to Canada and ended up in northern Saskatchewan. I spent five happy years there as an Anglican priest. Then I moved to Manchester, England. I had just started my doctoral studies. I was driving down into Wales regularly to meet with my supervisor, and realizing more and more that it was probably time to make a move. My children were going to the Ukrainian club and Ukrainian dancing in Manchester. There’s a significant Ukrainian community there.
—I believe you have Ukrainian roots?
—My roots will be familiar to anyone if they just consider the surnames of the great Russian theologians of the twentieth century—Schmemann and Meyendorff are not conventional Russian names. I’m the same. My ancestors are what they call Russian Germans. They all went to Zaporozhye under Catherine the Great and spent a few hundred years there before leaving just prior to the famine and after the revolution. And my wife is half-Galician.
So it runs in the family; it drew us in terms of our interests. I truly believed—and this was the winning argument, if you could put it that way—that it was possible to be Orthodox in communion with Rome. That was our experience and that’s what we saw. Through my theological explorations I had determined that when it’s possible to be in communion with Rome then that should be sought, and that’s what we did. Of course, my experience changed my view on that over time. As you can imagine, these things don’t happen overnight. It wasn’t a matter of, “Oh my goodness, what have we done?” There was one priest in particular in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church here in Britain who has been a wonderful example of both the Christian life and the priestly life. He was a good pastor to us.
I don’t want to take anything away from the good things that I have seen and been a part of, but ultimately, I would say I came to the conclusion that to go into communion with Rome is to get more Rome than Orthodoxy. I really felt it was difficult to continue trying to live the Orthodox life that we had sought in that situation.
—In what sense would you say it was more Rome than Orthodoxy? Was there Latinization of the services? Or the theology?
—Primarily the theological and canonical tradition. I was part of a group of people who were very emphatic about the re-Byzantization of the Liturgy, the eradication of Latinizations. That was a relatively successful enterprise, I think. I saw a picture that someone posted yesterday of some Eastern Catholics in Eastern Europe, and they very much looked like a Latinized rag tag bunch of priests—but that was not at all my experience. Most particularly because the group to which I belonged was very diligent about trying to make the Orthodoxy real, through liturgical life; and in that respect, I suppose you could keep your head low and ignore the liturgical Latinizations.
Where you couldn’t ignore it was in the relationship with the Roman Catholic church, in the canonical tradition, which although it’s autonomous in the sense that there’s a code of eastern canons, it’s very much based on the code of Latin canons. It’s a very Latin document essentially; and finally, in their theological tradition. You would very seldom find even in the most Byzantinized circles any really rigorous theological thinking going on. If you ask any Eastern Catholic theologian what they studied or what they’re pursuing, you just have to brace yourself and wait for Thomas Aquinas to come up. I’m conscious that even as I tell you this, that will not be fair to everybody, because I can’t stress enough that there really are some very sincere, diligent people who are trying to live out an Orthodox life in the church into which they were born. In practice, in reality there is a default setting—and that is a very Latin default setting.
—I became Orthodox in college, and our group of college students had a Melkite Catholic friend with whom we always had very interesting conversation about the possibility of being Orthodox in communion with Rome, and things like that. It seemed to me that the Melkites are fairly Orthodox still in their theology and practice. But that’s about the extent of my experience with Eastern Catholics.
—I think it’s a complex history and I think that it would behoove the Orthodox over time, not with a sense of urgency other than out of love for our Christian neighbor, to deal seriously with how some of these churches have arisen and not assume that there’s ill will. There’s no question about the dark side of the Uniate project (and I think even Rome would acknowledge this), but in terms of the faithful who live in these churches, I think that if we start with the basis that we’re talking about a sincere Christian faith and sincere desire for Christ in the Sacraments, in the iconographic tradition, in the Church herself, and then start to work out what that has meant for them in communion with Rome, why Rome has exerted such an ominous influence, then I think we’ll probably be doing the ecumenical project a greater service, if that makes any sense. It’s so easy to just write people off or write whole movements off. Okay, but, if we really want to take our Lord seriously in the High Priestly Prayer and find out what it means to be one in the Body of Christ, then I think we need to wrestle with those histories in particular more thoroughly.
—You’ve mentioned the role of the Papacy and being in communion with the Rome, which I wanted to ask you about. I looked up some of your past articles where you said the role of the Pope is necessary and the Greek Catholics have something unique to offer. You also said just now that through study you determined that you should be in communion with Rome if possible. So I’m curious if further study has also helped bring you to a different conclusion—that you don’t have to be with Rome—or was it just the personal experience of Orthodoxy being more latinized with the Greek Catholics?
—It’s both really. Rome exerts a kind of conceit, that the Papacy is an absolute, and yet at the same time, it speaks of the complete authenticity and validity of the Churches not in communion with her, that is, the Orthodox Churches. Well, which is it then?
—That is a little odd.
—I’ve always found that strange. What I’m being subjected to now for having left communion with Rome is a bit ironic, considering that I simply went to a Church that is completely apostolic and valid, according to Rome’s own language. But if we can somehow find a sense of unity, East and West, that doesn’t entail capitulation, then I’ll be praying for that. But I don’t think communion with Rome should entail subordination to Rome, and that’s where I haven’t changed very much, as I simply didn’t realize that subordination was so much a part of the picture when I moved in that direction. I thought communion meant communion, but what it actually means is that the Pope is almost literally the universal diocesan bishop, and every other bishop is just his suffragan (I know Vatican I says differently). And theologically that’s a papal church, that’s not an episcopal church. I say that even with love and respect for some of the successors of St. Peter. It’s not a personal thing, it’s a theological thing, and I think it underlines the mission of the Church.
—Would you characterize your conversion to Orthodoxy then as finally finding or joining what you’ve always been according to conviction? It sounds like you’ve always been looking for this kind of communion.
—I’m glad you put it that way, because I think it’s something important to understand. I did not seek Rome, per se. I pursued Orthodoxy, and in retrospect, I was wrong that it could be found in communion with Rome. That said, I also say there are so many sincere true believers, who have been raised in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church for example, or Melkite, who are pursuing the Orthodox life as best they can. And I think that’s to be lauded, but I don’t think it’s a universal enough experience to say that therefore, the Eastern Catholic churches are just Orthodox in communion with Rome.
—Was there a straw that broke the camel’s back, or was just it just a gradual process and you realized the time had come?
—This might sound funny, but I was asked to write a chapter for a book that is a series of theological essays by theologians who have entered communion with Rome, and I was the Eastern guy in that discussion. As I’m writing the article over the summer and examining my own arguments for the choice I made fifteen years ago, my heart is sinking, because I’m realizing I don’t actually accept these arguments anymore.
For example, I had created an image to explain the iconological framework through which we can read the cosmos—everything from the nature of the universe itself, the created order, through to the Church and her ministers with Christ at the head. Only as I was working on this model to write the chapter, I realized that no matter how I approached it, the papacy kept ending up at the head. I’m not saying there is a conscious desire to preempt Christ, but I do think there is an issue at the top with the way the ecclesiological model has worked itself out in the Catholic church, broadly speaking.
So, as I was writing this, I was becoming less and less convinced that I could sustain the argument, and my heart was sinking because I knew that it was going to demand a change. I suppose it was that realization that catalyzed my change, which happened just over the summertime. With COVID we had less communication with our churches, and I had a lot more time to think and read—so that’s where I ended up.
But there’s also another issue. I might have roots that go back to Ukraine, but I am not a Ukrainian speaker—and a truly Orthodox Church cannot be premised on its language. That becomes a big obstacle when your ministry is actually curtailed because of it.
—Were you serving in Ukrainian?
—Yes, more often than not. Here in Cardiff the mission was more English-speaking, but it depended upon who came on a Sunday, really. If I had Ukrainians I would serve in Ukrainian, but if the majority were English then it was in English. But as soon as I left my own mission parish and went into the eparchy across the UK, then it was by default all in Ukrainian. I served at the cathedral this summer, and everything was in Ukrainian, including the Gospel and the sermon.
—I’m sure you know that’s a struggle in Orthodoxy too. We have Greek churches serving all in Greek, or half and half, and Russian Churches serving in Slavonic. Of course, there are very fervent opinions on both sides. Patriarch Kirill just spoke about how there are phrases in Slavonic that no one understands, so let’s make them more comprehensible. He didn’t even say let’s translate into Russian—let’s just clear up some Slavonic phrases, but of course, that has caused some strong discussions.
—This affects both the Catholic and Orthodox worlds. We have our people within the Churches who are very willing and quick to get upset about things that are not of the faith. I have a preference for the Old Calendar, based primarily on consistency. But, in astronomical terms, the full Gregorian calendar is more accurate. It just is. The Calendar and calendrical studies have been part of my own academic interests, so I take a particular interest in that. But pastorally speaking, I’m very happy on the Julian calendar. I love that it distinguishes liturgical time from active, secular time. I think there are arguments for it that are pastoral. But do I really think that those who have opted for the New Calendar are truly heretics? Of course not! It messes up the timeline a little bit, because you get saints falling outside of Lent who are supposed to be in Lent—that kind of thing—but is faith in the Creator of all things, in Him Who loved us so much as to take on flesh, actually undermined by a calendar choice? I don’t think so. And whether we’re talking about language or the calendar, we have to always ask, is that great, cosmic, salvific faith being undermined by suggestions or choices or explorations? If the answer to that is no, then we can all breathe a sigh of relief and crack on with being Orthodox Christians together.
—That’s a good perspective on it, I think. I was baptized in the OCA and went to seminary at St. Tikhon’s, which is OCA. I’ve also always had a preference for the Old Calendar, but most of my Orthodox life has been on the New Calendar. Now I’m in Moscow, so I’m on the Old Calendar.
So, you mentioned your community, and the question of the calendar, and now you’re in the Archdiocese under Metropolitan John of Dubna. Have you been given a community, and what calendar is the Archdiocese on?
—The Archdiocese, as I understand it, leaves it to communities to decide, not unlike the OCA, actually. I know the cathedral is on the Old Calendar. In terms of individual communities, its mixed.
As for a parish, the hope and expectation are that we can continue building, using what we take with us from the mission that I’ve been running here over the past decade, and carry it over and build a new Orthodox mission based on the hopefully good things we laid down first. I have a large family, and we were all making this journey together. And there are also parishioners who are joining us, so it’s almost a whole community.
—Have your parishioners been received, or is it still in the works?
—It is in the works.
—Glory to God for that. I had been wondering how your community in the Ukrainian Catholic church took your conversion.
—Because we’ve been together, because we’ve been small, and because we’ve always had open conversations amongst ourselves, it came as no surprise at all. There was no scandal or sadness, just a desire to stay together as a family and to press ahead, and so that’s what we’re going to do, God-willing.
—I’m glad to hear that, because a year or two ago I interviewed a priest of the Carpatho-Russian Diocese who, because of the Ukrainian scandal, felt he had to leave and he joined ROCOR. But for him that meant a break from his entire parish community, and he was very sad about that. It wasn’t something he relished, of course. I’m glad it has been more positive for you in that respect.
—I would have been very sad too. I suppose it’s been self-imposed, but I’ve gone through so much upheaval in my own life. If I think back to what might have been had I just stayed an Anglican priest, maybe I would have been the chaplain at some Oxford college or something like that, or a parish priest somewhere, and would have known stability that I ultimately have not known. But it’s been a blessing to make this move and know that I was not doing it alone.
—It’s also very interesting that you were Ukrainian Catholic, and yet you joined not just Orthodoxy, but specifically the Russian Church. As you said, the Ukrainian Catholic church can be very wrapped up in being Ukrainian; and at least in Ukraine itself, there is certainly great tension between them and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that is autonomous within the Russian Orthodox Church. Also, I found one of your previous articles that was very negative about Russia and the Russian Church.
—Unfortunately, those articles are out of my hands. What I have written I have written, full stop. However, some of those pieces were written five or ten years ago. But I just don’t want to put my eggs in those baskets anymore. I feel like I spent far too much time as a priest and as a Christian being political, and frankly, a lot of what I have written about in the past is above my paygrade. I’m interested in Christology, the Church Fathers, celebrating the Divine Liturgy, and trying to be a decent shepherd to the people God puts in my care. I’ve always had a political temptation. I was active politically even as a young person, but I’ll call it what it is—it’s a temptation. It’s not something that I think actually helps my pastoral life. And I can’t do anything about the fact that those things exist, but I’m not paying them attention anymore, I just want to move on in a sense.
However, in response to what you said, my first point is that I didn’t become Russian Orthodox—I became Orthodox. In terms of Christ, there is no such thing as Russian or Greek or Antiochian. There’s just Orthodoxy. And that’s what I chose. Having said that, as I was moving that direction, I asked and asked again, since the OCA had been such a big influence on me, what was the closest jurisdiction in Western Europe to my OCA experience. And because of its history and because of its ethos, I thought Rue Dareau2 is probably the closest thing that existed. Now that I’m actually in it, I would agree with that—in terms of its feel, its ethos, its history. All of those things come together to form a community, a Church that feels not dissimilar to my experiences with the OCA.
Having said that, a year ago, they came under the omophorion of the Patriarch of Moscow. That’s fine. You have to be under somebody’s omophorion. The fact is we’re just the Orthodox Church, and I can’t even remember all the things I said in that article. I remember vaguely the kinds of arguments I was making. And you know, I would still maintain that anywhere in which a Church and a state become too closely aligned, the Church becomes endangered. If you look at the prolife movement among Roman Catholics and how many of them look to Poland as some kind of bastion of prolife Catholicism, guess what? When the Church becomes too identified with votes, the Church will stand to lose; voting is a people based thing, not a Divine thing, and its people will fail, and Poland will do something legislatively that will cause a lot of Church people to rant, and among others there will be a rejection then of the Church because the Church tried to manipulate legislation. We saw it in Ireland.
I know that all these issues are complex but I do think that any warning I ever made then would apply to all churches, and it’s as much a concern with the Church not confusing its mission with voting in secular elections, not confusing its mission with who the president or Prime Minister is, but rather getting on shepherding people towards transfigured glory. So, if I get challenged—I knew those articles were going to come back to haunt me—that’s what I would say. I stand by the essence of what I was trying to say then, and I hope it was a Christian thing to say. But the specifics—I step back from them, because what was I thinking? It’s above my paygrade. It’s not my world. My world is Cardiff, theology, trying to be a priest—and I’ll just crack on with that.
—Speaking of those articles, I learned about you because a Catholic friend wrote to me and asked if I had seen that Fr. James Siemens became Orthodox. He said you used to write this and that about Russia and the role of the papacy, and I thought it sounds like an interesting story, to see what has changed for you.
But I’m glad that you say you didn’t become Russian Orthodox. I didn’t come to Russia because I was fleeing America for an Orthodox bastion. I was just trying to learn the language. Of course, I like that there are churches and monasteries everywhere. Now I work for OrthoChristian.com, so people who read the site superficially accuse me of being a Russian shill, or something like that. I love Russia, my wife is Russian, but to me it’s not that important where you live. I’ve also been to Romania, and Mt. Athos, and Cyprus, and other places. A friend asked me one time which is my favorite kind of Orthodoxy, and I said when I’m at a Greek church listening to the really nice Byzantine chant, at that moment I think I like the Greek the best. But then I go to Bucharest, and I think that’s is the best—or to Georgia... Orthodoxy is Orthodoxy. It just has local flavors.
—I love hearing you stay that. I couldn’t agree more. The fact is, probably like so many westerners who encounter Orthodoxy through literature, I love Dostoyevsky, I love Tolstoy—and who hasn’t read the Brothers Karamazov? But the landscape of churches and monasteries, probably most recently manifested in the film Ostrov, is a profoundly inspiring thing, and there is a religious culture and an intellectual culture to be embraced. One thing I would never encourage is the artificial appropriation of other people’s culture as if it were one’s own. I saw it in North America. I don’t know so much about it here, but when English-speaking modern converts drop their voices and take on chalice names that are very Russian and start going by them regularly, I think, “Really?” Our Lord has called us from where we are. There was no requirement to become a character in a Dostoyevsky novel.
And I just don’t feel any animosity, any tension. I am where I am, and my new Church has welcomed me. I don’t know if you’ve met Metropolitan John, but my heart beat faster when I met him. He’s just a beautiful person. I feel welcome, I feel part of a family in which I feel comfortable in a way that I haven’t in a very long time. Take even the Ukrainian Church question right now. I’m not going to get into it—not because I’m demurring or trying to be sneaky, but because as I said about other things, it’s above my paygrade. Two patriarchs are in dispute about the appropriateness of the behavior of one—let them get on with it. That’s what there’re for. I’m not. I’m a little parish priest in Cardiff and I’m just going to crack on. I’m surrounded by books up here and I’ve got writing to do, I’ve got reading to do, I've got teaching to do, and thanks be to God.
—Unfortunately, in my job dealing with Orthodox news, I can’t avoid the Ukrainian question. But sometimes it really weighs me down. It’s important enough to be reported on, but I also want to just write about good things. Just today before this interview I finished an article about a Romanian priest who found housing for fifteen families in time for Christmas. That’s more inspiring for me to write about. Of course, there’s also the problem that people like the controversial stuff, so articles like that unfortunately don’t get as much traction.
—I've often questioned the value of news, and that goes for every form of news outlet in the world. I remember when I was training in Montreal. We were doing this counseling class with an exercise on empathetic listening, and the exercise was to sit with a partner and discuss an item in the news. Perhaps I was being a bit objectionable, but that day, on my way to the university, I was on the metro, and I saw on one of those sandwich boards that tragically, a woman police officer in Montreal had been shot the night before, which was quite gut wrenching. But on the same journey, there was a fantastic busker on the platform, and I stood there enthralled with his guitar playing as I waited for my train. And later on, during this exercise with my partner on empathetic listening, she raised the question of this officer’s death. I said yes, that is an absolute tragedy, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it was news, because Montreal is a city of about 3.5 million people—which means that 3,499,999 people did not get murdered last night. And I said my big news that day was that there was a fantastic busker at the station. And although I was probably just being argumentative, I haven’t stopped thinking that so often the news or what we pass off as the news can cast a shadow over our souls, or our perceptions, and can distract us from what actually matters.
If I think about the average Christian in modern-day Britain—they face so many challenges: There is rampant atheism; we have one day left to enjoy our European citizenship, then that goes; we’ve got the issues around Brexit, COVID; all these things actually hitting us on the ground, and on top of that, we are trying to remember the importance of the Incarnation. Amidst all this, people find what’s going on in foreign lands superfluous. I understand that’s what news is, but at the same time, I think that we can let it become something that’s simply mars our spiritual vision. And I suppose the same could be said of everything—internet usage, over-involvement in sports. Honestly, I know vaguely what’s going on in Ukraine with the tomos, but I have personally opted not to find out anymore, because I realized at some point that that’s not my remit, not my vocation, and it’s not what I or my people need to be occupied with in our circumstances. That’s why my last article was so long ago, and why I stopped writing those things.
—Of course, I can see that it wouldn’t be helpful for you. I often remember what the abbot at St. Tikhon’s would often say: “Do what works,” “Do what helps.” If it helps you to the Jesus Prayer in a certain way, with a rhythm, then do it. But we don’t always realize what’s good for us or not. I work for a monastery website, I’m dealing with Church issues every day, so it can be a temptation to think I’m doing my Orthodox duty. But if I don’t say my morning and evening prayers, what difference does it make that I wrote a news article?
—For years I’ve been getting the newsletter from St. Elisabeth’s Convent in Minsk, and often their newsletter has helpful and interesting things in it, and in many cases I think it could be a good reminder of what Christian news can be.
—Tell us a little about Orthodoxy in Wales. Are there other communities? Although Orthodoxy has been a part of life for a long time now, you are still new to the Church. Do you have other priests or communities around you for support?
—My jurisdiction is not large in the UK, which has to do with conflicts between the various Slavic-tradition groups. I hope those conflicts will be settled. Time brings healing, and we’ve seen some of that already.
My own jurisdiction has been remarkable. I’ve had calls from several priests already. The dean, Fr. Timothy, and I speak constantly, and locally there’s a ROCOR parish. There’s also a Greek parish that is very substantial in Cardiff because of an historical Cypriot sailing community. They’re very Greek, but it’s a very beautiful building. So there’s a history of Orthodoxy here.
There is a Welsh-speaking Orthodox priest up in Blaenau Ffestiniog, in north Wales, whom I’d like to finally meet. We’ve known all the same people for a long time, and everybody asks me if I know him, and they ask him if he knows me, but it will be a pleasure to finally meet him face-to-face. But I’m looking forward to making more connections, and I’m pleased to say there is an Orthodox presence In Wales that precedes me, and I just want to work with it and build something with everyone who is trying to proliferate Orthodoxy—because we have something to say.
I don’t know if you know the British educational landscape at all, but kids here go thorough Religious Education (RE) throughout their entire school experience. It’s not so bad when they’re in primary school, because RE in a faith school just encourages them to love, and they know the name Jesus. But once you get past primary school, I’m in my opinion it has unfortunately become farcical, and it gives British young people just enough information for them to think the Christian faith absurd.
I’m a cyclist, and I’ve been on a forum for years that provides a snapshot of British society. Probably the majority on that forum are atheists or have no active faith, and the way they make snide jokes around Easter time and the way they discard the greatest of sublime Christian festivals without any true knowledge, but just enough knowledge, tells me that this person probably got that from RE when he was fourteen.
We’re really up against it in that respect, and I think one of the things we can do as Orthodox is to surprise those we encounter, because we don’t speak with the same idiom they’re used to from their RE classes; we don’t speak in dogmatic terms the way they anticipate the Church will, because what they think of when they think of church is the Catholic church issuing edicts. We’re not the Anglican church, which gets accused of being waffly. We’re none of those things. We’re new to them and we can continually offer that invitation to come and see. I’m not going to get into an argument with an atheist cyclist over the existence of God, because what matters is the experience, and so what I will do is invite my cyclist friends to come see the Liturgy if they’re brave enough; and maybe again, and again, until the mystery itself has tapped them on the shoulder and they’ve responded of their own accord. But I think that’s where we have an evangelical advantage—we’re new to them, we’re different, we don’t have to play up being exotic or anything like that. We can simply be who we are as Christians and invite people to consider the faith in a new way.
—I like that you say not playing up being exotic. I think that can be a trend in our theology sometimes. We’re too concerned about being not western and we end up discarding actual Orthodox theology. For instance, the legal language for atonement—that’s in the Bible, it’s in the Fathers, and just because St. Augustine and later Protestants use it doesn’t mean we have to completely toss it out. But, at the same time, as you said, there are real differences that could draw people in to at least take a closer look.
—In terms of language, we have to be very aware that it has been in some ways stolen from us. I don’t mean it’s not ours anymore—it is, because its proper theological language, but stolen in the sense that the RE classroom uses this language without an understating of what it actually means and how it connects. There is no single doctrine that exists on its own. We cannot say that God is Three Persons in One God without also talking about the Incarnation, without also talking about the Holy Spirit. Because it’s a body of a faith, not a checklist of faith. And in my experience, when I’ve encountered people who show no interest in the faith, and I hear what they have to say and I can see why they’re saying it, I can just suggest shelving it all for now and approaching things differently. The fullness of faith makes more sense than our just countering their contrary points with further contrary points.
If they want to talk about the atonement using substitutionary language, and all we do is hit back with counterpoints to substitutionary language, we won’t have moved them and they won’t have had an experience of the Body of Christ. I love the Pauline model in Acts when he says, “I see that you have an altar to the unknown God; well, let me tell you about Him.”
Did you ever encounter Fr. Michael Oleska?
—In Alaska? I’m familiar with some of his work but I’ve never met him.
—Neither have I, but I remember reading Orthodox Alaska and being very impressed by the account of the missions among the Aleuts. I think one of the things that I came away with even then, in the early 1990s, was the gentle and incarnational approach to evangelism. They encountered the burning of sweet grass and they said, “Ah, you do that too. Let us show you to Whom we do this, for Whom we burn this.” So it wasn’t a rejection. it wasn’t a countering of each point; it was, “Ah, look at these wonderful things that you’re already onto. Let’s see how they fit into Orthodoxy.” And I think we can go out as Orthodox Christians in modern Wales and play with the good that is out there.
There is a Welsh memory of the early saints. My own neighborhood is Canton, which is St. Canna’s3 town, and Pont Canna is St. Canna’s Bridge. We’re actually surrounded by references to these ancient and wonderful saints. Our ground is saturated with holy wells around here. It’s phenomenal. If I’m out on my bike, I can hardly go two kilometers without finding another holy well. And this is in people’s memories. Let us use those memories. Let us make pilgrimage to some of these places that have been neglected. Let’s invite people to join us, and revivify the Orthodox faith as it was received in these lands already.
—There is a movement in Orthodoxy to revive the memory of these saints. I have a devotion to Fr. Seraphim (Rose), and of course, through St. John (Maximovitch) he learned a devotion to the Western saints. If you get the St. Herman’s calendar, which is perhaps the most comprehensive Church calendar, on any given day they could have five ancient Western saints along with the saints that everybody knows. Many people have read Venerable Bede, and there’s the same feeling there, the same spiritual atmosphere. When I go to church in Moscow and then read Venerable Bede or the lives of one of these Western saints, you can sense that it’s the same Orthodoxy. Of course, there’s local flavorings, but you feel at home.
—It’s wonderful stuff. And you can see it in the iconographical work of Aidan Hart, who has done a lot of the Western saints. They’re beautiful.
—When you announced on Facebook that you became Orthodox, one of the first things I saw was that someone accused you of church hopping. I think you’ve implicitly answered that you were always looking for Orthodoxy anyways, but if you’d like, you could respond directly.
—The fact is that people will perceive what they perceive, and if I were to sit down with that person, there’s probably nothing I could do to convince him. People who know me know that this is a culmination of more than fifteen years. It would have been different perhaps had I become Roman Catholic, but I never had a Latin movement. I truly believed what I said I’ve believed—that I thought I was getting Orthodoxy. I’ve tried to live an Orthodox life, I’ve tried to celebrate an Orthodox way, I’ve tried to say Orthodox prayers. So in that respect, nothing changes. Everything changes on one hand, because I finally entered into the Orthodox communion—but nothing changes in terms of the heart’s desire and practicalities. What changes is how these practicalities feel and the communion within which they happen, and that makes a lot of difference. But church hopping? I do reject that, but I understand why people say that kind of thing.
I find it rather unfortunate, because people make their own journeys. You’re American, I’m Canadian. My guess is you didn’t grow up with Orthodoxy, not if you were baptized in college, which means that you too have made a change. We’ve made changes. God bless those who are raised with things and grow up with them. I think a good example of that would be my own children. Almost all of my young children now will only know Orthodoxy. From their point of view, though they too are Chrismated and Orthodox, shy of me sitting down with them one day when they’re teenagers and explaining the fine points of my decision-making, they won’t notice a difference. Does that make sense? And I think that if that’s their experience, if we could be allowed to reduce our faith subscription to a childlike experience, then in fact there’s no difference. I haven’t changed at all. We know that, but we know that because we’re theologically literate, we’re spiritually more mature. In practical terms, it’s not church hopping. And as I say, I could probably sit down with that person and say it to their face, and I’m not going to convince them. They’re going to see me as a church hopper, and so be it.
—You were received into the Church by Metropolitan John in Paris by vesting, correct?
—Yes, by concelebration. I made confession, and vested and concelebrated.
—As you’re probably aware, that is a controversial practice. Some feel that everyone entering into the Orthodox Church should be baptized. But at the same time, the Church has economia; we can accept that you are Orthodox and an Orthodox priest. But some feel that economia can be abused. So, was there any discussion with Metropolitan John about how this happened, or did he just say that’s how it would be done?
—That was all outside of my purview insofar as that was all discussed and decided without my input at all. I have to say, I realize this is more of a theological discussion, I know from a Russian point of view that there’s a history of receiving Catholic clergy by concelebration or by vesting, and so in that respect I’m definitely not new, but I was not involved in the conversations that went on, in which they arrived at this decision. So, I couldn’t say what was discussed or who said what. I do know that inquiries were made, so that everything was as canonically appropriate as possible; but beyond that I wasn’t privy to the process.
—One more question, not directly related to your conversion. You said you’re interested in Christology. Is there anything in particular—perhaps St. Maximus the Confessor or the Council of Chalcedon, for instance?
—I actually wrote a book about St. Theodore of Tarsus, who knew St. Maximus. They were both at the Lateran Council of 649. I guess I’m particularly interested and always have been in the question of the importation of Eastern Christological understandings into the West, which is why I did my doctorate on St. Theodore of Tarsus. And I’m particularly interested in post-Chalcedonian Christology—what happens between the Fourth and Seventh Councils—and of course St. Maximus is a huge part of that, since he was at the heart of the Monothelite Controversy. But of course there’s more than that. His cosmic Christology is not something I’ve ever really been able to wrap my head around. I’m only really starting to wrestle with it in serious terms now.
I’m just reading Christian Beginnings now, and I find everything from the sub-Apostolic period through to the Seventh Council fascinating. One of the reasons is Christ in Eastern Christian Thought by Fr. John Meyendorff. I love that book. I read that for the first time in around 1997 and I was so excited by it. It’s such a brilliant synopsis of the moment, and of how the Fathers developed and articulated the Church’s understanding of Christ, of Who Christ is and what He does. But because that was so instrumental in my own draw towards Orthodoxy, it remains important to me as a theologian as well—and I’m speaking as a Western Christian, as a kid who grew up Anglican, who grew up with a love of Christ but without a deep understanding of what the Christian invitation actually entailed.
I had a sense (and this is a raw and vulgar caricature of Augustinianism) that the Christian life consisted of sinning, repenting, getting up; sinning, repenting, getting up, and I thought: “Is God just playing games? Is that what the Christian life is? And then one day you die and get released from this awful cycle?” And then I read Mantzaridis, or one of the Greeks, on theosis, and then I read Nellas. I was devouring works on theosis, and suddenly it was like the scales fell from my eyes, and I thought, “Oh, this is what the Christian life is.” It’s not cyclical, its procedural in the sense that we process towards the Godhead.
In the West, you have vestiges, the memory of some of this. In some Western theological circles it is seen as scandalous, but the Irenean principle that God became man that man might become God can still be seen in places, for instance in the commingling prayer, when the priest in the Western tradition pours a drop of water into the chalice and says, “O God Who didst create and yet more wonderfully renew the dignity of the substance of man, grant that by the mystery of this water and wine, we may become partakers of His Divinity, Who didst vouchsafe to become a partaker of our humanity.” And I think, there it is! It exists in the West, but nobody takes it up. It’s just left there. So I became interested in knowing points of connection between Eastern and Western Christological concepts like that. Why is it that St. Irenaeus becomes a veritable leitmotif of Christology but takes on such a different form East and West?
Then I was reading the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and came across this really enigmatic character named Theodore, who was from Syria, was in Constantinople, was an Eastern monk, and he was so Eastern that Bede includes the detail that before he got sent to Canterbury, the Pope made him stay and grow out his tonsure so he could be re-tonsured the Western way. This fascinated me. I wondered what he brought with him. So, the book I wrote was on the Laterculus Malalianus, which he translated from Greek into Latin. It’s pretty poor Latin and I suspect that he translated it as a way to practice his language, to be honest. But it’s replete with an Irenean sense of soteriology and restoration being the fundamental act of Christ. This is what underpins my academic interest, my Christological interest, and ultimately leads directly to my spiritual life—in other words, why it is that I should have ever turned to Orthodoxy in the first place.
—That sounds fascinating. I’d like to read your book. And I like that you emphasized that it’s not just a theological study, but that it also informs your actual spiritual life. That was something all the professors at St. Tikhon’s always emphasized. There was a monastery at St. Tikhon’s, and we were always told to take what we’re learning into the services. Besides, we had professors like Dr. Christopher Veniamin, who was a spiritual child of St. Sophrony (Sakharov); Dr. Harry Boosalis knew St. Paisios and others, so we had real living links there, and they always emphasized this. Let’s talk about the fine points of why the Eunomians, the late Arians, were wrong, but it shouldn’t just stay in our heads. We have to understand why it matters for us now.
—That’s true. I can’t remember where I read it recently, but someone wrote, “Never trust a theologian who doesn’t go to church.” I’ll be honest and say that while through the various moment of my life I’ve suffered a weaker faith than others at times, as any human being might, sometimes the academic work has kept me going; but equally, when I lose interest in the academic work, going to Liturgy can spark a new excitement. Why? Because there’s a symbiosis; there must be a symbiosis between them. There is no Saint Theodore of Tarsus without the Orthodox faith. There’s only Theodore of Tarsus. And that goes for all of those who have contributed to our understanding of Who Christ is and what He did, and the doctrines of the Church.
—Thank you, Father, it was very interesting to talk with you.
—Thank you for the time. I appreciate talking to you and I think that some of what you said and gave me the chance to say about the Russian question in many ways comes as a relief, because we’re just human beings. The Russian Church is just the Church, and I’m not interested in the kind of controversies that people might be trying to sniff out. Yes, I might have written what I wrote in the old days. I haven’t written anything for at least five years, I think, and I can’t retract things that I wrote. They exist, but at the same time, I stick by my sense that I no longer see that in any way, and it probably never should have been my remit, but I’m definitely interested in evangelism and in cracking on with being an Orthodox Christian as best I can. That’s where I am.
—Sounds like a good place to be.
—Thank you, and God bless!