Last Sunday was the final Sunday of my month-long sabbatical that began on May 28th. (My sincere thanks to Central Baptist Church, North Little Rock, AR, for granting this sabbatical!) We were back in town last Sunday though I had a guest speaker scheduled at Central Baptist Church preaching for me. So Roni and Hannah and I decided to visit Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Little Rock. I attended church four of the five Sundays I was on sabbatical and wanted to try to go to a number of different places. I attended a Congregationalist church in Boston, a Catholic church in Dallas, a Baptist church in Columbia, SC, and the Orthodox church in Little Rock.
My dealings with Orthodoxy have been primarily through three sources. First, I remember reading Frank Schaeffer’s Dancing Alone after he converted to Orthodoxy. Second, I have tried to keep up with the work of David Bentley Hart, the Orthodox theologian. I do wonder, now, how reliable these two guides are. Schaeffer has drifted further and further into more and more shrill and angry leftist politics and I do not know about his church affiliation at this point. And David Bentley Hart is hard to think of as classically Orthodox at those times when he sounds like an outright Anabaptist…or whatever else he tends to sound like at times! (That is another topic for another day, my journey with Hart’s work.)
My third source is the late James Leo Garrett Jr., former Professor of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX, whose eight volume Collected Writings I am currently editing. In the mid-90’s Dr. Garrett presented two papers before the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul as part of the Baptist World Alliance’s “pre-conversations” with the Orthodox Church. I have written a bit about that here. Dr. Garrett’s two papers can also be accessed through that link.
Greek Orthodoxy has always had an “exotic” feel to it, if you will allow the term. The week before visiting Annunciation, I attended the service at the Cathedral Guadalupe in Dallas while I was in the area for a few days of study at Southwestern. While a Roman Catholic mass is very different, of course, from a Baptist worship service, I do at least recognize somewhat what is happening in the mass. That is to say, after visiting these two churches over the last couple of weeks I am reminded again that Protestantism is indeed a Western phenomenon. The Orthodox Church has always been something…”over there,” to most Baptists (I would venture).
Prior to visiting Annunciation, I had only attended one other Orthodox service, at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Orlando, Florida, when my family was there for vacation. I had slipped out and gone to the service while Roni and Hannah were getting ready one morning. These, then, are my encounters with Orthodoxy: the writings of Schaeffer and Hart, the presentations and reminiscences of Dr. Garrett and his ecumenical work, and two visits to Orthodox services.
Last Sunday I was struck by a number of things that I would like to share here. I offer these in no particular order and I offer them with appreciation. The intent of this post is not polemical. Suffice it to say I remain a Baptist and believe that Baptists have something to offer the Orthodox. Even so, I believe Baptists could learn much from getting to know their Orthodox neighbors and from watching and listening as we tried to do last Sunday.
With that said, some observations:
- The people of this church were very friendly and very welcoming.
- I recall in Orlando thinking that I felt like the only non-Greek there. I was curious to see the ethnic makeup of this congregation. It seemed more mixed. If you think this point is strange, note that one criticism of Orthodox churches in the states is that they tend to become ethnic enclaves for Greeks and do not seek to reach out to others. This fact was addressed in one of the pamphlets we picked up last Sunday, the last point of which was that Annunciation Church was a church in which everybody was welcome. I could see that this was so, and we experienced this fact ourselves.
- Orthodox worship is “sensual,” if you will. Meaning it involves all the senses. In this, it undoubtedly is being faithful to, say, Tabernacle and Temple worship which most certainly touched all of the senses. Baptists services, on the other hand, are disproportionally auditory. The centering of the sermon in Baptist churches along with too-frequent diminishments of the Supper contribute to this. I hasten to add that I do not think the latter to be the result of the former. We should value the word proclaimed and the word memorialized.
- I very much enjoyed when the priest said “Let us be attentive!,” quoting the Divine Liturgy. I cannot promise I will not sing these words in a sermon at Central Baptist one of these days soon. “LET US BE ATTEEEENTIVE!”
- I appreciated the homily (do the Orthodox call it a homily)? It was about 10-12 minutes, perhaps, and touched on being a saint and carrying our cross. It made much of Jesus and called for faith and trust in him.
- I was intrigued that the Orthodox alone can go forward for the Supper (something I knew beforehand) but that the blessed bread is for everybody. This is something I would like to understand more.
- I do not mean disrespect when I say this, but the humorous side of me had the thought that whereas a Baptist service is like a documentary an Orthodox service is like a musical. Almost everything is sung. It is fascinating and strangely beautiful to see and hear. Furthermore, the almost constant movement by the priests and his assistants give the service the feel of a kind of dance with holy choreography.
I am glad that Roni, Hannah, and I attended the service. It was indeed a fascinating experience. Hannah summed it up well: “I’m a bit overwhelmed.” She did not mean it as a criticism.
Let me encourage you: attend other Christian services when you are able. It is good to step out of our own customs and watch and learn and listen. It is good to expose ourselves to the rich history and liturgy and practices of Orthodoxy. Do not do so uncritically, of course, but do not do so uncharitably either.
I am grateful for the kindness shown me and my family in our time at this church. In the spirit of Dr. Garrett’s and others’ work in this area, I want to hold true to my Baptist convictions while trying to understand in a non-defensive posture the ways of other ecclesial communities.