A Typology of Converts:
Beware of Those Who are Running Away
Fr. John Garvey / Reprinted from: Jacob's Well, Fall 1996
When I joined the Orthodox church twelve years ago I made a decision that I had been
circling for twenty-one years. It became necessary because I realized that my only reason
for remaining a Catholic was what other people might think if I became Orthodox; at that
point it was no longer really a choice. I believed in Orthodoxy, worshiped as often as I
could in Orthodox churches, and remaining Catholic wasnt morally possible.
At the same time, I dreaded becoming a convert. Let me explain what I mean: I had known
people who converted to Catholicism whose version of Catholicism made Torquemada look laid
back. It didnt feel at all like the healthy, lived-in sort of Catholicism I grew up
with. There was an enthusiasm about many converts which I distrusted. I took some
consolation in the fact that it had taken me so long to move toward Orthodoxy -- maybe
this would protect me. I had become aware of Orthodoxys many institutional problems,
and, despite my disagreement with Catholic ecclesiology, I was aware of Catholicisms
many strengths. But there was no ambivalence in the mentality of some converts, no sense
of grey. It was so "either/or" - ish. That wasnt me.
Six years after I became Orthodox I went to seminary, and was later ordained a priest.
This has given me plenty of time to know converts to Orthodoxy and a modest ability to
generalize about them, with at least a little authority. My hunch is that what I have seen
applies to converts to any religion (or, for that matter, any deeply held system of
belief, political or philosophical).
Half of the Orthodox seminarians I met came from non-Orthodox backgrounds, and the
range was surprising. Several were from evangelical or fundamentalist backgrounds; a few
came from Catholic homes; there were a couple of Jews, and on Lutheran; there were some
former Anglicans, and one of my classmates spent most of the year before becoming Orthodox
in a Buddhist monastery. Later on I was to meet a number of converts in parishes, and I
saw in all of them -- seminarians and parishioners alike -- a couple of patterns.
One is that in most converts there is a profound sense of gratitude: after years of
searching they have found a place that seems right; they have experienced a kind of
homecoming. That sense of "a place that seems right" can be found in almost all
converts, but in a significant number it does not involve gratitude so much as a form of
fleeing, a refuge, a need for the feeling of certainty which arguable neurotic. It is one
thing to sing, as the church does at the end of the liturgy, "We have seen the true
Light! We have received the heavenly Spirit! We have found the true Faith, worshiping the
undivided Trinity, who has saved us." It is another thing to add, "And the true
faith means only what I say it means, and any questions about this, or disagreements with
me, are heretical."
There are certainly non-negotiable Christian teachings. An Orthodox who proposes a
unitarian theology, or denies Christs eucharistic presence, is not an Orthodox. But
no one seems to be arguing about these things. I have, however, seen nearly hysterical
fury directed at bishops who dare to say that the fact that Orthodoxy ordains only men to
the priesthood should not be seen as a subject closed to discussion, or at those priest
who use "you" rather than "thee" when addressing God in liturgical
The problem here is that some people do not convert to a belief so much as they convert
away from another. There is a certain sort of Catholic who, by becoming Orthodox, has
joined the church that did not go through what is often called "the chaos"
following Vatican II. They are sometimes disappointed when they meet bishops who are not
as authoritarian as they think bishops should be, and they are especially upset at any
notion that Orthodox liturgy might undergo any change of any sort in any way. There is a
certain sort of Episcopalian who in joining Orthodoxy joins the church that does not
ordain women, and the idea that the subject might be discussed leaves them furious, as if
the thought alone meant a betrayal of Orthodoxy.
Given the state of many churches these days, I can understand some of what worries
these people. Referring to God as "Father-Mother" sounds and should sound weird
to anyone with ears to hear, and I have been to some Catholic liturgies that were
downright awful. (I have also been to some Orthodox liturgies that were, from an aesthetic
point of view, pretty dreadful.) A great many of the people who defend the ordination of
women do so for reasons that have more to do with cultural politics than with the deepest
needs of the church. A lot of the people in Americas mainstream churches buy into a
primarily secular approach to every moral and ethical question (and the Orthodox are not
immune from this).
At the same time, if we believe that Christ has overcome death itself, what do we have
to fear? Almost any question can be approached with clarity, and all can be approached
with charity. Where the churchs tradition is plainly against the drift of the
culture it must be firm, but it also owes the culture an explanation, and this must be
offered with compassion. The need to be right which fuels some much argument has nothing
to do with a genuine love for the truth, but rather with the protection of the ego.
My approach to this has been to tell any potential convert to take some time, to hang
around the church for a year or so, seeing what it is like to be Orthodox, and finally to
make sure it is Orthodoxy they are coming to, and not something else they are fleeing
from. Baron von Hugel told an Anglican niece who wanted to become Catholic that she should
learn the strengths of Anglicanism, and not become Catholic until it would be clearly a
sin for her to remain in her own tradition, until it was completely necessary for her to
convert. This seems about right. People who move from one tradition to another for
negative reasons bring all those negative reasons with them.
A few weeks ago I was talking with a priest friend about the times when you have to
bend liturgical rules a little to accommodate people pastorally. "I think well
be OK on judgment day," he said, "as long as God isnt an Orthodox
Fr. John Garvey is the pastor of St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church,
Jamaica Estates, NY.
This article is reprinted with permission from Commonweal (01-Jun-1996).