On July 1, the Very Rev. Peter Gillquist fell asleep in the Lord. His story, along with that of many others, is part of a modern transformation of the Orthodox Church, an awakening to the work of evangelism for the Church that carried the gospel to the Roman Empire and beyond, and witnessed the conversion of ancient kingdoms across the face of the globe. It was also a Church that, battered by persecution, dominated by hostile states and limited by state policy, had largely seen its role as the care of its own with evangelism left in the hands neighboring, colonial powers. In America, Orthodoxy was a Church of immigrants, often held in disdain by the surrounding Western European-based ethnic groups. It was viewed as “exotic,” but “backwards,” and ill-suited to the needs of a modern world.
Stories abound in the English-speaking world of those who inquired of Orthodoxy only to be turned away. Met. Kallistos Ware relates how his first approaches to the Orthodox faith were rebuffed. He was told to remain an Anglican. With persistence he was told that he could become Orthodox, but should not expect to become a priest. The late Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas, came to the Orthodox Church at age 16 with his sister. They attended Holy Trinity Church in Dallas for weeks before anyone spoke to them. Vladyka said that he was 21 before he ever heard a service in English.
The language barrier was difficult for many. Following his conversion in 1958, Met. Kallistos authored one of the first books in English to give a comprehensive introduction to the Orthodox Church. It was published in 1963. The first all-English language parish in the United States (according to my sources) was founded in the 1955’s in Tarzana, CA. It was a novel idea.
My first explorations of Orthodoxy came during my college years in the mid-70’s. In 1981 I lunched with a Greek Orthodox priest who told me that I was “better off staying where I was.” It felt positively ecumenical.
It was not an ecumenical gesture. The priest had no doubt of the nature of Orthodoxy (as the true faith). He simply had no sense that the treasure given to him was meant to be shared. History had divided Christians, and they were best left where they were.
Fr. Peter Gillquist, an extremely gifted writer, speaker and evangelist, was part of a group of evangelical Christians who had begun to explore Orthodox thought and life. In true protestant fashion, the group formed a series of Churches (the Evangelical Orthodox Church). But in true Orthodox fashion, they began to pursue reception into true, canonical Orthodoxy. He related that story in his book, Becoming Orthodox. In 1987, 17 parishes with 2,000 members were led into the faith under the omophor of the Patriarch of Antioch. Though the group would initially have its own unique life and character, by 1995 they were fully assimilated into the life and liturgical practice of the Orthodox Church.
Their reception was greeted in a variety of ways by the Orthodox. Some worried that they would bring corrupt practices and ideas into the Church (in practice, those parishes proved to be more “traditional” than many ethnic Churches). Others worried that their reception itself had violated canons (their clergy were ordained as priests as a group rather than individually – unusual but not unprecedented).
But their journey into Orthodoxy was part of a transformation for Orthodoxy in the Western world. There were many factors that came together in the last quarter of the 20th century that opened the path of conversion. No one thing can be singled out. However, the evangelical commitment of Fr. Peter and others (including figures such as Archbishop Dmitri and Met. Kallistos) coincided with this transformation. Perhaps all of these came at a “tipping point,” as we say today. Recent statistical studies show that in the Greek Archdiocese of America, 29 percent of its members are converts (from Protestant or Catholic) with 12 percent of its clergy being convert. In the Orthodox Church of America (the jurisdiction in which I serve), over half of the clergy and the laity are converts (this does not include the significant number of young clergy who are the children of converts).
Together these converts have brought a wealth of energy and insight. Publishing of material on the Orthodox faith, geared towards the non-Orthodox, has undergone an “explosion” in the last generation. The internet, though very uneven in its content and accuracy, echoes with this same energy.
According to a 2010 demographic study, more than half of OCA clergy and laity converted from Protestant or Roman Catholic churches. In GOA churches, 29 percent of lay persons are converts to Orthodox Christianity and 12 percent of clergy are converts. Doubtless, such an influx of converts has had an impact on Orthodoxy. From all indications, however, the impact has not been to make Orthodox parishes more protestant or Roman Catholic. Converts are often eager to be less like their former associations. At the same time that this influx of converts has entered North American Orthodoxy, monasticism has rapidly expanded. For much of the 20th century, there were three to four Orthodox monastic communities in America – yielding a Church largely devoid of monastic experience. Today there are over 80 monastic communities. Though most are small, they are a growing part of the life of many American parishes. Orthodoxy in America is not becoming less traditional, but more so.
My family and I were received into the Church in 1998. My two oldest daughters are married to Orthodox priests, and a significant number of my extended family has entered the faith. What was relatively easy for me was made possible by many others. Fr. Peter was an untiring evangelist, nurturing individuals in very isolated places. He took time for everyone. He lived in the best missionary manner. May his memory be eternal!