My wife and I attended the 2015 Western Rite Clergy Conference of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) last week. The Conference opened on Monday, September 28, and concluded on Thursday, October 1, at the Mount Alvernia Retreat Center in Wappinger Falls, New York. It was the largest Western Rite Clergy Conference held thus far. There was tremendous enthusiasm and energy, as well as complete unity as everyone there agreed in Faith and morals, and on the mission of the Church.
In addition to ROCOR Western Rite clergy, we had some Antiochian Western Rite clergy in attendance, as well as visiting clergy — mostly Anglican - who have an interest in Western Orthodoxy. I was surprised by how many Benedictine monks there were in attendance from various Western Rite Orthodox monastic communities, including the abbot of one monastery and the prior of another. I was excited to learn that one of the monasteries consists of 600 acres in the mountains of rural Colorado.
Metropolitan Hilarion, First Hierarch (primate) of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and Ruling Bishop of the Western Rite Communities was with us for the entire Conference. Metropolitan Jonah, who is well known to Anglicans for his talks at the 2009 and 2012 provincial synods of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) was scheduled to be with us, but had to cancel at the last minute because of a family medical situation.
The Conference opened on Monday afternoon with welcoming addresses from Metropolitan Hilarion and from the Dean of the Western Rite Communities, Fr. Mark Rowe. Fr. Mark is a former Anglican Canon and has served the Western Rite tirelessly as Dean. He seems to be almost constantly on the road visiting clergy and churches, and attending Western Rite ordinations — of which there are many. He is learned, personable, pastoral, committed to the growth of the Western Rite and the restoration of the Western Church, and has proven to be an effective organizer, consensus builder and leader.
After the opening addresses we gathered in the chapel for Vespers. After Vespers we had dinner together in the refectory. Dinner was followed by Compline (the Night Office). After Compline, confessions were heard. Four priests were assigned to hear confessions and were stationed in the four corners of the chapel. Having been shriven, we were ready for the Conference to really begin on Tuesday morning. After Compline there was a social hour in the refectory with wine and various cheeses. It was all very English, with port wine and gourmet cheese and crackers. The social hour — really hours as it went on as long as people wished to remain — was so popular that one was held on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings as well.
Having always experienced non-Orthodox synods and conferences held in hotels with plush rooms, soft beds, and the intrusion of the world through television, clock radios and wifi, this Conference was refreshing. The rooms — really cells — were small and quite Spartan: two twin beds, hard, thin mattresses, and no television, radio or wifi. Each room did have a private bathroom though, and that was appreciated.
Morning began very early with Matins scheduled to be prayed in our rooms, followed by Holy Mass in the chapel at 6:15 AM. On Tuesday morning all of the Orthodox clergy concelebrated a Solemn Votive Mass of the Holy Ghost in red vestments. The Mass was sung and the Propers chanted according to the ancient Gregorian chant tones.
After Mass we had breakfast in the refectory and then got to work. This was not at all like a convention. The emphasis was on the spiritual, and on learning. Beginning Tuesday morning, daily Matins was scheduled to be prayed in our rooms, followed by Holy Mass in the chapel at 6:15 AM. Sext was prayed in the chapel at noon, with Vespers at 4:15 PM, and Compline at 7:00 PM. All of the Offices were chanted, and all of the Masses were solemn celebrations in the presence of a greater prelate at the throne.
Over the course of the four days we had many helpful presentations. At 9:00 AM on Tuesday morning, Fr. David Straut, an Eastern Rite priest spoke to us about jail ministry in a presentation called, Orthodox Ministry to the Incarcerated. After a break, Fr. Christophe Lepourte spoke to us about his counseling ministry. With an education in counseling and decades of experience in individual, marriage and family counseling, Fr. Christophe is a resource that priests can use when it is time to refer people to a professional counselor. Although he is based in Virginia, Fr. Christophe’s ministry can help people nationwide through Skype.
The next presentation was by Fr. Ephraim Willmarth, an administrator at Holy Trinity Seminary. Holy Trinity Seminary is a residential seminary, but it also offers distance learning programs in Liturgical Music, and Theological Studies. These distance learning programs are excellent for late vocations, for those already involved in ministry and for active laypeople who want to deepen their understanding of the Faith and become more effective in advancing the Work of the Church. The Certificate in Theological Studies consists of sixteen classes taken over a period of two years. There is online access through Populi, and costs are very modest at around $150.00 per class.
The presentation by Holy Trinity Seminary was followed by one from a student at St. Tikhon Seminary. He is a former Anglican layman who was involved in six Anglican (ACNA) church-plants before entering the Orthodox Church and enrolling at St. Tikhon’s. He heads up an important ministry called Elijah’s Mantle that passes on used vestments and church supplies — both Eastern and Western Rite - free of charge to needy clergy, new church-plants and struggling missions. We also learned that there is growing interest in the Western Rite at St. Tikhon Seminary, and that six to eight students have requested monthly Western Rite services at the seminary. Arrangements have been made for a nearby ROCOR Western Rite priest to celebrate Vespers and then Holy Mass the next morning according to the Western Rite on a monthly basis.
On Tuesday afternoon a private ROCOR Western Rite Clergy meeting was held with Metropolitan Hilarion and Dean Mark Rowe. There was no voting. Everything was done by consensus, and consensus was easy to achieve because we all believed the same thing and were on the same page. It was decided that in odd years we will have a national Western Rite Clergy Conference at Mount Alvernia Retreat Center in Wappinger Falls, New York, with the next national Conference scheduled for 2017. The Antiochian Western Rite Vicariate holds their national meeting every two years in even years. By alternating the ROCOR and Antiochian national Clergy Conferences more Antiochian Western Rite clergy will be able to attend ROCOR Conferences and more ROCOR Western Rite clergy will be able to attend Antiochian Conferences.
In even years, beginning next year in 2016, there will be four regional ROCOR Western Rite Clergy Conferences: East, South, Midwest and West. We were asked by Metropolitan Hilarion through his Dean, Fr. Mark Rowe, to host the 2016 Midwest Regional Clergy Conference at Holy Cross parish in Omaha, and I immediately and enthusiastically agreed. Metropolitan Hilarion told me that, God willing, he will be there, so we will be blessed to have his Eminence at Holy Cross parish again in 2016.
During the private ROCOR Western Rite Clergy meeting, non-Orthodox clergymen and other attenders participated in an Open Meeting with Seekers of Western Rite Orthodoxy.
After the Western Rite clergy meeting I delivered my presentation titled, Step By Step Church Planting. Everyone attending received a copy of the book, A Guide to Western Rite Orthodox Church Planting, a copy of our Liturgy booklet, four of our self-published tracts, and a brochure on Website design and development.
On Wednesday we had Holy Mass at 6:15 AM as usual, along with Sext, Vespers and Compline at their appropriate times. The first presentation began at 9:00 AM. It was on Iconography and focused on ancient Western Iconography in the Celtic and Romanesque traditions. The speaker was Fr. Silouan, a skilled Iconographer and a Hieromonk at Holy Cross Monastery Setauket, New York. The presentation was both enlightening and helpful. We have a wonderful Western Iconographic tradition that was lost with the coming of the Renaissance and needs to be recovered and restored.
The next presentation was by Fr. Benedict Simpson, and was called Engaging Today’s Youth With an Ancient Faith. Fr. Benedict is an engaging and informative speaker. After lunch Deacon Nicholas Griswold spoke on The Historic Diaconate. This excellent presentation was on what is sometimes called the permanent diaconate and covered the life and ministry of deacons.
On Thursday morning at 6:15 AM, Dom James, Abbot of Christminister Benedictine Monastery, celebrated a Requiem Mass for the deceased Western Rite clergy. It was such a blessing to be at the Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist for three consecutive days and to receive Holy Communion daily!
There were two more presentations on Thursday. Hieromonk Ezekiel, a Western Rite Orthodox priest-monk — that is what Hieromonk means — gave a very helpful and moving talk titled, An Orthodox Approach to Death and Dying. This presentation was invaluable.
The final presentation, called Planning For Successful Mission Growth, was delivered by Fr. Anthony Bryant, a Western rite priest and the rector of St. Katherine’s Orthodox Church in South Carolina.
Holy Trinity Seminary Bookstore had a large book table set up and I came home with sixteen books. Thankfully, for every two purchased the buyer received one free. At our rectory books are like friends, and Matushka and I have already begun visiting with them.
One of the highlights of the Conference was the time we had to socialize with one another. I saw old friends, met people that I have corresponded with or talked to by telephone, met many co-laborers in our Lord’s vineyard, and made new friends.
We were able to spend a lot of time with Fr. Joseph Gleason, rector of Christ the King parish in Omaha, Illinois. Fr. Joseph was the founder, editor and publisher of the only orthodox Anglican theological journal in North America: The North American Anglican, and I was a writer for it. His parish entered the Western Rite of the Antiochian Orthodox Church about a year before Holy Cross was received into Orthodoxy. It was great to be able to spend time with him. Another priest that I really enjoined spending time with was Fr. Kentigern of Hanceville, Alabama. Fr. Kentigern is a tentmaker and supports his family by farming just as Matushka and I used to.
Fr. Joseph Mai and I had become friends over the telephone, and it was wonderful to finally meet him in person. Fr. Joseph is Vietnamese and he pastors a large Vietnamese parish in San Diego that came into the Orthodox Church from the Anglican Church in America (ACA). Fr. Joseph gave me a copy of their Liturgy booklet. It has the Liturgy of St. Tikhon in Vietnamese on one side and English on the other. His parish, Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church, conducts its Services in Vietnamese. The Orthodox Church is Catholic (Universal), and although we belong to the Russian Orthodox Church we have both Eastern and Western Rites, the Roman, English and French (Gallican) Uses of the Western Rite, and Services are held in North America in English, French, Spanish, Vietnamese and Church Slavonic.
A high point of the Conference for me was to meet up with an old Anglican confrere that I had not seen in at least fifteen years. He and his assistant pastor and their congregation are all being received into the Western Rite of the Orthodox Church. We were also able to spend time with another Anglican priest and his wife who are beginning the process of being received. Father and I had corresponded by email, but it was great to meet him in person, and it was a blessing to hear him announce that they had taken the first step at the Conference.
The Clergy wives also had two outings together. Cheri enjoyed her time with the ladies very much. During their time together they made plans to stay in close touch between Conferences through the Internet.
It is sometimes charged by skeptics that the Western Rite is only there to transition Western converts to the Eastern Rite, but there is no basis for such a charge. In fact, there was one parish represented at the Conference that actually made the change from being Eastern Rite to Western Rite.
The Western Rite Clergy Conference was a time of spiritual refreshment and renewal, and Cheri and I were really sad to see it end. We are looking forward to the Midwest Regional Western Rite Clergy Conference at Holy Cross parish in the summer of 2016. The Conference will be open to ROCOR and Antiochian Orthodox Western Rite clergy and their wives, as well as to other clergy who are interested in Western Orthodoxy and who would like to come and experience it.
The Orthodox Church is growing rapidly in numbers in America and throughout the world with some 300 million members worldwide. The percentage of growth of Orthodox Christianity in America was higher than any other major classification of Christianity mentioned by the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1995. According to a formal study by the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in North and Central America in 2010, membership in the Orthodox Church in the United States grew in the 75 years between 1936 and 2010 by 131%. For a shorter window of time, during the decade of 2000 to 2010, the total number of Orthodox communities in the United States grew by 15%. The 2008 US Religious Landscape Survey showed that 23% of all Orthodox Christians in America today are converts.
In recent years Anglicans made up the second largest group of converts to Orthodoxy, and today they are the largest group. About one out of four Orthodox Christians in America are converts, along with 30% of all clergy and 41% of all seminarians. In the city where I pastor there are nine Orthodox priests and six parishes. Of the nine priests, six are converts, and five of the six are former Anglicans. Of the six parishes, two are Western Rite and both have full time rectors.
The Orthodox Church is experiencing explosive growth all around the world. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church has opened more than 26,000 churches; that is more than three churches a day, each and every day, for a quarter of a century, and there is no slowdown in sight. In addition, since 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church has established more than 800 new monastic communities.
The Russian Orthodox Church has gone from a marginalized and persecuted body of believers with only around 7,000 open churches in 1988, when it celebrated the Millennium of the Baptism of Russia, to a resurgent Church with more than 160,000,000 members world-wide in 2007, of whom 55,000,000 are outside of Russia. All this in about a quarter of a century. This is a miracle, and can only be the work of God.
This spiritual revival and resurgence of the Orthodox Church is not limited to the Church in Russia either. It is a world-wide movement of the Holy Spirit. There is good news to report from every continent on earth, including the frozen Antarctic where the first Orthodox church was opened in 2004.
The Patriarchate of Alexandria in Egypt has jurisdiction over the continent of Africa, and marvelous things are happening there. In the last eighty years the membership of the Patriarchate of Alexandria has grown ten-fold. The Orthodox Church is also growing rapidly in Asia and in South and Central America.
There are now around 2,000 Orthodox parishes in the United States, plus hundreds more in Canada. Monasticism has always been considered a good way to gauge the health of the Church, and monasticism is thriving and growing in North America. There now are around eighty monastic communities in the United States with others in Canada.
As Western Rite Orthodox congregations and monastic communities we have preserved the fulness of our Western cultural, liturgical and spiritual heritage and patrimony in full sacramental communion and visible unity with the 300 million-member Orthodox Church. This is the fulfillment of the Vision Glorious of the Oxford Movement and an answer to our Lord’s High Priestly Prayer for unity among His disciples. For more information about Holy Cross parish or Western Rite Orthodoxy please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org or call the church office at: (402) 573-6558. The Orthodox Church welcomes you!