In my journey toward Eastern Orthodoxy, I am surprised and increasingly saddened by how much I did not know about the Church, despite my Christian heritage. I was raised in the Wesleyan-Armenian (Methodist) tradition. My grandfathers were pastors and my parents were active in the church, teaching sunday school, serving as treasurer, singing in the choir, being part of the pastor’s “cabinet”. Others in our family served as missionaries and Christian leaders and teachers. A love for God surrounded me and taught me as I grew. There is no question about who we loved and desired to serve.
Given all this, it has been troubling to learn not just how I was separated and skewed from the Orthodox faith, but how many Protestant denominations are presently teaching or acting in ways that are frustratingly opposed to their own doctrines and history.
Today’s Protestants when learning about Orthodox practice often struggle with the idea of using the sign of the cross and with calling priests “Father.” I recently discovered that not using these is a relatively recent innovation.
In his book, Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith, Fr Peter explains how the sign of the cross has been used from the early centuries of the church. He notes that Martin Luther, who is called the Father of the Protestant Reformation, exhorted his flock to use the sign of the cross. He continues:
Astonishingly, it was not until the seventeenth century, at the time of King James, that a small group of Puritans began writing and speaking against the use of the sign of the cross. Reacting to the ills of the medieval Roman Church, they believed it to be a human invention which catered to superstition. These same English Puritans, who significantly influenced the North American continent, deserted one of the most powerful and cherished weapons of the entire history of the Church.… Today, many American Christians have been deceived by the actions of a vocal minority and have become ashamed of the glory of the cross signed on their breasts.
From the earliest times, Christian practice has been to call spiritual directors “Father” or “Mother.” In an article in The Christian Century, David L. Holmes discusses the question Are ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ Appropriate Titles for Protestant Clergy? He writes:
Protestants would undoubtedly reject both titles. “A wall goes up whenever I hear clergy addressed as ‘Father’ and ‘Mother,’” a Protestant churchwoman recently told me.
Such opposition, however, is ironic in the context of church history. For American Protestants regularly called their clergy “Father” 200 and 300 years ago, and some continued to do so a century ago. And during the same years, Protestants addressed venerated women in their churches as “Mother.”
He then describes various ways that Americans used “father” and “mother” for church leaders. Significantly for me, he notes that “American Methodists, for example, referred to John Wesley not only as ‘Mr. Wesley’ but also as ‘Father Wesley.’” He also shows that missionary pioneers were often called father, including Francis Asbury. Apparently an anti-Roman backlash led to the change in terminology among Protestants: Prior to the rise in Irish immigrants coming to the U.S. in the 1840s, Roman Catholic non-monastic priests were mostly called “Mister,” “Monsieur,” or “Don.” Irish Roman Catholics called all priests “Father.”
Although these are minor examples of differences in practice, it makes me wonder how many other beliefs I took for granted as long-held Protestant dogmas were actually recent changes. Lord have mercy.