Frederica Mathewes-Green converted along with her husband.
By Yonat Shimron, Staff Writer
Frederica Mathewes-Green, a writer and commentator, was the guest speaker this past weekend at the Southeast regional conference of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, which met in the Research Triangle Park. Mathewes-Green, a native of Charleston, S.C., converted to the Orthodox Church as an adult alongside her husband, Gary, a priest. A commentator on NPR and CNN, she often talks about her journey from "mother Earth hippie-type seeker" to the Episcopal Church and finally to Orthodoxy. We caught up with her to ask her a few questions.
Q: What attracted you to the Orthodox Church?
A: In the late 1980s my husband and I began to feel that the Episcopal Church wasn't a safe place to raise children any more. The bishops seemed to question the resurrection, the Virgin Birth. The obvious thing to do was to become Roman Catholic. But when we looked at it, we were dismayed. We were into high church worship -- chant and incense, the medieval mystics. Contemporary Catholicism was trying to keep up to date with the 1960s. Somebody was leading worship by singing into a microphone. It wasn't as aesthetically lovely as what we'd gotten into in the Episcopal Church.
I don't think we would have considered Orthodoxy, because it was so associated with a particular ethnic background. But my husband heard Father Peter Gillquist [a former evangelist with Campus Crusade for Christ who converted to Orthodoxy], who spoke in Washington in 1987. He answered my husband's questions in ways that were very impressive. The next week my husband went to a vespers service in an Orthodox church and came home and said, "It's so beautiful. It's exactly what I want. You have to come." Well, I hated it.
Q: So what happened?
A: I was a reluctant convert at first. I didn't get it. I thought, "Well, now it will be more formal, more aesthetic, more elevated, more mystical." The earthiness and hardiness of Orthodoxy was not what I expected. It's fancy, but not fussy. It's beautiful like Christmas dinner, where you make it very elaborate, but then you just enjoy yourself. It's so much better than I thought it would be.
Q: You often write about gender roles and feminism. How did you come to accept that women can't be priests?
A: My husband and I believed in the ordination of women when we were Episcopalian. I assumed [the Orthodox Church was] patriarchal. I braced for it being old world and repressive. What I found is that [women's ordination] is not as vexed an issue. In the Orthodox Church you look at what the saints do, and there's so many examples of women doing extraordinary things -- St. Mary Magdalene, St. Thecla, St. Junia. When Protestants worry about whether a woman can preach, it's so beside the point. Thecla preached. Mary Magdalene preached. Of course women can preach. A lot of things laywomen do in Orthodoxy only ordained people do in Protestant churches.
I was also surprised to find that when I became Orthodox I was invited to speak at Orthodox conferences and retreats. I wasn't well known. But I was so welcomed, and they were so willing to listen. It never happened when I was an Episcopalian. They've been crazy about what I say. They love me.
Q: What is the Orthodox Church doing to keep young people engaged at a time when Protestant churches offer rock bands and encourage young people to come dressed in jeans and flip-flops?
A: The very fact that it's a difficult church. During worship you stand up for two hours. The whole thing is sung. You don't eat anything after midnight if you're going to communion. Every Friday you don't eat meat or dairy. Teenagers can get a kick out of that. They like being challenged. It shows their strength.
It's also relentlessly focused on God, not on your needs. Nothing holds people in the church except the Lord Jesus Christ. And the wonder of the Orthodox Church is this process by which you can cultivate the ability to tune in to that constantly, like St. Paul says, "pray constantly." It begins to put down roots, like a tree.
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