ORU Alumni, Current Students Worship In One of Christianity’s Oldest Churches
This article was originally published in the Oracle, the student newspaper of Oral Roberts University, on January 29, 2010.
The building is small, but imposing, and features stark exterior walls and heavy wooden doors that lead into a simple yet elegant interior. With the air thickened by the aroma of burning incense and the walls, stained glass, and altar adorned with icons of the saints of the Orthodox faith, an atmosphere of solemn and reverent worship permeates every corner of the building.
On Sunday mornings at 9:30 am, the Divine Liturgy, an hour long service of prayers, chanted hymns, Scripture-reading, and Holy Communion, begins at St. Antony’s, as it does at many other such churches in Tulsa and across the United States.
Though a fact not widely known, quaint little St. Antony’s has served as the doorway through which more than a handful of ORU students have entered the realm of the Orthodox Christian faith, an enigmatic and ancient branch of Christianity that seems to be persistently misunderstood.
“Orthodox” is derived from the Greek word “orthodoxos,” which means “right thinking.” Like the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church claims to be the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. In addition to believing Christianity and the Church are inseparable, Orthodox congregations are known for their burning of incense and candles during the Divine Liturgy–meant to represent the images of worship in Heaven described in the Book of Revelation–and a faithful adherence to tradition, which has guided the church and preserved the faith in more or less the same way for the better part of 1500 years.
The Eastern Orthodox Church became distinct from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054 in what was known as the East-West Schism, a division that had its roots in long-standing political, doctrinal, and theological disputes. The Latin-speaking western churches became the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek-speaking eastern churches became the Eastern Orthodox Church.
ORU is actually no stranger to Orthodoxy: several alumni of the university have become members of and even priests in the Orthodox Church after graduation. Among them is Fr. David Barr, pastor at St. Elias in Austin, Texas.
A 1979 graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biblical Literature, Barr credits his biblical studies at ORU as well as the mentoring of Dr. Howard Ervin, a founding professor of the School of Theology, as some of the defining factors of his conversion to Christian Orthodoxy.
Though raised a Methodist, he began visiting St. Antony’s in north Tulsa where he eventually made his decision. Although he said Orthodox Christians don’t customarily talk about their personal walk with God, he believes he made the right decision and followed God’s will for his life.
A friend and contemporary of Barr is Fr. Thomas Begley, pastor of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in West Saint Paul, Minn. A 1980 Master of Divinity graduate, he joined the Orthodox Church that same year and became a priest in 1984.
Begley came to ORU at a time of “great diversity” in the seminary and, while taking classes, Professor Ted Williams – a faculty member at that time – introduced him to St. Antony’s, which aided in his decision to join the Orthodox Church.
“I began to understand the importance of the sacraments,” he said, “and the importance of the church itself; the importance of being a part of the church.”
Even though the Orthodox Church is known to have changed its traditions little during its history, he sees this as a good thing. “I discovered that the liturgy can be very spiritual and that it can draw me to God in different ways.”
Begley and Barr became Orthodox priests with several of their classmates in the late 70’s and early 80’s. These men continue to pastor in several states, including California, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and Texas.
As well, a graduate and former professor of Biblical Literature at ORU is now Bishop Mark (Maymon), having been consecrated at the Patriarchal Cathedral in Damascus, Syria, by His Beatitude Ignatius IV, Patriarch of Antioch, and enthroned at St. George Cathedral in Toledo, Ohio, in 2005. He currently serves as Bishop of the Diocese of Toledo and the Midwest.
South of Tulsa in the city of Bixby is Holy Apostles Orthodox Christian Church, an Orthodox mission formerly of the Evangelical Orthodox Church before it was absorbed into the Orthodox Church in America. It was founded by former members of the Greek Orthodox Church who felt there needed to be a stronger emphasis on evangelism.
After receiving the go-ahead from Archbishop Dmitri in Fort Worth, Texas, they started Holy Apostles in a strip-mall at 67th and Lewis before moving to their current location in a small, onion-domed chapel at 15710 S. Peoria, in Bixby.
Following the Divine Liturgy, the church members adjourn to a mobile home refurbished as a fellowship hall and classroom building for coffee, refreshments, and fellowship with one another.
Some parishioners described their walk in the Orthodox faith. “Coming to Orthodoxy was more than just a paradigm shift,” said church member Kelly Williams. “It’s a completely different paradigm.”
Williams, a former Protestant whose father is a Baptist minister, converted to Orthodoxy after a self-described search for the true faith. “The Orthodox Church is for people who are looking to be a part of something greater; a tradition and a church that is somehow bigger than who they are.”
He places great emphasis on the familial atmosphere at Holy Apostles. “What is started over there in the chapel, the Holy Spirit consummates over here in the spirit of fellowship.”
Explaining the church’s use of icons, founding Greek member of the church John Sames said, “We do not worship icons, we venerate them. We are all icons just as much as the people in the pictures are icons.” Veneration means honor or esteem.
About the church’s use of Mary in the liturgy, he said, “Mary is Theotokos, the ‘Mother of God.’ She was the pure woman whom God chose to bring himself into this world. We believe that Mary is in heaven close to God and we ask her, like the saints, to intercede for us with Him.”
Regarding tradition in general, he said, “Does Jesus care if we do the sign of the cross, chant the hymns, and burn the incense? Probably not. But, that’s how we express our love for Him.”
Freshman Haden Brewer, a writing major, regularly attends Holy Apostles in Bixby. He described his attitude toward the Orthodox Church by saying, “I want something that makes it hard for me. Something that’s beautiful but that’s a struggle to achieve. It’s worshipping with all your senses and so it’s really like a submission to worship. Instead of me conjuring up something, it’s submission.”