A Policy on the Reception of Converts
The methods by which people are received into the Orthodox Church can vary, depending on a number of factors, including:
- Whether they have been baptised.
- How they were baptised.
- How close their previous home was to the life, faith, and teachings of the Orthodox Church.
This can sometimes lead to confusion over what appears to be inconsistency in Orthodox practice. This page should help to provide some clarity regarding our various practices.
People who are coming to the Orthodox Church for the first time are to be received into the Church through the usual means given to us by the Saviour and handed down to us through the Apostles, which is that they are to be baptised and chrismated, and then actualise their union with Christ and their new brothers and sisters by partaking of the Holy Eucharist. This applies to all who come to us from outside the Orthodox Church, for they have not yet received the grace of adoption as children of the heavenly Father that He grants to his people through the Mystery of Baptism, and they have not received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Mystery of Chrismation.
Those who have previously been baptised and chrismated into the Orthodox Church but who have since fallen away and embraced atheism, or agnosticism, or other confessions of faith are usually received back into the fold by the sacrament of Confession. They confess having turned away from Christ, as well as any sins committed during their time away from the Church, they are absolved at the hands of the priest, and they are embraced back into the loving arms of the Saviour, being restored to fullness of life in Christ through partaking of the Eucharist.
In Great Britain, living as we do in a culture that was separated from the Orthodox Church nearly 1000 years ago, we must face the reality that the majority of people here who confess Jesus Christ as God find themselves outside of the Church through no fault of their own, due to historical events that took place long before they were born. While remembering that the Mysteries of the Church do not exist outside of Her, we must ask ourselves whether it would be proper to view these non-Orthodox Christians who seek entry into the Church in the same way as atheists, those from other religions, or others who have never known Jesus Christ as God.
Although their churches have departed from the Apostolic Tradition in various ways, many of them have at least retained the outward forms - the physical actions - of baptism and sometimes even chrismation, and genuinely believe that in so doing, they are performing the sacraments of the Church. To deny their sincerity or to treat them as though they have never known Christ would seem churlish and ungenerous.
Therefore, concerning the question of how to receive those who come from other Christian confessions, many Orthodox churches in the British Isles approach the matter with a degree of leniency, remembering always the merciful love of the Saviour. This principle of applying leniency in specific circumstances is known in the Orthodox Church as extending economia. Based on this principle, Roman Catholics in particular (who are very close to us in matters of faith), and in many cases Anglicans and some Protestants too, are often received into the Church by a confession of the Orthodox Faith and Chrismation, without a requirement that they undergo an Orthodox baptism.
This is understood as bringing to completion the outward form of baptism performed in their previous home, so that it may be filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit and made a true sacrament within the context of the Church. In that same spirit of generosity, some Orthodox jurisdictions have tried to facilitate this further by examining the liturgical texts of non-Orthodox churches and maintaining lists of those churches whose baptismal forms can be made whole in this way.
Matters to Consider
There are a number of issues that make us question whether it is appropriate to extend economia too liberally:
- Sadly, some Protestant churches in modern times seem to have abandoned the outward form of Christian baptism altogether, returning to practices that were rejected as heretical novelties in the early centuries of the life of the Church, such as performing baptisms by a single immersion only, rather than triple immersion, (that is, lowering the person into the water only once rather than the usual three times). This is not the apostolic practice of the Church, and the Second Ecumenical Council, together with the witness of the Church Fathers, makes clear that this cannot be accepted as a legitimate form of Christian baptism.
- Some churches which have not themselves adopted the aforementioned practice have nonetheless accepted such "baptisms" performed elsewhere as legitimate, and receive people into their churches with no corrective action (such as a conditional baptism) being taken. In some cases, such people are even received among the clergy, where they then go on to celebrate the sacraments of these churches, despite being unbaptised; and this is considered by the church leadership to be acceptable.
- In other churches, there are cases where baptisms are performed not "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit", but rather "in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer/Sanctifier". This replacement of the Holy Trinity with functions that are not specific to any of the Three Divine Persons is an expression of the Modalist heresy (Sabellianism). The First and Sixth Ecumenical Councils reject the authenticity of the baptism of Sabellianists and require that they be received into the Church by Baptism.
- There are cultural differences at play. In the Orthodox Church, our liturgical texts reflect our practice, our faith, and our theology, and are a conduit through which our faith is expressed, embedded into the hearts of the faithful, and passed on to the next generation. The deeply-ingrained expectation, and the near universal Orthodox experience, is that the texts and rubrics will be followed by the clergy and worshipping community. It is therefore very easy for Orthodox Christians to make the assumption that this same culture is to be found elsewhere. However, in many non-Orthodox churches, the officially-produced liturgical texts are commended to the congregations as a useful resource only, and there is no expectation that they must actually be used. Therefore, examining the published texts of these churches is no reliable indicator of how their services, including baptisms, are performed in reality.
All of this presents us with serious challenges when people from non-Orthodox Christian backgrounds ask to be received into the Orthodox Church.
We wish to extend a spirit of generosity, but we cannot apply this to actions which are in stark contrast to the Christian Tradition and which, even if performed by an Orthodox priest in an Orthodox parish, still could not legitimately be considered to be the sacrament of Baptism.
On the one hand, we do not wish to alienate our non-Orthodox Christian friends for whom we have great love, nor do we desire to cause unnecessary difficulty with family and friends of people who decide to become Orthodox. On the other hand, we must be obedient to Christ and the Apostolic Tradition, and we have a duty to those who knock on our doors and entrust to us their spiritual wellbeing to ensure that they will truly be receiving the holy Sacraments of Christ's Church.
A Balanced Policy
With all of the above considerations in mind, our policy at St Melangell's is as follows:
- Those who have already received an Orthodox Baptism or who have been received into the Orthodox Church by Chrismation (including the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Western Orthodox, as well as various jurisdictions designated as "True" or "Genuine" Orthodox) have already received the one baptism for the remission of sins and cannot be baptised again. If they have fallen away from the Orthodox Church, they will be received back by Confession and absolution.
- New converts to Christianity, seeking entry into the Orthodox Church for the first time, will be received as standard through the sacraments of Baptism, Chrismation, and the Holy Eucharist. This applies to those coming from other Christian confessions, with the exceptions detailed below.
- Roman and Eastern Catholics, whose churches are generally faithful to the Apostolic Tradition where baptism is concerned, may be received by economia, i.e. confession of the Orthodox Faith, followed by Chrismation and the Holy Eucharist.
- Protestant and Anglican Christians whose baptisms can be verified by memory or by a reliable witness or certificate to have been performed by triple application of water (immersion or affusion) "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit", may be received by economia, i.e. confession of the Orthodox Faith, followed by Chrismation and the Holy Eucharist.
- With reference to points 3 and 4, Holy Baptism remains the standard form of reception into the Church and will not be denied to anybody from these categories who requests it.