[Ancient Faith Radio; August 16, 2007]
Hello, I’m at the Parish Life Conference of my diocese, the Diocese of Charleston-Oakland and the Midatlantic, and my parish, Holy Cross, is the host. We’re at a hotel just north of Baltimore in Towson, and getting close to wrapping up, on a Saturday morning after breakfast. I’m sitting here with Nancy Waggener, that is, Khouria Helen Waggener, and Rebecca Alfred, Khouria Becky Alfred, and we’re going to talk a little bit about the Western Rite, which is something many Orthodox are not familiar with—they don’t even know that there is a Western Rite. Khouria Becky is the wife of Fr. Gregory Alford, and—sorry?
Becky: It’s Fr. Nicholas, at St. Gregory.
Frederica: Oh, you know, I do that all the time.
Becky: People do, because it’s –
Frederica: It’s Fr. Nicholas at St. Gregory’s, but he will be St. Nicholas someday, so we’re – [Laughter] When did you all become Orthodox, and did you immediately go into Western Rite?
Becky: Well, my husband was an Episcopal priest; we had both converted to the Episcopal Church from more protestant backgrounds during college and met in church in the choir and then he became an Episcopal priest, went to seminary and became an Episcopal priest. He served several churches and we were on the road to Orthodoxy for a long time while we were still in the Episcopal Church. As it was crumbling, our faith was building up more strongly and we were discovering the ancient faith, which is actually what the Episcopal Church had led us into, and so we followed the logical path and found the Church itself. Not just the Fathers, the Saints, we carried it to its logical conclusion into the Church.
Frederica: Had you been high-church Episcopalian?
Becky: Yes. We were both what would be considered Anglo Catholics, that’s the version of the Episcopal Church that we had been in.
Frederica: I met somebody recently that didn’t understand the term ‘high church,’ but you’d say it means more ceremonial. There’s quite a variety within the Episcopal Church, which people might not know. So that was sort of what you were looking for as you went into Orthodoxy, you wanted to find something similarly beautiful.
Becky: Well, I think we didn’t have to look for that in the Orthodox Church, it just existed in the Orthodox Church. We thought we were very fortunate to discover that the Antiochian archdiocese had already recognized that the ancient western liturgies were legitimately Orthodox for 1000 years, and therefore could be returned to the Orthodox Church and that that had, in fact, had organizationally already happened.
[Gregorian chant: And bring me forth in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake / Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil / For thou art with me thy rod and they staff they comfort me]
Becky: So Bishop Basil, who is in the Midwest, as the diocesan Bishop now, but he is also the bishop overseer for the Western Rite parishes, and we met him at a conference in Chicago, which was scheduled for disgruntled or dissatisfied Episcopal clergy and their families. That was the clincher. All it took was meeting a holy bishop and discovering that, yes, we could become Orthodox and be faithful and loyal in this church, but that our liturgical heritage and musical heritage, which we were both very steeped in, would be honored.
Frederica: When was that? What year was it that you became Orthodox?
Becky: About 11 years ago.
Frederica: Okay, yeah. All right. Yeah, we had a very similar story, of course, we were chrismated in 1993, and what you say about meeting a holy bishop rang a bell for me, because when you’re Episcopalian, when you’re a conservative Episcopalian, one of the worst things is the bishops. If something bad is happening, it’s coming out of the bishops. They were the ones who were revising the theology and doing all of this. After I became Orthodox it took me about a year to get over, when I heard somebody say that, ‘Oh, the bishops are coming out with a statement,’ not to cringe, to find out they were really holy men you could trust.
Becky: This meeting with Bp. Basil happened about the same time that one of the Episcopal bishops had committed suicide because it was discovered that he was having an affair with another woman who wasn’t his wife, and they still gave him a grand royal funeral, and that was so disillusioning to me. Then I met Bp. Basil about the same time.
Frederica: It makes a difference. Yeah, Bp. Basil Essey in Wichita is different from what we experienced in the Episcopal Church. And you, over there, you look, just familiar. I know I – [Laughter] I know I’ve seen you before somewhere. Nancy, Nancy Waggener. [Laughter] Where did we meet?
Helen: We met at Episcopal seminary. You all had just come back from your honeymoon, I think, and were coming back. Gary, then, was coming back to Virginia Seminary, but you were coming along after being married. It was our second year at seminary. We met on the yearly retreat at the beginning and we all just fell in together as thick as thieves.
Frederica: We did, immediately. I think it was 1974 or 5, so it’s quite awhile ago.
Helen: Well, it was right after you were married; it was 74 then, because we were married in 73.
Frederica: It was that following autumn.
Helen: Yes, and we ended up spending weekends together, Saturday night cooking together, and watching Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart, and the opening monologue of Saturday Night Live, and then we’d quick high-tail it home because we had to be in bed because everybody had to be in church doing fieldwork the next morning at our Episcopal churches.
Frederica: So it’s a strange journey, because we were in Episcopal seminary, both our husbands and me. You were working for a congresswoman, as I remember. And graduated, the guys were ordained, the years go by. You all saw the handwriting on the wall before we did, you jumped ship. We were like, ‘This is terrible, they’ve betrayed their vows.’ And it took us awhile longer to see, yeah, that was what maybe needed to be done.
Helen: We ended up just leaving the Episcopal Church. We were in Wisconsin at the time. And we were living up on Lake Superior and we just left. He had just had it; he was insulted and wounded, so we left. He couldn’t – we just left any church. We were out there for four years and stuck out on Lake Superior and he was painting houses, or short order cook or dishwasher, supporting a wife and four children. And as I was at home homeschooling the children. So we ended up going to the Anglican Continuing churches. And then you, a few years later, also left but you all immediately went Orthodox, which was interesting because Orthodoxy had been something that we had first talked to you about.
Frederica: Right, right. Even in seminary, I think, Bob, now Fr. Alban, went for spiritual direction to a ROCOR bishop, was it?
Helen: Yes, yes.
Frederica: And there was something about, that the bishop took him to see a weeping icon, and I remember y’all coming to our house with a baggie with a little cotton ball in it, like 30 years ago and going, ‘This is weird.’
Helen: Yes, yes. And I remember you talking about in one of your books something that I became familiar with was, we were in the Anglo Catholic Church historically when we were in the Episcopal Church, so I was always used to my husband’s closet smelling of incense and everything, but this was a different incense. [Laughter] And since all those times when we were living in DC, the children were very small, so it’s not like I could say, ‘Oh sure I’ll go to vespers with you,’ and ‘Oh sure, I’ll sneak out with you and do this service.’ I was home with children and he was coming home and talking about this, but so I was not as far along as he was about that. When we left the Episcopal Church, I was thinking, ‘Well, we will surely go Orthodox.’ But then he was at a point where, ‘No we’re not. I just can’t do that.’ In the meantime, then, the Continuing Church was gaining, and that seemed to be embodying to him what he had always thought that the Anglican Church’s view and the Episcopal expression here in this country. It was meant to be Western Orthodoxy.
Helen: So we ended up going that direction. Long story short: my husband ended up being elected a bishop in one of those jurisdictions, but it wasn’t too long before you’re already getting into difficulties, and here’s the crux, if I may say, even in the Continuing Churches, is that what happens is: you have a group of people who have already told in the Episcopal Church, their bishop, ‘I’ve had enough. You’re wrong.’ So that’s how it got with us that it finally was this is enough, enough. It comes to a point where you can’t be ‘lowercase o’ orthodox any more. You can believe all that.
Helen: And you can, and it’s wonderful. But, as my husband used to say, I can be in a parish, and I can be teaching orthodoxy, but when I leave, and somebody else comes –
Helen: - they can teach something almost completely different. And it still falls within the wide parameters of Anglicanism. So what becomes important then, if you want to be orthodox, you must be under an Orthodox, capital o, Orthodox bishop. We did it, and you know what, there is just no more arguing with the bishop anymore. My bishop tells me, asks me, suggests something to me, bam. I’m doing it, I’m not arguing, that’s it.
Frederica: What a relief, what a sense of –
Helen: It’s a great freedom.
Frederica: - protection.
Helen: Yes. And my husband doesn’t have to be bishop anymore; he can go back to being a parish priest, which he always maintained was the best job in the world. So, not that there’s not a whole lot of pressure, because he’s in the process of starting a mission, must work full time because of the financial constraints, is still finishing his required courses for being an Orthodox priest, so he doesn’t have a whole lot of time right now, but there’s no question that – there’s nothing else, this is it.
Frederica: This is it.
Helen: This is it.
Frederica: That’s exciting. And just to tie that up, then, y’all were chrismated just 13 months ago, June 2006, and he was ordained a priest September 2006, and your little mission, small mission, is in Lynchburg, Virginia, Holy Trinity. And you, Becky, are at, once again, St. Gregory Church. Which St. Gregory is it?
Becky: St. Gregory the Great.
Frederica: St. Gregory the Great, the dialogist.
Becky: Who was a dialogist, who is, according to tradition the author of the presanctified liturgy, which is used in the Eastern Rite, but he is also the, not the author, but the finisher of the liturgy of St. Gregory, which is the liturgy of Rome. Probably one of the oldest liturgies that exist in the Church.
Frederica: He lived in the 600s?
Becky: The 600s.
Frederica: Is he also the deviser of Gregorian chant?
Becky: Not deviser, but codifier, we say. He made it more uniform throughout the western Church. He was the patriarch of the Church in the west, at the time, and sort of tried to get things in order around the world, around the western world.
Frederica: I recently learned something I didn’t know before, which was that in Rome, the liturgy was celebrated in Greek until the 4th century. That’s about when the Bible was translated into Latin, as well, Jerome’s translation of the Bible. We had a Western Rite vespers here last night during the conference, and it was so beautiful. It’s so different from the Byzantine Rite, and I think maybe most of the 400 or so people here had never heard anything like it before. But there’s a purity and a clarity to Gregorian chant; it’s simpler, and yet it’s so earnest and so heartfelt. It just is different and it’s gorgeous. I think that’s pretty eye-opening to people. Why don’t you both, I’m going to try to move the microphone back and forth, just chime in, what was it that you love about Western Rite and why was this your choice?
Helen: Well, when my husband first had his conversion experience, senior year of college, and we went to the Episcopal Church, that was the Church that I understood what he had experienced. Didn’t look at him crazy or send him off or anything. And that was still in 1928 Prayerbook time. And we just fell in love with it. We were falling in love with each other at the same time, and fell in love with that as well.
Frederica: The 1928 Prayerbook is real iconic to Episcopalians; it was the last of the Thees and Thous and beautiful and that sweet formality that also has a submission or a simplicity to it.
Helen: Jesus is not our buddy.
Frederica: Right, right, right.
[Gregorian chant: Close thine eyes in pity and not in kindness upon us sinners / Hereafter let our earthly exile soon be ended / Show us Jesus the blessed fruit of thy womb.]
Helen: And so that was disturbing to us, then, as we were going through prayerbook revisions and everything and we just didn’t want that anymore. So the Western Rite preserves that. It makes it more attractive for people who are considering Orthodoxy who may be thinking there’s an overwhelming ethnicity, which there is not, I have to say.
Frederica: Or we could say our ethnic group is Anglo, so –
Helen: So okay, so this is the ethnicity of Western Orthodoxy. And so it made it a very welcoming thing and not an overwhelming move to move then into Orthodoxy. Yes, it preserves the formality and that’s a wonderful thing. You’re in the presence of the master of the universe, and so we need to behave that way not only in that language but in our very persons, and how we present ourselves and sit, and how we stand and even how we dress and greet each other. So there is that formality that’s preserved.
[Gregorian chant: Oh gentile, oh tender, oh gracious Virgin Mary.]