LINTHICUM – A golden-robed priest walked back and forth at the altar swinging incense and singing in a deep baritone voice.
Father Gregory Mathewes-Green, with his distinguished white beard, had the looks and all the skills of a born Orthodox priest, even though only five years ago he was pastor of an Episcopal church.
“The Episcopal church was drifting further and further from the church I grew up in,” said Mathewes-Green, a native of Charleston, S.C.
So Gary Mathewes-Green left the Episcopal church in 1993, dismayed with its ordination of homosexuals, silence on abortion and questioning of biblical miracles.
His spiritual quest brought him to the Antiochian Archdiocese, with its 1,000-year traditions, burning incense and dimly lighted sanctuary.
Today — as Father Gregory — he leads the Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum, which is made up almost entirely of converts like himself. Father Gregory said one of his biggest challenges is instructing his enthusiastic converts, who make up 90 percent of the congregation, in the ways of the ancient faith.
“We’re all pretty much converts,” said Cal Oren, who was a lifelong conservative Presbyterian before converting about a year ago. “The church has a real interesting mix of people and that makes for a special service.”
There are concessions to the neophytes at Holy Cross: When the choir sang about the “majesty of God,” the tune was more than 1,500 years old but the words were in English instead of the original Arabic.
But otherwise, it is like any other Orthodox church.
Parishioners stood during most of the 90-minute service. There are no pews, just a few rows of folding chairs on the sides of the church. In the middle, parents cuddled small children, while toddlers played on hardwood floors covered with oriental rugs.
The congregation is extra-friendly, kissing religious icons — the Bible and cross, for example — and each other throughout the service.
“It’s a problem for many people at first because they think of it as idol worshipping,” said Father Gregory of the icons used in the services.
“In a way, this style of worship promotes individual expression — the hallmark of the Pentecostal worship. We use the icon somewhat like a telephone to talk with God. We don’t confuse talking on the phone with the purpose,” he said.
As Father Gregory marched through the congregation waving more incense among members of the church, they reached out and touched the hem of his garments.
“It is symbolic of the Bible story where the lady reaches out and touches the hem of Jesus’s garment and she is healed,” said Basil Athos, 66, a “cradle” Orthodox, after he touched a piece of the priest’s golden robe.
Frederica Mathewes-Green, whose book “Facing East” describes the formation of the Holy Cross congregation, said she was not at all sure about the Orthodox church at first. The first time she attended a service, she wrote, she stood next to her husband thinking only about how much her feet hurt.
“As I shifted my aching feet on the floor of that dim church I wondered whether Gary’s new direction would ever make sense to me,” she said.
Soon enough it did. In 1993, she followed her husband’s lead and converted to the Eastern Orthodox faith along with a handful of others who left their Episcopal parish.
Frederica, a former flower child who lived with her husband two years before marrying him, said it was the end of a long spiritual journey for them.
“When we first met, over 20 years ago, he was a political animal who just didn’t think much about religion,” said Frederica, who practiced Hinduism at one point. “I was a passionate agnostic, angry at God for not existing, eagerly attacking the faith of Christian friends.”
Later, the couple went to Episcopalian seminary and were placed in a parish. But they became disillusioned when Episcopal bishops wrote books in the early 1990s doubting the virgin birth, Jesus’ miracles and even the resurrection.
Father Gregory, 51, flirted with the idea of becoming a Roman Catholic first. Like hundreds of married Episcopal priests, he could serve the church as a lay leader, chaplain or maybe a teacher, but not as a priest.
But the worship and “the power and presence of God” drew him to the Antiochian Archdiocese church, allowing him to sever his 15-year pastoral ties to the Episcopal church, he said.
“The faith certainly has some drawing power,” said Father Gregory. “It’s the God-centered service that makes the difference.”
He was inspired to convert by Peter Gillquist, the former leader of evangelical Campus Crusade for Christ, who converted to the Orthodox church himself about 10 years ago.
“We’re picking up Methodists and Episcopalians left and right. Evangelical … is a me-and-God movement,” said Gillquist. “And many of them are attracted to the (Orthodox) church because they want something more substantial — something that has a track record in history, instead of being a late start-up.”
Gillquist thought he would never convert Mathewes-Green, who asked many hard questions. But he said Father Gregory’s eventual conversion is no isolated incident — 78 percent of the church’s priests are converts.
“The mainline denominations are getting less mainline, their whole belief system is changing so rapidly,” said Gillquist, director of missions and evangelism for the Antiochian Christian Orthodox Church of America.
“In the last 10 years, we’ve had 55 new mission parishes with 80 percent of the new converts coming from evangelical or charismatic backgrounds,” he said. “The other 20 percent are from more liturgical backgrounds, like Father Gregory.”
At Holy Cross, the congregation also comes from many different religious backgrounds.
Ina and Mark O’Dell of Annapolis had been members of several churches — the Disciples of Christ Church, the Church of England and a conservative Presbyterian church — before converting to Orthodoxy.
Others, like John Riordan of Crofton, came as former clergy members. He was a Catholic priest for 29 years, then became an Episcopal priest when he decided to marry. He converted to the Orthodox church because he was attracted by the “rock-solid communion.”
“The church has a rich history, and everyone is welcomed in our church,” Riordan said. “There’s no funny business here, we believe in teaching and learning about God’s word.”
Gillquist said the Orthodox church is consistent in its beliefs and that is why more and more people are overcoming their prejudices about the church.
“Twelve or 15 years ago, If I’d go speak to groups, a lot of people would ask belligerent questions,” he said. “Do you believe that communion is mystical? Why do you guys have bishops, they’re crooks?”
But over time, Gillquist said, the word has gotten out to those who are interested in “trying to square up with their faith,” can try the Antiochian church.