Church History is Family History

Church History is Family History


I was asked on another blog how much the Orthodox know about Church history. When I first read the question, my reaction was to say that the Orthodox are extremely well versed in Church history and that it plays an important part in the life of our Church. But, upon reflection I decided that this is not a fully accurate description.

The typical Orthodox believer knows significantly more about the Theotokos and all the Saints of the Church than any other grouping of Christians tends to know about their group. But, that does not mean that the Orthodox know Church history per se. When I think of knowing Church history, I think of having a structured dispassionate overview of various major events, how they connect to other major events, and some of the personages involved. But, that is a different way than the way in which we know the Theotokos and all the Saints.

Many of those who are Orthodox from childhood would know as little about Western Church history as the typical American Christian knows about Eastern Church history. And, many Orthodox would not be able to give you a summary of Church history in any type of organized fashion. But, the typical Orthodox would have fixed in his or her mind many vignettes about many Saints. Moreover, the typical Orthodox would be able to give you a rough overview of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church and of Pascha (Easter). And, they would be able to speak to you about Our Lord and His salvation, how to worship, how to pray, and how to live their lives in the fear of God and with faith and hope. But, not in an organized systematic historical fashion.

Rather, they would know Church history in the same way that most people know their family’s history. Most people can tell you many vignettes about Aunt Sophie or crazy Uncle Harry or Grandma Mary or Great-Grampa Vladimir or about Cousin Jeff and the time that he fell from his bicycle and broke his arm. Most people could place every one of their relatives in a rough time-line and tell you funny or sad or happy or angry tales about their family. They could even make some of the connections between the different figures in the family, but there would be much that they would not know. But, they know what they need to know in order to feel connected to their relatives and to have a sense of where they and their relatives fit into the family.

This is the way in which most Orthodox know the Theotokos and all the Saints. We hear about them all the time, but generally only the important events of their life. We ask them to intercede for us. Every Sunday, several of the troparia tell us of the Resurrection and something about the events of that Sunday and of the Saints that are celebrated that Sunday. We know them as family. We know their vignettes, the important point in their lives, have a rough idea of the timeline in which they fit, and how we are related to them. That is, we know what we need to know in order to feel connected to the relatives and to have a sense of how we fit into the family.

I cannot in any way imagine an Orthodoxy devoid of these connections. It would no longer be Orthodoxy. Part of what has enabled Orthodoxy to survive wars, invasions, a militant Islam, communism, etc., has been precisely those connections. We know our family history. We know the major members of our family. We know why they are important. We know how we fit into the family. I am in no way diminishing the role of the Holy Spirit in preserving the Church. But, His job is significantly easier and more certain when the family connections are in place. It is not Church history; it is holy family history.

About author

Fr. Ernesto Obregon

I am a Cuban. My sister and I arrived in the United States of America in 1961. I was nine years old at the time and my sister was five. Yes, alone. Our mother, a widow, put us on the plane in La Habana, and we were taken to an orphanage upon our arrival in Miami. No, I never lived in Miami for longer than about six months. Yes, we and our mother were re-united. She escaped from Cuba by boat about four or five months after we arrived in the USA. We were re-united and were sent by the Catholic Welfare folk to Ohio, where they had found my mother a job and us a foster home while she learned English and got situated. So, I grew up in Ohio, had a paper route, learned to build snowmen, and moved from place to place as out mother got better jobs. Eventually she met a good man and re-married and we settled into his house in Mansfield, Ohio. I was a 15-year-old teenager.

Needless to say, none of this was necessarily guaranteed to keep me strong in the faith, although my mother tried. I rebelled during my teenage years and left Roman Catholicism for some vague hippie philosophies and a lot of rebellion. By 1970 I had been expelled from college after my first year, a year in which I was very confused and quite directionless. When I returned to Mansfield in defeat, I was approached by a friend who had become a “Jesus Person.” He took me to this “farm” that was filled with about four middle-aged adults and lots of early 20′s Jesus People. One of those adults was a Southern Baptist pastor, a former Campus Crusade staffer, and uncomfortable supervisor of hippy Jesus People, and is now the Very Rev. Gordon Walker, an Archpriest of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. His story, along with others whom I know, is chronicled in the book, “Becoming Orthodox” by the Very Rev. Peter Gillquist.

My journey was different. I eventually ended up as an Anglican priest, and a missionary. My wife and I served in both Bolivia and Perú, and our three intelligent and very perspicacious daughters spent a decade of their formative years in South America. I ended up as The Archdeacon of Arequipa of the Anglican Church of Perú, which is part of the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, which is part of the Anglican Communion.

We returned to the USA when our children began to attend college, and I took a parish in one of the dioceses of The Episcopal Church. Within less than four years, we realized that this was not a Church in which I could doctrinally live.

It was at this point that Fr. Gordon Walker came actively back into my life and told me that it was time that I came into Orthodoxy. He was right, and I have been Orthodox ever since. I was ordained in the Antiochian Orthodox jurisdiction, but am currently serving as an attached priest at a Greek Orthodox Church. God has blessed us. We have wonderful grandchildren. And we are truly blessed.