A Changed Man: Eastern Orthodox Pastor has far-flung roots

By Sam Allis, Globe Columnist | March 25, 2007 | Original Article found here

What Antony Hughes did all these many years ago at Oral Roberts University Graduate School of Theology and Missions in Tulsa was zig when he was supposed to zag.

Here was your basic Southern Baptist who, at this beacon of the charismatic movement, first vectored from his evangelical roots to Episcopalianism and then a year later converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church, of all things. "I was a charismatic when I got there, but I found it largely unsatisfying," he says.

But why Eastern Orthodoxy? "For me, it was the mysticism," he explains. "It is far deeper than the evangelical experience of being saved and then that's pretty much it. It didn't seem to do it for me. It was too simple. My life is more complex than that."


OK , but what about the brief bout of Episcopalianism? "I was not quite ready to jump in the Bosphorus and swim to Constantinople."

Hughes, 51, is in his 13th year as pastor of St. Mary Orthodox Church near Central Square in Cambridge. Before that, he spent five years at an Orthodox church in Orinda, Calif. Married with two children, he has been an Orthodox priest for 20 years and a member of the church for 30.

Hughes had company at Oral Roberts. About 30 seminarians converted to the Orthodox Church in the three years he was there. School officials were so concerned about this flood, he says, that they almost closed the place down. (There's a twinkle in his eye when he says this. There's no way around this cliché. The man just twinkles like a Christmas light at the vagaries of life.)

Hughes looks more like Santa's helper than an Orthodox priest . He's short and solid, wears fleece, and sports a goatee. No flowing beard, no flowing cassock.

"That has nothing to do with the church," he says about the beard-cassock combo we associate with Orthodox priests. He cites a photo of Bishop Tikhon in top hat and tails when he was based in San Francisco around the start of the 20th century.

But then we might expect some iconoclasm from Hughes. He came out of East Tennessee, long a hotbed of independent thinking that fought with the North in the Civil War and has produced aw-shucks country lawyers such as Howard Baker , former Senate majority leader, who would eat your lunch in a courtroom.

And he's hardly alone when it comes to converts. St. Mary is part of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, well over half of whose clergy in the United States and Canada are converts. His flock is a crazy salad, too. Last Easter at St. Mary, part of the Gospel was read in 27 languages.

The list of all the branches within the Orthodox church reads like a phone book. Greek, Russian, Syriac , Albanian, Coptic -- it goes on and on. Schisms galore, too. But if its taxonomy is numbing, its art is not. Orthodox iconography is sumptuous and mysterious. Byzantine mosaics at Ravenna dazzle like nothing else.

Orthodox priests surface from the strangest places. The Rev. Joseph Kimmett, pastor of St. George Orthodox Church in Norwood, was an Episcopalian with major Church of England DNA. The dean of the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline carries the ancient Hellenic name of Thomas Fitzgerald, as does the former pastor of the Holy Trinity Albanian Orthodox Church in South Boston.

The Orthodox Church, sensibly, is not wed to celibacy. Its priests, unlike their Catholic brethren, can live normal lives and have families. There's a catch, though. They must be married before they become priests. So, says Hughes, "There's the mad dash of seminarians to find wives."

He is delighted there is no pope in his life. "We have no pope and we don't want one, thank you," he says. "Freedom for us is very important."

Nor is he chained to original sin. "We never accepted the idea of original sin," he says. "What we inherit from our forebears is death. But guilt? Absolutely not. We don't believe a newborn child is sinful. That's utter nonsense." This guy is talking my language.

There exists in his church something called "ancestral sin," but he denies this is a matter of semantics: "We're only guilty for the sins we commit."

Forget the Immaculate Conception, too, he adds. Another weight off my chest. It is not dogma in the Orthodox Church, as it is in the Catholic Church. Mary was born subject to death like the rest of us, he explains, and consciously chose a life free of personal sin. That said, he finds his church hidebound. "It is highly resistant to change," he says. "We don't take risks very often. We're still living in the past."

On balance, though, Hughes is serene in the home he found three decades ago. His angle of repose is, by his own admission, far left of center. But he is free to speak his mind, including his disdain for fundamentalists of all stripes: "All fundamentalists worship the same angry, vengeful God."

Bracing stuff from a former charismatic. One of the things Hughes loves about Eastern Orthodoxy, like Buddhism, is its emphasis on enlightenment: "You don't hear about that much in the Western church."

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.