REFLECTIONS ON MY THIRTY-FIVE YEARS IN THE ORDAINED MINISTRY

“The Country Parson preaches constantly, the pulpit is his joy and throne” — The Reverend George Herbert, The Country Parson



My wife Cheri and I will be celebrating 35 years in ministry together on Sunday, September 29th, and everyone is invited to share that special day with us. Matins (Morning Prayer) is at 9:15 AM, followed by the Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist at 10:00 AM, with a catered luncheon following the Liturgy. As always, we will be worshipping according to the rite of our incomparable English Liturgy with Gregorian chant and the great hymns of the Church..


Cheri and I have served in ministry together in four states, and I have ministered in positions as diverse as pastor and college teacher, Ecumenical Officer and editor of an official Provincial Church periodical. I have been a church planter, rector, para-church minister, and teacher. Most of these past 35 years have been in full time ministry, but I have also been bi-vocational, serving as a tent making clergyman.


Cheri’s hard work outside of the home has made it possible for me to engage in full time ministry these many years, as remuneration for clergy is often low and benefits all but nonexistent. Later this year she will be honored by her present employer for 35 years of service in the finance industry; and we will be celebrating 37 years of marriage. Cheri and I are partners in ministry, and I think it is fitting that the Eastern Churches give the wives of priests a title. Cheri’s title is Matushka, although she seldom uses it. I don’t know what I would have done without her. She is indeed my better half.


The life of a clergy family is a life of sacrifice, a life in a fishbowl, and often a life of poverty. I remember once telling a Roman Catholic priest-friend who was provided with a large rectory, a new car, living expenses, a housekeeper, a good salary and a guaranteed retirement, “You take a vow of poverty, but we just live it.” Until my wife and I became empty nesters money was always very tight, we never had so much as a savings account, and once we nearly became homeless.


One year I was called away on an emergency pastoral call on our daughter Hannah’s birthday. Hannah was just a child then. It was feared a parishioner was dying so I had to go immediately. By the grace of God she pulled through, and Hannah understood why I had to be away on her birthday, but a priest’s family does sacrifice a lot with their husband and father being literally on call 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Without a committed and faithful family I would not have been able to be a committed and faithful priest.


I have had the privilege of serving under some of the finest Anglican bishops of the late 20th and 21st centuries, — real men of God. Sadly for us, they have all gone to be with the Lord. These bishops include Bishop Donald Davies, onetime Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Omaha, Nebraska, and first Bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, who later served in the Anglican Continuum; Bishop Patrick Murphy, a protege of Bishop Donald Davies, and the 1973 winner of the Keble Award from the old American Church Union; Archbishop Robert Sherwood Morse, one of the four original Continuing Anglican bishops and the longest serving, an intellectual and spiritual giant, a man of great vision, and a man who had a profound and lasting impact on my life and ministry; and Bishop Royal Grote, a man who combined real missionary zeal with a pastor’s heart, exhibited sincere humility, and bore much fruit in his service to God and the Church.


First as a layman and later as a clergyman, I had always been taught and believed that Anglicanism, when true to itself, is Western Orthodoxy; and that traditional Anglicanism holds in the West the same place that Eastern Orthodoxy holds in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Tragically, these two branches of God’s Church had fallen out of visible communion through the accidents of history, chiefly the papal schism of 1054, and the Norman Conquest of 1066 which suppressed the autocephalous status of the English Church and forced it into submission to Rome. But the English Reformation in 1534, restored an autocephalous Church in the British Isles and sought to cleanse the Church and return her to the beliefs and practices of primitive Christianity. The goal of reform and restoration was advanced by the Caroline Divines in the 17th century, the Non-jurors in the 18th century, the Oxford movement in the 19th century and the Continuing Anglican Movement in the 20th century.


In June of 2012, I received a phone call from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). They had recently began a Western Rite Work, and they asked me what it would take to bring traditional Anglicans into full communion with Eastern Orthodoxy. My response was that since traditional Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy held essentially the same Faith, what it would take would be for Anglicans to be welcomed into union as brothers, and be given the assurance that the fullness of their English and Celtic cultural, liturgical and spiritual heritage and patrimony would be accepted, respected and preserved.


I began working with Fr. Anthony Bondi, the Pastoral Vicar of the ROCOR Western Rite Vicariate and through him with Bishop Jerome Shaw, Vicar Bishop for the Western Rite, to see if we could make reunion possible. Finally, in March of 2013, formal approval was given by Metropolitan Hilarion, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.


In late June of 2013, I, along with more than a dozen Western clergymen and our congregations, were received into full communion with ROCOR. There was no change in Faith for our parish as we had always held the Orthodox Christian Faith, and we remained what we had always been — a parish holding the Orthodox Faith in the Anglican Tradition.


Unfortunately, it was a very bumpy road from the beginning; and we often felt under siege, never really knowing from day to day if the Western Rite would be closed or Byzantinized. The Eastern Churches have their own serious problems, and there is a great deal of anti-Western sentiment in Eastern Orthodoxy. Finally, after nearly seven years of efforts to make it work, by April of 2019 it became clear to us at Holy Cross parish that an authentic Western Rite simply cannot flourish in an Eastern Church. Sadly, we have had to leave behind some friends and colleagues in both rites, and that has been painful.


If, in God’s time there is to be a formal and lasting reunion between Eastern and Western Christians — which all good hearted believers long for — it will have to be between self-governing Eastern and Western Churches. A Communion of self governing and autonomous Churches has always been the accepted ecclesiology among Eastern Orthodox, Old Catholics (Union of Scranton) and Anglicans, and is undoubtedly the only workable way forward to reunite Eastern and Western Christians. Attempts to bring about unity outside of this historic ecclesiology have always failed, and from our experience cannot but fail.


Despite the failure of our reunion efforts, Holy Cross parish remains what we have always been since our church was founded — an Orthodox Christian church in the Anglican Tradition. Holy Cross parish continues to advance the Work of the Great Commission and we are expanding our outreach. We have a new, attractive and informative parish website at www.holycrossparishomaha.com, and we are about to launch a new weekly half hour radio broadcast on AM and FM radio.


Our new radio broadcast, called, The Faith Once Delivered, premiers Saturday, October 5th, at 9:30 AM CDT, on KCRO Radio 660 AM in Omaha, and 106.7 FM in Lincoln. These two radio stations have the capability of reaching more than 1.3 million listeners in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, and the show can be heard anywhere in the United States and around the world over the Internet. You can listen live via the Internet at: http://www.kcro.com/home/. KCRO Radio is Nebraska’s premier Christian radio station, and is celebrating 40 years of Christian broadcasting.


What are some of the highlights of my 35 years in the ministry?


It would be easy for me to say that it has all been a highlights. As I have often said, If I had my life to live over again I would marry the same girl and serve in the ministry.


I have been a very happy soldier of Christ, and these 35 years in the ministry while not without their challenges, betrayals, sorrows and heartbreaks, have been very fulfilling. St. John of Kronstadt said that the priesthood is a form of crucifixion, and it is true. But, as the Apostle Paul has written, “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God” (Col. 1:24-25).


I love teaching the Holy Scriptures. It is my greatest delight. I really enjoyed teaching college, and I am happiest when I am in the pulpit or teaching a class. I have always taken the charge of St. Paul very, very seriously: “I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:1-5).


One thing I have always sought to do was to fulfill my ministry whatever the cost. My clerical collar is nailed on, come what may. With God’s help, I will run the race to the end.


The greatest highlight of my ministry has been planting and pastoring Holy Cross parish. Back when I was teaching ministerial students as a college teacher I told them that there were two keys to a fruitful ministry: First, marry above yourself because your wife will make or break your ministry. And second, learn to really love your people — the people you pastor. I have tried to live by these key principles. I have indeed married above myself, and I sincerely love the members of our church family.


We have been through a lot together as a church family. We have experienced blessings, weathered storms, seen miracles, grown in the grace and knowledge of our Lord, and born good fruit. One of our staff members has been with me for sixteen years, and another for twelve years. We are truly a family. God has been very good to us.


Other highlights in the course of my 35 years in ministry have included serving under Archbishop Robert Morse; speaking at the 25th Anniversary celebration of the great St. Louis Church Congress; and coordinating an International Pilgrimage to the tomb of Blessed Charles Grafton in Fon du Lac, Wisconsin.


I have served under some very good and holy bishops, but the greatest of them was Archbishop Robert Sherwood Morse, and it was my privilege to serve with him until his retirement. Robert Morse was a leading Anglo-Catholic clergyman in the Episcopal Church back in the days of its orthodoxy, and became one of the original four Continuing Anglican bishops and the longest serving. Universally respected, he took a fledgling diocese and built it up into a thriving province. At the time of his retirement, the Anglican Province of Christ the King (APCK) was the “Cadillac” of Continuing Anglican Jurisdictions, with its own residential seminary, well educated and formed clergy, and thriving congregations. He was a man of great intellect, deep spirituality, magnetic personality, and true leadership ability, but he was also kind, patient, loving and forgiving, and was a true pastor, teacher and example to his clergy.


The great St. Louis Church Congress which gave birth to the Continuing Anglican Movement was held in September of 1977. The 25th Anniversary of the St. Louis Church Congress was in the year 2002. To celebrate this important anniversary, a Pilgrimage of Grace and Gratitude to the tomb of Blessed Charles Grafton (the good friend of St. Tikhon of Moscow) in Fon du Lac, Wisconsin was organized by the Anglican Province of Christ the King.


The faithful came from all across the United States and from abroad. Archbishop Brother John Charles of Australia, primate of the Anglican Catholic Church, was with us as well. Archbishop Robert Morse had asked me to be a presenter at the Pilgrimage, and I spoke on The Fundamental Principles of the Anglican Catholic Faith. This pilgrimage of Grace and Gratitude celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the St. Louis Church Congress was a highlight of my spiritual life and ministry, and it still encourages me in my ministry seventeen years later.


In the wake of a very successful Pilgrimage in 2002, I was asked by Archbishop Morse to do some ecumenical work for him. This was not the “pan heresy of ecumenism” and was never about seeking unity with diverse groups or about lowering doctrinal standards to the lowest common denominator, but about reaching out to other equally orthodox Continuing Anglican jurisdictions in pursuit of cooperation and eventual unity. Not long after beginning this ecumenical outreach on behalf of Archbishop Morse I was appointed the Ecumenical Officer of the Anglican Province of Christ the King (APCK) and continued my work in a more formal manner.


In 2004, I was asked by Archbishop Morse to reach out to the Anglican Catholic Church (ACC) and the Anglican Church in America/Traditional Anglican Communion (ACA/TAC) as Ecumenical officer, and to invite them to join the Anglican Province of Christ the King in a joint Pilgrimage that year to the tomb of Blessed Charles Grafton in Fon du Lac, Wisconsin. Both of these jurisdictions agreed to join in the Pilgrimage, and the faithful gathered from all across the United States, from Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and as far away as Australia. Bishops representing both the ACC and the ACA/TAC attended, and Archbishop John Hepworth, primate of the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC) flew in from Australia.


The Pilgrimages of 2002 and 2004 are highlights of my 35 years in the ministry. I will never forget them. The Divine Office, the Masses, the preaching and teaching, and the warm fellowship with clergy from near and far, all intoxicated with a love for God, and having a deep appreciation for and commitment to our wonderful English and Celtic spiritual heritage and tradition have impacted my life forever.


The many Anglican diocesan and provincial synods, along with our ROCOR Western Rite Clergy Conferences that Cheri and I attended were also wonderful times of spiritual renewal, deepened prayer, and warm fellowship. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1).


The seeds planted at the 2004 Joint Pilgrimage to Fon du Lac have germinated and begun to bear fruit. Today the four leading Continuing Anglican jurisdictions, now known as the G-4: the Anglican Catholic Church (ACC), the Anglican Church in America/Traditional Anglican Communion (ACA/TAC), the Anglican Province of America (APA), and the Diocese of the Holy Cross (a remnant from the old Anglican Province of Christ the King) have entered into full communion with one another and are on the path to blending into one, fully united jurisdiction. The G-4 have already held one joint Synod, their bishops meet regularly in conference, and another joint Synod will be held in early 2020.


In addition, the G-4 are in active and formal unity dialogue with the Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC) and the Union of Scranton. The Polish National Catholic Church is the largest Old Catholic body in the world and had been in full communion with the Episcopal Church in the days of its orthodoxy, but was forced to terminate that relationship when the Episcopal Church abandoned the Apostolic Ministry at its 1976 General Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Union of Scranton is the orthodox successor to the old Utrecht Union of Old Catholic Churches, and unites traditional Old Catholics throughout Europe and in the United Kingdom with the Polish National Catholic Church.


Historic Anglicanism and Old Catholicism are Western Orthodoxy. That is something that I have believed and taught for decades. In fact, the vast majority of Western Rite Orthodox clergy and laity are former traditional Anglicans, along with some former Old Catholics. We had prayed and worked for the reunion of Eastern and Western Christians and the rebuilding of the Western Church, and we had thought that Western Rite Orthodoxy would be the vehicle. We were disappointed, but thankfully God had better plans and the rebuilding of the Western Church is moving forward.


God is indeed rebuilding the Western Church in His own way, and the day may well come in God’s own time when there will be an authentic and lasting reunion between self-governing Eastern and Western Churches in accord with long established Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Old Catholic ecclesiology. When this happens it will be clear to all that it is the work of God and not of man, and we can be confident that it will be built on a firm foundation.


What books on the spiritual life have impacted my personal spiritual life and my priestly ministry the most?


I am a constant reader, and often have two or more books going at the same time. However, there are four books on the spiritual life that I return to again and again. They are:


A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, by William Law.


The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence


The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and Holy Dying, by Jeremy Taylor


And, for priests, seminarians and those discerning a possible vocation to the priesthood:


The Country Parson, by George Herbert


These books have stood the test of centuries and are excellent. I highly recommend them.


What does the future hold?


I am very excited about the future. I love being a priest and could not see myself as anything else. I never have a blue Monday. I look forward to every day, and I love serving God and His people. I am only 61 years old, but I could not even imagine ever retiring from active ministry.


I am as excited about the ministry today as I was on the day I was ordained. The past 35 years have been such a blessing to me, and I look forward to the next 35 years should the Lord tarry, although I eagerly anticipate the Blessed Hope of our Lord’s coming, and pray, Maranatha — Come Lord! I continue to feel overwhelmed by an experience of intimate closeness to God every time I go unto the altar of God, and to borrow the words of Blessed George Herbert, the pulpit is my joy and my throne.


I hope that you will join Cheri and I this Sunday, September 29th, to celebrate our 35th anniversary in Christian ministry. Matins is at 9:15 AM, with the Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist at 10:00 AM, followed by a catered luncheon in our parish hall immediately after the Liturgy. There is no cost for the luncheon. Everyone is invited and visitors are always welcome. If you have any questions you can call the church office at (402) 573-6558, or email me at: venovak@hughes.net.


We hope to see you on Sunday!


HOLY CROSS ORTHODOX CHURCH

7545 Main Street

Ralston, Nebraska 68127

402-573-6558