“Indirect Conversion of Thousands Theory”

Over at Orthodox Wiki, they have an entry on Fr Raphael Morgan, the first black Orthodox priest in America, whom I discussed last week. In the Orthodox Wiki entry, you may find the following:

“Indirect Conversion of Thousands” Theory

During the 16th Annual Ancient Christianity and African-American Conference, Matthew Namee presented a 23-minute lecture on the heretofore recently discovered life of Fr Raphael Morgan. He postulates that even if Fr Raphael’s missionary efforts failed outside of his immediate family, he may be indirectly responsible for the conversion of thousands.

Records for St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virgina indicate that for a short while in 1901 Robert J. Morgan was listed as the Rector. However, being only a deacon, this would mean that Robert’s position was only temporary, during an interregnum of sorts. The previous rector was one George Alexander McGuire, an Episcopal priest.

In 1920, George McGuire became an associate of Marcus Garvey and his Black Nationalist movement. In 1921, he was made a bishop of the American Catholic Church by Joseph René Vilatte, and soon after founded the African Orthodox Church, a non-canonical Black Nationalist church. Today, it is best known for its canonisation of Jazz legend John Coltrane.

George McGuire soon spread his African Orthodox Church throughout the United States, and soon even made a presence on the African continent in such countries as Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. However, around the time of the Second World War, the African churches were cut off from the American and in the post-war period had drifted far enough way to request and come under the omophorion of the Church of Alexandria.

Namee questions whence the idea came for McGuire to form namely an Orthodox church. Fr Raphael Morgan and George McGuire have a few similarities: both were Black Caribbeans, served concurrently or consecutively at St Philip’s in Virginia, were ordained around the same time, and later served in Philadelphia. Namee concludes that with so many coincidences, it is impossible for these two men to not have known one another; and therefore it must be from some influence – either in conversation or evangelism, that McGuire came to know the Orthodox Church.

However, one deterrent from this theory comes in the familiarity he had with the Orthodox Church by McGuire’s consecrator, Joseph René Vilatte. At various points, Vilatte come into contact with both the Russian and Syriac Orthodox Churches in a move for Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation, having even been accepted for a while by Bishop Vladimir of Alaska in May of 1891.

I’d like to respond briefly to that last paragraph. We’ve got pretty good reason to believe that Morgan and McGuire knew each other at least by the turn of the 20th century, if not earlier. They served at the same parish and lived in the same cities. I’ve seen no evidence that McGuire and Vilatte were acquainted that early. Vilatte, while indeed familiar with Orthodoxy, was not “Eastern” himself. And while he was McGuire’s consecrator, he was a notorious episcopus vagans, and his status as consecrator doesn’t necessarily imply that he was anything more to McGuire. Even given Vilatte’s involvement, I don’t see why McGuire wouldn’t have just formed his own black Episcopalian-style church. Why bother going Eastern?

Back in the 1970s, a non-Orthodox scholar named Gavin White proposed that McGuire got the idea to become “Orthodox” directly from Morgan. From all the evidence I’ve seen, I have to agree with that theory. Was Morgan the only source for McGuire’s Orthodox idea? Perhaps not. Was he a major inspiration? Probably.