New Eastern Orthodox chapel celebrates early church tradition

By Jackson Posey | Reporter

For the first time, the world’s largest Baptist university has an Eastern Orthodox chapel.

Baylor’s traditional chapel offering — large-scale student gatherings in Waco Hall — has been scattered into a variety of “calling and career” options in recent years, as the chapel department pushes to personalize the chapel experience. The result: more than four dozen options, including everything from Aviation Chapel to Eastern Orthodox Morning Prayers.

The Rev. Daniel Wright, the presiding priest at Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church and one of the spiritual advisers for Baylor’s branch of Orthodox Christian Fellowship, said the chapel department was “really, really open” to having an Orthodox chapel.

“There are a number of people in the chapel department who — they looked around and saw that we have a number of Protestant chapels, and we have the Catholic chapels that are available,” Wright said. “And they thought, ‘Well, what’s missing is the Orthodox from this picture, right?’”

Wright now leads the twice-weekly Orthodox chapel, which is hosted by Orthodox Christian Fellowship at Robbins Chapel. Rather than creating a new curriculum though, he chose to delve into the deep traditions of Orthodox Christianity. He ultimately settled on the morning “Matins” prayer services, which are still consistently practiced in Orthodox monasteries and some churches.

Orthodoxy stems from an eastern strand of Christianity that has remained somewhat isolated from the historical developments of the western church, including Roman Catholics and, later, Protestants. That means incense, icons and an emphasis on church tradition.

“I suspect it’s the only chapel service that’s praying the prayers of the earliest church,” Wright said. “We have incense. We have icons. We read heavily from the Psalms. … We like to say that we worship with the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that is mentioned in the book of Hebrews.”

The prayer services are a far cry from so-called “low-church Protestantism” — a less structured form of worship that is particularly prevalent at Baylor. According to the university’s latest student demographic information, three of the four largest self-identified religious groups were Baptist (3,778), non-denominational (3,448) and unaffiliated Christian (3,066), a majority of which fall into the “low church” category.

This creates interesting dynamics for non-Orthodox students who choose to attend the Matins services — such as Dallas freshman Hayden Hill, a Protestant whose adviser recommended he take the chapel.

“I don’t know what I expected,” Hill said. “I kind of figured there’d be some chanting, and there is. … It’s been a good way to start the morning just contemplatively and quiet and in prayer. I don’t know; it’s very centering.”

Hill grew up attending what he called a “big ol’ evangelical huge megachurch,” which he said he wasn’t a big fan of. He now describes himself as a “general Protestant, drawing from tons of different traditions.” Taking the Orthodox chapel is part of his quest to come to a deeper, more well-rounded understanding of the Christian faith.

“It’s been really eye-opening to me,” Hill said. “Digging into the tradition and just practicing that spiritually has been very fruitful as well. … It’s really just broadened my view of a lot of Christian practice, helped me to realize that my way — the way that I’ve learned or been taught — is not always the right way. And people think different things for different reasons, and how do I be empathetic to that?”

For Orthodox students, the chapel serves another purpose: spiritual formation in a like-minded community. The Rev. Dr. Erin Moniz, director for chapel, praised the university for being a “unique community” that emphasizes spiritual growth. The Orthodox chapel, she said, is just the latest example of that commitment.

“I will say that the Orthodox chapel, I’m really excited for it,” Moniz said. “All chapels are grounded in spiritual practices; they have to identify two on their syllabus, and that has to be sort of the anchoring point for the chapel experience. So for these students, it’s just the grounding of these practices — just getting to come together twice a week and start their day with a liturgy of morning prayer, and do that in community with each other and with a priest.”