Taking dramatic steps of faith runs in the family. In the eighteenth century my Mennonite ancestors left Switzerland for the new colony of Pennsylvania to find religious freedom. Seven generations later my part of the family were still in Pennsylvania, but they had left the Mennonites, and I was brought up in a Bible church which was part of a loose-knit confederation of churches called the Independent Fundamental Churches of America.
The independent Bible church movement was an offshoot of a significant shift in post-war American Protestantism. Conservative Christians who were disenchanted with the liberal drift of the main Protestant denominations simply up and left and started their own churches. The same independent movement saw the foundation of a fundamentalist college in the deep South by the Methodist evangelist Bob Jones. After World War II my parents and aunts and uncles went to study there and it was natural for my parents to send me and my brothers and sisters there in the 1970s.
The religion in our own home was simple, Bible-based and balanced. I will always be thankful for the sincere and deep faith of my parents, and will always regard with pride the great Christian heritage that I was given. On both sides of the family our people were committed Christians as far back as we could trace the family tree. In our own home, like our Mennonite and Plymouth Brethren forebears, there was a quiet simplicity and tolerance at the heart of our family’s faith. We believed Catholics were in error, but we didn’t nurture hatred towards them. At Bob Jones the tone was different. There the Catholic Church was clearly the ‘whore of Babylon’ and the Pope was the Anti-Christ. Furthermore, the anti-Catholicism had the disagreeable whiff of the anti-Semitism and racism which also marred the Southern culture.
At Bob Jones I majored in Interpretative Speech with a minor in English. At this stage I immersed myself in English literature, and was greatly influenced by C.S.Lewis and his band of literary Christians, the Inklings. This drew me to the whole culture of England. I remember a friend gave me a picture book called The World of C.S.Lewis. One look made me realize it was a world I wanted to enter. The book was full of soft-focus photographs of Oxford quadrangles and people punting at Cambridge. There were black and white photos of Lewis and his chums swilling dark beer in dark English pubs. The book was all misty fields, quiet English rivers, the green and gold of the English countryside, roaring fires in Oxford common rooms, the heavenly glories of college chapels and the homely glories of Anglican country churches.
Ironically, it was at Bob Jones that I discovered the Anglican Church. Although the student body at Bob Jones University was predominantly independent Evangelical and Baptist, the school’s own position was ‘non denominational’. This meant that they welcomed believers from every (Protestant) denomination. However, the Episcopal Church was so liberal that we wouldn’t have been allowed to go there. But as it happened a wealthy member of the Bob Jones board was a founding member of a little church that had broken away from the Episcopal Church. I think his “influence” was the reason we were allowed to go to the deliciously named “Holy Trinity Anglican Orthodox Church.” I suspect it was this wealthy man’s influence because the week after he died the university put the little church off limits. What helps to confirm my suspicion that they were holding out for his will to clear, is that a year or so after his death the spanking new library was named as a memorial to the same man.
The little breakaway church was founded by a “bishop” who was like a character out of a Tennessee Williams play. He drove a Lincoln Continental, and had a taste for wine, and wealthy Episcopalian ladies. His orders were “valid, but irregular”. He had been made a bishop by a renegade Eastern Orthodox bishop as well as a breakaway Catholic. Despite the bizarre background, with more than a whiff of corruption, the little Anglican Church connected us with a faith that felt more ancient than the local independent Bible Church. So along with some other disenchanted fundamentalists I went to the little stone church in the bad part of town and discovered the glories of the Book of Common Prayer, lighting candles and kneeling to pray. We learned to chant the psalms, discovered Lent and Advent, and felt we were in touch with the religion of C.S.Lewis, the Inklings and the great English writers.
While at Bob Jones I had visited England a couple of times, and feeling the call to the ministry, I wondered if I might be ordained as an Anglican priest in England and maybe look after one of the beautiful medieval churches in the English countryside. For any lover of C.S.Lewis, Oxford was a kind of mecca, so when the opportunity to study at Oxford came my way I jumped at the chance and came to England for good. After theological studies the door opened for me to be ordained, and a life of ministry in the Anglican Church opened up.
It was great to spend three years at Oxford, and this whole period was a time of great growth and learning. Often it is the little bit of wisdom that makes the most impression, and I will never forget a little quotation from the great Anglican socialist F.D.Maurice. He wrote, “A man is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.” After the negative attitude of American fundamentalism and the cynical religious doubt that prevailed at Oxford, Maurice’s statement was like a breath of fresh air. It was sometimes tempting to feel guilty about leaving the religion of my family and upbringing, but with Maurice’s viewpoint I increasingly felt the Anglican riches I was discovering were not so much a denial of my family faith, but an addition to it. So I took Maurice’s dictum as my motto, and whenever I came across something new, asked if I was denying or affirming. If I wasn’t able to affirm the new doctrine or religious practice I wouldn’t deny it–I would simply let it be.
This meant that during my studies I explored the more Catholic aspects of Anglicanism. I discovered that T.S.Eliot was an Anglo-Catholic and that C.S.Lewis worshipped in his “high” college chapel and that his parish church in Headington was also more Catholic than low-church. Dorothy Sayers and Charles Williams were also on the Catholic end of Anglicanism, and J.R.R.Tolkien was actually a Roman Catholic, as was Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Through these writers I was increasingly drawn to the Catholic spiritual tradition in the Church of England. I did a special study of the history of the Anglo-Catholic Oxford movement and went to an excellent series of lectures on fourteenth century English spiritual writers given by the English Dominican Simon Tugwell. When I had the chance I worshipped at Pusey House—one of the Anglo-Catholic student centers at Oxford, and found myself gravitating to the high culture and high religion found in the college chapels and the cathedral at Christ Church. At Oxford it became clear that at the Lord’s banquet the Master was calling, ‘friend come up higher!’ (Luke 14:10.)
My understanding during all this time was that I was not repudiating my Evangelical upbringing. I was simply adding more to it. C.S.Lewis had given me a love for Mere Christianity. I wanted “More Christianity.” Through Anglicanism I was able to explore the historic faith while still holding to the Protestant basics that I considered non-negotiable. While I was happy to grow into Anglo-Catholicism, I was also exploring the renewal movement and learning to appreciate the good aspects of liberalism, like its zeal for social action and concern for the poor. I saw Anglicanism as a broad church that could include all these elements. While I was happy to be influenced by these other strands, like many Anglicans, I also wanted my faith to be cross-fertilized by the good things of Roman Catholicism.
During my time at Oxford a Catholic friend in American named June suggested I might like to visit a Benedictine monastery. I made my first visit and found myself drawn to the quiet life of prayer and study that the monks followed. After finishing my theological studies I was ordained as a curate (assistant minister) in the Anglican Church. My ministry lasted four years, and ended when I was in my late twenties. When my curacy was finished I had three months free and decided to hitch-hike to Jerusalem. So with backpack and a pair of sturdy shoes, I headed across France and Italy staying in various monasteries and convents along the route. I found my journey went best when I fit in with the monastic routine. So I would begin a day’s journey with Mass and morning offices in one monastery, say my Anglican prayers while travelling, then arrive at the next monastery in time for Vespers, the evening meal and Night Prayer.
The pilgrimage to the Holy Lands also took me further into Christian history. Part of the appeal of being an Anglican was to leave the modern ‘do as you please ‘church of Protestant America and find deeper routes in the history and faith of Europe. I wanted to be part of the ‘ancient church in England.’ Suddenly travelling through France, Italy and Greece to Israel I was immersed in a religion obviously older and deeper still than Anglicanism. The Benedictine monasteries put me in touch with roots of faith which were deeper and more concrete than I imagined could exist. Although I realized my views were becoming “more Catholic” I didn’t fight it. I wanted to “be right in what I affirmed.”
When I came back from the Holy Lands I went to be a chaplain at Kings College in Cambridge. For two years I shared in the most beautiful worship in one of the most sublime Christian buildings in the world. Although the liturgy, music and architecture were superb, the religion at Cambridge was rotten with relativism and personal immorality. I knew I wasn’t cut out for either the academic life or the cultured highlands of Anglicanism, so I started to look for a parish.
My dream of being a country Anglican vicar came true and I went to be the parish priest of two beautiful old churches on the Isle of Wight, just off the South coast of England. By this time I had lived in England for ten years. I was in my early thirties, and had moved quite far in my understanding of the faith. Most of all, I had come to regard my ministry in a very Catholic way. I knew we were separated from Rome, but I considered my ministry to be part of the whole Catholic Church. Despite the formal separation I thought of Anglicanism as a branch of the Catholic Church, and prayed for the time of our eventual re-union.
My pilgrimage thus far had been mostly intuitive. I simply adopted the Catholic practices that seemed suitable, and when it came time to question certain doctrines I looked at them and made every effort to affirm and not deny. This mindset brought me almost unconsciously to the very doorstep of the Catholic Church. What I said to some friends who were considering conversion was true of me as well — I was more Catholic than I myself realized.
As a result of this gradual process my thinking remained fuzzy for some time. Four years after I went to my parish the Church of England voted to ordain women as priests. The decision had been brewing for a long time, but I had put it on one side, and not thought about it much. But it was the final decision that helped clear my vision. For me, women ministers were not the problem. Instead it was what the General Synod’s decision-making process revealed about the true nature of the Church of England. The key question was–“Is the Anglican Church a Protestant church or a part of the Catholic Church? If she wishes to be considered Catholic then she does not have the authority to ordain women as priests. But if Anglican Church was a Protestant Church, then like all Protestant groups, guessed she could do whatever she wanted.
So when the General Synod took the decision I was in a quandary. Everything within me said a church that claimed to be Catholic could not make such a decision on her own. Yet I hated taking a negative position about anything. According to my motto that a person is “right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies”, I was denying women priests and I was wrong to do so. Then a Catholic friend gently pointed out that greater affirmations often include smaller denials. In other words you can’t have everything. Choices need to be made. Denying women priests was merely the negative side of affirming something greater–the apostolic ministry; and affirming Catholicism had to include the denial of those things contrary to Catholicism.
Once I began to look again at the different churches and the claims of the Catholic Church I realized how very strange it was to have so many different Christian denominations. How could Jesus command and prophesy for there to be “one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10:16) then we quite happily make thousands of different flocks with thousands of different shepherds? Furthermore, it seemed to me that the different Protestant denominations were identified not by what they affirmed, but by what they denied. So, for example, the Baptists were identified not so much for a mode of baptism, but by their denial of infant baptism. The Anglicans were identified not so much for their allegiance to a corrupt and depraved King Henry VIII, but by their denial of the papacy. And despite their own internecine warfare, what united all the Protestants, and made them bedfellows with all sorts of atheists and non-Christians, was their shared antipathy for the Catholic Church.
If I was wrong in what I deny, could it be that, as a Protestant, I was most wrong in my denial of the claims of the Catholic Church? I began to study the writings of the early Church fathers and got a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In our parish Bible study I took our people through a study of the New Testament Church. We considered the role Jesus gave the apostles. We considered what St Paul had to say about the Church. We considered the New Testament’s clear teaching that Church unity must be maintained at all costs. (Eph.4:3-6; I Cor. 1:10-13) We confronted the verses which taught that the Church was built of the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20) and that it was the Church through which God has made manifest his wisdom. (Eph. 3:10) and that the Church is the ‘pillar and foundation of truth’ (I Tim. 3:15) I was stunned when one lady in the Bible study said, “If what you are saying is right vicar, all of us ought to become Roman Catholics!” She had drawn the very conclusions that I was trying to run away from.
When I began to express my own increasing convictions about the strong claims of the Catholic Church the people were shocked and upset. Some had listened closely to my preaching and had seen the whole crisis coming. Others were angry and accusatory. I was being disloyal to my own troubled church. Even worse, I was calling their Christian life into question by leaving. Still others were confused and frustrated. Their feelings were summed up by a good Methodist lady who came to our church with her Anglican husband, “Surely the only thing that matters is how much we love Jesus!” she cried.
Her question was difficult to answer, not because there was no answer, but because there were too many answers. In a letter to an inquirer Cardinal Newman said, “Catholicism is a matter, it cannot be taken in a teacup.” What he meant was that Catholicism was so vast and the reasons for conversion so overwhelming and complex, that it was impossible to sum up the whole thing in a neat and pithy formula.
In one sense my Methodist friend was right, “The only thing that matters is how much we love Jesus”. Hers is the right answer, but it is also the right question. How much do we love Jesus, and how can we be sure that we love Jesus and not just our idea of Jesus? I had seen so many Jesuses amongst different Christians, and each one was strangely like that particular Christian. Charismatics saw a Spirit-filled prophet of God, people concerned with justice and peace saw a radical revolutionary who spoke for the poor, Intellectuals saw a Jesus who was cleverer than anybody else and suffered for it. The tasteful Christians at Cambridge saw a Jesus who was a kind of persecuted agnostic poet. Snobs saw a lofty Jesus who was head and shoulders above everyone else while working class people saw Jesus the carpenter.
The list could go on and on. More importantly, I began to see that my Jesus was also a reflection of myself. I’m inclined to be intellectual, contemplative and intuitive by nature. I followed a Jesus who pondered problems, went out to the wilderness to pray and found crowds of people difficult. My Jesus was one who walked a lonely path to a distant cross because that’s how I was walking through life myself.
But to follow Christ means to lose yourself, not to worship yourself. More and more I wanted an objective Jesus– one who was not my own reflection. I wanted a Christ who was cosmic, not a Christ who was comfy. Where was this Jesus to be found? In the incarnation. In other words, in his body. Where was his body to be found? The Scriptures were clear. The body of Christ was the church. Saint Paul was inspired to use this image for the Church. I had been taught that the church was the body of Christ in a symbolic way, that all of us in a particular congregation should work together like members of a body. But the emphasis in that teaching was on only one half of the image: it stressed “body”-not “Christ”. When I put the two together and saw the church as the body of Christ a window opened.
As an Evangelical I was taught that the different churches were all man-made organizations which were useful, but essentially un-necessary. Suddenly I saw the Church as the mystical body of Christ-a living, dynamic organism empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue the work of the risen Lord in the world. The Church was suddenly a sacrament of Christ. In my brothers and sisters I could find Jesus. In my service to the Church I could find Jesus. In our worship I could find Christ. In obedience to the teaching of the church I could find Jesus. By immersing myself in the Church I was immersing myself into Jesus himself and transcending the limitations of my personal walk with the Lord. But if my church was simply a gathering of people like myself, and Jesus was a reflection of ourselves, then we were only serving ourselves not him.
I began to feel that my experience of Christ within the Anglican Church was simply a larger version of the individualistic Christ I had experienced within Evangelicalism. In other words, if the Evangelical Christian was inclined to find a ‘Jesus’ who was rather like himself, then the same problem could be seen on a denominational level as well. I began to see that Anglicans worshipped a very Anglican Jesus. He was a refined, softly spoken gentleman. He was tolerant, tasteful and forgiving. He was eventually persecuted by the barbaric, bigoted religious people. There was much that was good and true in the Anglican portrait of Jesus, but there was also a fair bit missing. If individual Christians made Jesus in their own image, so did the various denominations.
The problem with a Jesus who is only personal is that he becomes private property. There were only two ways around this problem of the merely personal Jesus. One way is the Anglican way in which every opinion is tolerated and encouraged. By allowing every personal Jesus-even heretical ones-the Anglican hopes to obtain a comprehensive Jesus.
The other option is to break away into a little Christian group where everyone shares the same vision of Jesus, and that one becomes the only one. The first way is called latitudinarianism- or indifferentism. The second way is called sectarianism. In the first option every type of personal Christ is tolerated. In the second only one type of personal Christ is tolerated.
But surely both ways had an element of truth? All the different personal Jesuses reflected a dimension of Jesus Christ, but it was also true that there had to be one that was the fullest, and most complete experience of Christ. Somewhere there had to be a Church that embraced all the varied portraits of Jesus while still holding up an objective Christ who transcended and completed all the partial portraits. If Jesus’s promise to be with us always was true, and if the Church was the mystical body of Christ, then there had to be a Church which presented an objective Christ to the world in a personal way. How could any one denomination hope to present such a cosmic view of Christ since they were all founded by particular men at particular points in time for certain historical reasons? For any church to present a Christ big enough to conquer our individual portraits of Jesus it would have to speak with a special authority. To offer a universal Christ in a personal way the Church had to speak with an authority that was bigger than any one individual or denominational group. To offer a universal Christ, that authority had to have certain traits. I began to draw up a little list to outline what traits such an authority ought to have.
First such an authority would need to be historical. In order to give me a Jesus that was bigger than me this church’s teaching and experience had to be rooted in history. Through her roots in history I could share in a Christian experience which transcended my own personal feelings and cultural background.
Secondly, this authority had to be objective. In other words, it couldn’t be subject to my personal whims, the whims of my local pastor or any local prophet or teacher. The authority had to operate above the interests and concerns of the church itself. To prove its objectivity, this authority had to be spread out over a large number of people over a long period of time while remaining consistent in its themes and purpose.
Connected with the criterion of objectivity is that this authority should be universal. It cannot be the voice of just one person, one nationality, one theological grouping or one pressure group. This authority has to transcend geographical, cultural and intellectual boundaries. Not only does this authority have to be universal in geographical terms, but it has to transcend time as well. It has to be universal down through the ages-connecting authentically with every age.
But if this authority is universal it must also be particular. This fourth trait means the authority must be specified in a particular place and through a particular person. It cannot be just a vague “body of teaching” or some kind of “consensus of the faithful”. To speak to me personally it must speak with a clear, particular and authentic voice. If it is particular, then it also has to be able to speak to particular problems and circumstances. A particular authority will apply the universal truths of the gospel to particular problems with confidence.
Fifth, this authority should be intellectually satisfying. While it must be simple enough for every person to understand and obey, it must also be challenging enough for the world’s greatest philosophers. As Jerome said of Scripture, “it must be shallow enough for a lamb to wade and deep enough for an elephant to swim.” This authority must be intellectually coherent within itself, and it must be able to engage confidently with all other intellectual religions and philosophical systems. Furthermore, if it is intellectually satisfying it must offer a worldview that is complete without being completely closed. In other words, there must be both answers and questions that still remain.
Sixth, this authority needs to be Scriptural. Since Scripture is a primary witness to the revelation, this authority should be both rooted in Scripture, and founded by Scripture. If it is Scriptural it will also look to Scripture continually as a source of inspiration and guidance. While this authority will flow from Scripture it will also confirm Scripture and offer the right interpretation of Scripture with confidence-never contradicting Scripture, but always working to further illuminate Scripture.
If an authority can be shown to fulfil all six of these traits, then these are a good confirmation that the authority is not ephemeral and merely human but is of divine origin. If this authority can be found then it would be able to give my personal experience of Jesus Christ the universal depth and breadth which lifts me out of that worship of that Jesus in my own image, which is essentially the worship of myself.
The only place such an authority even claims to exist is in the Catholic Church. As a result of my reasoning, I now accepted that my faith had to be Catholic if it was to be universal. However, I still felt that I could be a good Catholic while remaining an Anglican. According to my Evangelical viewpoint, since denominations didn’t matter one could subscribe to Catholic views while remaining in another denomination.
But something still ate away at me. How could I claim to be “Catholic” while I was rejecting one of the basic definitions of being Catholic—that being Catholic means being in full communion with the head of the family of the Catholic Church, the Bishop of Rome? I was denying the authority of the Pope, and F.D.Maurice’s phrase now started to echo as a condemnation, not a force for liberation. Was I wrong in this denial? How could I claim to be Catholic while rejecting the rock on which the Catholic Church was built? I then came across Cardinal Newman’s famous Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. In a logically clear, but dense passage he says,
“If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must, humanly speaking, have an infallible expounder, else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties; between latitudinarian and sectarian error… You must accept the whole or reject the whole…it is trifling to receive all but something which is as integral as any other portion. Thus it would be trifling indeed to accept everything Catholic except the head of the body of Christ on earth.”
In other words, if I wanted the universal Jesus that Catholicism offered I had to have Catholicism too. And to have Catholicism I couldn’t pick and choose. How can you have fullness of the faith when you are still the one who is choosing what is “full” and what isn’t? To accept the body of Christ in its fullness one has to accept it all. That’s what fullness implies. If you want to be Catholic you have to accept the ministry of the Bishop of Rome.
By now I was married, and we had two young children. I had been in the parish for seven years. The Isle of Wight was a beautiful place to live and bring up a family. Not wanting to give up my ministry and my beautiful home, churches and congregations, I agreed to “accept the Pope” but remain in the Anglican Church. Before long it became clear that I could not “accept the Pope” without submitting to his teaching, and that a vital part of his teaching was that to enjoy the fullness of the faith one has to be in full communion with the faith.
St Paul’s word’s haunted me. “There is one bread and one body. We who are one body share in the one bread.” (I Cor. 10:17.) Eventually I accepted that the only way for my personal vision of Jesus to be enlarged to a universal experience of the risen Lord was to be received into full communion and personal union with his Body on earth–the universal Church.
The next few months were terrible time of indecision. Together my wife Alison and I contemplated the future. We had planned on a settled and happy life of ministry in the Anglican Church. I hadn’t trained for any other career and if we left the Anglican Church there seemed nothing but an uncertain future. Could we possible leave everything and step out into the unknown? Surely it was possible to stay in the Anglican Church a bit longer. Then one Sunday evening I went to Quarr Abbey—a local Catholic Benedictine Abbey– for Vespers and Benediction. The modern abbey is built just a few hundred yards from the ruins of a medieval abbey. As the monks chanted I agonized over the decision to leave the Church of England.
“Why this call become a Catholic?” I cried out to the Lord. “ I only wanted to serve you in the ancient church in England!”
As the incense wafted heavenward and the Christ’s body was lifted for us to adore, the still small voice replied, “But THIS is the ancient church in England.”
Then the struggles ended. My mind was made up, and in the Autumn of 1994 my wife and I began our course of instruction to be received into the Church.
When I became an Anglican I felt my Bible Christian background was being completed not denied, and as we prepared to be received into the Catholic church I realized that the same was true as we became Catholics. I could still affirm everything my non-Catholic friends and family affirmed, I simply could no longer deny what they denied. F.D. Maurice’s little snippet of wisdom had brought me across the Tiber, and in becoming a Catholic I was affirming all of Christ’s truth without a shred of denial. Furthermore, I felt that I had stepped into a church as vast, ancient and full of fascinating detail as one of the medieval cathedrals. The vistas were huge and there seemed to be more and more and more things to affirm, and that joyful affirmation, not sour denial was one of the basic rules of this new country.
Our reception took place in a quiet service one February evening in the crypt of Quarr Abbey church. That night all was harvest. There as the monks sang, and we were finally received into full communion, the simple faith of my Mennonite forebears, the Bible Christians’ love of the Scriptures and the ancient beauties of Anglicanism were all gathered together and fulfilled in a new and dynamic way in Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.