Like six generations before him, Pawpaw was a Mennonite. My father’s father grew up on his uncle’s farm in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. He ran away to Philadelphia and became a businessman, but eventually he came back, married, and brought up his family in the strong Protestant traditions of the Brethren. At the same time my mother’s father — from the same Anabaptist roots — was moving out of the Reformed church which had ‘gone liberal’ to find strong Bible teaching for his family in an independent chapel.
Ancestors on both sides of the family had come to Pennsylvania from England, Switzerland, and Denmark, following their Protestant consciences to find freedom of worship. They were strong pioneers, pilgrims of faith.
Both my grandfathers kept up the tradition of the spiritual search. They moved out of their set religious world to discover a new way. But there was an irony in their search for the new. In rejecting liberalism they were rejecting the new. They were really looking for the pure faith. They wanted to find the old ways and walk in them.
Just after the war a new generation was going to college. The evangelist Bob Jones drew together Bible believers from all different denominations and opened a college that offered the old-time religion and promised a return to the fundamentals of the faith.
Dad and Ma, along with all my aunts and uncles, went to Bob Jones University — first in Tennessee, then at the new campus as the yellow buildings rose out of the red clay of the South Carolina piedmont. They stayed at Bob Jones for a couple of years. The spirituality in our home was more determined by our English and Germanic Christian heritage than by the hell-fire preachers of the deep South. Our Amish and Mennonite blood meant we valued hard work, discipline, and high moral standards.
We weren’t Mennonites any more, but our self-image and outlook were uncomplicated and pleasantly isolationist. Spirituality consisted of a profoundly simple prayer life combined with a reverence for Bible reading, quietness, and the joy of living in the country.
By the time we’d finished school Pawpaw was on the board at Bob Jones. After being brought up in an independent Bible church with a Bob Jones pastor, it was natural for me and my brothers and sisters to head to South Carolina for college as well. So in the late seventies I spent four years at Bob Jones University-the fortress of fundamentalism, a bastion of bigotry, a hollerin’ hellfire sort of place where even Billy Graham was branded a liberal.
Most of the stories about Bob Jones University are true. The ones that aren’t are probably understated. During my time there the regime was about as repressive, aggressive, and regressive as possible. There really was a chain link fence around the whole campus. I still haven’t figured out whether it was to keep us in or keep intruders out.
The psychological and spiritual fences were far more insidious than the physical ones. The psychological and spiritual damage done to vulnerable young people lasted long after their departure from the “fortress of faith.”
There were two gates of grace during my time at Bob Jones. First, on Sunday nights we were allowed to attend evensong at the juicily-named, Holy Trinity Anglican Orthodox Church. This was a little stone church that used to belong to the Episcopalians, but had been taken over by the Anglican Orthodox, a breakaway Episcopalian sect with a renegade bishop.
There a few liturgically starved Baptists tasted of candles and vestments and stained glass windows. There we lovers of C. S. Lewis discovered musty prayer books, evensong, and everything Anglican. We joined the choir, sang chants, got confirmed by the vagrant bishop, and learned about the Eucharist.
The little coterie that went every Sunday could be forgiven for the snobbery we held against the hoard of shouters and shriekers. One Baptist accosted a friend with the comment, “You Anglicans never say ‘Amen!’ at your meetings.” The A nglican replied, “We do say ‘Amen,’ but we say it all together and at the right time.”
The Anglican Orthodox Church was a strange little place, but there in the bad part of Greenville a door opened into another world. The atmosphere hinted at a Christian world that existed beyond the narrow bounds of Bible Baptist churches. Like the stable in Narnia, that little church was larger on the inside than it was on the outside.
We were allowed to go off campus on Saturdays to work for townspeople. We put our name on a list, and anybody who needed a worker came and picked us up. By the finger of providence I started gardening for June, a retired botanist. She was a gentle, sophisticated lady who lived in a cabin like Thoreau and happened to be a Catholic. On the other side of the wall was the Poor Clare monastery where June’s daughter, sister Mary Lucy, was the superior. June had moved to Greenville to be near her daughter and had become an unofficial hermit attached to the monastery.
June and I became friends; the Saturday work sessions grew shorter and shorter as we spent more time laughing and talking about books and plants. Without being aware of it, her cabin and woods became a weekly retreat for me from the angry noisy-ness of Jones-town. June never once spoke of religion, but her quiet Catholic faith had a depth and permanence that didn’t need defensiveness and aggression. Instead ofloud words June showed a gentleness so full of grace that it touched me and touches me still, nearly twenty years later.
One hot Spring Sunday evening in the little Anglican church I was wrestling with my future. Should I aim for an academic career or ordination? As the reader prayed, the words of his collect came through clear and still-“that we might serve him in simplicity, beauty, and singleness of mind.” So with singleness of mind I set about seeking ordination. I’d been to Europe on student missionary programs and decided I wanted the real thing. I’d go to England to study. George Herbert was my hero, and I wanted to be an English country parson. Only problem was-I didn’t know anybody on the other side of the Atlantic. So I wrote to J. I. Packer through his publishers and asked if he would recommend any seminaries in England.
He wrote a polite letter recommending three. I applied for Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, and through a combination of eccentric people and divine guidance was accepted. With all the ignorant enthusiasm of a twenty-two-year-old I set off for England. The Oxford I found in 1979 was at the cusp of great change. England was still quaint and old-fashioned. Oxford still smelled of C. S. Lewis. It was a world of shabby tweeds and flamboyant undergraduates. Then Oxford, like the rest of England, was mellow, soft, and slightly ridiculous in its wonderful superiority.
I made the most of my three years in Oxford, studying hard, cycling to choral evensong at the cathedral, New College, or Magdalen. I was at an Evangelical Anglican college, but found C. S. Lewis’s clear, hard “mere Christianity” was gradually being superseded by the intellectual beauty ofT. S. Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism.
June wrote faithfully and suggested I visit Douai Abbey. She was an oblate of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Anselm in Washington, D.C. and thought I might like to learn more about the Benedictine way. So I wrote the guest master and made my way to the Abbey during the next holiday. I was welcomed into a world as alien to Evangelical Anglicanism as the Anglican Orthodox Church was to Bob Jones. Even then I recognized a new reality. Here was a life sophisticated and learned, but at the same time simple and profoundly modest. Anglican clergy always seemed so self-important. In contrast the monks rattled about in their black robes with a somber sense of self-mockery.
My visits to Douai continued as I finished my training and prepared to be ordained. By my third year at Wycliffe I was going to lectures on spirituality with the Dominicans at Blackfriars and worshiping every Su nday at the AngloCatholic shrines of Pusey House and Mary Mags.
By now I had accepted, almost unconsciously, a Catholic view of the sacraments and ordination. Somewhere along the line I had come to understand that I was being ordained not into the Church of England, but into the Church of God. As I was ordained I entered the twilight world of all Anglicans. I accepted all the theories of apostolic succession, but at the same time I played down the priesthood, saying I believed in “the priesthood of all believers.”
There is a deep inconsistency at the heart of Anglicanism. For all its beauty and claim to comprehensiveness it is a divided church. There is no real agreement between Evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics, and liberals in the church. They believe radically different things and are held together only by their being English. For Anglicans theological language is only “a way of speaking.” The modern Anglican doesn’t believe in any objective theology. When an Anglo-Catholic talks of the Real Presence or apostolic succession, he is merely using a form of poetic language he happens to like that is no more valid or true than the words Evangelicals or liberals happen to use.
The Anglican Church is the ultimate Protestant body because you can stay within it and believe whatever happens to appeal to you, and nobody will say “Boo!” They can’t insist on orthodoxy or appeal to shared beliefs because there aren’t any such things for Anglicans.
On the other hand Catholics use language as a connecting point to real, solid truths. The language is almost as concrete as the thing it represents. The contrast is shown by the comment of a Catholic bishop. He said with all modesty, “I am not a successor of an apostle, I am an apostle.” An Anglican bishop would never dream of such a claim.
I served four very happy years as an Anglican curate. I had kept a love and reverence for Scripture, but little else from my Evangelical days. I made an annual retreat at Quarr Abbey, another Benedictine house, and through a holy Anglican minister had learned to make my confession and receive some much-needed counseling.
I needed to do a second thing before I could apply for that country parish I knew would fulfill my dream. I had three months before my next job as a school chaplain, and I was off to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem-hitchhiking and staying in Benedictine monasteries along the way.
I think my attraction to the Benedictines is my Mennonite background haunting me. The ideals are similar. Like the Mennonites, the Benedictines turn their back on the world and pursue the simple country life of prayer and work. They live a deliberately outmoded style of life and embrace simplicity, hard work, and quietness. The black-robed Benedictine processing into choir is brother to the black-hatted Mennonite bucking the traffic in his buggy.
Like every pilgrimage my journey was outward and inward. Each day I walked by faith, and each day, not knowing it, I was moving closer to Rome and Jerusalem and further from Canterbury. As I visited Lisieux, Mont Saint Michel, and the great abbeys of France, I began to taste a religion bigger than Anglicanism. The religion I sampled in France had a new quality I couldn’t at first define. There was a reality, a hard down-to-earth concreteness, that Anglo-Catholics couldn’t claim. The only way to explain it is to say Anglo-Catholic worship was like reading the biography of a famous person, but French worship was meeting the person himself.
As I crossed the Alps and descended into Italy, I stayed in a monastery that claimed to have been founded by Peter and Paul. Suddenly I was in physical contact with the apostles. Pilgrimage brings you into the sudden realization of the physicality and historicity of the faith.
At Bob Jones I had been attracted to Anglicanism because it was the religion of George Herbert, John Donne, C. S. Lewis, and T. S. Eliot. Now the Catholic Church sang deeply of loyalties far more ancient and venerab le than a handful of English poets.
The effect was even greater as I continued through Greece to Israel and Egypt. This was the heartland of Christianity. Here were the very stones and roads and landscapes of the New Testament. In the midst of this Anglicanism was represented by St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem-a quaint, urbane outpost of English colonialism.
I returned to England looking forward to my new job as chaplain at Kings’ College, Cambridge. I was to work at the school for the choristers teaching religion and English and taking services. This was surely the height of Anglican religion. I worshiped daily in one of the most sublime churches in Christendom. Every evening the daily office was sung by the finest choir in the world. Each Sunday morning the Eucharist was sung to a beautiful Mass setting by Mozart, Haydn, or Vaughn-Williams. Everything was in place, but something was missing.
I couldn’t place the Dean’s religion. It was a sort of weary liberalism which seemed to be Christianity watered down to a mishmash of spirituality, aestheticism, and common sense. It was a frozen-food type of religion-attractively packaged, but insipid, tasteless, and un-nourishing.
At the same time the college chaplain didn’t seem to find it inconsistent to live with his male partner and go to social functions with “Rodney.” His attempts at being radical and gay were only a tired, shallow conformity to the politically correct scene at the university.
The religion at Kings was all form and no content. There was no doubt about the beauty of the music, the glory of the building, and the deep sense of history and tradition. How sad that it went no further. I’d been a sucker for the beauty, tradition, and prestige, and I was unhappy.
I began to realize that I didn’t have much in common with Anglicans. I remembered the vigor and concrete reality of the Catholic faith I’d experienced on pilgrimage. I went back to the Anglo-Catholic church and even stood outside the Catholic chaplaincy one day-about to go in and offer myself for the priesthood. But a still, small voice said, “Not yet.”
I resigned from my post at Kings as soon as possible and applied for a country living on the Isle of Wight, a small island off the south coast. It was a beautiful place to live, the bishop was a good Anglo-Catholic, and most of all it was the home of Quarr Abbey, a Benedictine house in the Traditionalist French congregation of Solesmes. The Isle of Wight was my dream come true. I was the country parson of two ancient parish churches. In addition the Christian community was lively and growing. The spiritual life was thriving.
After two years Ali and I married. We settled into the big Victorian vicarage. We were blessed with two beautiful children. I loved taking services and ministering pastorally. I went regularly to Quarr Abbey for worship and fellowship with the monks and visited my friends in French monasteries once a year for retreat. I forgot that impulse outside the Catholic chaplaincy in Cambridge and thought I could remain as a comfortable Anglo-Catholic country parson for a nice long time.
In November 1992 the Church of England voted to ordain women to the priesthood. I knew it was coming, but thought the measure would be defeated. The vote immediately focused my mind on some real issues. The division in the Anglican Church was suddenly clear. This was not really an issue of whether women could be priests. The real question was whether the Church of England was a Protestant church which could make women ministers or a Catholic church which could not ordain women as priests.
After the vote I went to an Anglo-Catholic support group. It became clear that the Church of England had declared its colors. It was definitely a Protestant church. The Anglo-Catholics were coming up with all sorts of intellectual ways around the decision, but they were all far-fetched and improbable. I realized that to be a good Catholic in the Church of England you had to be a good Prot estant. All you could do was defend your own corner and your own type of beliefs against all comers. This is essentially a Protestant mentality.
I went to see the Catholic bishop. As I poured out my frustration I said, “But the Anglican clergy and bishops don’t seem to understand what the apostolic succession is all about.” “Of course not,” he replied gently, “otherwise they would become Catholics.”
So Ali and I began instruction with Fr. Joe, a young Canadian monk at Quarr. We began by reading Dei Verbum. Joe, a former Evangelical, stressed how Catholics give equal weight to Scripture and the teaching of the Church. Catholic Christianity believes in revelation passing through the divine institution of the Church.
This was the heart of our debate within Anglicanism. People now had to take sides. It was all very simple-either you believe in a relative religion or a revealed religion. If the first, you can happily choose what you want to believe and remain a Protestant. If the second, your only consistent move is to become a Catholic.
Then things came together suddenly. I saw that every church believes in its own authority, it’s just that Protestants won’t admit it. At Bob Jones they said they believed in sola scriptura, but Dr. Bob used to shake his big Bible and yell, “If you disagree with me you disagree with this book.” His interpretation was as infallible as the book itself.
Every denomination has its own pope. We all need someone to give an interpretation of Scripture that will hold our religion together. If every denomination has some sort of pope, how liberating to accept the best one, the only one. As Joe explained the history and workings of the papacy, I was reading the documents of the early Church. Funny how they’d never mentioned the early primacy of the bishop of Rome at any of the Evangelical colleges!
So we continued our discussions, dealing with all the big issues for Protestants. Again and gain the documents of Vatican II were clear, compassionate, and uncompromising. Time after time the teaching was consistent with our modern world, yet complemented and grew out of my study of the documents of the early Church. As we covered each topic I began to realize that my friendship with Catholics was more than a coincidence. I was friendly with Catholics because for a long time I was more in communion with them than with Anglicans.
Ali and I discovered that we’d actually been Catholics at heart for longer than we’d thought. As we went each week for our instruction it was more a case of recognizing and understanding truths which we’d held, but never articulated or completely understood. The process, as many have said before, was a coming home.
On a February night in the crypt of Quarr Abbey our Protestant pilgrimage was fulfilled as we were received into full communion with the Church of the apostles. This moving on yet moving back was another step in the long pilgrimage of my forefathers. Like my grandfathers, my moving to something new has really been a search for something old.
Any valid step in pilgrimage has this dual function. It may be a step into something new, but it is also a return to something we had neglected or rejected. The Greeks always said learning was not g.asping something new, but remembering something we’d forgotten. In T. S. Eliot’s words, “the end of all our exploring was to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
That night all was harvest. The monks who gathered in solemn joy to receive us could have been serious Mennonite elders. Certainly all things Anglican had come to fruition and were completed in that simple ceremony. Even the pain and anger from the Bob Jones experience was gathered up and reconciled.
Now we’re beginning a new life of worship in communion with Fr. Joe, June, and a new family of brothers and sisters around the world. We’ve found joy in a faith as solid and real as the gospel itself. It isn’t as outwardly beautiful as Anglicanism or as superficially certain as Fundamentalism, but it has a beauty and reality that shines as clear and hard as eternal diamond.