People often ask, “Why did you become a Catholic?” My short answer is, “Because I finally realized I wasn’t.” For an Anglican or an Episcopalian, that answer might make sense. They might not agree, but they can understand it. Catholics may be mystified by it.
I loved the Episcopal church, and being a priest was all I ever wanted to be. It took me a long time to accept it and admit it, but it’s true.
“Episcopalians Are Catholic”
St. Peter’s Episcopal in Fernandina Beach, Florida, is a jewel-box of a church. It was built in the glory days of the first Florida boom when the congregation was filled with people of intelligence, taste, and financial means. They used architecture to reflect the faith they believed, expressing in native yellow pine, tabby, and stained glass the reformed Catholicism of the Episcopal liturgy. The church was made for the sacraments. The priests of the parish made a lasting impression on me. Fr. Neil Gray was the most intelligent person I knew, and I believed him when he taught us in confirmation and in acolyte training that Episcopalians are Catholics who did away with corruption and superstition in the Reformation. I believed him when he taught us that our liturgy and our faith were the liturgy and the faith of the undivided Catholic Church, and that the Catholic faith continued unbroken and essentially unchanged through the Anglican and Episcopal churches. Fr. Gray and his successor, Fr. Ralph Kelley, were small-town heroes for justice during the difficult days of church and school desegregation. St. Peter’s and St. Michael’s Catholic Church were the only churches in town that had a history of racial inclusion—not perfect, but a source of pride. When the KKK threatened to burn a cross on the rectory lawn, Fr. Kelley let it be known that he owned a shotgun. That impressed me. I remember my mother planning her Sunday school class with Mrs. Frances Holliday, an African-American woman, and it made me proud of my faith and family.
Sacrament over Word
The first chink in the myth that the Anglican and Episcopal churches are Catholic came when I visited Williamsburg, Virginia, as a pre-teen. According to the myth that Catholicism continued in an unbroken line, one would expect that colonial Anglican church buildings would reflect faith in the sacramental nature of the liturgy and the church. Instead, I was surprised to see that the colonial Anglican churches looked very much like Methodist or Presbyterian churches. They emphasized the preaching of the word and not the sacraments, the plain gospel and not traditional beauty. I didn’t know what to make of it. The evidence didn’t fit the myth. But it didn’t knock me off track, either. I loved the myth, and I loved the Episcopal church.
Because I loved the myth so much, when I had choices, I always chose experiences that tended to support the myth. When deciding on a seminary, I avoided the ones that emphasized the Protestant, word-oriented roots of the Episcopal church and visited the ones that supported my preconceived notion of what the church should be. The priests I respected most recommended Nashotah House, the semi-monastic Anglo-Catholic seminary in Wisconsin. For various reasons I chose instead to go to the General Theological Seminary. GTS had a strong academic reputation, prided itself in being a “little Oxford,” and based its community life on the daily round of Morning Prayer, Mass, and Evensong. We had some great professors, whom I still admire. Fr. J. Robert Wright grounded us in the Church Fathers, and Fr. Phil Turner took us back to the last great Anglican moral theologian, Kenneth Kirk, the Anglo-Catholic Bishop of Oxford who based his texts on St. Thomas Aquinas.
“Capital C” Church?
It was while I was at GTS that I had to recognize that while the myth of the continuity of Catholicism within Anglicanism may be beautiful, it is largely untrue. As we studied liturgy and church history, it became clear that the myth I loved was largely the creation of the 19th-century Oxford Movement in the Anglican communion. What I loved about the Episcopal ethos—its beauty and sacramental focus, its style of eucharistic celebration—was inherited from 19th-century Catholicism and from a study of pre-Reformation Catholicism as it was practiced in England.
At GTS I had to face that our Episcopalian method of doing theology and ethics left a lot to be desired. It was hard to tell the difference between life lived in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and life within the seminary close. As far as sexual ethics were concerned, we were required to avoid “predatory” behavior. Everything else seemed to be approved of: In fact, the faculty came down hard on anybody who talked about seminary life to anyone outside the community. I made the “mistake” of talking to my bishop; the bishop made the “mistake” of talking the dean, and the faculty nearly blackballed me. I learned to keep my mouth shut and my head down. I studied hard, found much to enjoy about life in New York, and graduated with honors. For my thesis, I wrote about the changes in the use of blood in Old Testament sacrifice.
When I graduated from seminary, a surplus of priests meant there was no opening for me in the diocese that sponsored me, the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida. But I was privileged to find a position as curate at S. Stephen’s Church in Providence, Rhode Island. S. Stephen’s is one of the great Anglo-Catholic parishes in the northeast. It was my first experience assisting at Mass with full Anglo-Catholic ritual, great music, great dignity, and sacramental focus. When I was ordained, it was with the full understanding and intention that I was being ordained for the Catholic Church—capital C.
For 15 years I served as a priest in the Episcopal church. I loved every parish and every challenge. But these years finally destroyed the myth which formed the foundation of my love of the Episcopal church. I don’t think it was any particular innovation during those years that finally dispersed the fog. Some I embraced, some I accepted, and some I resisted. If I even mention the hot-button issues, some will say, “Aha! I knew it all along. He left because he opposed ‘X’! Fr. Davis is a reactionary! We don’t need his kind in the Catholic Church!” I’ll take that risk, because I want to share the truth of the way I finally came to be a Catholic.
To me, all these innovations—the embrace and defense of abortion and euthanasia; the opening of the sacramental ministries of the church to those not ordained in apostolic orders; the opening of holy communion to the non-baptized and the non-Christian; the ordination of women; and same-sex marriage—share a common fault: These innovations could only be embraced by a church that considers that the sacraments are not essential, that we are not actually in an unbroken relationship with a God who reveals his truth in a trustworthy way in all the ages of the Church, and that Episcopalians are free to establish new doctrines and enforce new disciplines that conflict with the universal Church. Whether I agreed or disagreed with any of them, they all pointed to the same fault. The Episcopal church is not Catholic because it makes doctrine and enforces discipline based on the ephemeral notions of what is currently important to a very small group of people who happen to take their own comfort as the standard by which to measure everything.
People sometimes tell me, “It must have been hard to leave the Episcopal church. It must have taken you a long time to decide.” Let me tell you, it was not hard to decide at all. It was quite easy. Once I realized that the answer to the question, “Is the Episcopal church really part of the Catholic Church?” is really “No. Never has been. Never will be,” the myth dissolved and I knew I was standing in the light of day. I simply knew, “If I’m not a Catholic, then I need to get to where the Catholic Church really is.” It is always easier to live in the truth than to live in a falsehood, and I’ve never regretted my decision to leave.
Reality Is Easier
The practical steps were much harder. Leaving a faith community is never easy. Trying to act responsibly toward the souls that have not shared my inner journey was difficult. Finding a way to make a living outside the comfort and dependability of a well-run organization with a very generous salary structure and pension fund was stressful. I do not recommend that anyone make the same journey assuming that someone will be there to catch him when he walks off the edge of the cliff. You’ve got to find a path, and sometimes that path goes through the wilderness.
I’ve been a Catholic now for 10 years, five of them as a priest. Sometimes Catholics wonder why I left because, for them, the Episcopal church looks like the answer to a Catholic’s dream. Some want to push one of the Catholic hot-button issues and see how I’ll react. I hardly ever do. Sure, there are issues that bother a lot of Catholics. Sure, some would make very different decisions than the Catholic Church has made. For me, it means everything to be part of a Church that does not rush things, especially the ones on which our lives and our faith depend. I am proud to be a Catholic and a member of a church that can speak the capital-T Truth to power on behalf of the world’s poor, our children, our disabled, our aged, and on behalf of the sanctity of nature and of life itself.
What it comes down to is this: Is it important to be a Catholic? If it is, then get to where the Catholic Church is. It is easier to live in the light of reality than in a myth. Much easier.