Former Anglican vicar Fr. Dwight Longenecker spent several years as a freelance Catholic writer before his ordination as a Catholic priest in 2006. He continues to write regularly for This Rock. This, his conversion story, was first published in November 1999.
It was 1990 and the Anglican Deanery Clergy Fraternal had gathered in my parish hall for a discussion on the “Decade of Evangelism.” Each of the parish clergy was asked to say briefly what he thought should be done about evangelism in his parish. The Anglo-Catholic piped up, “It’s about getting people back to Mass. Bottoms on pews.”
“Haven’t we got to make the liturgy attractive enough for them to want to come?” said the younger Anglo-Catholic. “If the parish isn’t attractive, why should they come to Mass?”
“Ah,” the sound evangelical smiled, “surely it’s not so much about church services, but about sharing the Good News of the gospel with those who are still unsaved.” The liberal Anglo-Catholic was more modest. “I think I would want to say that the thrust of evangelism in our day is showing the world a church that cares for them where they are.”
“We just want to lead people into a new experience of the Holy Spirit in their lives,” said the evangelical charismatic.
The tall, middle-of-the-road liberal from the next parish looked perturbed at the extremism from his colleagues. “I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone in my parish what might be right for them spiritually,” he drawled in a superior way.
“That’s right,” piped up the plump rural dean, “because there is no such thing as an objective theology.”
An (Eccentric) American Dream
I had come to be a country vicar in England as a result of my version of the American dream. It was, admittedly, an eccentric version. I didn’t want to be president or a rich businessman. By the time I had graduated from the Fundamentalist Bob Jones University, I had a severe case of Anglophilia. I had visited Britain a few times and, after studying English literature, had decided that I wanted to follow in the footsteps of [17th-century poet] George Herbert and be an English country parson.
At Bob Jones University I was introduced to the Anglican Church through a little Episcopalian schismatic group called the Holy Trinity Anglican Orthodox Church. In a stone chapel in the bad part of town, we liturgically starved young Baptists discovered prayer books, candles, Anglican chant, and the religion of C. S. Lewis, Oxford, and England.
So when the chance came to study theology at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, I jumped at it. I completed the course and was put forward for Anglican ordination. After serving as a curate and a school chaplain in Cambridge, I accepted the living of two country parishes on the Isle of Wight. After nine years, my American dream had come true. I was happy and planned to stay there for a long time enjoying the rural idyll of being an Anglican country parson.
In Search of the Whole
During my training at Oxford I had found my taste in worship moving away from the evangelical low-church style. I went to Pusey House, where fine liturgy mixed with good music and excellent preaching, and as I moved through college to a curacy and eventually to my own parish, my understanding of the Anglican Church became more and more Catholic. I understood that I was ordained not so much into the Anglican Church but into the Church of God. My orders were catholic in the widest sense, and my appreciation of the Church of England deepened as well. The romantic notion of a Herbertian idyll matured into a more profound desire to be a part of the ancient Church in England—the Church whose roots were in the faith of the apostles.
I realized that my run from fragmented and harsh American Evangelicalism was not just an escape to a fairytale England. It was a search for a faith that was historically rooted—a faith that was unified and universal. Furthermore, I wanted a faith that was comprehensive. I had been intrigued by a quote of F. D. Maurice’s: ” A man is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.” The Fundamentalist religion of Bob Jones was fissiparous, negative, and narrow, so Maurice’s dictum seemed eminently sane. As a result I wanted to affirm the good things about Evangelicalism, Catholicism, liberalism, and the charismatic movement. What disturbed me was that I didn’t seem to meet many others who wanted to hold together the Evangelical’s high view of Scripture, the Catholic’s sacramental theology, and the liberal’s social conscience—all enlivened by the renewal movement’s Holy Spirit. Everyone else preferred either a bland Anglicanism or one of the party lines.
I thought this comprehensive sort of church existed in the Church of England, but by the time I went to my parishes on the Isle of Wight, I had become increasingly disenchanted with Anglicanism without figuring out why. Ever since my time at Wycliffe Hall I had visited Catholic Benedictine monasteries on annual retreat, and when I went to the Isle of Wight I established close links with the monks at Quarr Abbey. My friendships with Catholics continued to be close, while my connections with fellow Anglican clergy were increasingly few and marked by a bewildering fragmentation and alienation.
Blessed Are the Relevant
That deanery meeting in 1990 was the chink in the wall. The rural dean’s comment brought me up short. He who thought there was no truth had spoken the Anglican truth. Many of my fellow clergy and a good proportion of the bishops openly agreed with the rural dean about there not being any objective theology. Furthermore, they saw this as a strength. As a Vatican representative said in an ecumenical address to the Anglican bishops, they had turned theological relativity into a kind of “postmodern beatitude.”
The rural dean’s belief that “there is no objective theology” meant that ordinary parish choices had to be made not on theological but utilitarian grounds. Everything from choice of liturgy to the most crucial questions of sacramental practice and moral theology were made on relativistic principles. In other words, the decisions were made not according to what might be true, but what worked—what people found “useful” and what the congregation wanted. Of course, some clergy turned to Scripture for answers, but they were left to their own biblical interpretation. And if a minister did decide according to Scripture, his interpretation was likely to be contradicted not only by the priest in the next parish but by his bishop as well. In such a relativistic climate it was indeed safer to choose a course of action by what was useful instead of what was true.
I thought that the church was infected with a symptom of the age. But the more I thought about the history of the Church of England, the more it seemed that relativity was written into its genes from its conception. From the time of Elizabeth I, the agreed doctrine was that there was no agreed doctrine. Theological positions were embraced or abandoned as a matter of political expediency. Could it be that our society caught the relativist infection from the church rather than the other way around?
Theological Pogo Stick
Although I was attracted to Anglican comprehensiveness, the lack of any objective theology, which was part of the bargain, made my private prayer and public ministry seem like a daily attempt to dance in quicksand. But what were the alternatives?
Fides et Ratio did not come out until a few years after I became a Catholic, but the issues it discusses were with me not only in the daily routine of parish life but in the gaps when there was time for thought, analysis, and prayer. In it, Pope John Paul II points out two errors that are reactions against relativism. One is rationalism, in which the theologian assumes certain intellectual propositions to be true and bases his critique of religion on his erroneous philosophical conclusions. This position clings to the sort of truth that can be discovered by human reason alone.
But because rationalism relies solely on human reason, it often arrives at the wrong conclusions. I had heard that the Anglican theological position was a “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Tradition, and reason. But those who said this usually placed human reason as the ultimate authority, because time and again their rationalism found reasons to dismiss uncomfortable or unfashionable segments of the Scripture and Tradition. What they really promoted was not a three-legged stool but a theological pogo stick.
John Paul points out that the other alternative to nihilistic relativity is fideism. If rationalism promotes human reason as the sole authority, then fideism does just the opposite. It doesn’t trust human reason at all, and places one’s whole trust in faith. This faith is focused blindly in one particular interpretation of Christianity or one particular teacher’s views to the exclusion of reason and all other viewpoints. Fideism seeks a refuge from relativity in faith without reason, just as rationalism seeks a refuge in reason without faith.
But John Paul affirms that objective truth can be known. He urges that faith and reason be used together to understand and proclaim objective truth, but he recognizes that a third factor is necessary that is bigger than both faith and reason. This element is an external authority that is able to validate and critique the findings of theology and philosophy.
But what kind of authority exists that can stand as judge over philosophy and theology?
Seven Marks of the True Church
I would say this authority needs seven characteristics to work effectively:
First, it should be historical—both rooted in history and with a long-term perspective that enables it to consider the whole historical development of thought. It must have stood the test of time.
Second, this authority should be objective. It should be separate from any one philosophical viewpoint and be able to judge philosophical matters above the concerns of self-interest.
Third, this authority should be universal—corporate in such a way that it transcends national, cultural, and individualistic boundaries.
If it is universal, it must also be particular. It cannot be a vague “body of teaching.” It must speak with a clear and particular voice.
Fifth, this authority should be intellectually satisfying. It must not only be intellectually coherent within itself, it must also be able to contend on the highest intellectual level with philosophers and theologians.
Sixth, this authority needs to be scriptural. Since Scripture is a primary witness to revelation, this authority should be both rooted in Scripture and founded by Scripture.
Finally, this authority should claim to be divinely given. If it fulfills the other six traits, it’s a good confirmation that the authority is not ephemeral and human in constitution, but is in fact of divine origin.
The Catholic Church is precisely this authority. No other authority can make equivalent claims. Some authorities can claim some of the seven marks of authenticity, but none but the Catholic Church can claim all seven. So John Paul quotes Vatican I and says, “In the light of faith, the Church’s magisterium can and must authoritatively exercise a critical discernment of opinions and philosophies that contradict Christian doctrine” (50).
The Song of the Ancient Church
If Peter—and, by extension, his successors—was the Rock, then I really was between a rock and a hard place. I was loath to leave the Anglican Church. I was not only reluctant to leave my beautiful country vicarage and two ancient parish churches, I hated the idea of leaving my ministry. I was supported in both parishes by good, sensible, prayerful, and believing Christian folk. For all its faults I was fond of Anglicanism’s gentlemanly way of “muddling through.” I liked most of the clergy I disagreed with. I could see that they were personable, sincere, and devoted pastors. Furthermore, after two years in the parish I married and soon had a couple of children. Country vicarage life in England’s green and pleasant land was good. It seemed an ideal place to settle and bring up a family. In addition, I didn’t like some of what I saw of the Catholic Church. If it were simply a matter of choosing a church I liked, I’d still be an Anglican.
The pressure was mounting. Could I make the step to Rome? I hadn’t trained for any other career or profession. I had a wife and young family to support. At the same time I was reading Eamon Duffy’s monumental work, The Stripping of the Altars. All the Protestant propaganda about the corrupt and moribund pre-Reformation Church crumbled in the face of Duffy’s relentless accumulation of facts and documentation. To make matters worse I began to read the apostolic Fathers, works that I had never been encouraged to read in my Evangelical training. I was astounded to find them Catholic through and through. As Newman had discovered, any trace of Anglican or distinctively Evangelical thought was completely absent in the early Church.
By now I was a regular at Quarr Abbey. If I was quick I could slip away on Sunday afternoons for vespers and solemn benediction and still get back to my parish for evensong. One Sunday afternoon as the monks’ plainchant ascended with the incense, things came to a climax for me. I told God just how I felt. I resented the move I was being asked to make. I was just getting settled in my marriage, my career, my parish—my dream. Now it was being pulled out from under my feet.
“Lord,” I cried silently, “I only wanted to be part of the ancient Church in England!” Then, as the monks resumed their chant, and the incense filled the sanctuary, the still small voice replied, “But this is the ancient Church in England.”
Three months later on a cold night in February, with a handful of friends, my wife and two small children and I went into the crypt of the abbey church at Quarr and were received into full communion with the Catholic Church.
Built on Rock
If living within Anglicanism was like being in a hall of mirrors, then being united with the Catholic Church was like being in a hall lined with tall windows. Within the Anglican Church I had looked for a church that held a high view of Scripture and the sacraments and reached out with a social conscience enlivened by the Holy Spirit. What I had tried to construct on my own I found waiting for me within the Catholic Church.
Within Anglicanism I found a sense of history and continuity, but within Catholicism I found a history and continuity that went back not 500 years but 2,000. I had wanted to affirm all things, and in the Catholic Church I can say that my whole Evangelical and Anglican experiences have not been denied but fulfilled. I can still affirm all that my non-Catholic friends and family affirm. I simply cannot deny what some of them deny. That night in the crypt of Quarr Abbey, I ceased chasing my own dream of a church and submitted to Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. There—with a sense of both loss and relief—we entered a house built not on shifting sands but on the Rock.