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Two-Way Traffic on Convert Street

Many volumes have recounted the spiritual pilgrimages of non-Catholics and non-Christians who have found their home in the Catholic Church. Now we have a book in which former Catholics tell us how and why they have found their new home in the Episcopal Church. The book is Finding Home (Cowley Publications, 1997). The author, Christopher Webber, combines brief biographies with extensive quotations from his subjects.

First, a word about terminology. The adjectives “Anglican” and “Episcopal” are used interchangeably. (As Episcopalians often have to remind other Christians, “Episcopalian” is a noun, not an adjective.) The “Anglican Communion” refers to the Church of England and all its transplanted branches, of which the Episcopal Church in America is one. Each branch is independent of the mother church and of all the other branches.

Listen now to these pilgrims who have traveled on Convert Street to the Episcopal Church, letting them and Webber tell us why they went in that direction. 

Like all the other converts discussed in this book, Hope Adams was raised in a Catholic family. Her father was a blunt dissenter who encouraged her to “question” Catholic teaching. The first time she visited an Episcopal church as an adult, she relates, she found everything she had known in the Catholic Church, but there was “a difference.” (She does not specify the difference.) Later she married an Episcopalian. After a Catholic priest was curt with her in the confessional, she told her husband she could not stand the Catholic Church any longer. She wanted to try his church. 

As a Catholic, Adams evidently had strange ideas about the Eucharist. She tells us that when she first received Communion in the Episcopal Church, “for the first time it wasn’t just a magic cookie, but truly the body and blood of Christ.” Some years later she and her husband were divorced. She says she had wanted to be a priest since she was four years old, so she studied for ordination in the Episcopal Church and was ordained. Adams found in the Episcopal Church “a wonderful sense of freedom.” Discussing with Webber her reactions to leaving the Catholic Church and finally being ordained as an Episcopal priest, she said, “At least we [Episcopalians] aren’t pretending to know the will of God with such precision [as Catholics do].” Having said that, Webber added, “She leans back comfortably in her chair and feels free to cross her legs.” In some bewilderment, a reader may ask, what is this new freedom Adams has found in the Episcopal Church? The freedom to cross her legs?

Jerry Lamb admits that dealing with authority had been a problem for him since college and seminary days. As a Catholic he chose the priesthood because it seemed to be a better way of serving people than teaching or practicing medicine. Looking back he could see that he had become an Anglican his first year in the Catholic seminary, because by then he had rejected papal authority. He was ordained to the priesthood in the Denver cathedral in 1966. 

A turning point in his life was the issuance of Humanae Vitae in 1968. He said Paul VI was wrong in re-affirming the Church’s teaching. The Pope should have kept silent on the issue of contraception and allowed “a certain ambiguity to continue.” (The matter of “ambiguity” is an important theme in these conversion stories; more about it later.) Lamb thought he no longer could be a priest “in a church like this.” His struggle “was finally resolved” (Webber’s words) when he met Jane Onstad, daughter of an Episcopal priest, and later married her. He began serving as an Episcopal priest and eventually was elected bishop.

Lamb likes the way Episcopalians live together. Their “freedom to question” is the source of their unity. (The freedom to question, which leads to many contradictory beliefs, is what unites Episcopalians?) The priests and the people of Lamb’s diocese, says Webber, “have very different visions of what the church should be, but they are willing to be open with each other about it and make clear where they stand.” A Catholic may ask, “After the priests and people have clearly staked out their differing visions, then what?” Lamb says that in the Episcopal Church there is “a core doctrine” that is “absolute and unchanging.” We are not told what that core is or who determines its content.

In his first clergy conference as bishop, Lamb asked, “Is there a central authority in Anglicanism?” His answer: Anglicanism has “historic roots in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Those roots are always in tension with Anglicanism’s other roots in the Protestant Reformation. In other words, the central authority in Anglicanism is two sets of roots which are in tension with each other. How can opposing sets of roots serve as a central authority for Anglicans? If the roots have anything to say—and roots ordinarily are quite uncommunicative—who can tell what they are saying? Neither Lamb nor his chronicler seems to have thought of this question.

Teresa Gordon drifted away from the Catholic Church in college. The reason, according to Webber, was that she was no longer sure “whether the Roman Church fully shared her faith.” After she married an Episcopalian and went to his church, she knew she was “home.” Indeed, she says, “If I could have tailored a church to fit my own individual specifications . . . it would be the Episcopal Church.” The Episcopal Church turned out to be exactly what she had wanted the Catholic Church to be. It is “the realization of all my hopes for Vatican II.”

Gordon gives a litany of reasons why she left the Catholic Church. She did not like the preaching; she did not like the music; she did not like the parochial school her children were attending; she did not like the leadership; there was not enough evangelistic outreach to suit her. In fact, she did not leave the Roman Church, she says; the Roman Church left her.

Colleen Sica stopped going to Mass when she was in college because she found in the Mass “no solace, no transcendence.” After graduating from law school and beginning the practice of law she met a lapsed Catholic; they married in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. She had her first child baptized in the Catholic Church but had no desire for “a continuing relationship” with the Church. She rejected the Church’s condemnation of abortion and contraception and believed women should be ordained to the priesthood. She despised the post-Vatican II liturgy. In fact, according to Webber, the Episcopal Church’s music was “the real lever” that brought Sica into the Episcopal Church.

Steve Roman was late for Mass one day, so he went across the street to the Episcopal Church. He apparently did not know the difference between the two. He liked what he saw there—especially the homily and the music—so he became an Episcopalian along with his fiancée. In college, he tells us, he had been taught by the Paulists that conscience is the supreme norm: Study the Church’s teaching, but, if you disagree with it, you have to follow your conscience. (This is false teaching about conscience.) 

Why does Roman feel good about the Episcopal Church? Because “there’s no part of my background I have to throw away. My roots are honored.” If by his “background” Roman means the teaching of the Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church hardly could honor that. In basic areas of doctrine the general opinions of Episcopalians—there is no official teaching—contradict Catholic teaching. Or perhaps Roman refers to the dissenters’ version of Catholicism he picked up in college. Episcopalians could “honor” a good bit of that.

Tony Merlo’s family paid little attention to matters of religion. They sent their children to church but themselves seldom attended. Merlo’s father, whose view of the Catholic Church, in Webber’s words, “was more than slightly jaundiced,” often spoke about the hypocrisy of Catholic priests. Merlo married Kelly Ann Latimer, a Catholic, in the Church, but it meant little to either of them. Through an Episcopal Bible study group first she, then he, was introduced to the Episcopal Church. They took a course of instruction and were received. Says Merlo: “We were two parched, dry souls, and they poured the Anglican faith all over us, and it felt so good.”

“It felt so good”: That epitomizes the Merlos’ reason for becoming Episcopalians. Why did it feel so good? Because, according to him, “there’s enough room and enough structure.” And that, says Webber, is “a good definition” of the Episcopal Church. Good, presumably, because it is purely subjective.

Janet Kochert married just after college and drifted away from the Church. Later she was divorced, met a married man, and decided to marry him. Regardless of what the Church teaches, she believed an annulment was unnecessary. Her sister, who was married to an Episcopalian, directed her toward that church, where she and Dennis Gagnon were married. Webber reports that she liked the Episcopal Church because it is “very similar to the Roman Catholic Church in many ways, but freer and more open, more democratic.” She also liked the practice of ordaining women.

Apart from the fact that she, a divorcée, could not marry a divorced man in the Catholic Church without annulments, what was the reason Gagnon became an Episcopalian? In Webber’s words, “What made the decision was size as much as anything: They [Gagnon and her second husband] liked a smaller congregation, a somewhat less traditional, less formal approach to things.” Janet’s second husband summed up his attitude in these words: “I guess I view church as just part of having a good life.”

Patti O’Kane was raised in a faithful Catholic home and attended parochial school and diocesan high school. She was active in her church. But she had a homosexual problem, and eventually, as Webber puts it, her sexuality “shape[d] her church life.” After some involvement in Dignity, a lobbying group for homosexuals who profess to be Catholics, O’Kane became active in Dignity’s Episcopal counterpart, Integrity. She started attending the Episcopal Church. What did she find there? “The theology was the same [as in the Catholic Church] and the sacraments were the same.” (O’Kane obviously did not understand the Catholic faith.)

One day, in the Episcopal Cathedral of St. the Divine in New York, O’Kane sat behind an obviously lesbian couple. Seeing them encouraged her in a relationship she had formed with another woman. She felt she had to join the Episcopal Church because it, says Webber, “had taken her so seriously.” She summed up her reasons for becoming an Episcopalian: “There was just more for me in the Episcopal Church.” Apart from its acceptance of her homosexual behavior, the “more” the Episcopal Church offered is not made clear.

Jerry Gallagher, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, vehemently opposed Humanae Vitae from the day it was issued, denouncing it as “a denigration of married love.” Webber explains that the encyclical entailed significant sacrifice. “It meant the loss of those values which seemed to Jerry Gallagher and many others to be completely consistent with Jesus’ teaching.” There is no mention of what those values were.

Gallagher applied to the Pope for laicization. According to what Webber tells us, Gallagher was not honest in his request. He told the Pope he was “a happy priest” and was not discouraged in his priestly ministry, but he was in fact very unhappy. He was in conflict with the Church on the issue of contraception. Webber explains Gallagher’s anguish: “How could he live with a church that left its members only the choice between obedience and families of limitless size, on the one hand, and hypocrisy—disobeying the church’s teaching and lying in confession—on the other?” (The dilemma thus posed is false, of course.) Gallagher also was less than candid in what he wrote to the Pope about celibacy. He spoke glowingly of “the gift of celibacy,” yet he believed that celibacy is “unnatural.” He condemned it for isolating priests from their people. Finally, he did not tell the Pope that he intended to marry Joyce Ann Kane.

The thought of leaving the priesthood gave Gallagher pain—not in the heart but in the wallet. His fiancée was teaching in a parochial school. If she married him, she would lose her job. So, says Webber, Gallagher asked himself, “How could he leave the priesthood and marry Joy, knowing it would cost her her job?” When he went to talk to an Episcopal priest about getting married, he and the Episcopal priest “spoke the same language of priesthood and sacraments and liturgy—the language of the Catholic Church.” (Ambiguity in matters doctrinal and moral is a cherished Anglican attribute. Anglo-Catholics often use the language, but do not mean the meaning, of the Catholic Church. Otherwise, they would cease to be Anglicans. If those two faiths did have the same understanding of priesthood and sacraments, then Gallagher had long since ceased to be Catholic.)

After Gallagher married, he and his wife continued to receive Communion in the Catholic Church and had their two children baptized there. (As a priest he surely knew that he and his wife had excommunicated themselves.) Because Gallagher wanted to work as a priest, they moved on to the Episcopal Church. He learned that the Episcopal Church already has too many priests for the available parishes. 

Webber does not explain this oversupply of clergy, but in another context he does mention that there are six hundred former Catholic priests now serving in the Episcopal Church. Two other factors contribute to the Episcopal clerical surplus. In the last couple of decades hundreds of women have been ordained, and many of them do not require the salary of a primary wage-earner. Then, too, the Episcopal Church has been shrinking. According to the Yearbook of the American and Canadian Churches, in thirty years the active membership of the Episcopal Church has declined by thirty percent.

Rejecting the Catholic Church’s teaching about herself, Gallagher declares that “Jesus wasn’t in the business of founding institutions or giving God’s singular blessing to a monarchical model of ministry.” (Only three other times in this book does the name of Jesus appear, always in the context of a side-remark.) Gallagher faults the Catholic Church for what he calls her deductive approach to theology. He praises the Anglican inductive approach, though he never explains what it is or how it works. He says, “We need to do our thinking inductively, as God does, and bring out what’s best in the culture.” He does not tell us how he knows that God thinks inductively.

John Mulryan entered seminary in Rome in 1958 and was ordained for the Archdiocese of New York. In the early years of his priesthood he was angered by being frequently re-assigned. His anger, Webber tells us, found a focus when Humanae Vitae appeared. Mulryan did not see how he could continue being a priest in a church that appeared to have no concern for people. He met Jan Kalna, a teacher in a parochial school, and they became engaged while he was still serving as a Catholic priest in a diocesan high school. They were married by a justice of the peace, and he began teaching in a public high school.

In the midst of a personal crisis he encountered a friendly Episcopal priest who invited him to take a course of instruction. Mulryan says of the class, “We didn’t learn much about the Episcopal Church that I can remember, but we learned it was open and accepting and tolerated ambiguity.” And he liked that. Asked what he now teaches his public school students, Mulryan’s answer is “ambiguity”: Teach both sides of moral and faith issues, he asserts, and let it go at that. “You can’t have a moral rule without exceptions or you deny God’s freedom.” Neither Mulryan nor Webber seems to realize this statement is self-contradictory. His assertion is itself a moral rule without exceptions. Mulryan is denying God’s freedom to have a moral rule without exceptions.

The final convert Webber tells us about is Matthew Fox. We learn that the Vatican “silenced” Fox because of “his innovative advocacy of a revitalized spirituality for ordinary Christians.” Innovative indeed: a “spirituality” that includes denying basic Catholic doctrines, acknowledging—if not worshiping—pagan gods, practicing witchcraft. Webber recounts what is to him the unjustified opposition of Roman authorities to Fox’s teaching.

When he entered the Episcopal Church, Fox issued a press release. (Did Matthew 6:2 cross his mind at the press conference? “Sound no trumpet before you as the hypocrites do . . . that they may be praised by men”?) His reasons for becoming an Episcopalian echo his dissent as a Catholic priest. “My decision to embrace the Anglican tradition is about including some Anglo-Saxon (and Celtic) common sense into twenty-first century Catholicism.” What would his kind of common sense have us do? He was quite specific: Make celibacy optional; ordain women to the priesthood; make the structure of the Church more democratic; use contraception to counter a disastrous “population explosion”; openly discuss (and presumably accept) “the contributions of lesbian and gay clergy”; and take away from Rome some of its power.

Webber greatly admires Fox. In the introduction to his book Webber expresses his hope that “these stories will also help point to issues for dialogue between the churches, moving us toward the future Matthew Fox has glimpsed.” That future is simply “a post-denominational, re-united church which is neither Roman nor Anglican but Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformed: simply the Catholic Church, the universal home to which God is calling us all.”

Two closely related themes run through all these accounts and the comments of the author of the book. One is ambiguity. I have already noted several comments on this subject. Webber says that many of the converts to the Episcopal Church are “searching for a church that seems better able to live with some ambiguity in the sexual arena.” “Ambiguity” means lack of clear-cut teaching. The converts Webber writes about did not like the Catholic Church’s teaching about abortion, contraception, the indissolubility of marriage, and the immorality of homosexual behavior. In the Episcopal Church they could believe almost anything they wanted to believe and still be quite at home there. Nor would there be anyone in authority who could say them nay.

“Ambiguity” in the widely-varied beliefs Episcopalians hold is not limited to the area of sexual morality. It is characteristic of all areas of doctrine. They commonly claim there is no such thing as “Anglican” theology; they simply hold to “Catholic” theology. But between what Episcopalians generally believe and what the Catholic Church teaches are vast differences and many contradictions.

At the Reformation, says Webber, the English Church “tried not to become involved” in “arguments about doctrine.” (One cannot talk about Christianity without being becoming “involved” in doctrine. For a summary of the Lutheran and Calvinistic doctrinal foundations of the English Reformers, see Aidan Nichols, O.P., The Panther and the Hind: A Theological History of Anglicanism, 1993.) Rather, they decided “it was more important to be united in worship than in doctrines and decrees.” Whatever unity the Anglican communion enjoys results from having a liturgy with equivocal language, allowing for differing and even contradictory interpretations of who is being worshiped and why.

In 1922 the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed a “Committee on Doctrine in the Church of England.” The Committee took sixteen years to produce a report of modest length. It tried to reconcile or gloss over conflicting views of the various schools of thought within the Church of England. Three subsequent reports of that committee (1976, 1981, 1987) shifted focus from the content of faith to the experience of faith. Eric Mascall, a distinguished Anglican theologian, pointed out that the members of the Committee had “lost either hope or interest in achieving agreement on the content of the faith. Not what to believe but how to believe was their concern.”

So much for “ambiguity.” The other characteristic theme of these converts’ stories is subjectivism. Their decisions to become Episcopalians were always subjective. They did not like this and this about the Catholic Church, they liked that and that about the Episcopal Church. None professed to be seeking the truth. Indeed, the word “truth” does not occur in the whole book. Scripture is ignored. In the front of the book credit for Scripture quotations is given to the publisher of a certain modern translation, but there is not a single scriptural quotation or citation in the book. So why the credit?

Webber contrasts the Catholic and the Episcopal definitions of “church” and church membership. He frames it in what he obviously intends to be a rhetorical question. “Is [the church] a clearly defined body of people who have affirmed a common set of beliefs and agreed to abide by certain standards of behavior and practice, or is it something less clear, more subjective? Is it . . . the institution that decides who belongs, or is it the individual who decides where he or she feels comfortable?”  

In another passage Webber epitomizes the subjective Episcopal approach to the Christian life. (Bear in mind that he holds to the Anglican “branch theory.” This is a nineteenth-century notion that the Catholic Church is now divided into three branches, Roman, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican. Rome and the Eastern churches of course reject this theory; only a minority of Anglicans hold to it.) He says, “We might almost say [indeed, to be accurate Webber must say] that the Anglican Communion invites its members to be ‘cafeteria Catholics,’ hoping that they, as mature and intelligent Christians, will choose those items from the menu that will do the most to nourish them.” In other words, in the Episcopal Church the individual chooses what to believe and how to behave. The issue of what God has revealed and how that revelation binds us as Christians is never posed. In this milieu persons are quite free to choose not be “nourished” by teachings—especially moral teachings—they don’t want to follow. 

This stretch of Convert Street runs between Rome and Canterbury. Traffic goes both ways. But they are totally different kinds of traffic. We can illustrate the difference by a challenge to Episcopal apologists. Show us one Catholic who is well-informed about his faith, devoutly practices his faith, obediently and joyfully accepts the authority of the Catholic Church and all she teaches. Show us one Catholic like that who reads and studies and prays and comes to the unshakeable conviction that the Church which Jesus Christ established, to which he entrusted all his truth, all his means of grace, all his authority, is in fact the Episcopal Church. Show us one Catholic like that who reluctantly leaves the Catholic Church for only one reason, because he has discovered that the Episcopal Church is the one true Church of Jesus Christ. 

No one in the Convert Street lane to Canterbury will fit that description.

In two of its documents the Second Vatican Council solemnly taught this: “They could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it” (Lumen Gentium 14, Ad Gentes 7). For those who, for whatever reason, have driven into the wrong lane, away from Rome, we pray, “Father, forgive them, for [we hope] they know not what they do.”

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