Ten Years Later: A Personal Reflection

[Note: About a year ago, I sent the following out to some family and friends. It reflects on my sojourn within the Episcopal Church. The story has been told frequently on my blog and home page. But since I have been critical of the powerful elite in the Episcopal Church–and really, such persons claiming Christianity but denigrating and abusing it as they do deserve criticism–I wanted to again reiterate that it’s not Anglicanism nor every Episcopal Church parish that I rail against. The following was edited in two places–the bracketed note in the first sentence and one misspelling. Otherwise it remains exactly as I first wrote it. And I still fully own the thoughts expressed.]

Ten years ago [at the time I then wrote this entry] in 1992, 4 October was a Sunday, and in the Western Christian calendar, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. It was also the day I worshipped for the first time in a formal liturgy. The liturgy was the Rite I service of the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The church was Trinity Episcopal Church in Lawrence, Kansas. To this day, I can recall the contemplative silence that greeted me as I entered the nave. A small handful of parishioners knelt in prayer in the minutes before the service began. I took a seat in the back, bulletins in hand, prayerbook at the ready.

When the service began I experienced a drenching in the written Word of God. Having studied Scripture on my own and formally at Bible college and seminary, I recognized the numerous biblical verses and phrases that made up the liturgy. And when the time came for the reading of the Word, I was delighted at the length of the passages–one each from the Old and New Testaments and from the Gospels, and a complete Psalm. No mere couple of verses and the preacher’s take on them. Here was the written Word itself, large portions, and enough to satisfy.

Here, too, was the Lord’s Supper, served with a reverence and quiet beauty the penetrated right through to the heart. I did not participate in the elements with the other parishioners that day–everything was all too new for me to do so with any sort of understanding–though later the Eucharist became an important and powerful aspect of my corporate worship.

You can see, no doubt, how attractive the Episcopal Church was to me. That attraction only deepened with time, and about three and a half years later I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. That decision was a complex one. On the one hand, the decision came only a few months after my wife and I left a ministry, after a couple of the most excruciatingly painful months either of has had known, where we’d been serving for about a year and a half. I didn’t handle my decision to join the Episcopal Church very well with my wife. I suppose that is to be expected, given that we’d been married less than a year when we took on the ministry, and had unconsciously put the development of our relationship on hold for a year and a half as we tried simply to survive an abusive church with our marriage intact. On the other hand, it was the culmination of a personal
journey that had gone back to my last year and a half at Bible college. I had done as thorough and patient investigation into the Anglican tradition and the Episcopal Church as I knew then to do. I had thought and prayed about it. I had intended becoming an Episcopalian as a deep, heartfelt expression of my Restoration Movement beliefs, particularly that of unity.

About six months after having been confirmed in the Episcopal Church, my parish priest and I were talking about my previous ministry experience, and the idea was presented that perhaps, having pursued a vocation of ministry in another church context, I should seriously consider doing so in the Episcopal Church. A little more than two years later, I finally agreed to pursue ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. Anna and I weighed our educational options and decided that the Chicago area would suit our combined needs and goals best, and so in January 2000 we moved to Chicago to work and pursue our vocational and educational goals.

By the time I began my studies at the Episcopal seminary, I had had inklings that things weren’t altogether healthy in the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church’s legislative body, the General Convention, which meets triennially, in 1997 passed legislation mandating the acceptance by all of the ordination of women. I, myself, at the time, was not opposed to the ordaining of women to leadership positions in the church, however, I knew that many were so opposed in good conscience. For the General Convention to make mandatory what to me was a matter of personal conviction gave me some pause.

But what was merely an honest concern in early 2000, by March 2000 had become real and honest alarm. When I got to seminary I was confronted with the acceptance of cohabiting, sexually active, gay and lesbian, as well as heterosexual, students. I witnessed first hand what can only be considered racist condescension by white affluent American students who ridiculed–albeit “politely”–the conservative and biblical beliefs of the poorer African students, students who came from such countries as Nigeria and Ghana. I endured the gutting of the liturgy I had come to love so as to remove any sort of language that might refer to God or Jesus in masculine terms. Having come from a conservative and theologically sound Episcopal diocese and parish, I had to endure in silence the scorn, derision and ridicule my bishop was subjected to by students who were clearly not his moral or intellectual equal.

There was no acclimation. It was a sudden and excruciating drenching in a theological world where humans are the measure of all things, where the only thing that counts is power and the political tools by which to wield it. No doubt the pain of the experience shows clearly. But don’t mistake me: there were godly men and women who were part of the seminary while I was there. I started an online email group for them. Nevertheless, we were by far the minority.

And it wasn’t just the seminary. The Episcopal Church’s General Convention that year (2000) passed a resolution accepting non-married “monogamous” relationships, such as cohabitation, as the moral and pastoral equivalent of marriage. In the couple of years since, heretic bishops have utilized church law in such a way as to oust conservative and traditional priests from their parishes, while in the same diocese, a priest convicted of a lewd public act has been allowed to retain his ministry.

I was ready to quit after my first term at the seminary. But ever since my dad refused to let me quit football until the season was over (of course, I didn’t quit, and kept returning every autumn till I graduated high school), I’ve only allowed myself once or twice not to see something through to the end. So I hung in there, hoping it would get better; or failing that, hoping I might find a way to influence change. Neither happened. So on Christmas Eve morning 2001 I listed about twenty reasons why I could not continue to seek ordination in the Episcopal Church. Less than a week later, I told Anna I was not going to seek to be a priest any longer. “Good,” she said. “You’re making the right decision.”

Mine is a life blessed with very few regrets. I’ve certainly committed my share of sins, and I still wince at the memory of some of them. But as far as big “life” decisions go, I’ve not got a lot I feel any regret over. I do regret not being an exchange student to Germany when I was given the chance in high school. I regret not planning my education after Ozark a little better. But by God’s grace, for most of the rest of my life I’ve lived with as much integrity as a sinner such as myself can live. So when it comes to my decision to become confirmed in the Episcopal Church, given the description above, it may come as a surprise to say that any regret I feel is a mitigated one. That is to say, I can’t just simply write off the previous six years and say, “Whew! I’m glad that’s over. Now to move on.”

Part of the reason is that it was a decision I made with my eyes wide open, with as much honesty and good faith as I could muster, and with some understanding of possible consequences. In turning down the exchange student opportunity, I pretty much acted out of fear of the unknown. In not planning my graduate education better I allowed myself to remain too confused too long about my vocation, and lost some valuable time. But in becoming a part of the Episcopal Church I was acting out my Restoration convictions and seeking something greater than the “Jesus and Me” syndrome that plagues much of modern Protestant Christianity.

Do I regret the pain, frustration and sorrow Anna and I went through at the hands of so-called “Christians”? Yes. Do I regret the temporary loss of meaningful worship, shared spiritual struggle with brothers and sisters in Christ, and a place of holy service? Yes.

But had I not gone through these past six years I would have also lost a lot of valuable insights, and lost the opportunity to sharpen and clarify my understanding of the Gospel, the Church, theology and grace. I now know better why it is important to insist on the bodily Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. I know more so now what it means to have a healthy understanding of the awful destructiveness of sin. I know better what it means to insist on holiness as the characterization of God and of our life in him. There is a great deposit of faith that has once for all been given to the Church. Having gone through this wilderness in the last six years, I now know how precious that is. And how precious the friendships I’ve made in the Episcopal Church.

I also know now more deeply God’s providential care of us. He does redeem us, and all our acts, frustrating Satan by turning evil inside out. The pain and consequences are still there, but so is grace. And I know which is more powerful. In all things he works for the good of those who love him and are called by his name. Or as the Orthodox liturgy puts it: “He is good and loves mankind.” What more do we need?

Although I never left my Restoration roots, many will have perceived me to have done so. I’ll not argue the point. But if I have left my roots, I think I have now returned to them in a much deeper and original way than once was the case. Those who will have taken offense at my confirmation in the Episcopal Church will likely not understand where this journey has now brought me. God is utterly redemptive. Humans may sometimes fail to be. So be it.

Perhaps the ultimate test of regret is to answer this question: “If I had it to do over again, would I?” Knowing what I now know about the Episcopal Church? No, I would not have chosen to be confirmed in the Episcopal Church. But knowing what it is I have gained, which arguably may not have been gained in any other way? Yes, by all means.