I knew, coming into the Episcopal Church, that many priests were quite a bit more “liberal” than was I. Some of my then primary “diagnostic tests”–literal six-day creation, traditional authorship of biblical books, infallible inspiration of the biblical texts–revealed quite a bit of ambiguity on the part of many of the clergy, though not all, whom I encountered. But the words of the 1979 prayerbook were orthodox as far as I could tell, the creeds were said, and there were still many orthodox priests and laity in ECUSA. I simply assumed that both could exist together; that I would be free to live and practice my faith as I’d always done. We could, in short, agree to disagree. But just a little more than one year after I’d been confirmed, I began to see the warning signs that others, unbeknownst to me then, had pointed out for quite some time.
The General Convention of the Episcopal Church, its national legislative body, in 1997 did two things that gave me pause: it called into question the nature of apostolic succession by loosening the traditional requirements for the consecration of a bishop–as part of an ecumenical agreement proposed with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America–and mandated women’s ordination.
I was far from a strict legalist on apostolic succession, having come to a new appreciation of it in just the previous few years. But I knew instinctively that for the Episcopal Church to loosen its requirements on one characteristic that found its way into that church’s very name, was to forecast its willingness to forego other essential aspects in other ways.
Similarly, though at the time I was in favor of the ordination of women and knew little concerning how it had come about in the Episcopal Church, I knew that mandating a doctrinal matter on which there was not complete agreement was an issue that spoke more in terms of political power-grabbing than it did in terms of serious theological reflection and discussion. It also gave the lie to the broad-minded, liberal, inclusive reception that ECUSA claimed to extend to any and all who entered her services.
Even the liturgy for which I’d developed such an appreciation, was rapidly changing and innovations were proliferating. Make no mistake, I had been far from “traditional” when it came to liturgy. I had never subscribed to the notion of a return to the 1928 prayerbook. Indeed, I had appreciated the variety apparent in the 1979 prayerbook itself, not to mention other so-called “supplemental liturgical texts” which had been made available. I made use of as much variety as I could.
But in spring of 1999, I became aware—with the purchase of Enriching Our Worship, the newest forms of approved supplementary liturgies—how the variety actually weakened the intent of the prayerbook tradition of “common” liturgy. It was primarily in the texts for use in the daily office that this realization came home to me. I found that the proliferation of opening versicles, the increasing numbers of canticles, and so forth, actually began to distract from the recitation of the daily office. Indeed, the apparent sociopolitical agenda behind the inclusion of some canticles was patently obvious. I was becoming aware that liturgical reform was potentially another name for sociopolitical causes. Variety was apparently little more than propaganda.
As the next few years would show, this was just the tip of the iceberg as far as my growing realization of the state of affairs in the Episcopal Church. The very next General Convention in June 2000 would see the passing of a motion that made non-marital sexual relationships pastorally equivalent to holy matrimony. It would also see the setting up of a national task force to ensure compliance with the canonical change requiring agreement with and implementation of women’s ordination. I became increasingly aware of the unwillingness or inability of the orthodox clergy in ECUSA to denounce, depose and/or excommunicate avowed heretics such as John Spong, I. Carter Heyward, and William Swing–persons who publicly renounced the beliefs the Church has always held regarding the Trinity, the person and work of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, the bodily Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and so forth.
Even all this, aware of it as I was, may not have done much other than to trouble my mind about the national church “out there” somewhere. My home parish, rector and bishop, were all orthodox in faith and practice, and similarly were critical of the direction the national church had taken. My parish priest had encouraged me in seeking ordination in ECUSA, reasoning that if I had been called to ministry in the Stone-Campbell churches, I might well have a vocation to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. I at first ignored his encouragement.
At the end of the summer in 1998, my wife and I moved to Baton Rouge so she could pursue her library degree. While there, we frequented the nearest Episcopal parish, which happened to be the chapel on campus. But even in the deep South, I could not forget my former priest’s encouragement to seek ordination. So in early 1999, I sought out the local parish priest to inquire about ordination to the priesthood. Beginning there in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, then transferring back to my “home” parish in Lincoln, Illinois, I spent the better part of three years slowly working through the processes of discernment as to whether I had a vocation to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. I decided to move to Chicago to go to seminary—and pursue other doctoral studies.
That move to Chicago at the beginning of 2000 was almost immediately the end of my time in the Anglican Church. Though I had largely ignored the troubling developments in the Episcopal Church nationally, given the orthodoxy of the parishes in which I worshiped, when I moved to the Chicago area to explore my possible vocation to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, there was no way I could bury my head in the sand, as it were. I attended a seminary that endorsed same-sex relationships by allowing same-sex partners to cohabit. All the liturgies were systematically denuded of as many references to God the Father as possible. I was seeing day by day the living out of what were formerly only “news items” about national church.
I think most devastating of all, was the sharp contrast between my previous Bible college experience and my experience at the Episcopal seminary. Previously at my other schools, almost nothing was ever said about community, inclusiveness and diversity. Yet I quickly and easily formed a generous circle of acquaintances who were genuinely concerned with my welfare. The schools had their cliques, to be sure, but no one was ever shunned, and one would as often dine and hang out with one’s friends, as with those with which one generally had little in common. And the diversity in terms of minorities and ethnicity was far greater than the largely anglo, upper middle class, and Democrat seminary to which I had come.
At the seminary, my experience was just the opposite. I was shunned by most due to my willingness to publicly announce my traditional beliefs. I actually had one female seminarian approach me after class one morning, following a discussion on abortion, and ask me, point blank, when I would be leaving the Episcopal Church, since it was obviously a denomination with which I was out of step. In another instance, after writing a paper criticizing bishops for advocating for same-sex blessing rites instead of laying a foundation of solid Christian teaching from which Christians could address questions of sexuality, the professor gave me a B and largely avoided speaking to me in any way outside of class—even to the point of ignoring my greetings as we passed one another in the hallways. Diversity was a slogan to be sure, but not a reality, as the fundamentalism of belief (albeit liberal belief) was so much stronger than any I had ever experienced at my previous schools.
Adding to the painfulness was the growing realization of the futility of the search in which I’d been engaged. I’d come to the Anglican tradition looking for the connection to the historic Church, for its adherence to Tradition (in the sacraments and liturgies, and apostolic succession, as well as the creeds) and its monastic ethos. I found instead the mere structures of these things; inside all was empty. For a church to erode its adherence to apostolic succession for the sake of an “ecumenical” pact, calls into question its claim to the designator “episcopal.” For a church to unleash its individual bishops as the sole ecclesiastical interpreters of the canons in their dioceses calls into questions its synodality and therefore its viability as anything larger than specific dioceses or even congregations. For a church to so clearly ignore the rampant heresy evident in pronouncement after pronouncement from leading clergy, calls into question its retention of the name “Church”–the body to which the faith has been once for all delivered. Indeed, long before I had taken up the road to Canterbury, the adherence to Tradition had begun to erode. I was merely witnessing a church’s public, divisive and consequential fall.