An Anglican Convert
What prompted you to move away from Protestantism?
Protestantism is founded on the idea that each person ought to form their theological beliefs based on what they see the Bible to be teaching. The assumption is that if a Christian goes to the Scripture with honesty and integrity they will find the truth on any ‘primary’ theological issue they might ask. The idea is that the Bible is clear to any honest seeker (i.e. perspicuous)
But that simply doesn’t happen. Sincere, honest, intelligent Christians find themselves on all sides of theological issues and not just on so called secondary issues, but on primary issues and even about what constitutes a primary issue. To make matters worse many of these positions were mutually incompatible primary issues: someone had to be wrong! This is what Christian Smith calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (pip).
Since my 20s I felt the impact of pip in two ways. First, the more Christians I met and respected, the fewer things I could say that Bible unambiguously taught. I met sincere and honest believers of all stripes. Since I couldn’t call them dishonest or unintelligent, the Bible could not be perspicuous on the issues on which we disagreed.
Second, the amount of decisions I had to make was getting larger and larger, especially as I went through Seminary. Not only were there big issues to consider (open theism, annihilationism, molinism, etc.) virtually every phrase of the Bible had endless nuances. Eventually, I began to ask myself, “To what extent are my theological beliefs right now just ‘Kent’s religion’?”
As a result, I could no longer see how this Protestant method was able to provide any substantial or convicting spiritual guidance.
What were the alternatives that avoided those problems?
If you can’t rely on individual’s ability to interpret the Bible, you need a theological authority. Genuine authority needed to be assigned, not seized. In other words, it needed to be handed down from the apostles all the way to the present. Honestly, it wasn’t that hard to find these kinds of churches. There are only three streams that even claim to have that kind of connection (i.e. holy orders passed on via apostolic succession): Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism.
Why choose Anglicanism?
Anglicanism is the most ‘catholic’ in the sense that it embraces all branches of the catholic church. It recognizes the holy orders of Orthodox and Roman Catholicism (though the favour is not reciprocated). It acknowledges that Protestant denominations are real churches with genuine works of the Spirit going on within them. I couldn’t accept a denomination that made protestants second class citizens of the kingdom. Although there was beautiful sacramental theology in the Roman Catholic tradition, I found myself unable to accept their focus on the invocation of the saints and some of the more extreme honours bestowed on Mary.
If Anglicanism regards Protestant churches as legitimate, why not just stay in a Protestant church?
As I was transitioning into the Anglican church, I would have answered this question by focusing on the duty we have to stay in communion with the historic church. I would have said that once you see yourself as schismatic, it is wrong to remain in that state. (If someone doesn’t see themselves in this light, as my family and friend’s don’t, then there is no moral wrong.)
However, now that I am Anglican, I would answer the question differently. In a word: the Eucharist. The entire point of congregating as a church and worshipping is the Eucharist (aka the Lord’s Supper, Communion or Mass). This isn’t just a theoretical point; it is an experiential reality. I admit that I was skeptical when I first wandered into an Anglican church, but I can’t deny that spirit has been undoubtedly healed by my partaking of the Eucharist, Sunday after Sunday. Even my wife (who is certainly no Anglican) has noted the huge difference it has made. I have seen family and friends break down in tears during their first communion services. I have also learned that the celebration of the Eucharist has been recognized by Christians as a doctrinal and liturgical priority in the church from the earliest times: the central purpose of gathering together as the church is communing with Christ in a special way in the Holy Eucharist.
There are many other reasons too. The liturgy is beautiful. It has properly preserved the tripartite ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon. It recognizes the seven sacraments. It passes on centuries of wisdom from all the different strands of our ancient faith.
Has your decision to become an Anglican been hard on your family?
It has certainly been hard on my wife. She doesn’t want to give up her heritage and she worries about the sustainability of alternating between two churches. She wonders how the kids will handle two differing Christian views (Anglican and Mennonite) and she fears it could make them cynical and skeptical. The kids (5 and 2) are young now, so they don’t really know that attending different churches on alternating Sundays is unconventional. It does bring up interesting questions though. Our 5 year old daughter was asking about Baptism and I told her that it was something that all Christians did. “Well, daddy I love Jesus, I’m a Christian aren’t I?” she asked. “Yes little one, you are,” I replied. “So when did I get baptized?” she shot back. Of course, Anglicans and Mennonites have different views on the doctrine of Baptism, so my wife and I need to be very diligent to speak of each other’s perspective with the utmost charity in our explanations to our daughter. In one sense, it’s actually helpful because we learn to always speak of the views of other denominations with profound respect in front of our kids.
Why make the transition to Anglicanism if it is hard on your family? Are you just being selfish?
I had to ask myself the question: is this conversion to Anglican Christianity something that is optional? Am I just stubborn and selfishly pushing the church of my choice on my family? The conclusion I came to is that it’s not just a matter of preference. Given that I believe the value of the Eucharist to be paramount, and that staying in communion with the church worldwide is a requirement, I would be disobedient to neglect the Lord’s Supper and the authority structures that I believe Christ instituted in his church from the beginning. Furthermore, my family needs a father with spiritual vitality which Anglicanism certainly does bring.
You’ve admitted that you were ‘stuck’ and unable to pray for many years. Did Anglicanism help?
Not so much in getting me ‘unstuck’ and out of the funk, but it did help grow me after the intellectual obstacles were removed. I was stuck because I didn’t know how I could praise God for the good, without blaming him for the bad. It is the area of apologetics known as theodicy. In the end, my best friend introduced me to Molinism as a solution to my intellectual problem. It is a little complicated, but the basic idea is that, before creation, God looked at every possible world he could create, taking into account the free choices people would make in each world, and God chose to realize this universe as the best possible universe with inhabitants that had truly free choices. So when we get to even the smallest thing – nice weather on a trip – I can say, “Thank you God” with full intellectual integrity. Why? Because I know that God built this world, knowing that I would enjoy this moment and that was one of the reasons he chose this world. So, in the words of the prayer book, “It is right to give him thanks.”
Of course, the church’s established prayers already have this wisdom built in. In the daily office (the prayers prayed daily in the morning) we pray:
“Thank you for all your blessings”
How is your experience of Anglicanism different from that of being Protestant?
I now have a priest and a spiritual advisor. Because my spiritual advisor is clergy, he has spiritual authority, so I don’t just ask him for advice, I’ll ask for permission to do things (which my wife thinks is very weird) and I respect his decisions as that of the church’s. This is both a relief and a challenge.
Church services are liturgical. You read (recite) many set prayers (as Christians have done throughout all of history). These “read” prayers include the Psalms, the Daily Offices in the Book of Common of Prayer, and the prayers said during the liturgy of the Eucharist. Sunday services are way more structured: everyone confesses their sin and receives absolution before partaking of the Eucharist. I kneel during certain times of prayer in church (and in my private prayers at home). I cross myself. I bow before the altar whenever I walk by it in church. I use prayer beads. I’m even looking into icons. Some of those things feel weird and even pretentious when you are first doing them. Eventually you recognize the beauty in these actions because they represent new ways you can honour and show reverence to God. I value them greatly.
In terms of doctrine, I find that Anglicans are content to say less than other catholic expressions of Christianity. In particular, Roman Catholicism will, for example, explore the mystery of the Eucharist in fine detail with the explanations contained in its doctrine of Transubstantiation. Anglicans err on the side of brevity and while acknowledging the presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, we are content to say far less about the mysterious spiritual and theological inner workings of this sacrament. That seems to hold true for much of Anglican theology. Just compare the size of the Roman Catholic catechism to that of the Anglicans!
Although these experiences differ from those I had as a Protestant, in many other ways the experiences are similar. To me, Anglicanism isn’t a shift away from Protestantism – it is the fulfilment of everything in Protestantism.
What’s the most pronounced difference in your life of faith now that you are Anglican?
Every Anglican convert might answer this question a bit differently, but I have a very clear and immediate response that comes to mind. As a protestant I spent a lot of time “wrestling” with my faith. I spent of a lot of time trying to sort out theological questions. I chose apologetics as a specialization for my Master’s degree just for this reason.
Since becoming Anglican, I find most of my time is spent focusing on being Christian. Rather than wrestling with issues about prayer, I spend the majority of my time enjoying my daily prayers. I soak up the Eucharist. I bask in the liturgical calendar. I’ve joined the Order of Saint Matthew where we work with a spiritual director on 8 practical aspects of our faith. In brief, I now spend more time enjoying being a Christian whereas before I spent more time trying to sort through what Christian faith was and how it all worked out.
Does this make you less cynical?
Definitely! I used to see cynicism as a badge of intellectual honesty for one who sees the logical and practical difficulties in our faith. However, I now strive to protect and cherish ‘Christendom’ in the same way I would my wife: not by being willfully naive or oblivious to her shortcomings, but in being unwilling to pile on a gossip bandwagon or give anything but the most charitable interpretation of her actions and character.
I find myself a ‘fan-boy’ of my faith and unintentionally acting as an advocate and ambassador simply because I now see that loving Christ’s church is a natural extension of loving him!