Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.– Jeremiah 6:16b (NIV)
As my friend Blake told me a while back, the proper response to my conversion to Anglicanism is, “Well, yeah,” as if it was the most obvious thing in the world for me to do. This wasn’t always the case, but a few blog posts have tracked my gradual direction over the last few years.
Indeed, within a few months, if all goes as planned, I will be ordained a transitional deacon in The Anglican Church in North America. It’s been a long road, and there will still be at least a year more on my journey to the priesthood. Growing up in a nominally Baptist culture, and even remaining Baptist during my days at a United Methodist college, who would have ever thought I would turn out Anglican? Yet here I am. But how did a low-church Baptist boy from the North Georgia mountains ever end up in a liturgical tradition like Anglicanism?
The earliest hints may have been from when I began to own my faith through classes in my hometown’s Christian Learning Center. I have written that whole experience elsewhere. However, Anglicanism’s appeal to me comes from the same place that made me drawn towards a particular room in the building that had been converted into a chapel. Something about the walls, painted earth colors to resemble sandstone, along with the bare wood pulpit, communion table, and benches, echoed of something ancient. That room felt deeply rooted and peaceful, and I loved it.
In college, I experienced structured liturgy for the first time through the school’s Methodist chapel services. At first, I balked. It felt redundant. Why did people say the same things week after week? Yet, I began to connect with the ancient history of these prayers and that reciting them so often committed them to memory. Meanwhile, I was introduced to the Church’s deep artistic history and many Christian movements I did not previously know in my two art history classes. And, of course, that class is where I met Francis.
Francis of Assisi, that is. My art history professor used the 1972 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon to teach the class about medieval church architecture—it features a remarkable imagining of the old Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. Besides the scene in that beautiful sanctuary, however, I was overwhelmed by the humility, simplicity, and appreciation of nature’s beauty that saturated Francis’ character. I later learned how much influence he had on another of my other Christian heroes, the late singer-songwriter Rich Mullins. Along with this most humble Catholic saint, I was also getting to know, through books, other Christians who would lay stones on my Anglican path; specific among these were C.S. Lewis, John R.W. Stott, and J.I. Packer. I’m a sucker for initials.
What impressed me about Lewis, Stott, and Packer was their primary emphasis on the great doctrines all historic Christian traditions had in common; they were not preaching “Anglican” theology. Of course, this approach is, as it turns out, at the very heart of Anglican theology. Early Anglicans were quick to distance themselves from Roman Catholicism and many of its particulars. Still, there was a much more careful, often more meticulous approach to reform than on the continent. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and those surrounding him, such as transplanted continental reformer Martin Bucer, were top-notch Early Church scholars. They mined the ancient resources well and worked to avoid the bitter divides between reform movements they had seen on the continent. As Anglican theologian Gerald Bray says in his biblical-systematic theology, God is Love,
Although it is firmly Protestant, classical Anglicanism does not promote devotion to a particular founder or doctrines and practices that distinguish it from other churches. It is best understood in terms of what John Stott called Basic Christianity or what C.S. Lewis called Mere Christianity… Basic or mere Christianity is not a shallow faith but draws deeply on the revelation of God’s Word and seeks to embrace all who submit to its authority in sincerity and truth. It is fully Catholic, fully Orthodox, and fully Protestant because it is firmly grounded on the Bible and on its teaching alone.
This appeal to “mere” Christianity, the focus on those things which all Bible-believing Christianity had in common, was, and is, enormously appealing to me.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. In college, I certainly met the writings of Lewis, Stott, and Packer. However, it was still years before I would hold a Book of Common Prayer or attend an Anglican service. I was still a Baptist among Methodists, a “Reformed” Baptist, no less—five-point Calvinist and all. I even became president of the Baptist Student Union. After college, I spent 15 months as the youth pastor of a small Baptist church; then, I moved to Louisville to attend a Baptist seminary.
Cracks formed quickly through both classes and the campus culture. I found some of the theological arguments of my professors unconvincing. These disagreements happen and are nothing to worry about; the problem is when those differences mean you might not fit in with a denomination. The first of these occurred in my first year when studying the Lord’s Supper, a.k.a. Communion or the Eucharist. Of the argued positions regarding the meal’s substance, I found least scriptural, least historical, and least compelling the standard Baptist “memorialist” position.
Meanwhile, I didn’t jive with many of my fellow students’ somewhat pretentious air, leaking down to them from some in the administration. It certainly wasn’t everyone, but combined with an element of culture-combativeness, it spoiled the school’s atmosphere for me. Luckily, three things occurred that preserved me as I gradually found myself a square peg in a round hole. These came in the form of a church, a friend, and a professor. Each, in their way, would lay stones on my Canterbury trail.
(Continued in part two)
(Cover: 1662 Book of Common Prayer with Canterbury Cross. Photo © Jacob A. Davis)