Episcopal Convert

R.R. Reno

R. R. Reno is the editor of "First Things" magazine, teaches theology at Creighton University and is the author of In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity (Brazos). Rusty converted to the Catholic Church from the Episcopal tradition in the fall of 2004. This reflection was written in the winter of 2005.

On a Saturday in mid-September of last year, the feast day of St. Robert Bellarmine, I was received into the Catholic Church. I pledged to believe and profess all that the Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God. The priest anointed me with the oil of confirmation. I exchanged the sign of peace with gathered friends and, after long months of preparation, I received the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Martyrs' Chapel of St. John's Church on the Creighton University campus was not where I had expected to be on that day. Three years before, I had written In the Ruins of the Church, which was a kind of manifesto against such a move from Canterbury to Rome. That book diagnosed the pathologies of my former denomination, acknowledging that it had become a smugly self-satisfied member of the liberal Protestant club. Yet I argued with equal vigor that Episcopalians should stay put and endure the diminishments of Christianity in our time. I claimed that the disordered state of the Episcopal Church had not led me to despair. I criticized the habits of evasion and strategies of escape that seemed to promise refuge in some other church, and I proposed instead the vocation of dwelling amidst the ruins.

Publication creates accountability. Hearing of my departure from the Episcopal Church, a close friend wrote a strongly worded letter reminding me of my arguments for staying put. He cited my own words against me. "I reject our desire for a liberating distance," I had written. "Our vocation is to dwell within the ruins of the Church," I had said. And again, "We need to see that in Christ we are not called to love strength and power and beauty. Ruins are not unfit for human habitation."

These words, my friend reminded me, had been read and remembered; they had led people to accept ordination or undertake new responsibilities in the Episcopal Church and in other decaying mainline denominations. Moreover, these ordination vows and new responsibilities naturally created bonds of obligation that now stood in the way of precisely the move I had made. What, my friend wanted to know, had changed since I wrote In the Ruins of the Church? Why did I opt for departure rather than staying put? Do I now think that those who continue to fight for orthodoxy in mainline Protestantism are on a fool's errand?

His questions were difficult. What had changed? A few days after my reception into the Catholic Church, a colleague at Creighton who knows my attraction to dogmatic hyperbole took particular pleasure in observing, "My, my, you look ontologically different." Kidding aside, he was certainly right on one level. I have changed. I once tried to forge a vocation of faithfulness as a loyal member of a liberal Protestant denomination. Now I am a member of the Catholic Church. I changed—I made a change. I do not think I changed my mind about theology or ecclesiology or the fate of Christianity in the modern world. I suppose that, in the end, I changed my mind about myself. All the major premises of my argument stayed the same, but the minor premises changed, and with them the conclusion.

To a great extent, I would like to think my arguments for staying put were Augustinian. In his Confessions, St. Augustine tells the tale of his search for God. As a young man he went to Carthage much as young men and women go off to college in our time. He tells of his lustful desires, his "filth of concupiscence" and "excessive vanity," but he seems to have been the kind of student most professors would love to have. In what we might call his freshman year, he read Cicero's celebration of philosophy, and the effect was immediate. "I longed," he recalls, "for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardor in my heart."

When I read the Confessions in my own freshman year, I assumed that this great awakening marked the beginning of St. Augustine's spiritual journey. Of course, there were many byways and dead-ends. He fell in with the Manicheans. Worldly ambition and sexual desire deflected him from the true path. Nonetheless, I was convinced that the journey began with a conversion to the love of wisdom; for me, the Confessions was about how Augustine had patiently followed the difficult path toward the true answer to the perennial religious question.

We tend to see what we want to see in the books we read. Our culture is one of leave-taking and it champions the seeker as the hero of the spiritual life. We think that we must brave arid deserts and snowy mountain passes on our quest for God. Recall Kierkegaard's leap of faith, William James' will to believe, and Paul Tillich's courage to be. Having read Sartre's hot rhetoric of existential choice and Heidegger's cooler image of the heroic modern man patiently walking the meadows of our disenchanted culture as a shepherd of Being, I came to believe that truth and holiness, like elves and unicorns, had been veiled and hidden in distant realms and secret forests. It was our vocation to energize our souls and get on with the search. Or so I imagined.

After many rereadings of the Confessions, I have been mortified to discover that St. Augustine does not commend the great preoccupation of modern Christianity, the quest for faith. For him, the journey of his young adulthood was a futile circular movement. Imagining himself to be a seeker after God, he was in fact ever returning to himself. What began as a projected heroic journey ended in exhausted despair. Ten years after Cicero had ignited in him a love of wisdom, St. Augustine reports, "I had lost all hope of discovering the truth." What seemed like a journey was nothing more than the huffing and puffing of a presumptuous soul that thought it could storm the citadel of God with earnest longing and good intentions. The upshot was paralysis, and as his story unfolds, St. Augustine adverts more and more to themes of bondage ("the chain of sexual desire" and "the slavery of worldly affairs"), crushing weight and exhaustion ("the burden of the world weighed me down with a sweet drowsiness"), and the irresolvable conflict of a divided will ("the agony of hesitation"). When one reads what Augustine actually wrote rather than what one imagines he must have written, the warning is clear. What had seemed a great and noble journey—to find God!—was, says Augustine, a series of delays and postponements. He had not struggled across spiritual deserts, nor had he climbed snowy mountain passes. By his own accounting, Augustine had spun endlessly, "turning over and over again," exhausting himself on "the treadmill of habit."

When I finally got my mind around the logic of Augustine's story, I was chastened. We live in a world of spiritual confusion no less disorienting than St. Augustine's. We certainly have many Carthages hissing with cauldrons of illicit loves. Just flip through the cable channels in the evening. We have Peter Singer at Princeton, a present-day spokesman for our present-day Manicheans and their crazy rationalism. I have been to Boulder, Colorado, and visited the shops that sell Tibetan prayer flags and audio CDs that promise to teach us how to achieve wholeness. Even where I live, in Omaha, Nebraska, fully surrounded by a great sea of "red states," the bookstores are well stocked with light reading for every seeker imaginable. Can we navigate through this jungle of spiritual choices? Augustine's story is a warning. Beware launching out on a search for God, for as Augustine asks, "What am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?"

The flora of the present-day cultural environment is not limited to pre- and post- and non-Christian species. First Presbyterian sits hard by Second Baptist. Saint Leo's Catholic Church is down the street from All Saints' Episcopal. River of Life Community Church has its advertisement in the Saturday paper, along with Pacific Hills Lutheran and Sunny Slope Christian and the Vineyard Church and countless others. What are we to do in this jungle of denominationalism? Are we sinful men and women equipped to embark on a project of deciding which churches are best? When church becomes a choice, will we not guide ourselves to our own self-destruction?

No doubt many will object that this is a purely negative reason for staying put; they will say it is a kind of paralysis caused by the excessively pessimistic assumption that capacities for spiritual discernment are entirely corrupted by original sin. I consider myself Augustinian, so I affirm (if that is the word) the corruption. Wherever we are—dabbling in New Age spirituality, cultivating a despairing scientific materialism, attending the local Foursquare Church—we may become acutely aware of what we are not finding, but we lack the capacity to get up and start walking in the right direction.

Still, our inability is not a condemnation to stasis. There is a journey of faith for Augustine, but the guidance comes from God, not us. Far from finding God, Augustine confesses, "You pierced my heart with the arrow of your love." Indeed, the arrows had already been loosed many times, but in his agitated desire to control his own destiny, Augustine had dodged and deflected them. Only after Augustine has recognized the vanity of his own efforts does the arrow of divine love strike its mark. In the silence of the garden, God's Word finally reaches his heart. "The examples given by your servants," Augustine reports, "burnt away and destroyed my heavy sluggishness." Then and only then does his journey begin: to baptism, back to Africa, and to Hippo.

The general principle of Augustine's own self-analysis is clear, and its relevance to the temptation to embark on our own searches for God is direct—even, and perhaps especially, when that search takes us across the strange terrain of denominationalism. "The soul needs to be enlightened," he writes, "by light from outside itself."

For the great Augustinian tradition of Western Christianity, the "outsideness" of divine light has been expressed in the principle of salvation sola gratia, salvation by grace alone. The ever-practical St.Benedict translated this spiritual insight into the vow of stability. The sinful soul will twist and turn to elude God's grasp, and for monks, this is manifest in the all-too-human tendency to wander from place to place in an effort to find a congenial community and a sympathetic abbot. For St. Benedict, this tendency is understandable. Who wants to endure the spiritual mediocrity of a less-than-ideal monastery, and who wants to be subjected to a less than saintly abbot? Yet, as St. Benedict realized, what is humanly understandable may be spiritually disastrous. For who shall guide the monk on his spiritual journey from place to place? Whence comes the light that will enlighten the heart of the seeker? St. Augustine's warning—"What am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?"—was very much on St. Benedict's mind when he made stability a key element of his rule.

But equally—or perhaps more—importantly, St. Benedict followed St. Augustine by insisting that the grace of God is real and concrete. The spiritual arrows of divine love take the form of real people, actual texts, and specific institutions, all providentially ordered by God to shape our lives. Grace comes to the monk in the unending round of daily prayer; in the ways in which living in the company of fallen men demand habits of faith, hope, and love; and in the voice of the abbot who, like the Word of God, cannot be avoided. For St. Benedict, the vow of stability, "staying put," is integral to the training of the soul. One must be still so that the divine surgeon can work his healing arts. Love is patient, and a love of God cannot be always rushing off after clanging bells and clashing cymbals—or finely appointed churches with nice lists of doctrines that one finds agreeable.

Thus, staying put would seem a fundamental spiritual discipline if we are to renounce the fantasy that we fashion our own identities as followers of Christ. That is the work of the Holy Spirit, not ours. Our job is to be still so that we might be fashioned by grace. T. S. Eliot, an Augustinian Anglican after my own heart, insisted upon the spiritual imperative of stillness in the Four Quartets.

Descend lower, descend only

Into the world of perpetual solitude,

World not world, but that which is not world,

Internal darkness, deprivation

And destitution of all property,

Desiccation of the world of sense,

Evacuation of the world of fancy,

Inoperancy of the world of spirit;

This is the one way, and the other

Is the same, not in movement

But abstention from movement; while

the world moves

In appetency, on its metalled ways

Of time past and time future.

I have no intention of retreating into Cistercian silence, but in my argument for staying put, for trying to be a faithful Christian in our strange times without moving about from denomination to denomination, I tried to do justice to the Benedictine application of St. Augustine's basic insight. We must resist the world's restlessness. We must abstain from its movements so that God might move in us.

And yet I have not stayed put. I left the Episcopal Church and joined the Catholic Church. Why? Partly because I realized that I had turned my Augustinianism into an idea, a theory, a theology. But this is obscure, and to explain I must digress into the thought of another apostate Anglican.

John Henry Newman has long been one of my favorite writers. His ability to combine syllogism with sentiment is remarkable, and I have always been romanced by the long, cloistral, silver-veined sentences that give my students fits when I assign him. I well recall first reading Newman's Apologia in Hans Frei's class on modern theology at Yale Divinity School. Frei was at his twinkle-eyed, mysterious best when he asked us just what we thought of the famous "Note on Liberalism," in which Newman deliciously translated the anti-dogmatic spirit of the age he so disliked into eighteen pithy doctrines.

Newman was to me an accelerant. His observation (drawn from his study of the Arian controversy) that "the truth lay, not with the Via Media, but with what was called the 'extreme party'" struck me as a bracing correction to the sensible liberalism of my childhood and education. He endorsed the principle of dogma. "Religion as mere sentiment," he wrote with denunciatory directness, "is to me a dream and a mockery." He had no patience for vague fantasies of spiritual fellowship. Like Augustine, he saw no hope in seeking. The basis of the Christian life is not our longing; it is the "visible Church, with sacraments and rites which are channels of invisible grace." We cannot move through the spiritual life the way we drift through the marketplace. Dogma and the sacramental system must define and circumscribe our belief. If at the time I still retained remnants of Schleiermacher or Tillich (the heroes of my youth), after reading Newman I wished to be rid of them.

Thus, I wrote In the Ruins of the Church for a dual purpose. I wanted to advance Newman's criticisms of liberalism, criticisms I took to be aligned with the postliberal theologies of my graduate professors Hans Frei and George Lindbeck. Yet, precisely because I was convinced as much by Newman's catholicism as by his antiliberalism, I wanted to do so without standing at a distance from my own church. Dogma and the sacramental system are the foundation of life in God. They are his arrows of love. I had to stay put in order to avoid drifting off into the ether of mere sentiment or theory. I had to avoid making an idea or, worse, a theology the basis for my own thought and action. In the end, I failed, and I failed in a way that Newman recognized in his own Apologia.

Newman is excruciatingly detailed in his account of his own thinking, but for my purposes, I can simply report his conclusion: he came to think that the basic rationale for Anglicanism lacked validity. Even more strongly, he came to think that Anglicanism was a midwife for a liberalism that led to atheism. I still do not think Newman correct in the way he sets up Anglicanism, liberalism, and atheism as falling dominos, but I have come to think that the Episcopal Church is disastrously disordered and disarrayed. Here my own reasons and analysis are of no more moment than Newman's. What matters is the way one responds to the judgment that Anglicanism is in ruins.

As he looks back in his Apologia, Newman reports that the realization that his prior confidence in Anglicanism was mistaken did not produce an immediate conviction that he must leave. He developed a figural interpretation of his circumstances that justified staying put. "I am content," he wrote to a friend at the time, "to be with Moses in the desert, or with Elijah excommunicated from the Temple." When I wrote In the Ruins of the Church, I also adopted a figural strategy to make sense of my situation. I clearly saw that the apostolic inheritance bequeathed to the Episcopal Church—a liturgy more medieval than reformed, a veneration of the ancient creeds, a love of the Church Fathers, a scriptural piety that did not confuse being learned with being critical—was being dismantled by a revisionist ideology that knew no limits. But I did not see myself as a prophet who hectored at a distance. I appealed to the scriptural figure of Nehemiah's return to the ruins of Jerusalem. The gates of the Temple had been thrown down, but rather than leave in despair, we should follow Nehemiah's pattern and live in the ruins of the Church with redoubled loyalty.

Under the influence of Ephraim Radner, I placed Nehemiah's return to a destroyed Jerusalem in a larger, more comprehensive figural interpretation of our situation as late-modern Christians. In his ambitious study of the history of Western Christian theology since the Reformation, The End of the Church, Radner places the destiny of the Church within the passion of Christ. Like his body crucified and broken, the divided churches in the West are undergoing a paschal suffering. Thus, I thought of staying put as a form of spiritual discipline. If I followed the path of Nehemiah and drew near to the ruins of the Church, then I would be closer still to my Lord.

Figural interpretations are not intellectual propositions that can simply be judged true or false. They are attempts to make sense out of disparate data according to patterns within Scripture, and they either compel us as deep, structuring insights, or they do not. I imagined that Radner's larger figural interpretation of our vocations as modern Christians (and my Nehemiahan figure) had the power to justify and structure an orthodox loyalty to a ruined church. I would not have written In the Ruins of the Church had I not believed that the paschal figure of Christ really is present in the increasingly debilitated and diminished forms of apostolic Christianity that one finds in the Episcopal Church, just as Newman would not have remained an Anglican if he had not believed his own figural interpretation of his situation. The problem was not that I had failed to notice that Anglicanism was a mess. Rereading Newman, I discovered that the problem was with myself and with the way in which I had come to hold my figural interpretation.

As Newman looks back on his own figural interpretation, he uses one of his most potent swear words. He calls it "a theory" that fed a "methodistic self-contemplation." Moses in the Sinai desert may be clearly depicted within the biblical text, and it may have a powerful reality in the lives of countless Christians. One thinks of Martin Luther King's own prophetic evocation of Moses the night before his death: he sees the Promised Land but he cannot enter. But in retrospect, Newman sees that his own use of the figure had lacked reality. It was a theory, an idea, a theological construct designed to fit his circumstances. He used the figures of Moses and Elijah to comfort himself, but they did not structure his sentiments and habits. He had not been, in fact, content to remain in the desert. He could not live in excommunication.

At various points after the election and consecration of Gene Robinson (a man who divorced his wife to live with his male lover) as bishop of New Hampshire, I found that my real ability to be loyal to the Episcopal Church slowly evaporated. The indifference to apostolic tradition and constraint overwhelmed me. I may have wanted to return to the ruins of the Church with Nehemiah's devotion, but in reality I was thinking bitter thoughts as I sat in my pew. The most innocuous little divergences from the Prayer Book made me angry. The sermons of my quite faithful rector were subjected to an uncharitable scrutiny. I made caricatures of church leaders and engaged them in tiresome imaginary debates. The good people of my parish lost their individuality and were absorbed into my mental picture of "Episcopalians," people to whom I would be heroically but lovelessly loyal.

The whole point of my figural interpretation of loyalty to the fallen stones of Jerusalem was to follow Christ, who so loved our destroyed world that he died for us on the cross. He did not kick the dust off his feet and leave the earthly city that rejected him. When I wrote In the Ruins of the Church, that figure seemed to have a real existence for me. "Yes," I said to myself, "I must follow the way of the cross and stay put." Perhaps I was only deceiving myself then. I am not entirely sure, but I am sure that in 2003 the figure had lost its hold on my sentiments and habits. It had become, to use Newman's epithet, a theory. Nehemiah, who goes with Christ-like love to a ruined Jerusalem, may have lived on in my mind, but my spirit was overtaken by a waspish bitterness that contradicted in my life what I had tried to argue in my book.

Modern Christianity is modern precisely in its great desire to compensate for what it imagines to be the superannuation, impotence, and failures of apostolic Christianity with a new and improved idea, theory, or theology. The disaster is not the improving impulse. I certainly wish that all Christians would expect more from their teachers and leaders. The problem is the source of the desired improvement. For Newman, "theory" is a swear word because it connotes the ephemera of mental life, ephemera easily manipulated according to fantasy and convenience. Yet in my increasing disgruntlement, there I was, more loyal to my theory of staying put than to the actual place that demanded my loyalty. It was an artifact of my mind that compelled me to stay put. Unable to love the ruins of the Episcopal Church, I was forced to love my idea of loving the ruins. With this idea I tried to improve myself, after the fashion of a modern theologian.

Modern theology is profoundly corruptive. The light of Christ must come from outside, through the concrete reality of the Scriptures as embodied in the life of the Church. The whole point of staying put is to resist the temptation to wander in the invented world of our spiritual imaginings. St. Augustine wandered thus, and, as he reports, the motion was circular and futile. Now my real loyalty to the flesh and blood of an actual, existing church was disappearing, and I was in danger of trying to navigate by my own ideas. My situation was all the more dangerous because my ideas had the tone and tenor of good old-fashioned Augustinianism.

"I will obey my faithless abbot," I insisted to myself. "Why?" I asked. "Because my theory requires it," I replied. "But then to what am I loyal—to my theory or to what God is telling me in the strange instrument of an increasingly apostate church?" By spring of 2004 the answer was clear. I was loyal only to my theory. The words of St. Augustine haunted me: "What am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?"

I cannot say whether mainline Protestantism's ongoing dalliance with apostasy prevents any particular man or woman from living in substantial loyalty to the primary instruments of divine love from within a mainline church. I have friends whose commitment to staying put is real and not theoretical. They are an inspiration to me. The faithful Episcopalian or Lutheran or Methodist who can be still and stay put out of love for the fragments of the apostolic tradition that continue to be radiant with divine love are exhibiting, I think, an enviable spiritual discipline. Moreover, the support they provide to mainline Protestantism is of incalculable value—not only to their particular communities but also to the strange and vulnerable ecosystem of American Christianity.

I had hoped to provide my friends with the support of companionship in loyalty to a ruined church, but my errand became spiritually foolish. I turned staying put into a spectral idea that took the place of a living reality. I turned it into a theory of self-appointed spiritual heroism that was neither spiritual (since it was laced with bitter anger) nor heroic (since it was notional rather than real). I perverted Ephraim Radner's scriptural figure because in the corruption of my heart I made it empty and void.

In the end, my decision to leave the Episcopal Church did not happen because I had changed my mind about any particular point of theology or ecclesiology. Nor did it represent a sudden realization that the arguments for staying put are specious. What changed was the way in which I had come to hold my ideas and use my arguments. In order to escape the insanity of my slide into self-guidance, I put myself up for reception into the Catholic Church as one might put oneself up for adoption. A man can no more guide his spiritual life by his own ideas than a child can raise himself on the strength of his native potential.

Stories of conversion to the Catholic Church can be rather tediously joyous. One might wish for some variety in such stories, perhaps something along the lines of Winston Churchill's observation that "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." But such variety as there is in conversion stories would seem to rest on the different ways in which converts describe a newly found bounty. For me, the gain was fairly simple.

The Catholic Church did not deliver me from apostasy and false teaching. I teach at a Jesuit University, so I am not naïve about just how insouciant about orthodoxy priests can be. Nor did Catholicism provide me with a neat, efficient, and trouble-free church. I do read newspapers. What my reception into the Catholic Church provided was deliverance from the temptation to navigate by the compass of a theory. The Catholic Church has countless failures, but of this I am certain: Catholic Christianity does not need to be underwritten by an idea.

A Pentecostal friend came to the Mass of reception at the Jesuit Martyrs' Chapel. He is a close friend and a man whose faith I admire. After the Mass we talked for a while. He asked me, "So, what did it feel like to become a Catholic?" I told him, "It felt like being submerged into the ocean." He reacted with a look of thinly disguised horror. That look reminded me that, while I sometimes suffer from an attraction to Emersonian fantasies of self-reliance and disdain for hierarchy, I have never wanted to be alone with God. It has always seemed to me that such a desire too easily turns into a longing to be alone with one's idea of God, and that is the same as being alone with oneself.

The ocean needs no justification. It needs no theory to support the movement of its tides. In the end, as an Episcopalian I needed a theory to stay put, and I came to realize that a theory is a thin thread easily broken. The Catholic Church needs no theories. She is the mother of theologies; she does not need to be propped up by theologies. As Newman put it in one of his Anglican essays, "the Church of Rome preoccupies the ground." She is a given, a primary substance within the economy of denominationalism. One could rightly say that I became a Catholic by default, and that possibility is the simple gift I received from the Catholic Church. Mater ecclesia, she needed neither reasons, nor theories, nor ideas from me.

This article was originally published in First Things Magazine and is used with permission from the author. To learn more about First Things please visit their website.

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