A conversion to the Anglican Way is never a short story. I will start mine with my college years. Up to that point, I was raised in the United Methodist Church for 16 years, then left with my family to an independent evangelical Bible church. By the time I entered Patrick Henry College I was a Reformed Baptist, combining Calvinist insights into soteriology with Baptist ecclesiology and views of ordinances. I was looking for something deeper than your typical evangelicalism — a “nice fundamentalism,” an off-shoot of 1800s revivalism, that ties itself to individualism and makes the worship per affect an overly self-expressive view of worship and showmanship, rather than discipleship. I came to see that individualism seems to make the worshipper affect an overly self-expressive view of worship and showmanship, rather than discipleship. I also became aware that its impoverished form of worship was cut from the rest of the church in time, from the saints living and dead.
To capture what I wanted in a religion that spoke my evangelical vocabulary, I sought out the idolatry of primitivism. I tried to freeze the Baptist theology in time and place, right in 1600s England, when it was dependent upon borrowed capital from the magisterial Protestant Reformers. At this time, the Baptists were still quite confessional, and order rather than a chaos was typical of their individualistic interpretations of Scripture. I credit church historian D. G. Hart with enlightening me on this point — his deconstruction of American evangelicalism still influences me today. Nevertheless, as I continued through the classical curriculum at my school, I became aware of various “isms” that would drive me into the reformed catholic field.
First, there is the heresy of Gnosticism which holds that the physical realm is inherently wicked or inferior. It is “dirty” and needs to be transcended through knowledge. By extension the gnostic thinks that the spiritual life involves escaping from man’s God-given state. But this runs counter to the idea that God created all the world good and that Christ Himself honored the physical with His Incarnation. I drew a conclusion most devastating to my theology. The sacraments recognize God’s action in this world, and there was no room for sacramental notions in the Baptist understandings of Baptism or Eucharist. It appeared to me that I had formerly thought of the Christian life as being simply about abstract ideas: the “salvation decision” or, in the case of Calvinism, the ordosalutis, when from the beginning the church has viewed God as acting through physical means by objects taking upon supernatural qualities. I struggled with this for years.
Second, I learned about Donatism. This schismatic notion was criticized by St. Augustine for its misunderstanding of the grace of baptism. The Donatists were Christians who suffered persecution and because of their own suffering they would not accept Christians into the church who had been baptized by weak bishops and priests who had denied the faith under persecution. Augustine recognized this as an attack on God’s grace and the universality of baptism. God’s grace works through the sacraments; the baptizer, although morally flawed, is not effecting the work – he is but a conduit participating in a ritual commanded by Christ. Baptism is “once and for all”; requiring rebaptism (as nearly all Baptists today do) attacks its universality.
My third and last “ism” is perhaps the most abstruse: nominalism. I could better describe this final difficulty within certain Protestant circles as lack of “philosophical breadth.” After I read Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences and took a metaphysics course, I became convinced of the existence of universals: forms, natures, essences. I wanted to participate in an old philosophical conversation within the church over the centuries. However, in some forms of Protestantism, nearly everything pivots on an act of the will. Christians talk of human will rather than human nature, they emphasize membership in the church as a salvation decision, an exercise of will. We stop asking if certain doctrines or practices are proper to the nature of a thing itself.
By my senior year, my mind was already thinking like an Anglican. I was shocked out of my complacence when Fr. Elijah White of the Church of Our Savior at Oatlands addressed the student body at chapel. Here, he presented practical reasons for liturgy and the Prayer Book with his characteristic acumen, dry wit, and unassuming graciousness. When Fr. White urged us to consider that God wants us to worship Him with all our senses in the beauty of holiness, and that habitual worship forms our true character, I immediately knew what he meant. I realized that I had been angry and frustrated, trying to force Baptist theology into a sacramental, liturgical frame. I concluded that I must root myself in the apostolic faith and ancient habits of the Anglican Communion. Looking back, I think that all the hand-wringing and spiritual wrestling were a search for a pearl of great price.