After more than ten years on the front lines of the Anglican wars, I have made a major change. This past Easter vigil, my family and I were confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church.
It’s a measure of what a long and strange journey it’s been for me over this past decade that I’ve even had to entertain the question of what kind of reaction this might cause among people I’ve never even met, or the political ripples it might send out through the various quarters of my allies and opponents.
I was raised in a straight-from-central-casting, large Southern Baptist church: The building occupying an entire city block, the Sunday service televised, communion (as it were) once a year, consisting of saltine crackers and Welch’s grape juice.
After about a decade as a more or less unchurched young adult, I married a Catholic girl, in the Catholic church, but due to a dismal experience in pre-marriage counseling classes, we quickly drifted away from the church. Following her parents - who reconciled a Catholic/Methodist marriage by joining the Episcopal Church - within a few years we were also received into the Episcopal Church. Nearly a decade of quiet, uneventful participation was followed by another decade of, shall we say, intense participation, beginning with the fallout from the consecration of Gene Robinson in 2003 : Before that, I was sitting quietly in the back pews. Soon after, I was one of the most visible Anglican laymen on Planet Earth.
That is not how I planned it to be, or even how I would have predicted it would be, but as we all know, God has his own plans for us and they are rarely what we would have chosen if left to our own devices.
Another thing I could never have predicted was that a denominational change which for most people would be a very private, and very quiet event, would for me have the potential to be a very public one that might generate some amount of noise.
Like many of you reading this, I’ve felt as though I’ve been in exile these past ten years. Unlike most, though, every one of those years I’ve been scrutinized by rectors and wardens and vestries wherever I’ve gone. With high visibility comes increased surveillance: Why am I here? What are my intentions? Do I plan to “make trouble” at their parish?
With the exception of a couple of those years when I was blessed with an orthodox rector, I’ve sat in the pew with my family, on guard for whatever false teaching or doctrinal nonsense might come out of the pulpit. Ten years of it is nerve-wracking and exhausting.
Last year when Bishop Duncan Gray announced he would allow same-sex blessing in the Diocese of Mississippi, that was the last straw. I wrote at length about the nature of Gray’s betrayal and his repeated lies to Mississippi Episcopalians about his position over the years, and in the process discovered where my line in the sand was. I have not set foot in an Episcopal church since.
In our search for a new church, we reviewed the culture and leaders of all the ones on our short list. There were churches with solid teaching and worship, but anemic or non-existent youth groups (a major consideration with a 12-year old daughter). There were churches with vibrant youth groups but some major dysfunction in other areas (for example, an outrageous sex scandal at a well-known local church). There was a very distressing sense - in a town with more churches per capita than almost anywhere in the nation - of water, water everywhere but nary a drop to drink. I am not a Baptist or a Presbyterian, certainly not a Pentacostal or a megachurch non-denom. And I’m not about to drag my family from the fire of the Episcopal church into the frying pans of the Methodist or Lutheran churches.
We opened the web sites for the few other ones on our short list. There, front and center at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle, was the announcement that the new dean was none other than the priest who had married us 22 years earlier: A Vietnam war refugee, who as a young seminarian had fled the country after the fall of Saigon, rescued by American Marines after three days at sea in an open boat. These are the kinds of signs ones looks for in times like this, and in the refugee offering shelter to another refugee, it seemed like as good an explanation as any.
We began attending services in March of last year. At first just once a month, then with increasing frequency. One morning I noticed that my daughter had recited the confession and the Creed purely from memory, while I still had to read the text to keep from reciting the Anglican versions. A month or so later, we were literally having to drag her - I mean, knock on the door and walk in and take her by the arm - from Sunday School to get to Mass on time. It was impossible not to see that she was very, very happy, a perception punctuated by the knowledge that all she has known her entire life is that her parents have been in a very public and very pitched war with her church.
So for me, a move to Rome is not about a revolution in my theology, and certainly not about a rejection of Anglicanism. It is about a very painful choice between two dilemmas:
On the one hand there is Anglicanism, an expression of faith that in the abstract - its doctrines and theology - is as nearly perfect as I believe man has ever succeeded in achieving, but which in practice has unraveled into a chaotic mess. There is of course the heresy and false teaching that infects all but a handful of Episcopal parishes in this diocese - including its bishop, its cathedral, its dean, almost all of its clergy, and a distressing number of the few laypeople who have made the effort to pay attention and learn what’s happening - but the promise of the orthodox Anglican movement outside of The Episcopal Church never materialized either. Populated as that movement is by many good people, it has the institutional feeling of something held together by duct tape and baling wire. It is beset by infighting and consecration fever, and in several of its highest leadership positions are people of atrocious judgement and character.
On the other hand there is Roman Catholicism, some of whose doctrines give me serious pause, but which in practice has shown itself to be steadfast in its opposition to the caprices of the world. Even the horrific pedophile priest scandal forces one to concede that Pope Benedict’s purging of the ranks, while not complete, was at the very least spirited, and based on a firm rejection of the “everything is good” sexual sickness that’s all but killed the Episcopal Church.
Over the past twenty years I have come to believe that worship is, properly, sacramental and liturgical in nature. The Catholic church provides that for me in abundance. And, I never have to worry about my rector - to say nothing of my bishop - advocating same-sex blessings from the pulpit, hoisting a pro-abortion banner, marching in a gay-pride parade, or indulging in universalism or Marcionism or Pelagianism or any other heresies the Episcopalian glitterati have decided is fashionable this month.
This is not to say that I find no fault in the Roman church - far from it. I would describe this new pope, for instance, as somewhere between a disappointment and a disaster. But then, that’s exactly how I’ve described the current and former Archbishops of Canterbury too.
The final point I want to make is an acknowledgement of the difficult position this puts some of my fellow bloggers in, all of them for one reason or another but especially the ones who have maintained a vigorously oppositional stance to the Roman Catholic Church and do not deem it to be a viable theological or gospel choice. I understand their difficulty with my decision - in fact, as should be obvious, I share in some of their difficulties - and I want to make it clear to them and to this site’s readers that in no way is Stand Firm now a “Roman Catholic blog” simply because I have joined that church. In “standing firm,” I have always seen myself as standing firm for orthodox Christianity. And while I understand that some may see Roman Catholicism as precisely not orthodox, by the same token I see the Anglican format, in my locale, as untenable, and non-Anglican formats as undesirable. My family and I need more than abstract doctrine with which I find no fault; we need a place for my child to worship the risen Christ without the danger of false teaching in the particularly important areas of the nature of Christ and sexual morality (areas with which I have no arguments with Rome), and to get the guidance and experience of a spiritually reliable and structurally mature youth program, something that is lacking in both the Episcopal and continuing Anglican churches in the area.
My choice to leave Anglicanism is a painful, personal one - but it does not change the identity of the blog which, though I am its founder and webmaster, is more than simply Greg Griffith. To be clear, Stand Firm has always been an Anglican blog that comments on a wide variety of subjects and issues beyond Anglicanism, and that is what it will remain, even while we have, now, writers from two different non-Anglican entities. Further, bloggers will continue to write as they please about their particular Reformed theology and Anglican vision of the Gospel.
I know some of our readers and allies in the Anglican wars have already gone to Rome. I know many others would never dream of it. I can’t predict how many people will care about my decision, but I can hope that my explanation here helps them understand why I made it.
As a consequence two things seem clear to me:
One: As I have discussed this move with several people I respect immensely, one common agreement has been that I should refrain from suggesting that conversion to Roman Catholicism is a decision that should be made lightly by anyone fed up with the Anglican mess. I think this is right for several reasons, but mainly because that’s not what I want: I don’t want to encourage a move to Rome for anyone, as long as Anglicanism is viable for them in their situation. So as a matter of blog policy, and to preserve the primarily Anglican character of the site, that is the stance I will adopt. As a practical matter it won’t make much of a difference. Writing effectively on the conflict requires tremendous amounts of constant attention, and as long-time readers know, the past few years have seen me writing less and less on specifically Anglican matters (and certainly on theological matters), in favor of wider cultural and social matters. I will continue, as I always have, to lend my technical expertise to the support of the writers here, with the goal of defending the Christian faith and defeating revisionism wherever we can. And of course, occasionally I’ll chime in on various political and social matters - even where they touch on ecclesial issues - as I find the time.
Two: Since the heady days of 2006 we have enforced a policy whereby we don’t allow converts to other denominations to use our comment threads as opportunities to bray about the superiority of their new home, and recite litanies of why everyone should abandon TEC or Anglicanism and flee immediately to [insert superior new denomination here]. I am not using this announcement to do that, and we will continue to enforce that policy on this post.
As should be obvious, I could use and would appreciate immensely everyone’s prayers. This has been a very difficult decision for my family and friends.
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