By Neal Michell
This essay is in three parts: The first, which follows, is autobiographical. It recounts my spiritual journey from the evangelical church of my teenage years (back) into the Episcopal Church, as well as the influences along that journey. The second part, which I will post in coming weeks, will recount what attracted me to liturgical/sacramental worship. The third part will explores what aspects of liturgical/sacramental worship still nourish my soul.
In 1985 Robert Webber, a former theology professor at Wheaton College and Northern Baptist Seminary, wrote a now famous book of stories of evangelicals who had left their free-church traditions to join Episcopal churches. Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail also described the reasoning behind his movement from a fundamentalist/evangelical background to the Anglican liturgical/sacramental tradition.
I was sort of one of those. My family had begun attending an Episcopal church when I was six years old. We quit attending when I was 11, and I found my way into a Bible church, truly fundamentalist and evangelical.
By the time I arrived at college, I had become increasingly dissatisfied with the churches I had been attending. I began a spiritual and intellectual journey to deepen my faith. The fundamentalist churches had no real answers to the uncomfortable questions that I was asking, and the non-fundamentalist but evangelical churches were too linear and lacked — in my opinion — any sense of the numinous holiness of God. I learned that my mind did actually matter to God.
In my freshman year I joined the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter on my college campus. The journey was begun. InterVarsity helped me to embrace and explore the intellectual side of my faith that had been missing in fundamentalist churches of my teenage years. No question was out of bounds; no area of inquiry was off limits. And, of course, in that wonderfully sophomoric (“wise-foolish”) way of college student inquiries, several of my IV cohorts and I were trying to discover the “right” church that God wanted everybody to join. We explored such questions as: What is the right church? Isn’t our InterVarsity community a valid church? Why shouldn’t we be able to have the Lord’s Supper just among us, and isn’t it just as valid as that of a “normal church”? With that questioning came a certain disdain for the organized church.
I (we) concluded that our InterVarsity fellowship was not really a church. Of course, IV is a parachurch organization, but I was coming to all this inductively, so I was exploring church affiliation from the bottom up and, unknowingly, through a vision of the Church that had been formative for four writers who would become my spiritual and theological mentors. I was reading all these books, though, not to find a church but to help form me as a disciple.
Each of these writers proclaimed a Christian faith that was neither sectarian nor denominational per se. Their Christian vision articulated the contours of a faith with a distinctly Vincentian character, as that “which has been believed by all Christians in all places at all times.” Although they were not sectarian in their writings, they wrote about the Church in a way that led me to the Episcopal Church— but that is to jump ahead of the story.
Before college I had been introduced to C.S. Lewis through The Screwtape Letters. No one recommended it to me; I happened upon the book one day and began to read more of this unknown-to-me Oxford professor. His writing, his way of describing the Christian life, made me want to read more from him. And I did — voraciously. Then, through InterVarsity, I discovered Your Mind Matters by John Stott. He gave me permission to explore my faith intellectually. I went from several of Stott’s books to Knowing God by J.I. Packer. I was hooked on these writers.
The fourth writer was Thomas Howard. Christ the Tiger was a sort of spiritual autobiography in which he recounted his journey — from the certainty of his religious upbringing through the uncertainties of college and his time in the Army, until he came to the conclusion of the beatific vision of the Incarnation and redemption at the heart of the Christian faith and life.
Although I did not realize it at the time, they all had one thing in common: they were Anglican. Unbeknownst to me, these four men were like midwives leading me into the Episcopal Church through their writings, though none of them wrote explicitly about Anglicanism.
Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out this church thing. In my college town I had visited several non-denominational evangelical churches, Baptist churches, Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker, as well as the Catholic Student Center, looking for the “right church.” I even joined First Baptist Church for about a year. (I suspect I may still be considered a member; Baptists don’t clean their membership rolls too often.)
A friend in college, Sul Ross, kept inviting me to his Episcopal church in Austin. I kept declining Sul’s invitation, telling him that “God has long since left the Episcopal Church.” I finally ran out of other churches to try, and to get my friend off my back, I visited St. David’s in Austin. Shock of all shocks, I had found, over my strenuous objections, my spiritual home. The church of my childhood would become my spiritual home. I had the awareness and devotional sensitivities of a lifelong Episcopalian and the passion and informed understanding of a convert.
What drew me so readily to this church of my childhood? This church that I had been taught to mistrust, even suspect their salvation? This church that I had believed “God had long since left?” That follows in my next post.