By Jay Mullinix
I don’t care much for work travel. I am loath to be away from my wife and three children in Wichita, Kansas, for much more than a weekend, and on those few occasions when my work requires it I tend to approach the ordeal with all the enthusiasm of a condemned man approaching the scaffold.
When I was sent in mid-December to spend 12 days in Dallas, however, a real measure of anticipation offset my usual sullenness. As a theological conservative, I was glad for the chance to worship in the Diocese of Dallas, a diocese not only founded and built by one of my heroes (Bishop Alexander C. Garrett), but one in which several contemporary leaders and writers I highly esteem are resident: Bishop George Sumner, Victor Lee Austin, William Murchison, as well not a few regular contributors to Covenant and The Living Church.
I planned to spend my Sunday in town at Church of the Incarnation, a large parish near uptown Dallas. As a lover of the Anglican choral tradition, I had long wanted to hear its renowned choir. My excitement only increased when I found the parish would offer its annual service of Nine Lessons and Carols that Sunday. The service did not disappoint, and I called my wife afterward, flooding her with adjectives of increasing superlative intensity and insisting that henceforth we just had to make visiting Incarnation it a yearly occurrence.
The liturgy that morning, though, occasioned a more visceral personal response. To hear traditional Anglican chanting of the psalm, something I so rarely have the joy of experiencing, was exquisite. I thrilled at the majestic cadences of Rite I and Cranmer’s matchless liturgy. And when we knelt before Communion and prayed the Prayer of Humble Access, I was so emotionally overcome that tears spilled from my eyes.
Yet when we rose from our seats and walked to the rail to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, I took from the priest only a blessing, obedient to what my church asks of me.
I am an Orthodox Christian. My path into Orthodoxy was hardly unique. After a youth spent in the thick of American evangelicalism, I encountered liturgy and beauty in worship through the Episcopal Church, in which I spent six years before being chrismated, along with my family, into the Orthodox Church just over two years ago. I have met dozens of other Orthodox (including a half-dozen priests and one monk) who have made the same evangelical to Anglican/Episcopalian to Orthodox journey. Where I differ from every one of them is that on most days I still long for the Anglicanism I left behind. I am, you could say, a reluctant Orthodox Christian.
It is not my intent to lay out the sequence of turns and circumstances that led us into Orthodoxy. At its core it was about our children: being in a parish environment where my wife and I could see those around us, who were helping us to teach and spiritually form our children, as alliesin handing down the faith once delivered and not as influences whose teaching we might need to counter or undo.
My heart, though, has been stubborn in making the transition. It largely remains with the Anglican Way that so dazzled me from the moment I encountered it. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer first gave me a discipline and language of prayer that was rooted not in myself but in the ancient tradition of the Church, transcending the subjective moment. The Anglican Way introduced me to such spiritual guides as Cranmer, Andrewes, Taylor, Donne, Herbert, Traherne, Ramsey, Thornton, Stringfellow, Rutledge, and Radner. It taught me what Trinitarian worship is and, above all, that there is holiness in beauty.
After we were chrismated, my family and I were engulfed in a sea of hugs, smiles, and voices exclaiming, “Welcome home!” My wife cried with joy and our kids beamed, as they are wont to do when people are excited and giving them attention. I was thankful that day for where God, in his mercy, had brought us, and I did a good job of matching the smiles. But I did not feel exuberant. I did not feel triumphant. I did not feel like I was home. Quite the opposite, I felt as though I was leaving home behind as I gave up something I so loved to follow what I believed God would have us do.
Which is what now brings me back to my visit to Church of the Incarnation. In the wake of that Sunday, a cloud of melancholy fell and lingered about me for days afterward. It had all been so magnificent. Yet it also brought an acute awareness of the strength with which I still love Anglicanism. The sadness I harbor about giving it up came crashing over me with the force of a rain-swelled thunderhead unleashing itself on the Kansas prairie.
Why oh why, I wondered, could I not have encountered Anglicanism in a conservative diocese or parish like this? All those people worshiping around me that Sunday morning — did they know the treasure they’d been handed? Because I knew.
Our wider culture catechizes us to envision happiness and human flourishing as being granted what we want, the freeing of our desires from whatever it is that encumbers their fulfillment or exercise. True freedom, however, is found not in individual autonomy but in willing submission to God “in whose service is perfect freedom,” as the Morning Prayer Collect for Peace teaches us.
The life and path of salvation, though offered freely to all, demands of us a perpetual self-emptying and self-giving, “costing not less than everything,” as T.S. Eliot puts it. And this is because there is no Christian life that is not pressed into the shape of the Cross. The form our self-giving will take and the crosses we will be asked to bear will differ from person to person, but to embrace and find life in Christ is of necessity also to embrace a crucified life, to confront the struggle and suffering that go with saying Thy will be done.
This struggle is a mercy, for it leads to repentance. Orthodoxy places an enormous import on repentance, more so than any other Christian tradition I have observed. Indeed the very goal of human life, it is often said within Orthodox Christianity, is to attain a constant state of repentance.
The word repentance is, of course, a translation of the Greek word metanoia, which rendered literally is usually given as a change (meta) in the mind (nous). In the Orthodox tradition the nous refers not to the seat of one’s intellect but to the inner core or spiritual center of one’s being, the “eye” or “heart” of the soul through which we experience communion with God. Repentance, then, is an inward change of heart, the aligning of our inner being with God. This is why Orthodoxy lays such stress on engaging in ascetic practices of disciplined prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. By their very nature these practices usher us into the Cross-shaped struggle of self-giving and self-emptying. And it is by this struggle that a changed heart — that is, repentance — will be formed in us, ultimately culminating in our conformity to Christ.
I am realizing that the experience of struggle and pain I have encountered after giving up Anglicanism can, if I allow it, be a mercy that leads to repentance. It is not for me to question why God placed my family and me in Wichita and called us into the Orthodox Church and has not placed us somewhere else that better suits the devices and desires of my heart. Rather than considering our departure from the Episcopal Church as an occasion simply of loss and frustration, I can, by God’s grace, accept it as an opportunity granted for self-offering, for laying down before God what I love in obedience to him. Indeed, it is an opportunity even for learning, as the prayer book teaches, to “love the thing which thou commandest” and to say with Christ, our forerunner and exemplar in all things pertaining to the life of salvation, “not as I will, Father, but thy will be done.” A small cross this surely is compared to what many are called to bear.
Of course none of this requires that I cast off my love for all that is so good and beautiful in Anglicanism. I still pray the morning and evening Offices every day and say bedtime prayers with my kids every night from my 1928 prayer book. I still cruise to job sites with Choral Evensong pumping from the truck speakers. And I’m already counting the weeks to April and my next trip to Dallas!
Jay Mullinix lives with his wife and three children in Wichita, Kansas, where they attend St. George Orthodox Cathedral. He works in the insurance industry as a property claims adjuster.