By Geoffrey Mackey
For some evangelicals on the “Canterbury Trail” – a play on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – the Episcopal Church is simply a rest stop on the pilgrimage to Rome or Constantinople. I represent that phenomenon. I came of age in the 1990s while my father was becoming one of those ancient-evangelical Christians who, inspired by Robert Webber and others, found his way into liturgical, sacramental Christianity and, eventually, priesthood in the Episcopal Church.
Today, over 25 years after my father’s ordination, his legacy finds itself divided by canonical borders. After my ordination to the priesthood in the Eastern Catholic Church last summer, my two brothers and I went to my local watering hole to become our own incarnate joke: an Episcopal priest, an Orthodox priest, and a Catholic priest walked into a bar.
Changes of allegiance from one Christian tradition to another happen all the time, and some of them happen often and publicly enough to allow for common tropes. The former Roman Catholic who, having “never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ at a Mass,” finds it in an evangelical mega-church. The parachurch college worker who finds true New Testament worship in Eastern Orthodoxy. The Episcopal priest, concerned about heterodoxy left unchecked, who finds a safe haven in the Romans’ bark of Peter. And, as had been my own family’s experience, the free church evangelical who finds the roots of the Church in apostolic sacramental and liturgical practice as expressed in Anglicanism.
When I was a teenager, coming of age and experiencing my own pretentious and pedantic spiritual awakening, I discovered (and devoured) the whole conversion sub-genre of theology and spirituality books, which were part autobiography and part denominational apologetic. Something was missing in the author’s faith and devotional life, and he or she found what was missing in a newly discovered ecclesial home. There were variations, of course. Some were seeking beauty; others, certainty; others, a stable moral compass, but the pattern is often the same.
Converts are the worst. I can say that because I am one. We have a tendency – especially soon after our conversion – to compare the best of our new-found homes with the worst of our former stomping-grounds. The flaws of our new church are accidental or incidental. The flaws of our former churches are foundational. The moral failings of our new home’s history aren’t a part of the heritage; they are aberrations. The moral failings of our former home are par for the course.
The unfortunate thing about many conversion stories – whether written and published or simply recounted over a couple of drinks – is that they often happen soon after the conversion. The honeymoon has barely begun. The bride still has her glow. Rarely does one take the time to recount the virtues of one’s former lover.
But January 18-25 is the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (an observance itself founded by a group of Episcopalians-turned-Roman Catholics). On the occasion of this worthy observance, I give thanks for the heritage of my youthful formation. Though I find myself today a Byzantine rite priest in communion with Rome, it was in the Anglicanism of my youth that I was formed in many important and providential ways. And, as the old saying goes, you can take the boy out of Anglicanism, but you can’t take the Anglicanism out of the boy.
Anglicanism taught me to pray. The evangelicalism of my earliest days taught me the importance of intercessory prayer, certainly, and the importance of reading my Bible. But in Anglicanism, I learned to put the two together. The great doctrines of the faith are not abstractions to be contemplated by theologians and ecclesiastics – while being irrelevant to the common people. The doctrines are the very jumping-off points of our spiritual dialogue with God.
This approach to prayer is what the English theologian Martin Thornton called the “doctrine-devotion synthesis” of Anglicanism. And it is seen nowhere more clearly than in the prominence of the Collects, from Cranmer’s day down to the present. But it doesn’t appear only in this prayer form; it practically drips from every page of the prayer book. Theological contemplation goes hand in hand with petitionary prayer.
And a person whose spiritual formation is characterized by such a tradition can then learn to pray, even extemporaneously, in a way that maintains this doctrine-devotion synthesis. When I call upon God in my own times of trial or joy, I do so calling to mind how God has always shown himself to be near to his people, how “his property is always to have mercy.”
Anglicanism also gave me an ecclesiastical sensibility. The divisions between church, home, and public sphere are shown, in Anglicanism, for what they are: artificial and academic distinctions. “Secular” is not the opposite of “sacred,” but of “eternal.” Both the secular and the eternal are sacred, since they are infused with the God “who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature.” The life of the Church becomes the life of the home and informs our life in society.
This bringing of the Church into the rest of life is not merely about decorating for and observing the Church’s seasons in the home (though that can certainly be a reminder for us), but of becoming a man or woman of the Church. An Anglican spirituality is a profoundly ecclesial spirituality. The prayer book is not merely a book for the parish and for formal liturgy, but for all of life. Perhaps Thornton is right to see the roots of this in the time of Cromwell:
During the Puritan Commonwealth, the Prayer Book was proscribed and inevitably driven underground, driven, that is, into private and household use. Private devotion and family prayer, accepted by all sides, became based on the Offices of the Church. In that way the Book became more familiar to laymen than it would have been by open use in formal Church services.
Anglicanism teaches a way that is profoundly practical and pastoral. From it I learned that a theology that is not pastoral is not worth much. One can believe in the Trinity, or the Virgin Birth, or the Resurrection. But if such beliefs do nothing to redirect our hearts and lives toward the Trinity, what good are they? Anglicanism’s theological and spiritual tradition is directed toward the right ordering of our loves, to use St. Augustine’s language. Or, in the words of the Collect for the Fifth Sunday of Lent:
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found…
The whole system of prayer – the daily office, the weekly eucharist, the special services in various seasons, the occasional and pastoral offices – had an almost imperceptible effect on how I understood the working of God’s grace. The whole system is designed to align the heart more perfectly toward the God whose grace makes possible any transformation and sanctification.
The Anglican spiritual tradition also imparted to me a deep appreciation and desire for simplicity. Cranmer’s genius is, perhaps, most clearly seen in the simplification of the medieval Catholic system into a straightforward, streamlined, vernacular, and profoundly simple piety. It is for common people in the real world. There are no frills. No airs need be put on. Like St. Benedict 1,000 years earlier, the Anglican tradition sought “to establish a school for the service of the Lord,” and in doing so “to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome” (Rule of St. Benedict).
Heroic self-discipline isn’t unheard of, of course, in any tradition. But if God was made human to save sinners, it was the ordinary woman or man who God had in mind. And if grace means anything, it means that it is God’s action, not ours, that does the saving. We come to God with open hands. We are not heard because of the words we speak (eloquent as some of those words may be), but because of the sheer, ridiculous, and gratuitous love of God in Jesus Christ. All that remains for us is to bring to him our littleness, our weakness, and our simplicity. His power is made perfect in weakness.
Finally, the beauty of the Anglican tradition impressed itself on my young heart and mind. And while a wave of iconoclasm did infect and attempt to take hold of early Anglicanism, the English genius ultimately would have none of it, and it never gained the stronghold it did in the Reformed tradition. But even in those parts of the Anglican world where images are shunned, beauty has still come to be valued in the architecture and music of the Anglican heritage.
My first Anglican experiences – in a 19th century church building designed by Richard Upjohn, singing in a Royal School of Church Music choir – taught me that the beautification of our worship is a good and proper thing. To this day, even when I enter my own Byzantine parish, I often call to mind phrases and cadences from the hymns of Charles Wesley, John Mason Neale, and William Bright. My wife and I sang our babies to sleep with “Abide With Me,” and the words, “thou on earth both Priest and Victim in the eucharistic feast” are part of my communion devotion to this day.
None of these things are exclusive to Anglicanism. And that’s the nature of a charism – it is a gift offered to the wider Christian world. I am grateful that the Anglicanism of my youth welcomed the gifts of other traditions (Eucharistic Prayer D, the Phos Hilaron, Stations of the Cross, etc.), and Anglicanism today willingly offers to her sisters and brothers the great spiritual, liturgical, and pastoral gifts that God has bestowed on her.
The 20th century Russian martyr Alexander Men likened the great day of Pentecost to the explosion of light at the beginning of the universe. From the descent of the tongues of fire that day in Jerusalem, the gifts of the Spirit expanded in every direction, granting gifts and fruit to all who have been called by Christ’s Name. It is with both joy and gratitude that I look back on my time in Anglicanism, whose own charism is both a treasure to be celebrated and a gift to be shared with the rest of us, your sisters and brothers.
The Rev. Geoffrey Mackey is a priest in the Catholic Church’s Byzantine Rite and dean of students at Trinity School for Ministry.