I grew up in a small North Carolina textile town. My family was Presbyterian and we were in Sunday school and church every Sabbath day. Though I had no choice in the matter, I went for the most part without protest or resentment. My friends and their parents were there. It was all part of the rhythm of life growing up in the 50s; it was what families did. Recalcitrance reared its stubborn head with puberty and I soon came to regard divine services as an insidiously ingenious way to ruin what otherwise might have been a really good weekend. Once off to college, it was bye-bye church, Sunday school, and all vestiges or organized religion. I never made a run at all out atheism; instead, if I were to have given it thought—which I wasn’t doing much of in those days—I would have probably described myself as a God-leaning agnostic or as a skeptical theist-lite. I was willing to acknowledge the possibility, even likelihood, of God’s existence and felt sure he was somehow grateful for my recognition. God and I had what I liked to think of as a gentleman’s understanding: a nodding acquaintance concurrent with an agreement not to get in each other’s way. My kind of convenient covenant.
And so things went happily along, more or less: college, army, Korean DMZ, graduate school part one, teaching and coaching at a New England boarding school, graduate school part two, and then off into the working world, sailing along, sailing along. Of course, along the way there were two broken marriages, estrangement, detours into self-delusion, deception, etc. But then again (my reasoning at the time), what’s life without some collateral damage along the way?
Fast forward to 1988 when I am appointed to lead the newly created South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Math in Hartsville. Small town living and expectations I knew well: join Rotary, start showing up at church on a more or less regular basis, do the civic dance, get to know the right people. And then along came Jo, my wife; except of course she wasn’t then. Having met at a beach picnic on Sullivan’s Island some forty-five years ago—give or take—we’re now looking forward to our twenty-sixth wedding anniversary this August. Though we had known each other for a long while, things didn’t become serious between us until Jo came to Hartsville and bought me at a bachelor’s auction. (But that’s another story.) That was the catalyst after which things got serious and led to our marriage in 1992 and Jo moving to Hartsville.
Jo was a lifelong Episcopalian and I was a sometimes-interested Presbyterian, so we alternated church attendance between St. Bartholomew’s and First Pres. That was the pattern for, probably, the better part of a year when, one evening, having a cocktail before dinner Jo adroitly shifted our conversation from whatever we were talking about to this: “Sweetheart, I really enjoy going to your sweet little Presbyterian church, and I want you to know how much it means to me that you seem to enjoy St. Bartholomew’s.” I have actually come to enjoy the liturgy and sermons at St. Bart’s and look forward to attending, which I readily acknowledge. Jo is pleased, saying “I thought that was the case but I’m so happy to hear you say so.” A pause, and then: “So, do you think we could have a discussion about the eventuality of becoming a one-church family?” Ever the reasonable one, I say of course we can. “Oh, that’s just so great,” says Jo. “Welcome to the Episcopal Church!” And that’s how I became an Anglican, by Jo first making me an Episcopalian.
There’s more to it than that, of course. At St. Bart’s I came under the successive influence of two powerful rectors: Frank Limehouse and Ted Duval. Both were (and are) gregarious, keen-minded, inquisitive, contemplative, and deeply committed to the one Lord who is revealed by and speaks through scripture. Each has a sense of quiet humility and authority worn like an invisible cloak; you can’t see it but you know that it’s there. And then there was Jo, the most constant and propitious presence, whose faith is as certain and bright as the rising sun. If you think, which I try feebly to do, you can’t resist the ineluctable draw of very fundamental “how” and “why” questions that such people demand (without demanding) that you ask. To be sure, we are all to some degree drawn into the ethos of the company we keep, whether we ultimately accept it or not. We poke, we prod, we investigate. But here there seemed something of greater consequence calling out and of more importance than other paths I had pursued or been invited down.
The thing about fundamental questions is that one readily becomes the catalyst for another and their pursuit can seem like a training exercise for the Sisyphean Olympics. Sound preaching and teaching saved me from that trap and encouraged me in the process of seeking and assembling the essential bones of faith that might then become connected as a skeleton capable of putting on flesh. For me this required a lot of heavy lifting, trying to identify and discard the dross that, once removed, would lead to the veins of pure gold. (I just recently learned from a priest friend that there is a theological term for that, adiaphora—things not essential to belief.) There is not space here to delineate the process by which I went through (and am continuing) my sorting. But some fundamentals are these: our world/universe is not accidental but was created by God for a his own purposes; we are intentional beings, known by our father before we even had physical shape (Isaiah 1:5); he has a good and loving plan for each and every one of us (Jeremiah 29:11); we are required to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves (a challenge, that, since as a Wake Forest alum I have to extend that grace to Duke and Chapel Hill folks); the ten commandments are not suggestions; the physical persona of Jesus was in fact God incarnate and he was crucified, died, and resurrected in propitiation for our sins.
Are these faith principles I had not encountered before? No, but I have encountered and grappled with them in ways I had not before and now am compelled to do so every day. Why compelled? Because, if you discover something that is irreducibly the most important thing in your life, how can you in conscience and honesty do otherwise? And we can’t get it from sermons and Sunday school, as important as those are. That’s where the heavy lifting (or digging) comes in—in engagement with scripture, prayer, fellowship, community, unalloyed self-appraisal, study. After all, if we follow C.S. Lewis’s logic of staking a claim, without middle ground, that Jesus Christ either was or was not who he said he was, we are led to an unavoidable concomitant; namely, what are we going to do about it? And if our answer has been in the affirmative, there seems only one really valid response. Total engagement as fully as we can commit to it.
So the answer to the implied question, “Why I Am an Anglican,” is not based on what I did or didn’t get from an institution called church. It comes instead from individuals—clergy and lay, men and women, members of different church families—who have nourished, challenged, prayed for and loved me and one another in a widespread family called Anglican. For me this is not a matter of leaving but of going. (That’s a subject for another time.) It is a matter of going to a place where I may, with discipline and faith, reassemble the bare but essential bones of belief, knit them into a worthy skeleton, add on kingdom flesh and (I pray) gain some very faint semblance of the new creation I hope in God’s new heaven and earth to be. That is why I am an Anglican.
And of course it all began when Jo told me I had to.