Following Jesus along the Canterbury Trail
I have two semi-flippant responses when people ask me how I, reared as an evangelical, became an Episcopalian and, in 2006, an Episcopal priest. My father was a pastor for forty years in the Evangelical Free Church; I honor both his ministry and his memory, and on the whole I’m grateful for my upbringing within the evangelical subculture, if for no other reason than it helped to form my character by giving me something to push against. The Episcopal Church, however, couldn’t be farther removed from my childhood experience of faith; the first time I saw a cleric in a purple shirt, for example, I thought it was simply bad taste. Evangelicalism is part of my DNA, and much of my scholarship over the past several decades has sought to acquaint evangelicals with their own laudable history of concern for those on the margins and thereby summon evangelicals back from their errant ways: the Faustian bargain they made with the far-right reaches of the Republican Party beginning in 1980. (You can judge for yourself how successful I’ve been in those efforts!)
Despite my appreciation for the religious formation of my childhood, I began to yearn for something deeper, which brings me to the two explanations for my spiritual pilgrimage. Becoming an Episcopalian, I say, was a reaction to the aesthetic deprivation of my childhood. That’s a bit of an overstatement, but it also contains an element of truth. The second explanation is that I grew weary of the evangelical cult of novelty, where the directive every week was, “Let’s try something new!” This penchant for innovation has undeniably fueled the growth of evangelicalism throughout American history; evangelicals know almost instinctively how to speak the idiom of the culture, whether it be the open-air preaching of George Whitefield and other itinerants during the Great Awakening, the circuit riders and the colporteurs of the nineteenth century, the urban revivalists of the twentieth century or the suburban megachurches of recent vintage.
As a historian, however, I wanted to respond, “No, let’s try something old instead.” Add to all that a sprinkling of Anglophilia (I initially intended to study British history in graduate school), by the time I wandered into Trinity Church, in Princeton, New Jersey, I felt as though I had come home. I loved the music, and the liturgy suggested a connectedness to the past, to the “communion of the saints.” Even the space itself told me that something important transpired there; I wasn’t sure at the time what it was, but it seemed sacred to me and very much unlike the cavernous and (yes, I’ll say it) soulless spaces all too typical of evangelicalism.
I love the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer, the reverence of the liturgy, the soaring descants of the Anglican musical tradition and prayers that typically do not include the phrase, “Lord, we jus’ wanna.” I’ve come to regard the Episcopal Church, along with museums, symphonies and the natural world, as one of the few remaining repositories of beauty in this life.
And, most important, a focus on the sacraments, especially Holy Communion. As a priest, I intentionally keep my sermons short because the homily is merely a stop on the way to the Eucharist, the culmination of the liturgy. I don’t want in any way to detract from the “main event,” the real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.
I’m well aware of the fact that, six paragraphs into this discursus, I’ve yet to talk explicitly about theology in the Anglican tradition. The quick explanation is that I’m a historian, not a theologian. But the larger reason is that, although Anglicanism has its share of good theologians as well as the Thirty-nine Articles, doctrine does not lie at the core of Anglican or Episcopal identity (the Anglican Church in the United States reconfigured itself as the Episcopal Church in 1789, following the American Revolution, though it remains part of the worldwide Anglican Communion).
The focus of Anglican identity is worship and sacraments and liturgy, especially as encoded in the Book of Common Prayer. That is what holds us together as followers of Jesus. Anglicans and Episcopalians can—and do—disagree on many things, but we find common ground in the Prayer Book. The Episcopal Church is by no means perfect; all institutions are human constructs, and they are remarkably poor vessels for piety. But this is my venue for following Jesus.
This deemphasis of theology exposes us to the charge of latitudinarianism, a criticism that is not entirely unfounded. But a focus on liturgy and the mysteries of the sacraments also shields us from what I will call the cult of Enlightenment Rationalism, especially the logic choppers who slice and dice and reduce the faith into tidy theological categories. The obsession with doctrinal precisionism, such as what I encountered at my evangelical seminary, is one of the factors that pointed me beyond evangelicalism and, eventually, to the Episcopal Church. My seminary professors had it all figured out, with fancy apologetic schemes and answers to every theological contingency. But where is the mystery of faith?
I’ve come to see that doubt is not the antithesis of faith; it is an essential component of faith. Besides, if we’ve got it all figured out, what need is there for faith? My favorite passage in the New Testament is the anguished cry from the father of a young child. “Lord, I believe,” he tells Jesus, “help my unbelief!”
I am drawn to the Episcopal Church in part because I refuse to allow the canons of Enlightenment Rationalism serve as the final arbiter of truth. I elect to live in an enchanted universe where there are forces at play that I cannot begin to understand, much less explain—not least of which is the mystery of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
In describing my religious pilgrimage, I’m well aware that I come off as something of a cliché—an evangelical kid who trots off to college, acquires some education and decides that he must leave behind the faith of his childhood. It’s a phenomenon that one of my mentors, Mark Noll, long ago characterized as “Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail.” For many of these evangelical pilgrims, the next steps along the pathway are Roman Catholicism and then Eastern Orthodoxy.
At the risk of sounding defensive, I don’t believe I fit that cliché, at least not entirely. First, I have not totally given up on evangelicalism (though I’ve been sorely tempted many times in recent years, most acutely following the 2016 election).
Second, although I’ve been encouraged to do so by people ranging from my wife to the bishop who ordained me, Jeffrey Steenson, one of my oldest friends who himself decamped to Rome, I don’t think I could ever “swim the Tiber” to Roman Catholicism. The issue for me is what I take to be a flawed interpretation of Matthew 16, where Jesus declares that his church would be built upon Peter, “the rock.” Rather than pointing to the primacy of Peter (who may or may not have been the first bishop of Rome), this passage, I believe, is one of the few attempts at humor—or irony at least—in the New Testament. Peter, as we know, was anything but solid. He was dithering and spineless, insisting that he would never disavow Jesus but caving to pressure from a young girl. And when Peter tried to walk on the Sea of Galilee, he took his eyes off Jesus and sank beneath the waves—like a rock.
Far from designating Peter as first among equals, let alone justifying papal infallibility, the beauty of this passage lies in the fact that Jesus was willing to entrust the church, his entire earthly legacy, to flawed human beings like Peter—and, by extension, to flawed beings like you and me. I mean no disrespect to my Roman Catholic friends, and I find much to admire about Roman Catholicism, but papal infallibility is a bridge too far—even one constructed over the Tiber.
For that reason, I’ll be content to follow Jesus along the Canterbury Trail.
I followed Jesus on the Canterbury Trail for about 10 years in an evangelical Episcopal parish. I loved the liturgy and the music. I still do. What led me out of the Episcopal Church was the doctrinal latitudinarianism, the support of LBGT issues and the treatment of parishes and diocese that refused to follow the party line. I decided that I did want a church that engaged in some doctrinal precision since the NT engages in that sport, too. My rector was not interested in such things, but I did. So I left. My present denomination has some trouble with doctrinal precisionism, but to the extent in the Episcopal Church. Keep the faith.