by Greg Goebel
In which I continue a series on my own journey to Anglicanism. You can read the previous posts here.
We found ourselves in an Anglican church plant, and soon thereafter the church called its first Rector, and we moved into a museum auditorium.
Its funny that my initial experience of Anglican worship was in a clubhouse, and then in an auditorium, not in a gothic church with stained glass windows. But the church very quickly created sacred space and reverent worship within those multi-purpose locations.
As I mentioned earlier, I had quite a bit going on spiritually. I had questions about the catholic nature of the church, about science and faith, and about where we fit in terms of a tradition. I also had a spiritual dryness, in which I prayed, but hadn’t felt I really knew how. I had worshipped, but felt that somehow I wasn’t connecting with God’s presence (although I believed he was present). In terms of our family, we had a newborn baby and I was working full time while also in seminary. You can imagine that we had a lot going on!
Our new Rector, may his name be appropriately praised, was Chip Edgar. Chip arrived and quickly started “Anglican 101″ classes. He also took the time to answer my questions and his answers were very open and inviting, rather than being narrow and dogmatic. And yet he was very committed to both the Gospel and to the Anglican Way. God had led me to my new home tradition, to a great church group, and to an open pastor.
As Chip began to lead us, I noticed his collar and vestments right away. I freaked out internally. I had always thought that collars and robes were only for pharisees or pretentious people. And yet I wanted to experience this new tradition as it is, and try to understand it. I needed to have a priest, someone who I trusted a spiritual father. I also felt that my personal spiritual development was not going to happen if I kept trying to be in control of everything. I had come to the point in my life where I needed to just trust this pastor, this tradition. I knew it was gospel, I could see that it was Bible, and I sensed that it was filled with the Holy Spirit. So I took the plunge. Rather than trying to decide if I personally liked or agreed with everything Anglican, I decided to just join the tradition and become an Anglican. We all need to be rooted in a visible tradition that is bigger than us. We need to know that, even though we are individuals and we have a perspective, we also have something that is communal and historical, and visible. I needed that badly.
I asked a lot of questions. I asked about infant baptism. I asked about Eucharist. I asked about the church year, the seasons and the Holy Days. I asked about bishops. Chip was very helpful, because rather than give an absolute answer, he would give a simple answer that also demanded more thought and experience. In other words, he was inviting me into experiencing this catholic tradition, rather than it just being an intellectual exercise. This is not the kind of thing you can “prove.”
So eventually when we decided to baptize our (by then 2) children, I didn’t really feel “sold” on infant baptism. However, I trusted that Christians have been doing this for thousands of years, and that it was at the very least an attempt to be biblical. I saw that my previous beliefs against infant baptism were mostly based on false assumptions of what infant baptizers are doing. But it was the experience of my boys baptisms that really “won me over.” I don’t mean that they absolutely convinced me that baptists are wrong or that Anglicans are right. I mean that I saw God’s grace at work, I experienced him signing and sealing my children. As infants, they didn’t really know what we were up to intellectually. And yet I sensed and knew that the Holy Spirit was at work. I was sold. I learned later about covenantal baptismal theology, and have come to believe that the weight of historical, creedal, and biblical evidence points in the direction of infant baptism. But it was the baptism of my children that experientially captured me.
I had a similar experience with Eucharist. Chip told us that Anglicans believe that Jesus is present in the bread and wine through a mystery. In other words, he is really present in communion, but the manner with which he does so is a mystery. I had always thought that ‘mystery’ meant ‘hard to understand’ or ‘puzzle’. In the catholic tradition, it means something that God does which brings together two or more truths that we, as humans, can’t exactly label and break down. It means the presence of God, coming near us, and really thats it. So when I went forward to receive communion, I wasn’t being asked to agree with a particular, speculative theology of communion. I was just asked to affirm Real Presence in faith and let Jesus do what he does. He took bread, he broke it, and he said, “this is my body.” I trusted that. In receiving communion, I sensed that he was indeed making himself present, and feeding me spiritual food.
In terms of many other questions I had, such as faith/science, rapture/end times, free will/determinism, etc, (which I will write about in the next part), I found that Anglicans leave lots of room for different perspectives on those things. In my previous pattern of thought, each church had to decide what it believed about pretty much everything, define it in detail, and then require everyone to confess that Statement of Faith. And then to commence arguing about it and possibly even condemning those who disagree. I found that Anglicans consider the creeds (Apostles and Nicene in particular) to be their only creeds. The 39 Articles were not a confession or statement of faith as much as a discipline for clarity of doctrine. Anglicans are “broad” in that their unity focuses on the creeds rather than on modern statements of faith, and yet the creedal commitment kept them focused on the Gospel. In fact, this is why so many ended up leaving the Episcopal Church. Not because of minor squabbles, but because it had become acceptable to deny creedal theology within that church.
For me, what this did was open up lots of space to explore faith/science, and other questions etc. Regardless of what I speculated about the “end times” or “free will” or creation, I would still be considered a faithful Anglican so long as I centered my faith on the creeds. This was exactly what I have needed in my life. Freedom to explore, to think through different viewpoints and yet to belong to a Christian community that is committed to the Gospel, and to whom I remain accountable. For example, I wouldn’t get kicked out because a pastor felt differently than I did about, say, speaking in tongues, but I would be challenged if I denied the reality of the Holy Spirit in the Church, as we affirm in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds.
This environment was like a revival experience for me. I was receiving communion, listening to the prayers, reading the offices, and asking lots of questions. In fact, I ended up taking Chip’s 101 class about 7-8 times (this is serious, I really did). I took it so many times he declared me his assistant. (Funny story, as an aside, one time I told a visitor I was Michael Stipe from REM, as a joke of course because I’m really not him, and I didn’t realize that she believed me until a few weeks later.) I had always felt loved and supported by my previous churches, and had seen God do amazing things. But in this tradition I felt I had found a fit for my own personal spirituality that connected me beyond my personal self to the saints of the early church and back.
Thanks for reading. Blessings to you.
P.S. I do kind of look like Michael Stipe. Could it be?