In a small Lutheran (Evangelische) church located in the city square of Schwenningen am Neckar in the Black Forest Region of post-war Germany, I received the Sacrament of Baptism as an infant in 1948. I was the son of refugees, displaced persons; my father Arnold Liias, an Estonian but conscripted into the German army during the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe, had been taken from his native Estonia as a wounded soldier, an amputee from a gangrenous leg wound; my mother Ingeborg Schneider at nineteen had been separated from her home and family in East Germany and fled westward away from the Soviet invasion and occupation at the very end of the war.
The poverty and chaos of post-war Germany forced them to apply for emigration and in the winter of 1951-52, my parents and I now with as well my younger brother, their second child, arrived in the United States and were settled into a displaced person camp in Western Massachusetts. My father moved alone to Boston to find work and a new home. Months later we were taken into the Rectory of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Charlestown. An old bachelor priest, the Rev. Wolcott Cutler, had filled his home - a large five story brownstone situated on the square of the Bunker Hill Monument- with refugees. Though most remained for short periods of time, we lived in that Rectory for the next ten years, becoming caretakers of the building and even, in the case of my father, the sexton at the church.
Mr. Cutler (as he was called- a deeply committed low churchman he would have been offended to be called Father Cutler)was an extraordinary saintly pastor and a most fascinating character. Though from a rich Boston Brahmin family, he had devoted his entire ordained ministry to inner city work among the poor. He was seen as the Pastor of all of Charlestown, though 90% of the community was Irish Catholic. He was a zealous activist for peace and justice; the author and publisher of a Christian pacifist journal; an avid naturalist; a historical preservationist; and a most accomplished photographer of urban life. His glass slides are still one of the treasures of the Archives of the Boston Public Library. Mr. Cutler had a profound influence on me as a child; my mother used to tell me that even as a small boy I said that I wanted to be like Mr. Cutler when I grew up. The call to ordained ministry was there as far back as I can consciously remember. Childhood fantasy games often included playing church and of course I was the priest distributing communion.
In 1962, Mr. Cutler retired and a new priest, Fr. Brian Kelly with wife and children arrived. At this point we were required to leave the Rectory, and my parents through intense and diligent work-my father a machinist during the day and my mother working night shifts packing ice cream at Hood’s milk factory-were able to fulfill the American dream and purchase their own home, though just a few blocks away from the Rectory.
Charlestown as already noted was an Irish Catholic working class neighborhood and considered the toughest neighborhood of Boston. My family and I were not infrequently verbally abused and even on occasion physically abused with stone throwing and gang beatings for being “protestants and naziis.” In the pre-Vatican II sensibilities of the time I was constantly told by my childhood friends that I was going to Hell, spoken often not with gladness but poignant sadness. They were truly sorry for me. Fr. Kelly-note the title change-was a high churchman; and I remember distinctly the day in Sunday School when he instructed us that we were not Protestants but Catholics; but we were not Roman Catholics, we were Anglo-catholics. Well this was the best news I had ever heard. I was a Catholic too! Perhaps that epiphany was the seed of this journey now.
St. John’s Episcopal Church was the center of my life. Besides being a refuge where we as immigrants were accepted and loved, a kind of extended family, it also was the formative spiritual community of my childhood and adolescence. We had a boys choir –a then common but now rare feature of Anglicanism; I was the lead soprano until my voice cracked somewhere around 14. There was a church Boy Scout Troop, which provided recreation, fellowship, and camping trips out of the city. In high school we had a very active Young People’s Fellowship, of which I was president and because of which I had my first preaching opportunity on Youth Sunday. (The sermon is lost to history). Seminarians from the Episcopal Theological School provided youth leadership, and one in particular, Fr. James Hagen, still to this day a very close friend, solidified my vocation. Already as a senior in high school I met with my Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Anson Stokes . “ Jurgen you’ll make a wonderful priest; now when you go to college, don’t major in religion. You’ll get plenty of that in Seminary.” He shook my hand and I was a postulant!
2.College and Seminary
In 1965, I went off to college. I had been recruited by Harvard College but when my mother said I would live at home if I went to Harvard, I swiftly accepted the full scholarship I had been given by Amherst and moved to the Pioneer Valley. My secondary education had been at the Boston Latin School, the oldest and one of the finest public schools in the U.S. Six years of Latin and three years of Greek in high school and an interest in archaeology (as my backup career if I were rejected for ordination) directed me to choose Classics as my major (though in my Senior year at Amherst I added Psychology as a second major). Again perhaps there is providence in all my Latin as I journey to Rome.
The greatest providence of college, however, was the meeting on the very first day of Freshman year of a young lady from Smith College named Gloria Gehshan. She would become my wife. Adding the five years of courtship to our 41 years of marriage, we have been together most of our 64 years of life.
This was the turbulent 60’s and the days of student revolution: political, social, sexual, and spiritual. In high school I had already become somewhat of an activist in the civil rights movement. At Amherst I joined the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the premier New Left organization, and was very engaged in organizing teach- ins, demonstrations, and marches against the Vietnam War. This activism for peace and justice was for me an expression of my faith and Christians like Merton, the Berrigans, Dorothy Day and of course Martin Luther King Jr. were, in their writings, sermons, and witness my heroes. But the underside of this era was also part of my life; sexual promiscuity, drugs, growing cynicism. By the time I arrived at seminary, the Episcopal Theological School, in Cambridge, in the fall of 1969, I was burned out from my efforts to change society; the world it turned out was a much more intransigent place than my idealistic activism understood. I found myself in a deep depression.
Spirituality had not been a very significant part of my Christian life, but my depression created a quest for inner resources. Though dabbling in Eastern religions and new age philosophies, Jungian Psychology became my new religion. Carl Jung, the great Swiss Psychiatrist, unlike Freud his mentor, was sympathetic to religion and believed in God. I was consumed with reading his works, going to lectures of the Jungian society, and doing dream work with a Jungian therapist. In my last year of seminary I became an Intern at an Episcopal Church on the North Shore of Boston working under a priest who himself was an avid disciple of Jung. One peculiar feature of this priest and this parish was an interest in Spiritual Healing. Having been well indoctrinated with a biblical hermeneutic of Bultmanian demythologization where all the healing miracles of Jesus had been discarded, I was not sure what these folk thought they were doing, but I dutifully participated in the weekly Healing Eucharist which was followed by a Bible Study and Prayer Group. Though a Senior in seminary I had never participated in a bible study or prayer group before much less a healing service! But these Wednesday morning gatherings became utterly transformational: spiritually, theologically, pastorally. For the first time I began to “experience” the reality of God and the power of prayer. It was the beginning of a conversion to God the Holy Spirit.
3. My Conversion as a Young Priest
I was ordained Deacon at the end of that academic year in June 1972 and began my curacy at a large suburban Episcopal parish in Winchester, Mass. Though the ethos of that parish was decidedly liberal protestant, I will be eternally grateful to the Rector John Bishop who was a wonderful mentor to me in learning the craft of being a good parish priest. He invited me to share in the full scope of parochial work: leading worship, preaching regularly, editing the weekly newsletter, pastoral visitation, leading a large and vibrant youth group, bringing high school students every week into an inner city church to tutor, teaching adult education and much more. I loved my work; I had no question that this was my divinely ordained vocation and I was, by worldly standards, popular and successful. But God was doing an even more important work within me.
I continued my explorations in the Holy Spirit. The charismatic movement was at that time making its appearance in the Episcopal Church. 9 o’clock in the Morning by Dennis Bennett, Gathered for Power by Graham Pulkingham andMiracle in Darien by Terry Fullam were narrations of priests and parishes totally transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit. I went on occasion to Charismatic Prayer meetings in local Roman Catholic churches. I attended “Renewal” conferences around the country. ”Spiritual Renewal” was the new buzz word in the church; Cursillo, Faith Alive, Marriage Encounter, the Charismatic Movement-all were efforts to bring new life to the church in the face of what was beginning to become evident- decline and decrease in the Episcopal church. The heady days of church growth and expansion of the 50’s and 60’s were over. I was drawn to these movements, not just for the church’s sake, but for the sake of my own very thirsty soul.
In this quest, the Lord sent to me a spiritual mentor, an older woman, named Elizabeth Price. We had met at some of these renewal events, and as she told me later, the Lord told her to go after that young priest: I want him! She asked me: “Would I like to receive the Baptism in the Holy Spirit?” This was an essential and pervasive theme of the charismatic renewal: that the Apostolic experience of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost was available today and was the rightful promised inheritance of every believer. My response was rather passive and more inquisitive than acquisitive: “Well, why not?” She actually prayed over me with the laying on of hands and abundant tongue speaking on a number of occasions and nothing happened. Then on a Thursday afternoon in late June 1974, in the living room of the home of some Baptist evangelists who were friends of Elizabeth, while being prayed over with the laying on of hands, the heavens opened and the Spirit of God gave me a supernatural vision of the Blood of Christ. The vision produced in me an instantaneous and intuitive conversion to the Atonement, and from that vision everything began to change--my spirituality: my prayer became alive and real and personal including the gift of glossolalia; my theology-- I began a decided move away from liberalism toward biblical orthodoxy; my preaching- -I began to preach Christ crucified; my ministry--the power and experience of the Holy Spirit was central.
My conversion, however, also produced problems. My new enthusiasm for prayer ministry and the work of evangelism was not well received. “Evangelism is a dirty word in the Episcopal church!” my Rector asserted at my proposal to start an evangelism committee. This growing disconnect did produce a sense that the time was near for a new call. After a few disappointing rector searches, in the spring of 1976, I was called to be the Rector of St. Paul’s, Malden. It was a small dying elderly urban congregation; my youth was the major qualification of their call, though my talk of “Spiritual renewal” as the key to survival and growth intrigued some of the Vestry.
4.My Work as an Anglican Priest
St. Paul’s was a wonderful adventure for the next 14 years of my life. The parish did have a wonderful transformation. There were all the outward indicators of growth; membership, attendance, staff, income, program. But more importantly we became the dwelling place of the living God and a mission center of living water (Ezekiel 47): conversions, healings, deliverances, deep worship, ministry to the poor. We became known as the “Charismatic” Episcopal Church. We introduced literally thousands of folk around New England to a deeper experience of the Holy Spirit through weekly healing services, through preaching and teaching missions at other churches, and through regular “Renewal” conferences hosted at St. Paul’s. Dennis Bennett, Terry Fullam, Tommy Tyson, David DuPlessis, Brennan Manning and many other renewal leaders graced our pulpit during the late 70’s and 80’s.
But it was also a time (which I now see now in retrospect) where God was planting the seeds of my conversion to Catholicism. I began the discipline of being a penitent. My first confessor was a monk of SSJE, Fr. Carleton Jones. I found enormous and essential grace in this sacrament. Our monthly meetings which took place at the monastery also introduced me to Anglo-catholic worship and spirituality. My many years of spiritual direction with Carleton ended abruptly with his sudden announcement that he was becoming a Roman Catholic. To this day I remember vividly the words of the letter he sent to me explaining his decision: “I have come to the conclusion that the Unity of the church is not finally something to be strived for but rather a gift already from the Lord to his church in the Petrine office.”
I also found myself called by God to be a voice in the diocese for the Sanctity of Life. Radical Feminism is a powerful lobby in the Diocese of Massachusetts. At one diocesan meeting a priest/ seminary professor declared abortion to be sacrament! I organized a chapter of NOEL:National Organization of Episcopalians for Life to counter that voice, with education, distribution of literature, healing services,convention resolutions. My reputation as a charismatic left me somewhat on the fringes of the fellowship of clergy as an eccentric; but my pro-life activism drew bitter anger and rejection from many of my colleagues. The abortion crisis ,however, posed for me even a larger question: How could the moral compass of the church be so profoundly broken?
Towards the end of the 80’s, the Lord seemed to say to me that my time at St. Paul’s was ending. My prospects for a new call were limited both by my reputation and by the geographic confines of my wife’s career. Gloria was a mathematician at MIT and desired to remain there. After being rejected by the few possible prospects in the greater Boston area (including Christ Church Hamilton), I began earnestly to seek the Lord. On the Eve of the Epiphany, 1990, while reading a book The New Catholics, a collection of testimonies of folk who had become Roman Catholics,I received in my spirit a clear word from God that I was to be a Catholic. In obedience to that word, I actually began exploring the Pastoral Provision; I met a number of times with a Franciscan Priest to explore the Catholic faith; I even met with an Auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese. I also met with Fr. Andrew Mead, the Rector of the Church of the Advent, Boston a colleague and friend ; he confessed he had similar yearnings. Strangely the Holy Spirit seemed to say: Not yet! But the conversations with Fr. Mead produced an invitation to serve with him at the Advent. I received almost universal advice against the idea. “A charismatic at an Anglo-catholic church?” “A Rector of a thriving church becoming an assistant? “ But I went convinced it was God calling.
Immersion in the rich deep world of Anglo-Catholic worship and spirituality, far from being alien, was a profoundly charismatic experience. I recall vividly those first months standing as celebrant at the high altar at Solemn High Mass experiencing rivers of Grace pouring out of the altar washing over me. I was introduced to Keble, Pusey, and Newman, to Benson and Grafton, to the Triduum, the Veneration of the Cross, Benediction, the Angelus, and Daily Mass. I became convinced also that the Oxford movement of the 19th century and the Charismatic movement of the 20th, far from being opposites, were both renewal movements affirming the supernatural essence of the Christian faith over against the rationalistic liberalism regnant in the church. I also was truly delighted in not being Rector; it was all the fun of being a priest with virtually no worries! I remained at the Advent a good Biblical 7 years. But I began to sense that God was calling me elsewhere. Was this the time to go to Rome? Again, God seemed to say :Not Yet!
In Holy Week of 1997, I received an invitation to become Rector of Christ Church Hamilton. (This was actually the fourth time I had applied for a job there.) Christ Church had been the premier Evangelical Episcopal Church of the Diocese. It had itself experienced a wonderful renewal in the late 70’s and 80’s, and began to draw in many faculty and students from Gordon college and Gordon-Conwell seminary (including our Ordinary). But the last decade had been a disastrous time of conflict and diminishment. Eventually the Rector, at the request of the Vestry, was removed by the Bishop. The parish had become a small, financially stressed, demoralized, depressed group living in the memories of past glory. The Bishop’s office seeking to dissuade my going there told me: “It will take years of healing before anything good could happen.”( I discovered years later, that they were also seeking to dissuade the search committee from calling me, “You don’t want someone with his kind of theology!”) But this was for the parish and for me God’s appointment.
Newly equipped with all my Anglo-catholic experience and paraphernalia (Eucharistic vestments,bells, incense), I went to Christ Church. Almost instantly God renewed the church, liturgically, spiritually, politically. Attendance doubled the first year, then tripled the next, as did the budget. The staff and the programmatic life of the parish were rebuilt; missionary work, a rich heritage of the parish, was revitalized. Seminarians came in droves; and many were brought into Holy Orders. (Some have even journeyed on through to Roman and Orthodox orders). A vision that had animated all my ministry, a vision of a church-- fully catholic, fully evangelical, fully charismatic-- came especially to fruition at Christ Church.
But alas, even as we thrived, in the background was the din of the political turmoil of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. I constantly posed the question to the lay and clerical leadership of the church: What is God calling Christ Church to be and do in the midst of this crisis? As a parish blessed with extraordinary talents and giftedness, as a church with significant international partnerships, as a biblically orthodox parish and thus a minority voice in a Diocese priding itself as being on the cutting edge of revisionism, what does God want of us? “To whom much is given, much is required.” Our deliberations were also informed by my relationships and work beyond the parish: on the board of American Anglican Council, as a four time deputy (mirabile dictu) to General Convention, as a member of an annual gathering of Episcopal clergy from large evangelical parishes, as an occasional speaker and missioner around the wider church.
One answer to that question came in the beginning developments of what would become the Anglican Church of North America. A significant group of parishioners not only thought this was the direction we should go, but had already formed themselves into a fellowship planning to become in time a new church outside the Episcopal church. Another large group, equally faithful and orthodox, were convinced that steadfast witness within the Episcopal church was God’s plan for the church. Each sought my opinion. My theological preferences were with the former; my catholic sensibilities (against schism)were with the latter. I finally came to the conclusion that God was not speaking one thing to Christ Church. I proposed that we accept both directions as authentically led by the Holy Spirit, and plan a future of two sister parishes, one a new church plant of the ACNA somewhere on the North Shore and the other a continuing Episcopal church at Christ Church Hamilton. My proposal was that the two sister parishes would continue in mutual affection, prayer, and where possible shared ministry. This was not to be a church split, but a witness of reconciliation and charity over against the bloodbath of lawsuits and depositions going on in the denomination.
The Vestry adopted this vision for the future. We set a timetable for the next 12 months. We invited each and every member of the parish to discern prayerfully God’s specific will for them. We developed the appropriate planning and organizational structures for building of the two new future congregations. We sought to do everything in a spirit of cooperation, freedom, and charity. Finally I saw my role as a midwife; I made it clear that I did not believe God was calling me to one congregation or the other. My call was to see through successfully the birth of these two new churches. It was the most challenging and exhausting year of my entire ordained ministry.
Of course this very crisis in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion itself had been raising all the questions of ecclesiology, of authority, of discerning truth, of the doctrine of marriage, etc. I became more and more convinced that as rich and wonderful the Anglican heritage was, it did not contain within itself the spiritual DNA to resolve this crisis. And as good a home as the Episcopal church had been for me since childhood and as joyful and satisfying a ministry as I had had within her, my intention was to retire from active ministry in the Episcopal church and then explore more intentionally admission into the Catholic church. But again God said “Not Yet!”
I rejoice that through God’s grace I have had a very honest, respectful, and mutually affectionate relationship with my Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Tom Shaw, despite profound differences of conviction. (For a period of time before he was elected Bishop, he was even my Confessor.) All stages and aspects of this two parish partition plan were submitted to him, and though obviously disappointed that members of his diocese were planning to leave the Episcopal church, he honored the integrity of our vision and its process. However, at a private meeting with the Bishop and in the course of a very difficult conversation with him, it was made to clear to me that I would not be allowed to remain an Episcopal priest and be involved in the emerging new Anglican Church of North America. His direction was clear to me, “You have to choose!” I left his office with a very certain sense that I was to lead the community of believers who were starting a new church. After the announcement of that decision, with the cooperation of the Bishop’s office and all parties of the parish, I finished my work at Christ Church over the next six months helping both to provide a foundation for the future of the continuing Episcopal congregation of Christ Church and to plant the new congregation of what became Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church. On Michaelmas 2009, I preached and celebrated my last liturgies as Rector of Christ Church. The final Eucharist included the Vestries of both congregations mutually affirming and blessing one another. On the following Sunday, October 4, the Feast of St. Francis I preached and celebrated my first liturgy as Rector of Christ the Redeemer (CTR). My text was the Lord’s words to Francis from the San Damiano crucifix:”Go and Repair my church which as you see is in ruins!”
These last almost three years as Rector of CTR have been the most joyous and fulfilling of my 40 years as an ordained minister. Roughly 250 folk joined me in the exodus from the Episcopal church; another 150 new folk from various backgrounds have since joined us. God’s provision has been bountiful. We have purchased a closed Catholic church, the former St. Alphonsus Parish of Danvers/Beverly. (The day we signed the lease- to- purchase agreement, August 1, lo, I discovered while reading my morning Breviary was the feast of St. Alphonsus.) The depth and quality of lay ministries has been the richest I have ever seen. My vision of a church-- fully catholic, fully evangelical, fully charismatic-- was never more realized. There has been a profound sense of God’s favor upon us. But from the beginning I also knew that this was to be for me a brief assignment; I had articulated such to my new Bishop, the Rt. Rev. William Murdoch and to the Wardens, Vestry and Staff of our new church. I felt God’s call to me was to be the Founding Rector; to lead the people out of the Episcopal church, to establish them in a new situation, to build the liturgical and programmatic infrastructure of a new church, and then to invite them to search for their first new Rector who would lead them into the fullness of God’s mission for CTR. In February of 2011, we completed a successful Capital Campaign of almost $1 million to purchase the church properties. This was for me the sacramental outward sign that my foundational work was completed.
At that point, with the affirmation of my wife, Bishop, and Wardens I invited the parish to begin a prayerful search for my successor. I would remain as Rector until that search was completed, and thereafter at the Bishop’s designation, Rector Emeritus. I thus began my last year as an Anglican priest.
5. The Final Permission
In early January of 2012, the parish had successfully called their new Rector. Concurrently the US Anglican Ordinariate was established. At last I heard the Lord say: “Now is the time!”
Over the years I have read innumerable books, have had many searching conversations, watched hours of EWTN, listened to many testimonies and teachings--all of which have contributed to the decision to become a Catholic. But above all it has been a deep, constant magnetic pull of the Holy Spirit to come to the center of the church. It is this deep intuitive sense each time I enter a Catholic church or religious community that I am in the church, not a church, but the church. We speak in evangelical circles when a person of the Jewish faith becomes a Christian that they have become a “completed Jew.” To become a catholic is for me to become a “completed Christian.” As I have already previously articulated,the driving vision of my ministry has been to build a church that was “fully catholic, fully evangelical, and fully charismatic.” I have come to the conviction that one cannot be “fully catholic” apart from communion with the See of Peter. For that matter one cannot be “fully evangelical” or “fully charismatic” apart from the rich and deep historical meaning of those words in the fullness of the Catholic church. As has been said to me on a number of occasions by wise and mature catholic friends, you need leave nothing behind of any Christian tradition that is of true gospel value. All of it comes only to fullness. To become a catholic is to receive from my Lord his last providential gift from the cross: “Behold thy Mother.”
This last year I gathered together at 8a.m. on Saturday morning- (the time was intended to find only motivated folk) -a group of parishioners of CTR to explore the meaning of the invitation of Pope Benedict in Anglicanorum Coetibus. We began our study under the brilliant tutelage of Dr. Thomas Howard addressing the question for ten weeks: “What does the Catholic church really teach?” A convert from Fundamentalism and Anglicanism, Dr. Howard was able to instruct us both biblically and cogently about those subjects most troublesome to evangelical protestants: Marian dogma and devotion, the primacy of Peter, the infallibility of the Pope, the veneration and intercession of Saints, the doctrine of purgatory, prayer for the dead etc. A second ten week study program was focused on Anglican- Catholic Ecumenical Conversations and initiatives: ARCIC, the Pastoral provision, Anglican-use Catholic churches, and finally the idea of an Anglican Ordinariate proposed by the Pope’s decree. I concluded that series with an invitation: If twelve individuals feel called personally to respond to the Pope’s invitation to Anglicans to come into full communion with the See of Rome through the Ordinariate, I would lead them forward. I initially received nine commitments; a tenth joined us in November; on December 31 I received 11 and 12! On January 1, the US Ordinariate was established. God could not have been clearer.
I am as well convinced that this was the Kairos for me precisely because of the Ordinariate. Though I might have journeyed earlier to Rome in my own personal history, this was a collective historic moment for the beginning of the fulfillment of the vision of the reunion of Rome and Canterbury. That was the dream of our tractarian fathers, that was the explicit goal of Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Ramsey at the launching of the ARCIC dialogues, this was an implicit hope in the bold ecumenical theology of Pope John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint and his revisioning of a Papacy for the whole church. I am humbled to be invited by God to be a small part of this historic work.
Since announcing my decision to become a Catholic and to seek ordination through the Anglican Ordinariate, I have had many an inquiry from folk wondering, “Why?” Some of these were authentic expressions of inquisitiveness; others came with perplexity; not a few came with consternation and dismay.
My first reason is that this decision is an act of obedience to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As my Spiritual Autobiography details, this has been a long personal journey of twenty five years or more. However, I would add that as personal as it is, it is not just a private or uniquely individual call. It is not simply a private denominational predilection.
There is in the Christian life a force of gravity which draws the believer ever deeper into union with Christ. That union is not only a private mystical union—though it is that –but a deepening union with the mystical body of Christ, the Church. It is a dogmatic principle of the Catholic Church that “this Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church.” (Lumen Gentium). If this is true, then this gravitational pull of Christ’s Spirit is universally active, drawing all humanity to Christ the Head and to the fullness of his saving grace which he mediates through His Body the Church. John Henry Newman, an Anglican convert to Rome, insightfully quipped that there was no steady state between Atheism and Catholicism! There is always in the human soul that spiritual battle, the psychomachia, between the centrifugal forces of the world, the flesh, and the devil drawing us away from the Love of God, and the centripetal dynamic of the Holy Spirit pulling us ever deeper into the love of God. There is agravitas to the Catholic Church, to the See of Peter, that is I believe a true and objective charism intended by Christ to draw his followers into union with him in the fellowship of the Catholic Church. Whatever the individual contours of my own movement into the Catholic church have been, I believe they are part of this larger, universal gravitational grace that emanates from the Heart of Jesus which is in his Body.
That of course already displays the second reason for my decision, theological. The great divide between the churches of the Reformation and the Catholic church is in the domain of Ecclesiology--What is the church? In the protestant world Anglicanism has sought to maintain a catholic ecclesiology, that is to say an ordering off the body that is organic, universal, and apostolic. Bishops, creeds, sacraments, and conciliarism have been maintained as integral pieces of Anglican ecclesiology –Papal Primacy alone being set aside. Within that catholic structure, Anglicanism has also asserted a principle of theological freedom and diversity. One may believe in spiritual regeneration in baptism but one may not. One may believe in the real presence in the eucharist but one may not. One maybelieve in the authority of scripture, but one may not. One may believe in the sanctity of marriage but one may not. For much of my life as an Anglican, that freedom was a pleasant gift. But increasingly it had become a source of distress and a profound impediment to my priestly work as a pastor and preacher. How could I proclaim from the pulpit, the Bible teaches or Christianity asserts….when my Bishop says quite the opposite? How could I advise a person in the confessional when the priest in the neighboring parish would advise the opposite? And I speak here of matters essential and primary. My authority as a teacher and confessor needed to be based on something other than my own best opinion. (Of course, this quandary becomes even more confusing in the vast panoply of protestant denominational theologies on almost any given point of doctrine or morality.) Flannery O’Connor in her conversion to Catholicism spoke of the glorious freedom she experienced in being delivered from the “tyranny of her intellect.” Fides ut intelligam! That has become my experience. It is the paradox of true intellectual freedom by submission to “the church’s teaching.” It is a glorious freedom , not only in the mind’s love for God, but in the vocation of priest in the theological and spiritual formation of disciples of Jesus. This theological conversion thus is not first of all a conversion to the peculiar catholic beliefs that my inquirers challenge me about: What about Mary? What about purgatory? What about contraception? Rather it is a conversion to the faithfulness of Christ’s gift to the church of an authentic authority to bind and to loose. At its deepest it is a question of pneumatology even more than ecclesiology. How does the Spirit of Truth actually function in the Church? Whatever complexities and seeming incongruities may be discerned, the Magisterium is at minimum a reasonable and practicable answer to the question of truth that is trustworthy. At best it is what the church proclaims, the provision by Christ to his people of the gift of unerring guidance.
Finally and perhaps most urgently, my decision to become a Catholic is driven by our Lord’s high priestly prayer, “May they be one.” The unity of the church has been for me a primary and constant imperative of following Jesus. It has been expressed in my leadership of the local parish where congregational unity has been enfleshed in a principle of unanimity in all decision making. It has been expressed in my vision of shaping a parish to be “fully catholic, fully, evangelical, fully charismatic.” It has been expressed in my collegial work cross denominationally not only in the official ecumenism of the mainline churches but with active fellowship with independent evangelical and pentecostal clergy. “May they be one, that the world might believe.” The unity of the church is not only an imperative for the internal life of God’s people but an essential dimension of her evangelical mission. There is no greater scandal and impediment to the conversion of the world to the love of Christ than her divisions. Pope Benedict established the Anglican Ordinariate both as a concrete instrument to begin to heal organically the divisions of the Reformation and as an essential strategy for the sake of “the new Evangelization.” Many have seen in this initiative a bold prophetic action. As an Anglican I have received it as a gracious invitation to reconciliation. I can find no valid faithful reason to decline.
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