“Abide with Me”
I. From Rome
The grand question
When I was a Roman Catholic, I once offered the theme of Jesus’ question to Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” for a weekend retreat. I was nearly 30 and hoped I would finally be able to answer that question. I knew Jesus only on an intellectual level. I wanted to answer as St. Peter did: “You are Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Eventually, that faith came to me, but it was not that retreat weekend. That retreat weekend, I made friends I still have today, I had a lot of wholesome fun, and I took part in some beautiful liturgies. But I did not meet Jesus.
That summary comes painfully close to describing my life as a Roman Catholic. When I say that I did not meet Jesus there, it is not because I subscribe to any of the lurid conspiracies about the Roman Church. Not only is the Pope not the Antichrist, but also the Roman Church unquestionably stretches back to Christ himself. Christ is at the heart of the Roman world. I just think the Roman Church is bad at helping Catholics to meet him.
I hate to lay that charge against Rome because I love it. I might not have ever returned to faith as a young adult if not for the artistic grandeur of Catholic culture. That tiny flame of faith in great novels and beautiful windows was fanned by much Catholic catechesis into a strong fire. Most of my closest friends are Catholic, and some of the Catholic priests I know are among the greatest heroes I have.
For all those gifts, Rome did not give me the gift I wanted most, which was to encounter Christ. I wanted to be a Christian because I believed in him, knew him, and needed him. I didn’t want to be a Christian just because it was the culturally convenient outpost of Monotheism, Inc. I did not want a vague monotheism with a Christian iconography. I knew that version of faith was insufficient and I wanted more, but I had really only one idea of how to get there in my Roman toolbox.
I was always taught that the best way to encounter Jesus was in the eucharist. The eucharist (also called “holy communion”) is, as famously called by Pope St. John Paul II, the “source and summit” of Catholic life. Roman Catholics believe in the real presence of Jesus in the eucharist. By the mystery known as “transubstantiation,” the bread and wine offered by the priest at mass are transformed into Christ’s body and blood. The result is that when a Roman Catholic receives communion, he or she should believe that he or she is receiving the actual body and blood of Christ. In this act of receiving, believers become one with him. There are other ways to encounter Christ in the eucharist, too, most famously eucharistic adoration.
The believing Catholic begins to receive communion around the age of eight. Between the ages of 8 and roughly 24, I received communion almost every Sunday at mass. The priest did the consecration, we all got in line, we received, we prayed, and then we went home. It was just a part of the ritual, and it meant nothing to me. I don’t remember a single profound thought about receiving the eucharist, even as I was taking daily religion classes for eight of those years.
When I came back to the Roman Church at 27, I had studied more theology and approached the eucharist with intention and reverence. I prepared myself for communion with the sacrament of confession. I prayed through the consecration with the priest. I said my own prayers as well. Then I would get in line and hope that the eucharist I was about to receive would transform me. Oh, I hoped so hard for that transformation! I wanted to at last know what it meant to be in mystical communion with Christ, and time after time, it just did not happen. Communion only ever remained an empty and mechanical act.
I had better luck in getting close to Jesus at eucharistic adoration. Adoration is a ritual where a priest reserves a part of the consecrated eucharist in a special vessel on an altar. The faithful pray before this element, believing Christ is bodily there upon the altar. This practice is found in only some Roman parishes; I never encountered it until I was an adult.
For someone like me who came back to the Church through art and beauty, the best nights in adoration are a feast for the senses: a silent church, darkness punctured only by candles, a stunning gold monstrance upon the altar. It is a perfect place to contemplate and release your earthly cares. I would go to adoration, less often than I should have, and plead with Jesus to show himself to me and heal my unbelief. I wanted to hear him whisper softly in my ear. It never happened. I spent beautiful hours of prayer in adoration and I found wisdom and peace in my meditations, but I did not find Jesus.
I finally found Jesus in winter 2016. I had burned out as a Roman Catholic young adult leader. Monotheism with a Christian iconography felt like an empty imposition. One night, I challenged Jesus. I wrote that he had one year to reveal himself to me or I was done as a Christian.
Soon, I started reading the Gospels, just a chapter each night. I knew the stories, but I had never read them from start to finish. I also began to read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Lewis and the Bible worked together until one night, I did what C.S. Lewis recommended and gave my life to Christ. I had always heard about born-again Christianity but had no idea what it meant until then, when I said in my heart that I wanted Jesus to be the Lord of my life. I gave control over to him.
It was not as if my conversion led to Jesus appearing before me and shaking my hand for finally solving the eternal riddle. But I didn’t need that. I just needed him in my heart, and that is where I found his abiding presence in his Holy Spirit. From that moment on, when I read the Bible and saw those red letters spoken so long ago by Christ himself, I felt as if he were saying them directly to me. Jesus came alive. I knew him. Through the Holy Spirit, I was immediately freed from some of the most persistent sins that had kept me in shame for years. I was not freed from those sins in a way that I even felt like I had to fight them. They just no longer troubled me at all. Life was joyful and easy.
I am so grateful that Jesus came to my rescue. I have had ups and downs since that conversion, but I never again doubted him. What I did doubt was the Roman Church. For all those communions, for all those confessions, for all those times in adoration, why did no one ever tell me there was a simple enough way for me to meet Jesus? I do not think anyone in Rome is intentionally preventing the Catholic faithful from coming to know Jesus. I also do not want to imply that most Catholics lack salvation via their faith in Christ. The Roman Church wants the best for its faithful, and I believe most Catholics do believe in Christ and are bound for salvation.
The problem, I think, is that the Roman Church leaves too much to Christ’s presence in the eucharist. It is a huge gift—really, “source and summit” is no exaggeration. I do not want to imagine life without Christ in the eucharist. But to receive it does not mean that we understand it and its implication for our lives. If you have never studied geometry and then you hold a textbook in your hand, you do not just absorb it. Even if you eat the textbook, it still doesn’t help. Even if you draw out all of the equations, they would likely just remain line segments and shapes to you unless someone explained it.
The comparison is imperfect because geometry is natural and Christ is supernatural. Everything is possible in Christ. But just because it is possible that one would come to understand the scandal that is Christ crucified by receiving the eucharist does not mean it is probable. We should do all that we can to make it probable.
In my experience, the Roman Catholic approach to Christological catechesis often falls apart for the same reason that Michael Jordan is a horrible basketball general manager. The greatest player of all time cannot assemble a decent team to save his life. It seems to make no sense, but Jordan was so great that he seems unable to see the limitations of others. Where he saw possibility and the urge to drive harder as a player, others lack the motivation or skill. It’s not that he thinks too little of them but that he thinks too much.
I have met plenty of mediocre Catholic priests, and then I have met many who are living saints. I was lucky to only meet a few terrible ones. Leaving aside these truly poor few, for the rest, even the mediocre ones love Christ. I have heard priests talk about crying in adoration or feeling overwhelmed by the grace of meeting Christ in a homeless man, and there is nothing fake in it. I think a lot of these men know Christ intimately. But like Jordan, I think they err in expecting the same things will work for the average lay Catholic. In reality, the priest is a great outlier, a true lion of the faith. What worked for him, the heights of contemplation and prayer he may have experienced as a natural and almost effortless gift, often does not work for the average believer in the pews.
I exhort Roman Catholic priests to help their parishioners meet Christ. Show them that Christ is alive. The ways are many. Keep urging them towards the eucharist, yes, but also urge them to read the Bible. Not just the mass readings, but the whole thing, front to back. Live the fullness of Roman eucharistic theology and offer more confession and spiritual direction. Teach people how to contemplate. Give them prayer practices that are manageable and repeatable. More than anything, just talk more about Jesus. Let your conversation about Jesus be fluent and easy, and help your parishioners do the same. Teach everyone to be a witness and testify.
II. To Canterbury
Exivi et perveni
I have left the Roman Catholic Church three times. I left as a young man because I was a proud sinner who did not want to believe. Then, I left after my born-again conversion because I was angry at Rome for not helping me get there. Finally, I left at the start of this year because I was broken and I needed grace.
When I left as a young man, I ventured out into nothing but secular unbelief. These latter two times, I have left for the Anglican Communion and it is now here as an Anglican that I pray to remain through God’s grace.
I have known only two Anglican parishes so far, but in both of them, I have found parishioners on fire for Christ. It is an unfair comparison because the Anglican parishes I know have almost no cradle Anglicans. They meet in out-of-the-way locations. No one gets there by accident. The average Anglican I know grew up evangelical and then discovered at least one of the following; Church history, ancient liturgy, or sacramental theology. They already had the knowing Jesus part down and just needed some points of Church culture filled in.
Meanwhile, in the average Roman parish in the U.S., nearly everyone is a cradle Catholic. Many of them worship at that parish because it’s the closest one to home. Even for practicing Catholics, many might just be on sacramental autopilot, attending mass each week to receive communion because it would be a sin to miss it. I’m sure a culturally Anglican country like England has dreary parishes just like these ones.
One of the most stunning things to me about the Anglican parishes I know is the love parishioners have for daily prayer. In Roman Catholic daily prayer, there are the liturgical hours. For most people who pray the liturgy of the hours, they pray formulaic prayers and devotions of the Church four times per day. This devotion is called the Divine Office. I did not know what the Office was until I was nearly 30 and when I realized it was something I would need to do if I wanted to become a priest, I hated it. It bored me to tears.
Thomas Cranmer was the most important figure in the early Church of England, in no small part because he compiled the first Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer wanted to keep the liturgy of the hours, but he wanted to reinvigorate the prayers in a way that would make them accessible to lay-people. Cranmer simplified the Office down to just morning and evening prayer—from eight services of prayer to just two.
When I first joined an Anglican parish, I was shocked to hear people cite the Office as something they enjoyed. Nearly every person told me the Office was a relief for them because it gave them a break from needing to find the words to pray. After a life of spontaneous prayer, here at last was a prayer that did not demand anything creative from the weary believer. Here was a universal prayer that united all people. Here was a poetic prayer that through its beautiful language could teach us theological truth. I was still skeptical, but I could understand their position.
I never came around on the Office in my first Anglican period, but now I love it. The main reason I love it is because of how it treats Scripture. Daily prayer should be prayed alongside the lectionary, and the Scripture readings called for in morning and evening are hearty—not short verses or reflections from a non-Scriptural source, but usually whole chapters and, crucially, chapters read in sequence. Devotion to daily prayer creates its own sort of Bible reading plan. I have heard it said that in theory, the Anglican Church is the most Bible-reading church on earth. I want to live that theory into reality.
For all the things I love, I doubt I could have flourished as an Anglican if I had not come to appreciate Anglican sacramental theology. The sacraments remind me a bit of a beautiful ruin. Even a tourist without an ounce of knowledge visiting the Parthenon, thousands of years after its most visible glories were stripped away, is still impressed by its grandeur. In the same way, even when I was a Roman Catholic teen with no deep understanding of the sacraments, I was still impressed by the weight of the ritual and ceremony. And in just the same way as the Parthenon, this residual beauty was not an accident but the result of the sublime design of the architect, too beautiful to be missed.
The more I came to learn and believe, the fuller that beauty became—and indeed, it was transformed. My focus switched from my senses appreciating the ritual to my mind and my soul appreciating the grace on free offer. I do not think Christians in non-sacramental churches are any less grace-filled, but I imagine they may face a more difficult Christian walk. I need the sacraments not because I am good, but because I am weak.
When I first encountered the Anglican sacraments, I thought it was odd that there were only two, baptism and the eucharist. I thought it said so right in the 39 Articles, but the Articles are only firm on calling those two sacraments of the Gospel. The other five sacraments from the classical Roman definition are not denounced—they just are not accorded the same level of necessity. They are still sacraments of the Church. I am always reminded of the time I asked an Orthodox priest if they also had seven sacraments. “At least,” he said. Orthodox theology tends to embrace mystery more than the rigorous definitions often found in the Roman Church, and there is this Eastern spirit in the best of Anglicanism.
I have always especially loved the sacrament of confession. In the Roman world, anyone who commits a mortal sin should go to confession to restore the “state of grace” and be prepared once more to receive the eucharist, and all Roman Catholics, in mortal sin or not, are obliged to confess at least annually. The list of mortal sins seems much longer than the list of Roman Catholics I know who actually confess at least once a year. I am frustrated that the Roman Church stamps this sacrament with necessity and yet teaches it so poorly that so few people even access it—and, in avoiding it, dig themselves deeper into a supposed hole of sin.
For Anglicans, we may all confess directly to Christ, but this confession needs to be more than a mechanical act—it needs to be a contrite movement towards an amended life. The Anglican who confesses to Jesus in such a holy manner is freely welcomed back into his merciful embrace. Alongside that sort of personal and private confession, we have also the option to confess to a priest. I do not trust my own spirit of contrition; I feel I need the accountability and counsel of my priest. He asks me questions and gives me advice, but he does not give me a penance. It felt like a joke to me every time I would go to Roman confession with a long list of sins, be asked not a single question by the priest, and be given a totally unconnected penance, like praying five Our Fathers. I access Anglican confession less than I did Roman confession, but the Anglican way is much better at coaxing change out of me.
The eucharist remains the “source and summit” of my life as an Anglican, but just like with confession, the Anglican formulation makes more sense to me. The Articles say, “The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them.” The Roman Catholic eucharist focuses primarily on the transubstantiation of the elements of communion from bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, not in a symbolic or spiritual way but in a real and local one.
Orthodox and Anglicans also believe that the eucharist is the true body and blood of Christ, but both Orthodox and Anglicans prefer to avoid transubstantiation in favor of mystery. Especially for Anglicans, we believe Christ is fully spiritually present in the eucharist, not in some lesser way in which spirit is defined against body, but in a maybe greater way in which spirit is defined pneumatologically—that is to say, defined by the presence of the Holy Spirit. In this way, the transubstantiation of the elements is deemphasized in favor of the transubstantiation of the communicant, where sinful human is transformed into holy child adopted by God. We celebrate the eucharist because Jesus commanded us to receive it, and he commanded us to receive it because he took our form and died for us so that we might become like him as children of the Father.
A faithful Roman Catholic is now bound to object that however decent any Anglican sacramental theology may sound, the sad reality is that none of it matters because Anglican ordinations are “utterly null and void” as determined by Pope Leo XIII in the infamous papal statement Apostolicae curae. It is just hard for me to take this document seriously. Lacking any way to simply rewrite history and show apostolic succession did not apply to the Anglican priesthood, the Roman Church instead fell back on legalistic questions about the form and intent of Anglican ordination rites. If this statement is the reason why anyone remains a member of the Roman Church, I would invite that person to find a better reason.
The final frontier for many Roman Catholics relates to the exclusivity of the Roman Church—the one true Church. For the faithful Catholic, the Roman Church is Christ’s Church through St. Peter, the Church against which the gates of Hell shall never prevail. To be outside of this Church is a mistake, which is an improvement from before the Second Vatican Council, when to be outside was not to be saved. So many Roman claims rest on this idea of Petrine supremacy and submission to the authority of Rome.
I accept Petrine primacy but not Petrine supremacy, which is to say that I accept the Pope of Rome’s role as first among equals in the episcopacy but not the distorted way the papacy has evolved to hold worldwide jurisdiction on all things Church. This distortion has led the Roman Church away from its brethren in the Anglican and Orthodox Churches, who look forward to a day when bishops might gather again in ecumenical councils to guide the Church ancient and undivided in spirit and truth.
I am glad to be part of a Church that avoids the worst Roman excesses towards chauvinism and pride. I see a Church that makes mistakes, even in some places on some very concerning issues of discipline, but that still approaches teaching with humility. Even where disciplines have turned problematic, they have never yet turned problematic with the dogmatic heft that comes with the teaching authority of the Pope of Rome, potentially speaking infallibly. Though Anglicans might make mistakes, we are freer to unwind them.
I was plagued by the politics of the Roman Church. Especially during the papacy of Pope Francis, I let myself fall into an obsession with factional rivalry. Because of the excessive power of the papacy, various parties all hope to see their candidate win the next papal conclave. Human politics dominate discussions where only truth should matter.
Even on the supposed side of orthodoxy, there are Catholics who do not worry at all because they believe the Church will never teach falsehood and another set who worry all the time because they believe the Church has not taught falsehood yet but think it could soon. I was in that latter set; I went through long periods of worry where I could not shake a sense that grave errors were around the corner. I read Vatican gossip sites, I rooted against my foes, and I dabbled in conspiracies.
Becoming Anglican allows me to put these conflicts behind me. I cannot help but follow the latest news from Rome and I want the best for the Roman Church, but they are no longer my battles. Some people will find it ridiculous that I claim to have separated myself from internecine Church politics while I am a member of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which has separated itself from the Episcopal Church. Maybe I am fooling myself; maybe I just do not know the Anglican world well enough yet.
My hope is that I have learned from my Roman mistakes and avoid politics. I need to develop a better sense of subsidiarity and focus on simple Christian life in my parish and my diocese. I also feel like I have less to worry about because the Anglican Church is in continuity with the ancient Church and especially the ancient councils. Even where Anglicans have loosened disciplines in ways I do not support, those new disciplines have never been confirmed by an ecumenical council. Heterodoxy may win some battles, but orthodoxy will win the war.
Gaudium et spes
When I first conceived of writing this essay, I thought maybe I ought to read a famous Protestant-to-Catholic convert like Scott Hahn or the most famous Anglican-to-Catholic convert, St. John Henry Newman. I planned to look at their arguments and find the holes in them.
I am so glad I didn’t. My biggest reason for leaving the Roman Church is not because of any complaint or list of complaints I have against Rome. The main reason I am an Anglican is because I believe this Church best helps me meet Christ and live in him. For all its present mistakes and its past history of venal sinners, I find that the Church of England lives truer to the spirit of Christ in the Gospels than the Roman Church or any other.
I find in Anglicanism a continuity and apostolicity that is both chronological as well as spiritual. I find a Church that takes my own semi-Pelagian struggle with legalism and smothers it in the simple Gospel as preached by C.S. Lewis and Robert Farrar Capon. I find sacraments that enkindle the Spirit in my heart.
One recent Sunday, I attended a streamed service from Texas. The priest quoted a poem from the great Anglican poet George Herbert:
LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.
For the first time, a homily brought tears to my eyes. I find most homilies comprehensible but not memorable. This priest, quoting this poem, put words to what I could not express in my heart. Only now do I start to grasp this mystery of my unworth and Christ’s infinite worth and yet his infinite love that bridges the two. I know what it is to abide in his love, not as a concept but as a reality. Here I sit and eat.