By John M. Gullett
Several years ago, I was working at Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. My job was to scan tickets for guests coming to ride on the Hogwarts Express. One day a coworker, a bright-faced young college student, asked me a reasonable question: “What are you doing here? You don’t exactly look like the other folks who work with us.”
I tried to explain to my young friend how a 44-year-old man with an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree, a wife, and three young children decides to transition from being an ordained Presbyterian minister for 12 years to becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church. I explained that my transition to the Episcopal Church required that I be confirmed in the Episcopal Church for at least a year before being ordained to the diaconate, and then it would be six more months before I could be ordained as a priest.
For seven of the twelve months between my confirmation in the Episcopal Church and my ordination to the transitional diaconate I worked at entry-level jobs, while continuing to rent a townhouse in Orlando. I was able to work full-time hours for most of those seven months, and yet I never made enough in a single month to pay our rent. We lived off of our savings, and then off of the generosity of others as our savings ran out.
Why did I do it? I heard that question quite a lot, and I did not mind. Why would a minister of the Presbyterian Church in America seek ordination in the Episcopal Church? Why would I leave a denomination in which my beloved father was an ordained minister from the beginning? I attended the denominational seminary for my master’s of divinity, served in four pastoral positions, planted two churches, and attended the church’s national assembly every year. I loved my fellow Presbyterians, and still love them, but I felt called to serve in the Episcopal Church.
But why? It’s a long story. In some ways, my transition to the Episcopal Church is the culmination of a long journey that began as early as my undergraduate days in the School of Music at Appalachian State University. I love the liturgy of the Church. I love the content and structure of the way Christians worship. As an undergraduate, I sat in my small, young, Presbyterian church with a very simple liturgy, and one day I had an epiphany. Our stripped down, Protestant, evangelical, absolutely-not-Catholic service contained almost all of the principal movements of the Medieval Mass in the traditional order that I was learning about in my music history class. I sat there one Sunday morning with the bulletin in my hand, and quietly gasped. I thought, “It’s the Mass!”
I was not threatened or disappointed to notice a strong connection between our liturgy and the Mass. I was fascinated and deeply encouraged. My church didn’t make up the liturgy; it had deep roots in the history of the Church. I continued to develop a passion for the historic liturgy of the Church through my seminary education and into my early days as a Presbyterian minister. And when God called me into church planting, I was able to design a liturgy for our church that included a confession of sin (kneeling) and absolution, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Eucharist with wine and the common cup.
My study of the liturgy fit together with other theological developments taking shape in my heart and mind. I was beginning to develop a more sacramental posture toward the whole of life. I was beginning to learn more about how repeated words and actions shape and form us as humans. I began to study and contemplate the principles and ideas bound up in the Latin phrase lex orandi lex credendi, and how they apply to the rhythms of the Christian life. I began to be more concerned about the visual and ascetic elements of sacred space.
My theological education helped me develop a very high view of the Church and the sacraments. My experience in ministry, and my father’s experience, left me longing for a more tangibly connected church and a real bishop. A church that is not bound together financially discovers that it is virtually impossible to act as a whole. Healthcare and pensions are available in larger and more affluent churches, but are rarely a given in churches of 100 people or less. In times of conflict or stress my natural tendency was to look for help and encouragement from my regional church. On some occasions help came, but in most cases it was up to me to cope to the best of my ability or to move on.
And perhaps the last step in my journey was to recognize the ache God began to place in my heart for the unity and catholicity of the Church. I grew up in a separatist tradition. We valiantly sought and fought for doctrinal unity down to the jots and tittles of Christian theology. In the end, we did not produce a pure church. It was still filled with brokenness, sin, and error. We did produce a lot of casualties, a lot of grief, and a lot of pain.
I still love the church in which I grew up and became a pastor. I am confident God continues to use so many PCA churches for his glory, and for the conversion of many men, women, and children to faith in Jesus Christ. But I felt the strong calling of the risen Christ to pursue his passion for the unity of the church. As I told a friend, if I can be one less separatist in the world, then I will be.
When I inquired about the Episcopal Church my questions were fairly simple: Do you think I would fit, and would you take me? I learned the truth of “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.”
I know the Episcopal Church is not a pure church either. I do not have delusions of having come to a church without brokenness, sin, and error. We are all sinners washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. As we came to the decision to embark on the long journey to ordination in the Episcopal Church, my wife and I agreed on certain realities of pastoral life: Life in ministry is hard, people in the church can be difficult, and church systems and structures can be frustrating. We decided that these things would be true if we stayed in the Presbyterian Church in America and they would be true if we joined the Episcopal Church. We decided to make this journey because in the end we heard God calling us to do it.
Once we made the decision, we often wondered why we waited so long. And at each step along the way God has confirmed our calling, and helped us feel as though we have come home.
The Rev. John M. Gullett is rector of St. Alban’s Church in Auburndale, Florida.