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Listening to Converts

By Calvin Lane

At the recent General Convention several former evangelicals, most relatively young, spoke against prayer book revision, specifically changes to the marriage rites. It struck some deputies as strange because the very existence of these converts countered a particular narrative about why evangelicals become Episcopalians: to seek inclusivity, which means a skepticism about, if not a rejection of, traditional Christian approaches to human sexuality. One particular tweet by a baffled deputy even doubled back on that narrative in disbelief. How could there be young, conservative, former evangelicals in TEC?

There are several problems here, however. The reality that there are evangelicals within the Episcopal Church (some are even “cradle Episcopalians”) makes it a rather odd proposition to speak about converting from evangelicalism to the Episcopal Church. But the particular narratives we tell about why people convert often do us disservice.

For example, I do not doubt that there are scores of women and men who were active members of churches we would define as evangelical who decamped for the Episcopal Church because it seemed more inclusive. But what about all the disciples of Robert Webber?

Webber’s Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail (1985) still gives direction for countless energetic Christians who find in Anglicanism an ancient, apostolic faith, a church whose order is Catholic, whose worship is eucharistically centered, and whose message can be, well, evangelical. We might be surprised to learn how many of our most effective clergy were formed at colleges like Wheaton, Gordon, or Calvin. They may have dropped some baggage, but which bags did they drop? Which narrative is true of evangelical converts?

The answer, obviously, is both are true. And there are more such true narratives. Some might be exhausted by American evangelicals’ politics. Some may prefer more liturgical worship. Or it could simply be the music was to their liking on the Sunday they visited an Episcopal church, or the rector clicked with them, or they just got tired of 40-minute sermons, or some combination of all of these. People convert for endless numbers of reasons.

The exact same thing must be said for people who’ve left Roman Catholicism for the Episcopal Church. I have long quit assuming what former Roman Catholics mean when they say something along the lines of Well, the Catholic Church wasn’t working for me anymore. I have a dear priest colleague with a love for Reformation-era theology, and he used to immediately assume that ex-Catholic meant something along the lines of wanting to accept a Protestant theology of justification.

While that could be true, it could be that the former Roman Catholic wished to start using birth control and be honest about it.  Or, often, some convert because they’re divorced, want to receive Communion, and Hey, this looks close enough. Or it could be they’re disturbed by the Roman Catholic Church’s handling of abuse cases, and, once again, this Episcopal thing is different but looks close enough. I’ve also met Roman Catholic converts who retain a robust opposition to abortion and a Neo-Thomist sacramental theology. And Yesthere are some who came to a different opinion about grace, works, and an imputation of Christ’s righteousness for lost sinners.

In short, people are complicated and their motivations for conversion are always nuanced. I’m reminded of a scene in the ’90s TV show King of the Hill in which one Laotian American character runs into another Laotian American in town and remarks about not seeing him at the Buddhist temple. The other responds, “Oh, we’re Episcopalians now. It’s just good for business.”

Does that hold a mirror up to reality? Yes, but that convert could be giving only one among several reasons for his conversion. Another might be he found relationships that are life-giving, engagements that point to Jesus Christ. People are spiritual amphibians with multiple, even conflicting, motivations.

A more high-brow example than King of the Hill would be the characters we meet in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. When we consider their motivations for pilgrimage we would be wrong both to reduce or to ignore their bawdy earthiness. The desire to see the sights, traveling and carousing in bars, could run alongside a desire to come close to holiness. Contemporary Americans choose a church (if they desire one) for a combination of factors and not infrequently in spite of still other factors: the worship, the leadership, the community, the music, opportunities for their children, affiliations they inherited from parents or grandparents (with emotional attachments), advocacy for social justice or social conservatism, and for some lingering sociopolitical status. Theology is quite important too, but theology is certainly not the only motivating factor.

We would do well to listen to converts, hear their stories, and perhaps come to a deeper appreciation of the church we have to steward and the gospel we have to share.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t like being called a convert. I was already a follower of Jesus, I was already baptized, I was already called to service/ministry. There was no conversion of belief or lifestyle. What changed was form of worship and ecclesiology, and an ADDITION of literal apostolic succession to pre-existing confessional apostolic succession. What I have found in the Episcopal Church is a relatively weak understanding of literal apostolic succession (especially in the relationship of the local parish and individual Christian with their bishop) and a very weak grasp of the confessional apostolic succession (core theological principles and knowledge/understanding of scripture). Jesus chose 12 disciples with very different points of view, who (apparently) eventually agreed on core principles of Jesus’ teaching; (one point of view precipitated the death of Jesus and the self-destruction of its holder). Within the Episcopal Church I found tolerance of different perspectives, while agreeing on the core of confessional apostolic succession. This tolerance is not, generally, present in the Evangelical church. I don’t perceive that I converted to the Episcopal Church; I matured into it. It was like leaving the pond and jumping into the river.

  2. On the complicated nuances of conversion, and the benefits of listening to converts tell their stories, you might enjoy Lincoln Mullen’s history of American conversion, “The Chance of Salvation.”

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