The Surprising Satisfaction Of The Sacraments

I served as a minister in the Free Church tradition for more than thirty-five years, first as a Baptist then as a non-denominational evangelical then as a Mennonite. For all of those years, I believed and taught that the benefit to be derived from baptism and communion (also called “the Lord’s supper,” but never “the Eucharist”) was in their value as powerful symbols of “spiritual” truths.

Baptism (1)Baptism symbolized a believer’s faith in Christ as Savior and Lord and the personal commitment to follow Him as a faithful and obedient disciple. Communion symbolized the sacrifice of Christ in His crucifixion—His broken body (the bread) and His shed blood (the wine, or more likely grape juice). Both these practices represented something else. They were beneficial to the degree that a Christian knew what they stood for. They mainly functioned as “object lessons,” pointing to a spiritual reality but without value in and of themselves.

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My Descent Into Heresy

As I have noted in this blog many times, God and I entered into a pact around forty years ago. He called me into vocational ministry. I responded to that call. He promised to open doors of opportunity for me and to care for all my legitimate needs. In return, He asked me to devote all my energy and use all my gifts in the service of the Kingdom of God. I have tried to be faithful to my side of the pact. He has always been faithful to His, even if on occasion (like now) it hasn’t been immediately clear how He was bringing it to pass. He always has, eventually.

God made my side of the bargain easier by limiting the gifts and the skill set He gave me. I haven’t had to struggle with the temptation to forsake my calling in order to be a professional athlete or a business entrepreneur or a rocket scientist. I’ve never had to resist the allure of the Broadway theater or the silver screen or the concert stage. I simply don’t have either the gifts or the desire to pursue those vocations. I am, however, a pretty good teacher.

For most of my life, I have had ample opportunity to exercise my gifts as a teacher—either in pastoral ministry or in the classroom or as an itinerant speaker/lecturer, traveling across the country and across the church to serve as a preacher in Bible conferences, a teacher in local Bible institutes, and a presenter for workshops and seminars. My schedule was as full of meetings of this type as I wanted it to be until a few years ago when I fell into heresy.

Heresy is not a pretty word. In fact, it’s not even a word with which most people are familiar these days. It was used more frequently in an earlier era when more attention was paid to doctrinal precision and religious orthodoxy within the Christian community. In those days, heresy was the word used to denote deviation from accepted doctrine or a rejection of orthodoxy. A practitioner of heresy was called a heretic.

Throughout the history of the Christian church, the term heresy has been applied to a wide variety of perceived heterodoxy. Its broadest usage has related to variation within or denial of the classic and creedal assertions related to the character and attributes of Jesus Christ. Denial of the classic Christian belief that Jesus was God in human flesh has always constituted heresy. Generally, a rejection of the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ and the suggestion that there are other ways to God apart from belief in Jesus as Savior and Lord have fallen into that category as well.

In some quarters of the church, where speaking in tongues is not practiced, those who advocate that the gift of tongues should be normative for the life of the church are viewed as heretics. Likewise, Christians who believe in evolution may be guilty of heresy in the eyes of Christians who don’t.

My descent into heresy was particularly egregious. I remain orthodox in my commitment to the Nicene Creed and its clear pronouncements of the deity of Jesus and His role as the Savior of mankind. Where I went off the rails was in suggesting that the church would be well-served if we actually recited the words of the Creed as part of regular public worship.

Add to that my inexplicable and inexcusable insistence on the celebration of Communion as the high point of every worship service, and the relegation of preaching to a less significant place in the service, and you can begin to see how the downward spiral accelerated.

I suppose it was inevitable, given what I have just admitted, that it was only a matter of time until I began publicly to refer to the four weeks before Christmas as Advent, the forty days before Easter as Lent, and the seventh Sunday after Easter as Trinity Sunday. Looking back on it now, I can only lift my hands in amazement and cry out, “What was I thinking?”

Yes, dear friends. As unthinkable as it must seem to many of you, I became totally and inextricably caught up in… liturgy. I fought it for years, but its hold on me was too great. I tried to hide my involvement in it for as long as I could, but I knew that was a futile exercise when, one Monday morning, a colleague pulled me aside and surreptitiously whispered in my ear, “I know where you went to church yesterday.”

I tried to quit, but I couldn’t. I found that, if I didn’t, on a weekly basis, eat a wafer and sip some wine that had been consecrated as the body and blood of Christ, I suffered something akin to withdrawal. Sometimes at night, I would be startled awake by the image of a priest uttering the phrase, “The Lord be with you.” More than once I found myself uncontrollably responding, “And also with you.” One particular night, I remember it well, I slumped back against my pillow and heard myself saying, “That’s it. I’m liturgical. The best thing to do is just admit it and take the consequences.”

From that moment it was only a short time until I had to make a clean breast of my obsession. I was warned that, if I couldn’t control my attraction to the liturgical tradition, I might lose my job. I was told that, if I couldn’t curb this consuming desire to kneel when I pray and make the sign of the cross, I would lose my credibility among those who had once engaged me for preaching and teaching missions. “Don’t you care that you are making yourself unemployable?” they asked, plaintively.

And they were right. I did lose my job. Invitations to preach in Bible conferences and to teach in local Bible institutes dried up. My phone stopped ringing, and my email inbox gathered dust.

I cried out to God, “Why is this happening? I’m still an orthodox, evangelical Christian. I’m still committed to the Anabaptist distinctives of radical discipleship and biblical nonresistance. I still believe in the importance of spiritual formation and the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.”

“That may be true,” I seemed to hear God say in reply. “But can you really expect people to invite you to preach to them or to teach their young people if you are constantly using words like ‘eucharist’ and ‘absolution,’ and if you call your pastor “Father” and your bishop “Your Grace”?

And so, I have had to learn to live with the ignominy that has accompanied my public confession of a compulsion to liturgy. It is the cross I must bear, and as an unrepentant Anabaptist, I know a little about cross-bearing discipleship.

Pray for me. I’m trying to find my way within the community of other liturgy addicts, but it’s not easy. Every Sunday I feel the eyes of the congregation on me, as the people think, “Does he really mean it when he prays the Lord’s Prayer, or is he just saying the words?”

It’s getting easier, though. Little by little, I am finding individuals and groups who are at least willing to hear me out. More and more people are listening to my story with interest, and some are even telling me that their experience is similar to mine. And so, maybe I will eventually feel at home in this new communion where so many are heretics just like me.

Gene Herr Was My Hero

I don’t think I ever met Gene Herr, although our paths may have crossed many years ago, before I knew who he was and when I was even more of a nobody than I am now. Gene was a Mennonite, born and raised, who became a Roman Catholic in 2005 when he was in his seventies. Perhaps that sentence alone is enough to tell you why he is a hero of mine.

My wife assures me that I first learned of Gene Herr sometime in the late ’80s or ’90s, while he and his wife were living in Michigan where they had founded a ministry called The Hermitage. Located on 50+ wooded acres, The Hermitage was (and still is) a place for spiritual retreat and formation. When I included a description of the St. Patrick Center in the ministry prospectus which I wrote a year ago, The Hermitage was one of several similar endeavors which provided inspiration and a model for that vision.

Gene Herr died on January 1 this year, although I did not learn of his passing until today. The June issue of The Mennonite, the monthly organ of Mennonite Church USA, published a major article which assessed the impact of his life and ministry. Gene Herr actually was what I have aspired to be—a sacramental and liturgical Anabaptist.

The only personal contact I ever had with Gene Herr came about nearly two years ago, in August 2010. I had written a letter to the editor of the Mennonite Weekly (now World) Review. Gene read my letter and sent me a handwritten note of encouragement in response.

Here is part of what I wrote in that letter—

I joined the Mennonite Church in 1982 and for 26 years served in a variety of ministry roles, including 8 years as a pastor and 14 years as a teacher in a Mennonite Bible college not affiliated with MCUSA.  While teaching there, I came to appreciate the beauty and richness of liturgical worship.  Since I was unable to find a Mennonite congregation in that area which shared my convictions, I began attending an Anglican church, but I never abandoned or compromised my nonresistance convictions nor my commitment to kingdom living and radical discipleship. Still, because I no longer attended a Mennonite church, my teaching contract was terminated in 2008.

I am now preparing for Holy Orders in the Anglican Church in North America, not so much because I have uncritically embraced Anglicanism but because there seems to be more room for my Anabaptist convictions in the Anglican communion than for my liturgical sensibilities in Anabaptism.  I am less an Anglican than a liturgical Anabaptist.

Here is part of what he wrote in response—

My wife and I had a retreat place in southern Michigan. We began with strong Mennonite support with a goal of working at a spirituality to make possible what we have as a call to peace and justice. Our work became wonderfully ecumenical. …

In ’05, the 50th year of my ordination (as a Mennonite minister) at Scottdale, PA, I became a Roman Catholic. … I identify with your struggle and quest for a home. … Blessings to you as you live and serve between the traditions. I have many (Mennonite) friends and still am able to do some teaching in Mennonite settings.

And then, this from the article in The Mennonite, which I mentioned above—

In response to God’s call,… Gene, a lifelong Mennonite, was received into the Catholic Church (in 2005).

This step wasn’t a rejection of his Mennonite roots but the fulfillment of a lifelong faith as an Anabaptist, says Ivan Kauffman, who with Gene and others helped develop Bridgefolk, a movement of sacramentally minded Mennonites and peace-minded Roman Catholics who come together to celebrate each other’s traditions, explore each other’s practices and honor each other’s contribution to the mission of Christ’s church.

“Gene did not turn his back on his Mennonite heritage or on the Mennonite church,” Kauffman says. “He continued to serve the Mennonite community in various ways to the end of his life. What he did do was find ways to make the riches of the pre-Reformation spiritual tradition, out of which the 16th-century Anabaptist movement emerged, available to 20th-century Mennonites.

“He and … Mary did so in ways that were helpful to hundreds of other Mennonites. In the end, however, Gene came to believe he should not just borrow from the Catholic tradition [but] become a full participant in it.”

Gene testifies to this perspective in an essay he wrote: “I am a Roman Catholic not because I have a file folder full of arguments to prove this is superior to all other ecclesial groups but because this is a way of living into a tradition that connects me to God’s people in a fullness of faith, hope and love across millennia.”

That is very similar to the testimony I could give regarding my own pilgrimage from Anabaptism to the liturgical tradition of Anglicanism.

I did not grow up in Anabaptism, as Gene Herr did. And for nine years I was the face and voice of a group called Evangelical Anabaptist Fellowship, which pointed out areas within contemporary Anabaptism (especially MCUSA) where we saw evidence of “doctrinal erosion” and a slipping away from the orthodox heritage of historical Anabaptism. For both of those reasons, my transition from Anabaptism to Anglicanism resulted in greater alienation between me and my former associates within MCUSA than was true of Gene Herr in his relationship with Mennonites after his conversion to Catholicism.

Still, even in his case, as the article in The Mennonite observes—

As (Gene and his wife, Mary) pursued their visionary calling, the wider church did not always understand or affirm the new territories they explored. Eventually, however, many pastors across the church came to appreciate the pastoral nurture they received from the couple at The Hermitage…

I was not fortunate enough to have benefited from the kind of face-to-face mentoring and spiritual support from Gene Herr which so many others experienced, but I was enriched and encouraged by my limited contact. That brief encounter was enough to let me know that, in Gene Herr, I had found a “kindred spirit.”

I have no idea what, if anything, will develop, in my case, as far as a significant ministry among Anglicans is concerned. So far, the landscape looks fairly bleak in that regard. But it may very well be that, through this blog and in other ways, I can still share with my friends and acquaintances in Anabaptism the reality which I have experienced through my encounter with liturgical Anglicanism.

I am not out to make Anglican converts of Anabaptists. In all of my life and ministry, my goal is to encourage believers to take seriously the call of Christ to be faithful citizens of His Kingdom. The rich heritage of the liturgical tradition has been a great help to me in my personal pursuit of that goal. Gene Herr was an encouragement sent to me from God, and one of these days I will be able to tell him that in person.

RIP, Gene Herr.

 

Becoming Sacramental

For several months after my termination at RBC in 2008, our attention was focused more on my wife’s health needs than on the question of our church affiliation.  By early 2009, however, we were ready to make our commitment to Anglican Christianity. On April 19, we received the Sacrament of Confirmation, and our pilgrimage among Anglicans officially began.

I soon began the arduous process of preparing for Holy Orders (ordination) in the Anglican communion. I had been ordained twice before, once as a Baptist then again as a Mennonite, but all of my education and experience had taken place within the free church tradition.  My knowledge of the Anglican tradition was sketchy, and I needed to do extensive reading in the history and theology of Anglicanism. I also took courses in Patristics, Moral Theology, and Liturgics. I was ordained an Anglican priest on May 10, 2011.

Some may wonder how a man who grew up in the Baptist tradition can now submit to episcopal (Bishop) authority and practice paedobaptism (the baptism of infants and young children).  I do not denigrate the tradition to which I devoted thirty-five years of fruitful ministry.  When I became an Anglican, however, I chose to embrace a different paradigm for understanding the nature of the church, spiritual authority, and those practices I formerly regarded as “ordinances.”

I am now a sacramentalist.  I have come to believe that physical expressions such as baptism and communion are far more than just a “memorial” of Jesus’ death or a testimony to personal faith.  Each is, rather, an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”  Further, when I think of baptism as the New Covenant counterpart of circumcision, I have no problem administering it to children of believing parents as a visible sign of the Kingdom community in which the child will be brought up.

Here again the book by Robert Webber, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, which I mentioned in my last post, is helpful.  In describing his journey from Evangelicalism to Anglicanism, Webber noted “six aspects of (Christian) orthodoxy that were not adequately fulfilled” for him until he identified with the Anglican tradition.

For me, Anglicanism preserves, in its worship and sacraments, the sense of mystery that rationalistic Christianity of either the liberal or evangelical sort seems to deny.  I found myself longing for an experience of worship that went beyond either emotionalism or intellectualism.  I believe I’ve found that for myself in the Anglican tradition.  I also felt a need for visible and tangible symbols that I would touch and feel and experience with my senses.  This need is met in the reality of Christ presented to me through the sacraments.  These three needs—mystery, worship, and sacraments—are closely related.

At times I felt like an ecclesiastical orphan looking for spiritual parents and a spiritual identity.  I am now discovering my spiritual identity with all God’s people throughout history by embracing the church universal and a holistic perspective on spirituality.  These three needs—historic identity, an ecclesiastical home, and a holistic spirituality—are also closely related.  (pp. 15-16)

He goes on to say that he is “not sure one has to become an Anglican to satisfy these longings,” but he makes it clear that, for himself and the others whose stories are told in the book, “the Anglican church is a refuge, a home, a place where an intuitive and inclusive Christianity is taught and practiced.”  (p. 16)

That is my testimony as well.