Anchor clinging to rock.

My Anchor Holds: Recollections of a Retired Priest

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(This is the first part of David Wilson’s ministry story. Check out the second installment here.)

Changes and Chances

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness.

A collect for ComplineBook of Common Prayer 2019

At age 56, I came to the stark realization that I would not achieve my aspirations and dreams, at least not as a priest in the Episcopal Church. That year, 2008, when our diocese voted to leave the Episcopal Church behind, my memories and recollections became the only remainders of my time as an Episcopalian. They joined those of my time as a WASP-y childhood United Methodist, a college-educated existential hippie, a United Steelworker, and a federal government apparatchik.

Sponsored

Now, I draw near my 73rd year on Earth. After almost 45 years of serving as a lay minister, then as an ordained minister domiciled in the Episcopal Church, and now in the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, I am limping across the finish line—not due to any injury, but as a consequence of growing old! “Now that I am old and gray-headed,” the psalmist prays as he seeks divine forbearance (Psalm 78:13), and… well, that’s who I am!

Five years into retirement from being a full-time rector, I have reached a point when the impetus to wax autobiographical naturally ascends, and a preoccupation with current events recedes. At the 2024 ACNA Provincial Assembly, I will hang up my spurs for good. The Compline collect quoted above refers to the “changes and chances of this life.” Such are the things I have been drawn to lately.

Philadelphia Foundations

I grew up in a pan-Christian culture in the 1950s and 60s. We went to church because everyone in white suburban America went to church; otherwise, people suspected you of being an outright communist or at least a fellow traveler. My dad was the product of an Irish-Protestant, conservative Presbyterian background, and my mom grew up a nominal Roman Catholic. How they hooked up is beyond my comprehension—it must have been love.

In junior and high school, my brother, sister, and I ritually attended the Methodist youth group in our suburban Philadelphia neighborhood, even though my parents attended slightly more than “Creasters” (Christmas and Easter only). Later, I often joked that God must have really trusted United Methodists since he gave us the summer off each year.

I remember almost committing to Jesus at a youth retreat in Maryland, but I feared embarrassing myself by standing up when implored to do so.

An Episcopal Encounter

In college, I was into Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Herman Hesse—existentialists all and party-hearty. I had no time or desire for Jesus.

After graduating from college, getting married, with a B.A. in History, and not finding a decent-paying job, I began a blue-collar career, eventually landing in J & L Steel Aliquippa Works as a foreman. During a time of unemployment, the local Episcopal rector, a progressive, reached out to me to repair the ceiling in the church office. That became our entry into the Episcopal Church.

After moving to Aliquippa to be near the steel mill, my wife Gale and I contemplated getting our two small children baptized. I had befriended a fellow steelworker who also lived in our neighborhood, and he had told me about the local Episcopal Church he attended that had a new rector about my age. I told him, “Next time you see him, tell him to call me.”

Gale, being a former Roman Catholic, was mortified that I would request a phone call from a priest, even of the Episcopal variety! She chided me for my lack of deference. She explained that you don’t call a priest and ask him to visit you; you go to see him at the church.

Trinity and the Evangelical Anglicans

We lived across the Ohio River from the fledgling Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry (now Trinity Anglican Seminary), an evangelical seminary founded a few years earlier. By chance, that rector was in the first graduating class and had done his fieldwork under the tutelage of John Guest, an Anglican evangelist extraordinaire. This young graduate studied at the feet of the Rt. Rev. Dr. John Rodgers and read J.I. Packer, John Stott, David Watson, and Michael Green. He was an outright evangelical with a charismatic twinge and a cradle Episcopalian to boot. He also knew the Evangelism Explosion outline, which he didn’t hesitate to share with us after his initial visit to our house.

We were like clay to the potter, drinking up the living water of life that Jesus offered, to mix metaphors! We visited this young rector and his parish, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, and never looked back. I remember watching the Passing of the Peace for the first time and saying to myself, “I want what they have.” Little did I then know that Gale was thinking the same thing.

God’s Greater Plans

After the steel industry died in the Rust Belt in 1983-1984, I found myself laid off with no prospects of a decent job. With a young family to provide for, I enrolled in graduate school. For 18 months, I commuted to the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. During this period, our parish led several renewal weekends in adjoining parishes. They asked me to give my testimony to the gathered assemblage. It was my first time speaking in public. I had butterflies, but I was eager to share. We were told to give our witness by saying what our life was like before we came to know Christ, how we came to know him, and how he has changed our lives. I began by saying, “I came to know Christ, and the very same week, I lost my job. I was unemployed!”

While attending graduate school, I was chosen to enroll in a paid internship at the International Trade Administration within the US Department of Commerce in Washington, DC. It must have been Providence that I landed in the Office of the Middle East at the Israel Desk! In the summer of 1986, we moved to Fairfax, VA. We attended the two spirit-filled evangelical Episcopal parishes and enrolled our kids in the premier Fairfax County schools. We had arrived and thought we were there for good. But God had other plans for us!

The Brotherhood of St. Andrew

While living in Aliquippa, I was highly involved in the men’s group, which undertook a food bank ministry to the many steelworker families who were unemployed in our community. That men’s group morphed into a Brotherhood of St. Andrew chapter with me as the Vice-Director or as the men liked to refer to me as the Director of Vice! As it happened, the Brotherhood had moved to Ambridge as a part of what became known as “Gospel Alley.” The avenue by the seminary soon had four or five national ministries within the Episcopal Church headquartered there.

When the Executive Director unexpectedly retired a few years later, I became the leading candidate to replace him and was later offered the position. Another choice to make was to leave our newly found home in the cheery upscale city of Fairfax, VA, or return to the dreary Rust Belt town of Aliquippa. On one hand, the decision was an easy one.   On the other hand, we were away from the often-depressing life in the Rust Belt and making a new life in Fairfax. We prayed, and like Gideon in the Old Testament (Judges 6:33-40), I put out a fleece, which I had never done before or since. My fleece was that if the Brotherhood Board and National President unanimously selected me, I would accept. Another change and another chance.

The Journey to Ordination

I served as the Executive Director of the Brotherhood for six years, and my time as Executive Director ended. I had been taking classes at the seminary during those six years and mulling over a call to ordination. After a four-day winter retreat at the beach in Maryland, I prayed with great intention and came to peace that God was calling me to be a priest. Soon after that, I made an appointment to see our bishop, Alden Hathaway, and to begin the formal discernment process leading to ordination in TEC.

I continued to work full-time at the South American Missionary Society (SAMS), and Gale worked as an administrator at Trinity School for Ministry. These two positions, plus support from Bishop Hathaway, all made for an affordable Master of Divinity. Then, Bishop Hathaway “requested” I spend my senior year as a full-time student under the guise of “the need for my priestly formation.” Here we go again, another change and another chance from the Lord.

I resigned from SAMS and again asked the Lord to provide for my needs in his time and his way. I wrote an appeal letter to virtually everybody I had ever met through the Brotherhood, SAMS, and Cursillo. Enough support came in for my senior year in less than a month. This, however, was a big step for me because until now, I was a layperson and canonically not answerable to any bishop or priest. Now, I was to be accountable to my Father in God, the bishop: another change and another chance.

Ordained Ministry

After ordination at age 45 in June 1996, I was offered a position as vicar of a new Church Plant in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. However, I would have to raise my own support.

I told Bishop Hathaway I was content to serve in my current position as the part-time assistant pastor of my home parish. He allowed me to stay, and soon after that, our rector suffered a heart attack and had to take medical leave for six months. I filled in as the full-time acting rector. After his return, I was on my own again as the vestry could no longer pay both of us full-time. Someone needed to go, and I knew it was me. Again, another change and another chance.

A First Rectorship

I soon had to choose to serve as the curate at a sizeable charismatic parish at the beach in Virginia or become the rector of an old struggling parish in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. My now bishop, Robert Duncan, reminded me that this was my chance to remain in the Diocese of Pittsburgh; he was implying it was my only chance.

I stayed at that parish for almost 12 years, making me the third longest-serving rector in its 207-year history. I left in the summer of 2008 as the Diocese of Pittsburgh was poised to leave the Episcopal Church in the fall, and the parish wanted to stay.

My Anchor Holds

My journey of serving in the ACNA is another story for another time. Suffice it to say that I served as a rector in the ACNA for ten years, served the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, and worked within the provincial leadership of the ACNA. Surprisingly, there has been little change since my retirement as a rector in July 2018. All in all, my journey can be summed up with words from a favorite hymn, “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand”:

When darkness veils his lovely face,
I rest on his unchanging grace;
in every high and stormy gale,
my anchor holds within the veil.
On Christ the solid rock I stand…
Amen.

(Check out the rest of David Wilson’s story here.)


Photo by ivstiv from Getty Images, courtesy of Canva.

Published on

June 5, 2024

Author

David Wilson

The Rev. Canon Dr. David Wilson's entire ministry has been in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He gained his M.Div. & D.Min. from Trinity Anglican Seminary. He has served as a member of the Array (Ecclesiastical Court), on Diocesan Council, and as President of the Standing Committee. He currently serves as a presbyter on the Trial Court of a Bishop.

View more from David Wilson

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