“A meal tastes best when you’re hungry.”
It’s such an obvious truth, and one that my parish priest has been fond of repeating during the season of Lent. It explains why Anglicans traditionally fast in the days leading up to Easter. And it also, I think, captures a lot about my recent journey into Anglican Christianity.
My journey was driven by a spiritual appetite that had been slowly growing for many years. A hunger for rootedness. A desire to be part of a denomination that was not built on modern, nitpicky doctrinal statements but on the ancient consensus of the creeds. And a craving for what I now know to be the beauty of sacramental theology.
That hunger grew to a fever pitch in 2020, a year that brought many unsettled questions in my life into the spotlight, and the year in which I could no longer ignore the alluring aroma wafting from the table of the historic church.
Raised at a Half-Empty Table
Like many people in the American South, I grew up in a Christian home and was in church all the time. We were very involved in charismatic, evangelical congregations—the kind where weekly Bible studies often focused on drawing “deeper meanings” out of biblical prophecies, where Sunday worship was compiled from the CCM hits of the 80s and 90s, and where summer youth camp was the biggest item on our version of the liturgical calendar.
Much of my church experience centered around two things: private reading/study of Scripture, and emotive expressions of intimacy with Jesus. “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” was almost a creedal statement in these circles. Ceremony and tradition were often perceived as being detrimental to a “real relationship with Jesus.”
And yet, for all that, there was at least one ceremony that involved some measure of reverence: taking the Lord’s Supper. Even as a little kid, I remember having impressed upon me the importance of “examining yourself” before partaking. If you didn’t treat it seriously, God would judge you.
But despite the threat of this potentially negative supernatural experience, we were also assured that the cracker and juice were merely symbols. Spiritual grace was present to judge, but not to nourish, apparently. The Lord’s table was half-empty.
Still, I’m grateful for the many good things that my charismatic upbringing instilled in me—things like an emphasis on genuine, personal faith in the Lord; a willingness to participate physically in worship; and a sense, if underdeveloped, of the holiness of the Lord’s Supper.
Unfortunately, what was lacking or even, in some cases, frowned upon, was a willingness to truly examine our beliefs and doctrines in light of Scripture, history, and tradition. It may have been a lively faith, but I could sense it was not the fullness of the faith.
So off I went to Bible college, eager to learn and ambitious to teach my fellow churchgoers how to love the Lord with all our minds and not just all our emotions.
Breadcrumbs on the Canterbury Trail
My first taste of liturgical worship came when I was an undergraduate student at John Brown University in Arkansas.
Our chapel services there included a beautiful sampling of different Christian traditions. I was introduced to things like singing the Doxology, practicing lectio divina, and taking communion from a common loaf and cup at the altar instead of having individual wafers and juice cups passed around.
I particularly loved the symbolism and reverence involved in walking up as a group to take the Lord’s Supper together—my reservations about partaking in a school chapel rather than a church service notwithstanding!
And I was overwhelmed with the sense that despite seeing students coming from all sorts of more traditional backgrounds—Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Reformed Baptist, and others—we all shared a deep, common bond as members of the Body of Christ, equals by grace as we approached the Lord’s table.
I also delighted in learning about church history. I relished the stories of past saints like Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom, and the Cappadocian Fathers. During my senior year, I was blessed to participate in a semester-long intensive on the Apostolic Fathers.
Though I didn’t fully realize it at the time (I was too busy trying to graduate and dating my now-wife to take in all the implications of the Fathers’ theology), I was receiving my first little appetizers of the ancient catholic tradition. Appetizers that would one day cause me to crave the full course.
Reaching My Tipping Point
After finishing college and seminary, I began to prayerfully examine where I would best fit in terms of a denomination in which to pursue ordination.
I had never been fully comfortable with any of the denominations in which I had grown up. It seemed like there were always at least one or two things in the doctrinal statements to which I couldn’t assent.
Whether it was that everyone should speak in tongues, or that one’s initial salvation could never be lost, or specific stances on end-times prophecies, I always found something that was far from an essential of the faith, and yet was part of the identity of that given denomination.
Where were the ancient creeds of the historic church I had so appreciated reading about in college? Shouldn’t those be the core identity markers of a Christian congregation?
Unwilling to pay lip service to doctrines I thought were at worst unbiblical and at best didn’t belong on the shortlist of essential beliefs, I began to feel somewhat homeless. And in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, a paradigm shift occurred that finally moved me to change lanes from my low-church, evangelical environment into the liturgical tradition of Anglicanism.
There were three major factors that combined to finally push me past my tipping point:
#1: Watching my old church communities try to handle Holy Communion during the Covid lockdowns.
One congregation tried to perform “virtual Communion.” Members watching services online were encouraged to use anything handy as elements—whether crackers and juice, or cookies and soda. I couldn’t help but wince at the possible ramifications of representing the body and blood of our Lord with Oreos and a Coke!
The congregation I was part of at the time decided to forego virtual Communion, thankfully. Instead, they decided to leave individual packets of matzah and juice at the back of the auditorium for individuals to partake of if they wished. It was left up to you if and how you wanted to participate. Communion was no longer communal. And I was deeply frustrated.
My hunger for a church that held communion in high reverence, with a sense of the real presence and grace of Christ in the meal, reached a fever pitch.
#2: Revisiting the early Church Fathers.
I had long felt a desire to revisit the Apostolic Fathers to ponder afresh the things I had surely missed while in school. And in the midst of stay-at-home orders in the lockdown, I found myself with a bit of extra time for reading. So I dusted off my copy of Michael Holmes’ critical edition and devoured it.
The timing was providential. There, in the earliest documents of the church after the New Testament, was an affirmation of the sacredness of the Eucharist as a real partaking of the body and blood of Christ (Ignatius, Smyrnaeans 6:2), as well as an insistence on episcopal leadership as the way in which apostolic oversight and orthodox doctrine would continue in Christ’s body (1 Clement 40-44; Ignatius, Trallians 2-3).
All of this suddenly clicked in a new way for me. It caused me to revisit Scripture with fresh eyes.
I paid more attention to things such as St. Paul’s insistence that partaking of Holy Communion really is, in whatever way we should understand the mechanics of it, a “participation in the blood” and “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:16 ESV). And I discovered that the early church unanimously associated the “washing of regeneration” in Titus 3:5 with the sacrament of baptism.
On an even more fundamental level, I realized the implications of accepting that we have the canon of Scripture that we do because of the decisions of the early catholic church and its councils. At that point, I knew I needed to be part of a historic branch of the church that valued this catholic heritage.
#3: Discovering the ACNA.
Prior to October of 2020, I had no idea something like the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) even existed. I assumed that the Episcopal Church was the only embodiment of Anglicanism here in America, and I was aware that my own convictions were more conservative than what is now common in Episcopalian circles.
My search for a place in the historic church at first led me to explore Eastern Orthodoxy, as I still have too many doctrinal differences with the modern Roman Catholic Church. Yet I felt that even within Orthodoxy there were some traditions that seemed to me to be contradictory to biblical teaching, and my wife and I both prayerfully decided that it was not the right path for us.
I nearly despaired of finding a church I could call home. That is, until I did a web search for historic churches in my area and found a little ACNA parish called St. Benedict’s.
When I looked at the website, I was greeted with the words “Biblical, Traditional, Historic.” A glimmer of hope flickered in my heart! After a bit more research into the beliefs of the ACNA, I decided to give it a try.
When we visited that next Sunday morning, we were greeted by a warm and vibrant parish community. Far from being stuffy or feeling like a closed club, the people of St. Benedict’s all seemed genuinely excited to be there and to welcome us, and we quickly made a connection.
Nearly six months later, my wife and I are looking at confirmation and have already had our two little boys baptized at St. Benedict’s.
Finding My Place at the Table
Looking back on the path my faith journey has taken, I realize there have been a lot of little breadcrumbs strewn along the way that were cultivating in me a taste for Anglicanism. A taste for a Christianity that was richer and fuller—bread and wine rather than crackers and juice, one might say.
I’m delighted to have finally found a church home that balances the richness of our history and traditions with a commitment to holding Scripture as the prime authority. A church that holds up the creeds and sacraments as the core expressions of our faith and practice. And a church that expresses Christlike love and joy in its community.
Not that it’s a perfect church (there isn’t one on this side of heaven). But it has so much more of the fullness of the faith.
If you happen to be hungry for a church like that, why not look for an ACNA parish near you?