This post is a part of Rookie Anglican, a blog dedicated to Making Anglicanism Accessible.
A Brief Defense of “Conversion” Stories
Sometimes I wish I lived in Church of the first Millennia, before the Great Schism of 1054. Things would be a heck of a lot easier. One could simply say “I’m a Christian” and people would more or less know what you meant. But I don’t live in that world, we don’t live in that world. And nostalgically wishing we did won’t get us anywhere.
In a divided Christendom, making sense of how the Church is still one, holy, catholic, and apostolic is rather difficult. How are we to do it?
Though I don’t have an entirely satisfying answer, I do have what I think is at least a start: we must begin by taking our ecclesiastical identities more seriously.
There is a tendency, especially among Millennials such as myself, to bemoan ecclesiastical affiliations in favor of an idealistic, genericized, and—dare I say it—“nondenominational” form of Christianity. Among those of this persuasion, it’s not uncommon to hear something like, “I attend a Lutheran church, but I couldn’t care less about being a Lutheran; I’m just a ‘Christian.’”
Trust me, I get this, and I too ultimately think of myself as a “Mere Christian” (I mean, this is an essay about becoming Anglican, after all) but the reality is that it doesn’t exist. Or in C. S. Lewis’s analogy, thehall is not a viable option for living; we must find a room, “because it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.”
Of course, this search for a room is typically not easy. At least it hasn’t been for me. But it’s been worth all the study, all the prayer, and all the sleepless nights it has required of me. And though I realize that so-called “conversion stories” such as this are basically a dime-a-dozen these days, I still think they matter. Why? Because truth still matters enough for us to seek it, no matter the cost.
So, having said that, this is mine. It’s difficult to know where to begin and even more so to know where it will end, but that’s no reason for me not to stop and plant my flag.
Undoubtedly, this will not be a satisfactory explanation or defense of Anglicanism for some of you, but that’s not my intention anyway. Sure, it would be nice to convince you that Anglicanism embodies “the richest, truest, wisest heritage in all Christendom” just as Dr. J. I. Packer says it does, but this is not a theological defense, it’s just a story. In other words, this is not so much about why I became an Anglican as it is about how I became one.
However, that being said, please do feel free to critique my thinking, assumptions, convictions, or whatever else you see. Honesty and humility demand that I remain open to such objections. And I have no trouble admitting I could very well be wrong; I often am. Theology, after all, is a pilgrimage, and sometimes pilgrims take wrong turns.
Sometimes. But not always.
Act I: FORMATION
Like many Evangelical kids growing up in the late-90’s and early 2000’s, my church world basically consisted of AWANA, Vacation Bible School, WOW Hits albums, Veggie Tales, Jana Alayra concerts, WWJD bracelets, Christian camps, and those “tight” Jesus Is My Homeboy t-shirts. As the years went by and I entered high school, I gradually grew to make my faith my own. But although I took it seriously, I knew relatively little about it. I had been raised both to love Jesus and to know He loved me, but that was pretty much the extent of it. Or at least that’s what I picked up on.
So it’s no surprise then that in my late high school and early college years, I began imbibing the theological liberalism to which I had been exposed and began doubting things like the virgin birth, God’s wrath and hell, traditional gender and sexual views, and the trustworthiness of the Bible.
I loved Christianity, but deep down I felt it needed a major face-lift. And to the degree that I became increasingly skeptical of the ideas of “organized religion,” I became increasingly certain of my own.
But by God’s grace, things changed.
In the winter of 2011, my friend Jake began nagging me to read this book he’d been working through with his mentor on basic Christian doctrine. The mere idea of “theology” and “doctrine” was enough to turn me off, but Jake never stopped his nagging. So one day, to get him off my back, I picked it up and read the first few pages.
To my surprise, I couldn’t put it down. Never before had I ever heard the basic teachings of the Christian faith presented so clearly and in a way that made so much sense. It was as if muscles and tissues and organs and skin were being added onto the skeleton of knowledge that had been constructed in my mind as a kid growing up in church.
And although the book’s portrait of the faith contrasted sharply with the stuff I’d been reading elsewhere, I became convinced that its depiction was much more accurate and true. So before long I began soaking up the works of other similar authors like Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Matt Chandler, R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer, and eventually the “giants” such as John Calvin, John Owen, and Jonathan Edwards. With three years of this cyber-tutelage, I learned what it meant to be truly Protestant and, more particularly, Reformed.
Act II: DEFORMATION
After about three years, I was confirmed in the calling I had felt to attend seminary in Orlando, FL. But just months before I packed my bags and moved across the country, an insanely smart friend of mine whom I had recently led to Christ converted to Eastern Orthodoxy after spending his first few months as a Christian in the Reformed fold.
It sounds crazy, but I would be lying if I said this wasn’t one of the most transformative events that has ever happened in my life.
As you can imagine, once I stepped foot on my campus, I was eager to study anything and everything about Orthodoxy and Church history; I knew a great deal about Roman Catholicism and the Reformation (or so I thought), but embarrassingly little about Eastern Christianity and the early Church.
At first, I was entirely closed off to even taking my friend’s positions seriously; all I wanted was to prove him wrong. But eventually, as I began reading and engaging, not just with what Protestant theologians said about Orthodoxy but with what Orthodox theologians said about Protestantism, some significant cracks in my theological fortress began to show.
As you would suspect, the problem areas were surrounding the issues of sola Scriptura, ecclesiastical Tradition and authority, and historical continuity. As an Evangelical, I had grown accustomed to hearing that “the Bible alone is the sole authority for Christian faith and practice,” but now I began to connect the dots between this doctrine and the divided state of Evangelicalism, and this realization began to haunt me like a ghost. It wasn’t long before I had to admit to myself and to my friends that I was in a serious theological crisis. And I had no idea how it would pan out.
What I did know, however, was that it would be best to take a good long look around before making any serious moves. After all, I was still relatively new to Reformed theology, so I didn’t want to makeanother drastic leap–and a much bigger one at that–without thoroughly exploring every nook and cranny of my newly discovered tradition.
So over the next few semesters of school, I began devouring my assigned readings and other assignments, keeping an eye out particularly for anything that could aid me in my quest. Whenever I had the opportunity to choose my own research topics, I took it, writing papers on things such as sola fide in the early Church Fathers, the Filioque clause, Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ, and even the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.
Helpful though these courses and papers were, I soon realized that my greatest assets were the men under whose wisdom I had been blessed to sit, both in the classroom and in the pew. I spent many hours with these wise guides, not only reading their extremely pertinent books (e.g., Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation and Know the Creeds and Councils) but also asking them questions and listening to their thoughts over burritos at Chipotle or pints of beer at local pubs.
With time I was able to develop a much more holistic understanding of the issues that I had been struggling to find answers for. And, eventually, I was able to take a step back and assess exactly how this process had changed me.
I was still Reformed: I still affirmed the solas, still believed the so-called “doctrines of grace,” still appreciated the covenantal approach to the Scriptures, still revered Reformers like John Calvin and Martin Bucer, and still valued the Reformed confessions (especially the Thirty-Nine Articles).
But, make no mistake about it, I also knew I was Catholic.
Act III: REFORMATION
Had I not been attending the Cathedral Church of Saint Luke throughout this time, I think I would have felt something akin to ecclesiastical homelessness. But it was here at this beautiful Anglican parish, with clergy from the Reformed, Lutheran, Anglo-Catholic and even “Anglo-Orthodox “streams, that I was able to see how even in my reoriented and somewhat odd ecclesiastical identity I still had a home.
You can be sure then that while I had been weathering my “theological crisis,” I had also begun to mine the rich depths of the Anglican tradition, studying it from various angles whenever I found the time. I found a bridge from the Reformed tradition via men like Thomas Cranmer, George Whitefield, J. C. Ryle, and J. I. Packer, but, believe it or not, the most helpful gateway was a man who wasn’t even Anglican, John Williamson Nevin.
In brief, Nevin was a 19th-century American “High-Church” Reformed theologian who, along with his colleague Philip Schaff at Mercersburg Seminary, emphasized the Incarnation in ecclesiology and soteriology, patristic and creedal theology, and sacramental, churchly piety over against the individualistic, privatized religion of revivalism.
This school of thought, known as the “Mercersburg Theology,” resembled that of the Oxford Movement among the Anglo-Catholic stream of the Anglican Communion in many striking and fascinating ways. It is for this reason that Bradford Littlejohn, in comparing the two, writes, “It thus appears that a good high-church Reformed theology, and a good high-church Anglican theology, reduce to much the same thing–a rich patristic theology of Church and sacrament, enriched with a healthy dose of Reformational soteriology.”
Studying at the feet of Nevin, therefore, paved the way for me to move into the Anglican fold without ever having to feel the slightest bit of unease or shame, even in regards to the Anglo-Catholic wing. In fact, more than anything, I felt right at home among them despite the fact that, at the end of the day, I was still Evangelical, Protestant, and Reformed. Or, better yet, a “Reformed Catholicke” as conformist Puritan William Perkins put it (and the strangeness of the old English spelling is rather fitting, methinks).
The End, For Now
So that’s the short-ish version of my journey along the Canterbury Trail. But in many ways, this journey has only begun.
At present I am finishing up my third and final year of seminary, but am still trying to read as widely as I can within the different streams of the Anglican tradition–broad, low, and high–but, more importantly, I am learning the ins and outs of the Book of Common Prayer and the Daily Office.
I think I speak for all converts to Anglicanism when I say that the best thing about it is its liturgical worship and piety. The BCP is pretty hard to beat when it comes to morphing rich theology and the Bible itself into prayer and worship. Having now spent the better part of the past two years at a parish that takes the Prayer Book and its liturgy with the utmost seriousness, my entire outlook and conception of worship has been entirely transformed and strengthened.
Every Sunday I eagerly anticipate going to church, not because I need a spiritual boost, not because I need something biblical to think about (most of the time quite the opposite is the case!), not because I need an outlet to express my love for and praise of God, but because God meets us there as we confess our sin, hear the promise of absolution, recite the Creed, pray for the Church and the world, hear the Word preached, and receive the Sacrament.
It’s an experience too difficult to describe, so if you’ve never been to an Anglican church for worship, I suggest you do so soon. At the very least, I promise it will be a memorable experience. And who knows, maybe you’ll even be the next one to catch the Anglican fever!
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.
 Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York: Touchstone, 1996. 11.
 Packer, J. I. The Thirty-Nine Articles: Their Place and Use Today. London: Latimer House, 1984. Preface.
 Littlejohn, W. Bradford. The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2009. 123.
Zachary Dewey is a third-year Master of Arts in Biblical Studies student at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL. He is from Kingsburg, CA in the Central Valley of California. He enjoys all things Church History and smoking his pipe to the glory of God.