A few years ago I found myself in the throes of a mid-life crisis combined with the effects of burnout — mental, physical, and spiritual exhaustion. In the years prior, I had completed a Doctor of Ministry degree while working full-time in a demanding and under-resourced ministry setting.
During this time I felt drawn by the Spirit into a reconsideration of my faith. I was looking for something more, something stronger, something deeper. I wanted a fuller, more challenging, more disciplined experience of church.
It’s not that I was looking for a better church; it’s that I was seeking a church community that was better at some of the things I had come to see as central to my faith.
I was seeking a sacramental community: a church that celebrated the sacraments frequently, and with great reverence. I wanted a scriptural community: one that engaged seriously with Scripture and what it revealed about God and God’s relationship with us, particularly as known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
I wanted to find a community that valued tradition, and understood its obligation to wrestle with the faith claims expressed by the ancient creeds of the church, and not just set them aside as unbelievable in the modern context.
Pillars of my faith
These pillars of my faith had begun to emerge more clearly during my D.Min. studies at Duke. Away from home and in an American Christian context, I discovered a place where I could talk about Jesus a lot without getting quizzical looks from colleagues. A place where Scripture and the tradition of the church were embraced and accepted, and not subjected to constant, forensic dissection. As for the sacraments, I’ve always had a deep reverence for them.
In the United Church my attachment to these pillars of faith led me to feel increasingly marginalized from the mainstream of the denomination. People asked me why I talked about Jesus so much and why I wore clerical shirts. Some were incredulous that I could take seriously the claims of the Apostles’ Creed.
Some were worried that in embracing tradition, I was embracing a return to the pre-1960s church of conformity and constrained belief.
The arrival of my mid-life crisis/burnout afforded me an opportunity to step away from my church roles and from my denominational identity and to explore the new territory of faith that the Spirit was beckoning me into.
Anglicanism, at least as it was described in the books I was reading at the time, seemed like it might be a good fit. Anglicanism seemed to embrace what had become the pillars of my personal faith: Scripture, sacraments, and tradition. I was welcomed into a local Anglican parish and, after a time, began to seriously explore the question of an Anglican vocation.
I felt confident that my vocation was to be a minister and I reasoned that if the Anglican Church was a better fit for my personal faith, then it naturally followed that I should become an Anglican minister. I was ordained a deacon and, nine months later, a priest.
During this period I also became active on Twitter as part of #WCT (Weird Christian Twitter) and particularly #WAT (Weird Anglican Twitter). I made some good friends and was delighted to find so many fellow travelers.
I began to identify with the inclusive orthodoxy tribe: those who affirm the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the church, right relationship with indigenous people, and ecological concern, amongst other typically progressive issues; alongside an affirmation of the orthodox faith expressed in the ancient creeds of the church.
Amidst all of this the Covid-19 pandemic arrived and completely disrupted church as we knew it. Now separated from the experience of church–the weekly Eucharist, the full diet of four Scripture readings, and the regular recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, which had been part of my Anglican liturgical life — I was once more set loose to reconsider what church was about for me.
Also, while I had left the United Church to become an Anglican, my spouse had remained in the United Church, and so the local United Church congregation remained part of our lives. Throughout the pandemic we participated in online worship in both communities.
I began to realize that day-to-day life in the Anglican parish was very similar to day-to-day life in the United Church congregation: there were meetings, and coffee hours, and fundraisers, and Bible studies. And for most people, most of the time, the church was a place of community.
I also began to realize that while the Anglican Church in theory was committed to what had become my pillars of faith — Scripture, sacraments, and tradition — in practice those elements were not as central as they had seemed. I came to believe that a large number of Anglicans I encountered would be quite content to embrace the theology and much of the ecclesiology of the United Church.
The pandemic separation from the liturgical community also led me to deepen my personal spiritual practices. I had been praying the Daily Office for a few years before the pandemic hit, and it very naturally became the main focus of my spiritual life. The practice of the Daily Office fed my hunger for Scripture and awakened a new awareness of the power of the psalms. The Daily Office enabled me to say the Apostles’ Creed fourteen times a week. And the whole of it was deeply soaked in the tradition of the church.
All of this taken together led me to some important insights:
- What the two churches offered, in terms of congregational life, was broadly similar;
- Neither church was strongly committed to what had become my personal pillars of faith;
- My personal prayer practices were meeting my needs for a diet rich in Scripture and tradition;
- Two decades of fellowship in the United Church meant more to me than I had realized.
At this point, I felt strongly pulled by the Spirit in the direction of the United Church. When I entered the Anglican Church I did so with the intention of making a permanent home there; in the Spirit’s ‘lively scheming,’ it turned out to be a sojourn rather than a permanent move. I remain grateful for my sojourn with Anglican friends, and believe that it was part of God’s plan for me.
The Church within
What I’ve learned through this process, through this journey there and back again, is that the church I was seeking isn’t out there; it’s within. I know that sounds like something from New Age spirituality, but that’s not what I mean — so bear with me.
What I mean is that, for lots of historical and sociocultural reasons, the kind of church that I think I would like isn’t really available to me, in terms of what is out there. But it does exist within me, as though I am carrying around a kind of Spirit-given blueprint of what the church might be.
I’ve come to realize that instead of continuing to search for that church out in the world, I ought instead to contribute to building it, to helping make incarnate the vision God has placed within me and others. I can do that in any number of places, but it makes the most sense to do it amongst the people I have travelled with across two decades, the people of the United Church.
And so I have returned to the church in which I will probably continue to feel somewhat marginalized due to my beliefs and faith commitments. But I do so with greater clarity about what I value, what feeds my spirit, and with a much richer personal spiritual life. I come as someone who is committed to inclusive orthodoxy, and I am confident that I will find a home in the big tent of the United Church.
My next chapter
This past week I was formally readmitted to the ministry in the United Church of Canada. I am deeply grateful for this calling — for all that it has been and all that, by the grace of God, it will yet be.