As I have already expressed, to read Neuhaus’s words as if they were mine should be to understand that I am deeply thankful for my Anglican upbringing. Regardless of what I may now understand about the Catholic Church, I am cognizant that I would not be the kind of Catholic I am without the spiritual, theological, and aesthetical education I received as an Anglican. In fact, this is worth expanding upon at length, as so much of my religious identity depends on it.
Years ago, when called upon to describe my vocation to the priesthood for the benefit of Anglican examiners, I said that much of my desire to be a priest was fostered by liturgical experience. I have since met just a few Church-folk, lay and ordained, who have experienced the desire to ‘live in the liturgy’ – that is, they have spoken of a sense that when they were in church, time was suspended, and they felt very much drawn heavenward by the mystery of what was unfolding around them. This led to them feeling as if they did not want things to end – as if such material beauty had exposed them to spiritual realities. And so it was with me. I have no idea what I was like as a child in church from other people’s perspective, but I recall being quite happy to be there. The candles, the colours, the vestments, the sounds: all of these things together made for a significant and happy experience, and whatever my age, they stuck with me.
In this respect, I might have been described as an instinctively religious child. But the religion did not end with the aesthetic. I was, after all, well-catechised; having had the benefit of a formerly-Orthodox, very conscientious Sunday School teacher, and a series of priests who took care to direct us in our religious education. I count myself fortunate.
For this reason it was that I first became attached to the Book of Common Prayer. However elementary my understanding, I had been instructed in its use and meaning (from an Anglo-Catholic point of view, of course!), and over time came to see it as a direct link between my own spiritual interests and the early, and medieval, Church that so attracted me. I believed very much that to use the Prayer Book was to use a living repository of the ancient Faith. It was to subordinate my own romantic inclinations to a corporate reality that extended through time to the Apostles. Seeing an early portrait of Saint Augustine in cope and mitre, and my own Ordinary vested likewise, only served to confirm this sense of connectedness. The language of Anglicanism appealed to all of my senses, and called on me to more deeply explore the Catholic Faith it expressed.
Meltdown and Recovery
As force would have it, I soon got the chance to explore as I felt called. In the early 1990s, I was virtually commanded by my archbishop to get myself off to Montréal for a theological education. This turned out to be a most propitious suggestion, and I will be forever grateful to him for making me go. But when I got there, my whole world disintegrated. A romantic boy left a cozy, Canadian Tire-catalogue life in Winnipeg and found himself facing all sorts of new ideas in an awfully big city. There was not a reference point I recognized, and I was distraught.
I took refuge in the Prayer Book, and planted myself in the city’s cardinal Anglo-Catholic parish where the priest at the time was of immense help. He never let me take shelter from the challenges with which I was faced – whether social, intellectual, or spiritual – but he did provide me with plenty of opportunities to confront them and understand them. Over time, I would come to realize just how important and liberating this was.
What is important to this story, though, is that in the process, I also came to understand my Anglican spiritual and theological inheritance, especially as embodied in the Prayer Book. The composition of the Divine Offices, the preservation of the ancient Eucharistic lectionary and collects, and the traditional elements contained in the Eucharistic Liturgy, were all explained to me in a way that helped me to understand their importance and to appropriate them for my own spiritual and intellectual edification. At the same time, the academic world was opening up to me, and though there was much I had to learn if I was to do anything legitimate with it, my interest was irreversibly inflamed.
Coupled with these gradual developments were various personal elements that lent themselves to a sort of inner reconstruction. Working in a bookstore surrounded by the best of Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox theology introduced to me the matchless pleasure of good books. Not being the busiest bookshop in Montréal also meant I learnt quite alot about research, as I was able to follow bibliographical trails from one section to another around the store. And the fact that my Orthodox manager there became something of a friend and mentor, continually pushing me in the direction of the Church Fathers, informed my Anglican outlook immeasurably. Of like importance was my good fortune at being introduced to a Carmelite spiritual director. His influence would become the thing that made me realize what my interests were actually all about. Through him, I was introduced to prayer in a way I had never been before.
I describe the context in which I was being formed as ‘pan-Catholic’. I already had Catholic presuppositions, but everything I was being exposed to expanded my scope, so that it would come to include the Faith from early medieval Britain and Germany, to modern Moscow and Athos. The whole picture was becoming more exciting and complex, yet all the while, I believed, remaining consistent with Anglicanism. It was on that note that I finally left Montréal to take up a position in Northern Saskatchewan.
It must be admitted that Saskatchewan forced me to engage with wider Anglicanism for the first time in my life. Prior to this startling move from Montréal streets I had come to love to the fields, trees, and lakes of Saskatchewan, the only alternative to my Catholic-minded Anglicanism I had yet encountered had been an über-liberal, North American Protestant sort. This, far from holding out any appeal to me, appeared intellectually disingenuous and spiritually bankrupt. As a result, I never took it seriously as a legitimate expression of the Anglican tradition, and so managed to stay the Anglo-Catholic course, with Newman, Pusey, Keble, and Neale – especially Neale – to guide me. Saskatchewan changed all that.
Moving to Saskatchewan was like stepping into the 19th century debates I had only encountered before in books. At my first meeting with the clergy, I imagined myself to be John Mason Neale sitting down to dinner with members of the Brighton Protestant Defence Committee. I loved the fraternity, but the vast abyss between my understanding of what consituted Anglican tradition, and that of the Evangelicals in the diocese, seemed insurmountable. Obviously our essential faith was the same, but our ecclesiology, our sacramental theology, and so ultimately our Christology, seemed very different. Yet for all that, I was afforded the opportunity in Saskatchewan of exercising my theological principles with the full support of the bishop, and I was deeply thankful. Such was the case when I first arrived in the diocese as a lay minister, and so too when I returned a year later to serve as a priest. It was in Saskatchewan that I would be able to try out the things I had learned in Montréal, and so it was there that I got to experience, as freely as one could in the Canadian Church, the beauty of the Anglican tradition as embodied in the Prayer Book: in the discipine of the Divine Office, in the application of the traditional lectionary and collects in a pastoral setting, and in the celebration of the Holy Mysteries according to a most venerable rite.
to be continued…