President Hinckley once encouraged those not of the LDS faith, “ . . . we say in a spirit of love, bring with you all that you have of good and truth which you have received from whatever source, and come and let us see if we may add to it.” It might seem odd, but I’ve actually thought a lot about that quote this year, because it speaks to something about my current religious journey, as I take a significant step in a new direction. This coming Sunday, the day after Epiphany, I’m going to be baptized in the Episcopal church.
There are different ways of thinking about conversion. For some it’s a radical shift, a rejection of all that came before in favor of something new. Others, though, experience more continuity, more connections between the old life and the new. I find myself more in the second camp; though there are certainly aspects of Mormonism that I reject, I largely jettisoned those elements from my personal beliefs long before I started seriously getting involved with a different tradition. I still don’t entirely know quite how to explain what happened to me last year, but belief has played a surprisingly minor role in the process; I don’t actually feel like my beliefs are significantly different than they were a year ago. When it comes to particular teachings about the nature of God, I’ll admit to feeling somewhat uncertain. I lean toward a trinitarian understanding of the divine, as I have for quite some time now—but my Mormonism still influences my views (for example, my rejection of ex nihilo creation). But what I’ve really come to think is that it’s very easy for humans to overstate our understanding of God, and that the doctrinal statements we make (and sometimes fight tooth and nail over) are generally limited attempts to articulate something that can’t really be captured in language. I feel more at peace with my uncertainties. At the same time, however, there are some beliefs about God that I feel more committed to than I ever have—that God is good, that God is loving, that God is inclusive. My decision to follow this religious trajectory is in some ways the most conscious decision I’ve ever made, in fact, to affirm those beliefs.
Looking at that, I guess there are ways in which belief is involved in this transition. But it’s really only a piece of the puzzle. I remember a class I took on conversion in grad school, many years ago, and one of the things we learned is that while churches tend to emphasize the superiority of their teachings, it’s rare for a person to convert based solely on doctrine. I would certainly say that’s been true of my own experience. The thing that really lured me in to Anglicanism was their particular style of worship, which has completely revitalized my relationship with God. It’s been like learning another language to connect with spiritual things, and it has opened a new world to me in the way that learning a new language always does. I find that the liturgy speaks to me, grounds me, connects me to something bigger; that the familiar repetitions, week after week, do something for me that I can’t explain. Anglicans these days don’t have much of an emphasis on requiring people to affirm a lot of particular doctrinal statements. Historically, they tried to adopt the via media, the middle way, as they tried to navigate their way through the debates of the Reformation. Thus, for example, there isn’t exactly a belief in transubstantiation, but neither is there an outright rejection of transubstantiation (the official middle ground position is called “consubstantiation” and tries to steer between the two camps). This approach can of course be mapped on to the historical debates and political strife in 16th century England, and there’s no denying that the history is quite messy at times. I’ve ruefully noted that the founding narrative of Anglicanism isn’t quite as noble-sounding as that of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church in Wittenburg, or Joseph Smith having a vision. Nope, it simply goes back to the somewhat less high-minded story of the king of England wanting a divorce. One of my sisters told me about an acquaintance who said he just couldn’t get past that aspect of the tradition.
But for all that, what I like about how Anglicanism has developed is that it’s become a community that, at least in my experience, really works to make room for members to have different beliefs. What binds believers together is less about doctrinal agreement, and more about shared worship. The Book of Common Prayer is at the core of the tradition—grounding it more in liturgy than theology. And that very much appeals to me. That isn’t to say that I’ve stopped caring about theology. But my understanding of theology has always been that it’s inherently tentative, a work in progress, a continuing conversation rather than definitive declarations. I don’t feel constrained by the liturgy; I feel like it’s a jumping-off point, and I appreciate the freedom to explore. My experience this year has been of questions being encouraged, and a high tolerance for ambiguity. Episcopalians sometimes talk about the three-legged stool that grounds their faith as being made up of scripture, tradition, and reason. I have to say, having reason formally acknowledged as a legitimate source of truth makes my heart sing. (Though if I’m totally honest, I’m even more inclined to accept the the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which adds experience to the mix as well.) And then of course there’s the not insignificant point that people aren’t denied opportunities based on gender or sexual orientation, which for me is simply a dealbreaker as far as churches I would ever seriously consider joining.
I don’t want to just romanticize the Episcopal church, though. I’ve heard complaints about it that make sense to me from people who’ve opted for other traditions—they find the liturgy too formal or too stifling and want more spontaneity, or they’re frustrated by all the ambiguity and mystery and want more definitive answers. My own reservations have been more tied to demographics—Episcopalians tend to be high in education and in affluence. While I only fit one of those (I’ll let you guess which), I have asked myself whether I’m just joining a bubble of people who tend to think like me. My parish definitely leans liberal, and while it’s still kind of an amazing experience to go to church with people who tend to have political views that are close to mine, I’m all too aware of how it can be a problem when your religion is too dominated by particular political outlooks. The fact that Episcopalians, like most mainline Protestants, have been in steep numerical decline in recent decades is also concerning. Additionally, can you think of a church in the U.S. that screams “establishment” the way that the Episcopal church does? That’s a little off-putting, I have to admit. So it’s not a utopian escape. I have yet to see a religious community that doesn’t have difficult people and challenges on the local level, and my parish is no exception. On the other hand, it feels like a pretty healthy congregation, I have a lot of respect for the leadership, and I especially appreciate that they’re very involved in doing things for the broader community. When I fell in love with the tradition this spring, I was careful not to make any long-term decisions, partly because I was somewhat manic at the time and didn’t entirely trust my judgment, but partly just because it felt too soon. But after nearly a year of being involved with this church, this feels like the obvious next step. I didn’t really agonize over the decision of whether to convert; I simply kept delaying it. And then I was sitting in church one day and I basically thought duh, I’m religiously happier than I’ve ever been, of course I should do this.
I also think my experience this past year really has to be understood in light of the year before it. 2016 was perhaps the lowest religious point of my life. When I was in the hospital that spring, they had an ecumenical religious service, and I very uncharacteristically didn’t even drop by, not even just out of curiosity to see what a hospital service would look like. I felt so burned out on faith, so disconnected from God, so angry and betrayed, that I felt like completely giving up on religion. After all those years of being obsessed with it, all that formal academic education in theology, all that blogging and presenting at conferences and informal study—I found myself wondering if it was a subject that I was going to abandon, both intellectually and personally. This year was really like coming back to life. In fact, I was so excited to have discovered that I could be spiritually nourished by and enthusiastic about another religious tradition that I went a little wild and started to imagine religious diversity as a sort of buffet in which it would be sad to not at least sample every dish—which led to my visiting religious groups across the spectrum just to see what they were up to. I learned a lot from that, and greatly enjoyed all the exploring. But it also clarified for me that the Anglican tradition is the one that speaks to me the most deeply.
One of my favorite books I read last year was Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday. Her grappling with the influence of the evangelical tradition in which she was raised but later left, and the challenge of talking about it with complexity and nuance, very much resonates with me. At one point, she notes, “But Jesus has this odd habit of allowing ordinary, screwed-up people to introduce him, and so it was ordinary, screwed-up people who first told me I was a beloved child of God, who first called me a Christian. I don’t know where my story of faith will take me, but it will always begin here. That much can never change.”1 I struggle to know what to say about my relationship with and my feelings about Mormonism; there’s just too much to cover. Was it positive? Negative? Did it sometimes connect me to God? Did it sometimes deeply hurt me? Yes, to all of those. But I can at least say this: it’s where my story of faith started, and that beginning point will always be a part of who I am. Returning to the quote with which I started this post, I want to go forward with the good that I got from it. And I am excited to see what comes next.
- Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015), 15 [↩]