The prompt today is fence, and given how early I am still in my conversion journey, it feels like this is a good place to discuss my reasons why I chose this path, and the kinds of things I still struggle with daily.
For those who have read my first post (my introduction), you’ll have a sense of the circumstances that led me to begin Canterbury Convert, and also a bit about what my life was like before I started making overhauls. However, though I touched a bit on my previous religious experiences, I didn’t really go into much detail. I’m going to change that today by discussing one of the issues that so many Christians in today’s world have to deal with: the denomination struggle.
I grew up in a largely Protestant home, with an atheist father. There wasn’t much in the way of a formal religious education. My father’s side was Catholic, so we had a “look in” with their rites of passage, which always left me feeling bereft. It felt like they got to do all the “fun” things, while we were stuck doing nothing. I was never baptized, or confirmed, and despite a short stint in Sunday school we rarely even went to Sunday mass. We were taught a few basic prayers, told Jesus loves us, and that was essentially that.
As a result of this, I never really felt at home in a church. I felt awkward and out of sorts, with my anxiety spiking every time I was forced to be in one. I distinctly recall an anxiety episode when an old girlfriend of mine took me to her church on Sunday, and I rather ignominiously had to rush out after mass to the flower garden on the side of the building to catch my breath and try to calm down. I felt embarrassed, overwhelmed, and like I would never belong to the larger community that everyone else did.
Over time – and many years later – I gradually began to find the beauty in religion and particularly in churches again. I studied architectural history, falling in love with the stained glass and ancient wood, as well as the old stone. I studied the history of parishes, falling in love with their fights for social justice, religious tolerance, and equality. Through my love of English history, I fell in love with figures like John Fisher, Katherine of Aragon, and Mary Tudor. In looking to the past to find my footing in the future, I had been wrapped up in the fervour of faith that characterized this point in history.
But where to plant my roots, so I could start flourishing?
The writings of the Church Fathers were instrumental in first bringing me to Catholicism, of which I had had glimpses from my childhood. I was familiar by sight with the rites of baptism, confirmation, first communion, and so on. Through learning more about the traditions, I became more and more enamoured with the ancient history. However, I also had a soft spot for Orthodoxy, with its beautiful icons, equally ancient rites, and the quiet dignity it possessed. Ultimately, however, between the two of them I kept returning to Catholicism, so I decided to give RCIA a try.
I lasted about four months, meeting with a priest one-on-one weekly due to a work schedule that did not permit me to attend the parish’s RCIA class. I was on board with just about everything, except for the social policies. Now, I am fortunate to live in a country where even most Catholic priests are quite liberal; me being gay wasn’t considered an impediment to being received into the Church. However, on a personal level, I had a lot to think about. Socially, I am a liberal person: I am pro gay marriage (obviously; I am due to be married myself!), I am pro-choice, and I take an opposite stance to many “official” Catholic teachings. Did I truly want to align myself with a denomination that officially denounced me and those like me? Did I truly feel comfortable with knowing that the religion I would profess took a hard stance that who I was was not acceptable? How could I go against my conscience and try to argue with others to defend social positions that I did not agree with?
Ultimately, despite being on board with the tenets and tradition, I chose to drop RCIA because I made the choice that I could not, in good faith, pledge myself to a denomination that I felt was wrong on its social positions. While this was a difficult decision to make – and one that still agonizes me from time to time – I think it is better to do what one thinks is right than to do what would be the most comfortable. While it was extremely tough to walk away from something that I did believe in at its heart, I need to be somewhere where I feel welcomed and loved for who and what I am.
That led me to take a second look at Anglicanism, the close cousin of Catholicism. While they are very different when it comes to some tenets, the High Church Anglicans celebrate mass in the trappings that make my soul sing. The pageantry and pomp is the same, and some of the traditions are as well. Anglo-Catholicism is something I have come to research more closely, finding it an interesting prospect, and there are bloggers like the Conciliar Anglican who make solid arguments in favour of blending the two traditions (perhaps more accurately, finding what it means to be catholic while following the Anglican methods).
There are days where I still find myself bouncing back and forth. The social policies of the Anglican Communion are much more in line with my own, and allow for a wider range of independent beliefs. I can blend what I loved about the Catholic Church and continue my understanding while also not tormenting my conscience into defending that which I feel is inherently wrong. And still, whenever I find myself in a Catholic chapel, or reading something truly profound in a hagiography, I give a little sigh, and the inner debate rushes forth for a few minutes.
Sometimes the answer is never easy, and perhaps it’s not supposed to be. There are positions that each denomination takes that can make them attractive to prospective converts, and in cases like mine, sometimes one can be “at home” in two different denominations for two different reasons, both being equally valid. I don’t know if I will ever not have moments where I briefly wonder if I have made the right decision, though it helps to read apologetics by those much wiser than I am on the subject. It definitely helps solidify my conviction that Anglicanism is the right place to be for someone like me.
In the meantime, during my downtime, I – and many other converts – will simply continue to straddle the fence.