Sunday, February 5, 2012

Our Journey to the "Canterbury Trail"

This past Sunday (February 5) was Ronnie's first Sunday as the new youth pastor for St. George's Episcopal Church in Dayton, OH. This new position is important for us because it does two things: (1) it allows Ronnie to continue utilizing his gifts in ministry, while getting paid for it (win-win), and (2) it allows Ronnie to begin working full-time on pursuing ordination in the Anglican Church. Yes, you read that second point correctly:
Ronnie and I are becoming Anglicans.

This may come as a shock for some. Honestly, it's still something of a shock to us. (For others, this will confirm that feeling they had all along that there was something not quite right about me!) We were both baptized in Baptist churches, we have four degrees between us from Baptist institutions, and we have been working within the Baptist tradition (specifically, Southern Baptist) for a combined total of 32 years. So, what's with the transition? Well, it's kind of a long story. In the following post, I'll do my best to sum it up for my readers.

First, Ronnie and I have fallen in love with the liturgy of the Anglican tradition. We became convinced of our need for a "thick" liturgy during our time of spiritual turmoil after our painful departure from a church in Cincinnati. In this period, our prayers failed us and our spirits could not "rise to the occasion" in the concert-style contemporary worship services held at many churches in our area. Instead, we needed something deeper, older, and more enduring--something that could "carry" us in times of doubt and distress. Once we began work at Aley Church in Dayton (a United Methodist congregation), we discovered their "traditional service," with its hymns, choruses, written prayers, creeds, responsive readings, multiple Scripture readings, and a high view of both the proclaimed Word and the Lord’s Table. These elements filled the deep need we had to connect with our more ancient faith and quickly became cherished parts of our worship of God. Now that we've found the beauty of a thick liturgy, organized around Word (Scripture) and Table (Eucharist), we want to be a part of a communion that sees them this way, too.

Second, our theology of the sacraments has changed in a significant way over the past few years. After much study we have determined that baptism and communion are more than memorials or simple signs, but are actually effective in some manner by God’s grace. That is to say, the sacraments effect grace, through God's power, in the life of the open-hearted recipient. We think this is in keeping with the pattern of God from the very beginning of creation: to use material, earthly things to do his work. This sacramental theology is most fully expressed, of course, in the Incarnation of the Son of God in Christ. Just as God became flesh in Christ to reveal himself and bestow his grace, so also God uses earthly things like water, bread, and wine to bestow grace today. Thus, the created order is not opposed to God, but actually being redeemed by God and used to reveal his presence.

Our developing sacramental worldview and specific conclusions about the sacraments of baptism and communion led us to baptize our children this past summer. William and Emmelia were baptized by our pastor, Matt Scholl, at Aley Church on June 12, 2011. At the time, we knew this was a major step, one that would separate us from our Baptist brothers and sisters. But, we felt convinced it was the next step for our family.

This is not a post about infant baptism versus believer's baptism, but because this move is such a departure from our upbringing, let me take a few paragraphs and explain our reasoning. In sum, our change of mind about baptism was based upon our reading of Scripture and our understanding of the practice of Christians throughout church history. A quick survey will show that the practice of infant baptism is undeniable from at least the third century onward. The Christian faith was passed directly from the Apostle John to Polycarp then to Irenaeus, then to Hippolytus, who was baptizing infants in AD 215. If Hippolytus’ baptism of infants was something new and aberrant, there would be some evidence of this in the historical record, but there is not.

From what we can tell from the Scriptures and other historical evidence, baptism in the early church was an outward sign of inclusion in the Christian community, bestowing the mark of Christianity and grace of God upon the recipient. Baptism publicly demonstrated membership, signifying among Christians what circumcision did among Jews: inclusion among God’s people. In the Old Testament, circumcision was for infants and children as well as adults, which marked them as members of God’s covenant. When Christians began practicing baptism as their symbol of inclusion, it is reasonable to assume that they followed the Hebrew tradition and baptized the infants and children of believing Christian parents. And, the NT never teaches otherwise. Of the ten baptisms mentioned in the NT, five include families or “households.” We are never told the ages of those in the household, but it is very unlikely that these ancient families left their children out of the sign of the new covenant.

As we all know, sometimes people within the Christian community, those who possess the sign of the Christian faith (baptism), still go on to reject the faith, whether in word or by deed. This was true also of Jews in the OT, who the Prophets were constantly telling to “circumcise your hearts” so that their inward spiritual life became consistent with the outward sign. So also today there are those in the church who have the sign of baptism but lack an inward reality of Christian faith--both adults and children. But, as we see it, delaying baptism until adolescence or adulthood tends to cause more problems than it solves. Adults and teenagers still abandon the faith after their baptism. Meanwhile, we think the people of God have largely misunderstood the meaning of baptism as a corporate sign in the NT. We think this leads to increasing individualism ("all I need is Jesus") and undermines Christian community.

Now that our children have been baptized, we are seeking to raise them in such a way that they never know a day apart from Christ. So, we teach them to pray, worship, study, sacrifice, serve, and witness as Christians from the very beginning. We intend to treat our children as real Christians and expect them to live that way. William and Emmelia were baptized upon our profession of faith, with the promise that they will be raised in the fear and knowledge of the Lord. Also, they will be admitted to the Lord’s Table. William already receives communion with us now.

Getting back to why we're becoming Anglican... The third reason for this shift is that through interaction with Christians from a variety of traditions we have become increasingly frustrated by the theological narrowness of the Christians and churches within the Southern Baptist Convention. Certainly, there are exceptions to this, but our experience is that this tends to be the norm. So we have been looking for a tradition that allows us to maintain our evangelical convictions (high view of Scripture, centrality and supremacy of Christ, emphasis on personal faith and formation, commitment to evangelism, etc.) while providing freedom for differences of opinion on secondary and tertiary issues. Along with this, it has become important to us to be a part of a tradition with a truly global scope. The center of Christianity is no longer the West, but has shifted to the South and to the East. We want to be a part of a tradition that embraces this reality.

The final aspect of our journey won't surprise most of my readers. The truth is, Ronnie and I have been disillusioned with the Southern Baptist Convention for a long time and for a variety of reasons. I won't go into too much detail here because I don't want to be misunderstood as casting aspersion on our SBC brothers and sisters (many of whom are still good friends!). But, for a long time, we've felt that the SBC, in general, is an environment that is no longer suitable for us. For me, in particular, I have long recognized that the SBC and many SBC-aligned institutions are not only unsupportive of my vocation as a theologian, but sometimes even openly antagonistic towards it. This is no place in which to chart a future in ministry! Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the ways in which Ronnie and I have changed and nuanced number of our theological positions (some described above) prevent us from honestly characterizing ourselves any longer as "Baptist," let alone "Southern Baptist"--at least not in good faith. So, we've concluded that it is time to move on.

Now all of the above points don't necessarily lead to the Anglican Church on their own. But, we have spent time investigating the various traditions, praying together and with friends, and seeking counsel from wise advisors. In light of our sacramental theology and decidedly Protestant outlook, the options for us are relatively limited. And, since we were introduced to the Book of Common Prayer through our immersion in the liturgical traditions we felt led to seriously consider the Anglican tradition. This past summer, we spent two weeks with a good friend who is an Anglican pastor in Virginia. (Interestingly, he is also a former Southern Baptist pastor.) This time of sharing, prayer, and discernment resulted in us being affirmed in our inclination toward the "Canterbury Trail." This is the path we've been on ever since. When we found a suitable Episcopal church in our area looking for a youth pastor, it seemed that God had opened the right door at the right time.

So, where does this leave us? For now, Ronnie is working for St. George's Episcopal Church. He has found a kindred spirit in the rector there, who is a classical Protestant and has an evangelical spirit. Under his tutelage, Ronnie hopes to be ready for the examination process for ordination within a year and a half. The tricky point for us is what organization he wants to be ordained through. At the present time, we think the Episcopal Church in the United States is too liberal for us. (Or, perhaps, we are too conservative for them!) There are a number of options outside of the American Episcopal Church, but I won't go into the details about those here. Suffice it to say, we are seeking wisdom and discernment regarding what organization we are to join.

Furthermore, our current plan is that following my completion of the Ph.D. program at the University of Dayton (hopefully within the next two years!), Ronnie will lead a church plant in an urban location that is yet to be determined. In preparation for this, we have started a non-profit organization, McGowin Ministries (snazzy name, huh?), to which friends and family may donate to our future church plant. We pray and trust that over the next two years, God will make clear the city we will relocate to following my graduation.

So, that's the story, my friends. This is the path we find ourselves on today. Please be in prayer for us as we pursue the best route for our family over the next few years. I'm happy to field questions about this transition from my readers. I can't promise I have full answers, but I will do my best!

8 comments:

Debbie Kaufman said...

I will stand by you in prayer my friend.

Lory said...

I too am in that boat. I realized in high school when I was called to ministry that it would be a tough road if I stay SBC. I went to what I would consider more moderate Baptist schools (where one undergrad prof went to the Catholic Church, one to the Presbyterian church, etc.) and had a whole new world opened up. That and some time in a UMC congregation in my home town. I have landed with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and am SO grateful. A little more liberal in some areas, but I'm reevaluating where I am on some things and after prayer and scripture reading and conversations, I am comfortable here - they have a huge thing about unity in diversity. Grateful for your journey and for your sharing it with us!

Bob Cleveland said...

If you'd been to London and worshiped at Holy Trinity Brompton, the decision to unite with the Anglican Church would have been a snap. I worshiped with them one Sunday about 20 years ago.

I'll never forget walking to the cathedral on Saturday afternoon to check the worship schedule; in the flower beds by the door was a 70-something lady in coveralls, tending the flowers. I looked at the schedule and asked her which service I should attend. She asked me a couple questions, and then said I'd likely enjoy the 3pm service.

I then asked her what sort of dress would be appropriate. I'll never forget her response:

"Goodness .. one needn't dress up to meet with the Lord .. He'll be happy to see you, regardless!"

It was the most memorable worship service of my life.

Paul Burleson said...

Emily,

I have long believed that the true Body of Christ is much bigger and broader than my Baptist heritage only and you and your husband and children will just be living proof of that reality.

My hope is that you will continue to address scriptural and relational issues on your blog as I have learned MUCH truth from you and desire to continue that for a long time to come.

Know of Mary and my love and appreciation for you and yours my sister.

Gary Snowden said...

I pray the Lord's blessings on you and Ronnie in this new stage of your journey with Him. As one who deeply appreciates the contributions of the late John Stott to evangelical thinking, I can't be too critical of your decision.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Thank you for your words of affirmation and encouragement, everyone!

Christiane said...

God love you, Emily.

I'm sure you gave this much contemplation and prayer, and the Anglican tradition is so very beautiful.

I hope you will be nourished in this tradition which I consider so very close to my own (Catholic).

God bless you, forever and ever.

Gary Snowden said...

On our recent trip to England and Ireland we had the privilege of attending Christ Church in Oxford on a Sunday morning. I thoroughly enjoyed the service including the boys' choir and the liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer. The minister preached briefly from the NT reading that day, based on Phil. 1.