Ask an Anglican: Choosing the One True Church

A challenging question from Robert:

As a former Roman Catholic who has for some decades been an Episcopalian (though unhappy with the recent theological drift of the TEC), I am painfully aware of myself as a seeker who of necessity has had to make decisions about where true Apostolic authority resides among the various church bodies that lay claim to it. That situation of having to make a choice before a dizzying array of options, and about a matter that has eternal significance, seems to me to be the essence of what it means to be Protestant. Yes, I chose in a certain direction based on certain evidence and experience, but I might have chosen otherwise, and I still might opt for something radically different in the future. Or perhaps not. But how is it possible in good faith to avoid the radical ambivalence and contingency of my own choices? How is it possible for even a Catholic reading of Christian faith to avoid being subsumed by the imperative to make separating choices, which I take to be the essence of Protestantism?

This question speaks to the paradox of our modern era. We live in an age in which we are encouraged, at least in the west, to cater to our individual tastes. Have it your way. Do your own thing. Be yourself. Those are the slogans of our time. We are constantly being told by our culture to express ourselves as individuals, ironically enough through the act of consuming, the very heart of which involves us abandoning our individuality. And this individualism/consumerism has spilled into the religious sphere in recent times, as can be seen in the explosion of “seeker sensitive” churches, the watering down and dismantling of traditional liturgy, and the predominance of cultural issues over theological issues in the Church. We do not enter a church today asking whether there is truth there, or whether God is calling us there, but rather whether we feel like we’re being fed there. The modern Church is Me-centered, with a capital M, and God is simply an accoutrement for us to acquire along the path to personal spiritual fulfillment.

Historical, biblical Christianity stands very much opposed to this narrative. Christianity is not primarily about us but about God. He is the center of the story. We are an important part of the story, of course, and there is a significant piece of the Christian faith that is about us having our needs met. But those needs are not determined by us. In fact, we are incapable on our own of having a clue what it is we need. We are so deep in darkness that we have no idea that there’s even a problem, no clue that we’re dying in our sin. And so God comes to rescue us, giving us what we actually need, not what it is we seek. God gives us fulfillment in becoming one with Him rather than in catering to our whims. God sets all the parameters. He creates the conditions through which we receive Him, offering us the gift of faith and the tangible gift of the Sacraments. He directs us to Himself through His Word. He brings us into that Word through the washing, connecting us to each other by means of the sacramental ministry, and feeding us in and through the Supper. We do not choose Him. He chooses us.

But what happens when the Church itself becomes divided? What happens when there are multiple entities claiming to be the Body of Christ, offering a variety of incompatible teachings, and painting radically different pictures of who this God is and how we come to know Him? This is the situation that Robert is facing, along with any modern Christian who wishes simply to rest in the arms of the Church and to be obedient to her teaching. We do not wish to be seekers. We have become seekers by necessity because the Church herself has been torn into pieces, each piece claiming to be a little closer to whole than the others, and there’s no way to judge between the competing claims without ultimately relying on our own flawed minds and hearts. Unless God speaks directly to you and says, “Go here,” the only choice you have is to make the best choice you can. And no matter what choice you make, you’re already starting off on the wrong foot. You’re trying to choose your own path to God, instead of allowing God to choose you.

This is a struggle that Anglicans in particular find challenging. Like Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, we believe in a visible Church, united by a sacramental ministry and a great deposit of faith. But unlike the Churches of Rome and the East, we do not see ourselves as the One True Church in all her fullness, to the exclusion of any other body of Christians. If we are faithful Anglicans, we believe that our tradition has recovered and preserved the ancient faith of the early Church. But even within that claim itself is a suggestion of the same epistemic problem that we’re trying to address. What gave the Reformers the right to “recover” anything? How could they be sure that their reading of Holy Scripture was more pure than that of the medieval Roman Curia? How can we?

Despite all of this hand wringing, we have to land somewhere, and if we have at least come to believe that Jesus really is Lord we have already won the greater part of the battle. As different as the various Christian churches are from one another, they are not that different when it comes to the basic narrative about who God is in Christ and what He has come to do. The options start to narrow when we take into account the witness of the early Church Fathers which should at a minimum turn us away from anything that operates on a claim of new or continuing revelation. That leaves us with the great Catholic traditions and the churches of the early Reformation. But still, how are we to choose between these? What kind of criteria should we use? And how do we know that we’re applying that criteria correctly and not simply following our heart’s desire?

I cannot tell you with any absolute certainty what you should or shouldn’t do. I can give you reasons why I am where I am, but ultimately those can be self serving too. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here are seven ideas that I find helpful in assessing which One True Church you’d like to land in:

1) Seek God first and the Church second

One of the ways that we get caught up in the consumerist/individualist mentality is by assuming that we have to find the Church in order to find God. While it is true that we need to be united with the Church in order to be united with God, that does not mean that it is our job to discover the Church for ourselves. Remember, God is seeking you. The Good Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the one that He has lost because He loves that one. There is no way for the one to find its way back without the Shepherd. Trust that the Good Shepherd loves you and that He will find you if you are lost. Do not ask “Where is the Church?” expecting to find Christ. Ask “Where is Christ?” expecting to find the Church.

2) Trust the Word of God

It is easy to wonder sometimes whether an experience of God we have had is real or just in our head. Perhaps God is leading me in one direction or another, or perhaps I just had a bit of bad cheese with my lunch. It can be frustrating trying to sort out God’s voice from that of our own internal swell of thoughts, emotions, and desires. But when we get caught up in that effort, it is helpful to remember that we do not have to search for a definitive word from God. We already have one. We know for sure that God has spoken through the Scriptures. No historical church denies this. We also know that the Holy Spirit guided the work of the Ecumenical Councils and so we can trust that the creeds are strong and true expositions of the biblical faith. To a lesser but still helpful extent, we can look at the writings of the early Church Fathers and find there an interpretation of the Scriptures that is consistent and comes from a cultural context not nearly as far removed from the writing of the Scriptures as our own. Where God has spoken, we can be sure of it. Where He has not, we should not feel ourselves bound.

3) Pray, and ask others to pray also

This one has a bit of a danger to it. When I ask people to pray about a difficult decision in their lives, I often find that amazingly enough God seems to tell them to take the path they wanted to take in the first place, which is usually the easier path. But prayer is primarily an exercise in listening and waiting. We do not tell the Lord what we want Him to give us. We do not demand that He speak. We listen and wait. We spend time in His presence. We make our prayers from the Scripture whenever possible, the psalms being the best place to start. And we ask others to pray too. We don’t tell them what to pray for but just that we need direction from God. We assume nothing to be a directive from God that is not consonant with Holy Scripture and cannot be validated by the prayers of others.

4) Look for the self serving angle

If you find yourself yearning to be in a different church, take a hard look at what you’re thinking and feeling and try to discern the ways in which moving to this new church might satisfy you. What is it you’re looking for? If you think that you’ll escape from the problems of one church body by entering another, you will be disappointed. There are sinners in every church. And your desire to be in a different church, though it may be the leading of the Holy Spirit, may just as likely be the result of the sinful desires of your own heart. Are you going to this new church because you believe God is there or because you are trying to escape from the people in the pews next to you? What do you get out of making this move? What’s in it for you? Unless the answer to that last question is “nothing,” proceed with extreme caution.

5) Assume you’re in the right place

Part of the individualist/consumerist mentality is the assumption that somewhere better is right around the corner. We have that idea pounded into us all day long through advertising. Happiness is always just a new car or a new laundry detergent away. When it comes to God, we should always assume the opposite. We should start from the position that where we are is exactly where God wants us to be. What has to be proven to us is not that the new church will be better or truer or fuller than the old, but that there is any reason to move at all. This can be difficult for those of us, like Robert and myself, who have at some point in our lives made a leap. How can we be sure that we’re in the right place now if it’s not where we started out? But that is part of what it means to trust in God. We have to assume that even our broken choices of the past have been used by God to bring us to where we need to be.

6) Do nothing for a year

If you go through all of the above and you still find yourself convinced that you should be in a different church than the one you’re in, wait at least one whole year before you pursue it any further. I don’t mean just wait a year before you’re received into that new body, nor do I mean that you should spend that year continuing to read about it, looking wistfully towards it, and making plans to enter it. I mean, drop all of your exploration of this other church for a whole year, immerse yourself in the life of your current church, and then re-evaluate where you are at the end of that year. A move like this should never be made in a rush. That’s how we allow our sinful hearts and minds to get the best of us. Sometimes the only thing that can help you to know if you’re on the right path is the fresh perspective that comes from not pursuing it for a while. Likewise, this is an exercise in faith, in trusting that God will not abandon you during that year of staying put.

7) Do not trust those who trust too much in themselves

This is the one that has kept me the most grounded in Anglicanism over the years. One of the things that I love about Anglicanism is that it is slow to change, but change is possible. That change is always rooted in the past, of course. We should never make changes in what we believe to accommodate new ideas and cultural flux. Nevertheless, it is a blessing to be a part of a tradition that can sometimes admit that we get things wrong. In 1559 there were no prayers for the dead in the liturgy, in part out of a fear that such prayers might lead to a belief in things like purgatory and also in part out of a mistaken notion that such prayers were a medieval invention. In 1662, after much careful consideration of the witness of Scripture and the early Church, the prayers for the dead were added back into our liturgy. Our skepticism of our own ability to make choices about faith should not be limited just to ourselves. We should also have a healthy skepticism of our collective ability to do so. Does the church you are in have some mechanism for correcting errors? Can it even admit to error? Is there room within the Church for challenge and constructive debate?

These rules are not fool proof, and I sure wish they weren’t necessary. It would be so much better if the sinful division of the churches would cease so that we wouldn’t have to weigh competing claims at all. But until that day comes, we can at least rest in the knowledge that nothing will prevent Our Lord from coming to us, not even the sin of schism, not even our bad choices. Our salvation is not determined by us getting it right but by Him giving all He has out of love for us. When in doubt, keep your eyes on the cross. It’s when we spend too much time analyzing ourselves that we are at the greatest danger of walking in the wrong direction.

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About Fr. Jonathan

Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
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4 Responses to Ask an Anglican: Choosing the One True Church

  1. Cadog says:

    Just to say THANK YOU, Fr. Jonathan, for your continued guidance in this post. It could not be a better description of my journey through various corners of American evangelicalism and into the Anglican (Epispocal) church. You have helped focus my perspective, but also (intended or not) you have prompted me to guard against the same self-certain and superior attitudes that disturbed me in the seeker-sensitive churches we have fellowshiped in (still on very good terms with those people however).

    I have been waiting days for your next post. Your messages are so thoughtful, balanced and well informed. Also much to contemplate, and I need to read and re-read them, as I will do this one before considering further comment or question.

    Peace of Christ be yours this day, Fr. Jonathan and all who “fellowship” here!

  2. Robert F says:

    Thank you, Fr. Jonathan. Although my own decision to leave the RC Church and join the Anglican ( Episcopal) Church was far more impulsive than it should have been, I think that I stumbled (by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I hope) into proceeding by a number of the steps that you suggest. Most of all I recognize that I have followed the path that your guidelines advise by the fact that, despite serious reservations about the theological and liturgical direction of TEC, I intend to stay put and listen for God in the midst of the circumstances that I find myself. The only thing that could drive me from TEC would be if the Church openly and officially repudiated the Ecumenical Creeds and the historic doctrines of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic faith, which would in effect mean that it was in schism. In that case, it would be the denomination that had opted out of Christianity, and I would only be recognizing a change to the borders drawn around me on the ground. I pray that this never happens. God bless you in your ministry.

  3. My sentiments exactly.

  4. Pingback: Ask an Anglican: When the Church is no Longer the Church | The Conciliar Anglican

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