I was a Southern Baptist pastor but I am now a curate in the Anglican church. It has become pretty easy to dunk on Baptists (some of which is deserved). And many expect that since I left the Baptist tradition behind I’d be an allstar at dunking on Baptists. But I can’t do that. I was really happy in my stream of Baptist life.
When the idea of changing traditions came to me, I thought I was too smart to switch. “I should have figured it out by this point,” I thought. I was ordained, went to seminary, and got my doctorate degree from Baptist institutions. Shouldn’t I know better? Shouldn’t I have answers for these questions that align with my education?
I teach college students, so change is part of my life. Students come and go every four years and while they’re at the college, they do a lot of changing. They’re figuring out what they believe versus what society has led them to believe versus what their parents taught them. That’s a natural part of self-discovery and ownership. But I’m older—more refined and wise. I didn’t think I should be the one changing. And not just for my own sake.
What would I be saying to the people who loved me and trained me in the tradition? That they don’t matter? That I’m smarter than them now? That I reject them? Would they reject me?
Choosing to Go
I walked out of a meeting about curriculum and took the short stroll home through the mountains of North Carolina. I opened the door after the long climb to my front door. “I think I’m Anglican,” I told my wife.
Coming to this conclusion was a longer journey than the walk from campus to my door. There were many factors. Alexander Schmemann and James K.A. Smith had turned my intellectual attention to habits, ritual, liturgy, and formation. Relationally, we were involved in an Anglican food co-op and there were conversations with friends along the way. However, if I would have stayed pastoring the Baptist church, I would have likely never changed. The disruption of a move took me out of pastoring and the space started the transition. Then it was beauty that would cement it.
Beauty disciplines. In my enlightened upbringing, I came to think that my mind led to the way to truth. As it turns out, beauty does. It’s not until I experienced the beauty of the Anglican tradition that I came to accept it as true. The same thing could be said of Jesus. Plenty of people believe intellectual truths about Jesus—it’s only when he is seen as captivating and beautiful that he means anything. I don’t mean to suggest a beauty that puppets a deceptive emotionalism, but a beauty that gets inside of us and claims ownership.
For a long time, I prided myself in figuring all my theology out. I thought the closer the circle of our common beliefs the closer the circle of community and unity. I dotted my incarnational “I”s and crossed my theological “T”s. One of the beauties of a more catholic tradition is that it has an emphasis less on discovering what we believe and more of an emphasis on what has been believed. I don’t need to uncover the Bible anew; it’s handed down. As such, I don’t get to choose what I like about something as a sort of curator of a denominational smorgasbord; I submit to a tradition handed down.
Leaving with Love
Hatred is a cruel motivator. And leaving the Baptist tradition required more of me than hatred. Towards the end of the recent film The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Jimmie, the main character, says a line that continues to haunt me. After deep disappointment both in a revelation about himself and in the way San Francisco has treated minority communities, Jimmie is riding home on a bus. He’s sitting in the despair that life isn’t fair, that he’s been deceived a long time, and most of his efforts amounted to nothing. Dejected and despondent, he overhears a conversation between two stereotypical “basic white girls.” They’re lamenting the lameness of San Francisco and contemplating a move to a more exciting, hipper town—a place like LA. Jimmie interrupts. “Excuse me. You can’t hate San Francisco.” Perturbed, the girls question who this guy thinks he is advising what they can and cannot love. Jimmie asks, “Do you love it? You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”
I don’t get to hate it unless I love it. And I can’t love it until I know it and have spent time with it—whether that “it” is a friend, tradition, or place. Sure, there are dysfunctions that I hated within the Baptist convention—just go on twitter for about twenty minutes. But I’m not running from dysfunction. In many ways, all we get to do is choose the dysfunction we feel most at home with.
I was ready to leave behind the Baptist tradition when I could recognize how much I loved it and still felt beckoned to the beauty of Anglicanism. I was ready when I knew without question that some of the kindest and most generous souls I know were Southern Baptists. They fed me and gave me a home—both literally and spiritually. I was ready when I could appreciate that the missionary fervor of Baptists is unmatched. My friend Don, who is close to ninety-years-old, spent nearly thirty of his years in Guatemala. When he went in 1970, there were twenty Christians in a population of 500,000. When he left, there were over 32,000 Christians and 250 churches. That’s worth celebrating. I was ready when I could argue that the Baptist passion for the Bible and study is exemplary. I will be forever shaped by the commitment to the word of God that was handed to me. Any maturity I have is due to the dozens of saints who have loved me, patiently walked with me, and believed when I didn’t.
I appreciate the tradition that made me. It pains me to walk away, because in many ways it feels like I’m not just turning my back on the tradition but on the people I love and who have loved me. I suppose I’m telling myself it’s okay to change but before I do, I am telling what I leave behind that I love you who made me.
Cover image by Jan Tinneberg