Many Catholic converts speak of coming home. Not me. For years, I felt I had left home and cast my lot with strange, argumentative folks. I missed the incomparable language of Tommy Cranmer (most vacillating of martyrs), Anglican plainsong, and that wonderful hush in an Episcopal church right before people go up to the altar rail. And I detested schmaltzy, sentimental music, rabid exchangers of the peace, and choir robes that looked like seconds from a Baptist supply house. I longed to tell the dear crucifer in the Catholic processions that he was holding the cross in an incorrect form. So what was I doing here?
A certain kind of Episcopalian always becomes a Catholic. I guess I was that kind of Episcopalian – starting with being overly interested in the Anglican nuns at Sewanee, which looks like Oxford and serves as a sort of Vatican for southern Episcopalians. My father was alarmed. I became a Catholic many years later, while working for the National Catholic Register as the token Prot. In the early 1980s, I was exposed to things that should have proven fatal to conversion – deviant nuns first and foremost. But rather than running away, I became fascinated with an institution that could withstand such assaults and aberrations.
It had a raw intensity. But the aesthetics were awful. I lost a little of myself in becoming what my cousins call “Roman.” My family was southern and Episcopalian. I always suspected that Christ would have won a classics prize, played football at Sewanee, and spoken to servants just like Uncle George, a clergyman. My great-great grandparents were married in the church where Patrick Henry uttered his famous either/or. My grandparents were joined in holy matrimony in Natchez, Mississippi by Tennessee Williams’s grandfather, the Rev. Walter Dakin. Mr. Dakin got roaring drunk after and was neither seen nor heard from for decades. During my vaguely atheistic adolescence, I still could not skip one of the most satisfying events of the Christian year. I once entered St. George’s Episcopal Church in Germantown, Tennessee, having been driven through a snowy countryside, to an evening Ash Wednesday service. I pushed open the door and it struck me: This has been going on for 2,000 years.
I know what you’re about to say, without a dollop of our Anglican charm: null and void. Let me assure you: I know, or I would never have crossed the Tiber, a difficult swim in patches. The other bank was dear to me and also so very beautiful. I was fortunate to have been given instruction and received into the Church by a wise and kind Dominican. Father Raymond Smith, O.P. was learned, generous, and a fine teacher. The Dominican friary supplied my aesthetic needs, important to me (then, and, yes, now). Who, I wondered, converts without instruction from a scholar in flowing white robes and a fifteen-decade rosary dangling from his belt?
Why did I stick with it? Well, because it’s true. Don’t laugh, but one of the books I found quite interesting was the Tan volume about the incorruptibles – saints who don’t decay after death. I’m told that they can look awful, but they indicate that sacred history still continues. Episcopalians had history, but not living history. The Catholic Church was history, but more – it still lived, after 2,000 years, in some organic way that was fresh and new and startling.
Nonetheless, the music at St. Matthew’s Cathedral was frequently more sentimental than Lawrence Welk (I applauded when they announced an organist was retiring, but things did not improve). And yet slowly, one becomes not just a Catholic, but a cultural Catholic. One knows the Hail Mary and it feels natural to say it. One goes into small boxes with grilles. The Mass and the confessional turn you into the real thing. I’ve rarely been to confession when I didn’t get a drop of wisdom (in addition to grace). Finally, you are standing in the confessional line at Old St. Mary’s, the Washington church with a Tridentine Mass, singing the words of Immaculate Mary without a hymnal as the choir processes, and you realize: I’ve made it. I belong. I’m here.
Although an arguer myself, I was often irritated by the argumentativeness of my fellow conservative Catholics in my early days – I used to think they were arming themselves with “proofs” against unsuspecting Baptists. They’ll argue papal infallibility with a tree stump. But the arguments are important. After the Episcopal General Convention last summer, a clergy-blogger noted, “I know that this church may head in some directions that may be uncomfortable for me.” Uncomfortable? Fine, in social matters, but you’ve got to fight for truth. Episcopal friends tell me they can live with what is going on in the larger community – not in their parish or diocese. But how can a Christian congregation remain a part of a body that no longer adheres to the tenets of western Christianity? (An Anglican priest once began a sermon, "St. Paul said – and I partly agree with him. . .") And it seeps down to the parishes. I asked a friend why one church never gets male rectors: “They aren’t coming out of the seminary.” The Episcopal clergy has been significantly feminized. The younger women seem quite sweet, a contrast with the early battleaxes. Katherine Jefferts Schorri, leader of the Episcopal Church in America, has called the concept of personal salvation a “western heresy.” Staying in such an ecclesial body is outside my comfort zone.
So, it was worth living through a little bad taste. Even at its tackiest, the Catholic Church has not rejected the Founder. It’s good I found a new home, because my old one no longer exists. It brings me great joy that Pope Benedict XVI is welcoming Anglicans into the Church. Think of it as outreach to the homeless.
Charlotte Hays is editor of In Character magazine, which is published by the John Templeton Foundation, and coauthor of several books of southern humor.