Becoming Episcopalian: one priest’s journey

By Donald Schell

The church where I was baptized and grew up hovered on the edge of mainstream. Officially we were part of the Presbyterian Church, USA, but we were taught that we were Evangelicals, solid on our fundamentals and so confident that our personal decision for Christ made us Christian in a way that liberals (despite what they said) were not. Our youth group activities took us to Baptist and Independent Fundamentalist churches. I sat through a lot of altar calls. A spirituality of ‘knowing Jesus’ was deeply rooted then and still lives for me. But ‘Making a decision for Christ’ and the horror story version of atonement that I heard preached did not fit.

In one dark day in Sunday School, our teacher told us this story of a hanging judge in the Old West:

“There was a judge who was bringing peace to a land ravaged by cattle rustlers and gunslingers. More often than not the judge’s passion for justice in that lawless land moved him to condemn the guilty to death by hanging. One day a man was found guilty of stealing a horse and the judge condemned him to be hanged by the neck until dead. The town was appalled. There were extenuating circumstances. The man was their neighbor, married with children, their sole support. When the condemned was a dangerous stranger, the respectable townspeople were glad for the hanging judge, but this time they were horrified. They begged the judge for mercy. The insisted the condemned man was a good neighbor. It was his first offense. “No,” the judge thundered, “justice must be served; a horse has been stolen, so someone has to die.” A stranger stood near the back of the courtroom spoke with startling calm, “Your honor, hang me, and let the condemned man go free.” The judge seemed caught off guard, paused, frowned, and said, “Son, do you understand what you’re doing?” “Yes, your honor. I have no family. I will die for this man’s freedom.” So the judge ordered the horse thief released and the stranger hanged by the neck until dead. And when they cut the stranger down, the judge stunned the whole town by asking all, including the horse thief to join him at the funeral for his only son.”

The story made me angry. My Sunday School teacher assured us it was a true story, and I did understand it was meant to teach us something about Jesus’ death on the cross, but the father/judge was a monster, and the son was a fool. One pointless death replaced another. The townspeople should have done whatever they needed to do to stop the judge from murdering in the name of ‘Justice.’ I took the story home and told it to my parents, lifelong members of this congregation. My mother said, “The story is not right, and God didn’t kill Jesus.”

I’m thankful today that even as a child, I recoiled from that ugly story, and I’m thankful for my mother’s response. She didn’t offer an alternative atonement theory, but she did model that a story of heartless retribution wasn’t pointing us toward the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The ugliness of the story was an assault on faith, and my aversion to such a monstrous story was a theological response. Why is this adamant ‘NO’ theological? Because, like mathematicians and physicists, beyond mere logic, we test our theology for elegance and economy. Gregory of Nyssa says God’s beauty makes us long for God, moves us to fall in love. If this story were really ‘it’–the Good News– I could only say ‘NO!’

As a kid, I loved Bible stories and found some big parts of what I was offered for theology off-putting. The community of people in the church obviously cared about each other and gave generously of themselves for the church’s work. I loved them. I also loved music (including ancient and renaissance church music and global music), old church buildings (like California’s adobe mission churches and the Orthodox log church at Fort Ross), so loving the community of people I longed for worship that invited real participation from all of us.

In the turbulent 1960’s after the deaths of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, I entered Princeton Seminary. Leaders of our Presbyterian church (like many denominational leaders and activists then) were actively working for peace and racial justice. I was deeply relieved finally to be in a church where people didn’t think Martin Luther King was a communist–some walls had come down. It would be possible to explore and deepen faith. In the openness of my first year at Princeton I first met and fell head-over-heels in love with the writings of the early church fathers like Irenaeus and Gregory of Nyssa. I heard a new voice determined to describe how human experience and faith-in-community could lead to ongoing formation and growth in Christ. The seminary professor who was offering us these riches from Christian tradition was a Russian Orthodox layman who had been a minister in the United Church of Christ. For most of 1968-69, I thought I was going to follow his lead. I’d found in Russian Orthodoxy a church that could give me a more coherent answer, a church that knew what it stood for. I planned to complete my year at Princeton, become Orthodox, transfer to St. Vladimir’s Russian Orthodox Seminary and spend my ministry with a community I understood and that understood me.

I applied to St. Vladimir’s and was admitted pending a face-to-face interview with the seminary’s dean. I drove from Princeton up to Crestwood-Tuckahoe, New York and spent a wonderful hour talking with John Meyendorff. Fr. Meyendorff quizzed me on theology, seemed satisfied at what he was hearing, and then asked where I was going to church. I told him the Episcopal Church at Princeton (the University Chaplaincy). Did I receive communion? Yes. He said, “Then you are an Episcopalian, and you don’t have to become Orthodox. You may be where God wants you to be.”

This was the year I read and re-read The Brothers Karamazov. I felt myself in the presence not just of a scholar, but a staretz, a spiritual elder with a good dose of the wisdom of Dostoyevsky’s Fr. Zossima. This saint was telling me I might already be home. He said I was welcome at the seminary if I chose to come, but he had a request first. ‘Your vision of this church has been formed from reading our ancient teachers and their best modern interpreters. But we’re a church with a lot superstitious immigrants. Go the bookstore and buy what the store manager can sell you of Orthodox Sunday School materials. Don’t come unless you understand who you will be working with if you become an Orthodox priest.’

The bookstore manager greeted me jovially, heard my story and congratulated me. “‘I’ve walked this path too. Welcome to the truth faith. You will come to loathe the Presbyterians and regard the Episcopalians as clowns.” I was taken aback at his mean-spirited response. Presbyterians had taught me to love Jesus. In the Episcopal Church I’d begun to understand common prayer. These communities had given me a priceless foundation. After my conversation with an open-hearted saint and that bookstore manager who I feared might be me in a couple of years, I took my Sunday School books and drove home talking to myself, elated, weeping, perplexed, and trying to find where in this conflicted experience God was speaking.

My Italian landlady in Princeton had a good Catholic answer for a good Evangelical. ‘Go to Sacred Heart Church and pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Jesus will tell you what to do.’ I was shocked at it, but Jesus seemed to want me to accept that I’d already found my home in the Episcopal Church. For good measure, I left Sacred Heart to go spend a little more time on my knees at Trinity Episcopal in Princeton. Jesus was saying the same thing there. I phoned John Snow, the Episcopal chaplain, my pastor, and one of the best preachers I’d ever heard (or have heard since). “John, I need to talk to you. I think I’m becoming an Episcopalian.”

John and I had a great conversation. I told him all the theological stuff I was working on and he said, ‘We’ve got plenty of room for you.’ I told him I thought the Episcopal Church was actually a mess theologically, a church without a backbone, incapable of standing for anything. He smiled and said, ‘maybe you’ll come to appreciate that.’ I have.

John helped me make a very late transfer application to General Seminary. I went home to California to work that summer in the Presbyterian Church where I’d grown up. It was a good summer; I was glad not to be making a conversion that stripped away and repudiated the good people who had taught me to love scripture, community, and an abiding, mystical friendship with Jesus. Starting General Seminary in September, almost the first thing I discovered in the theological mess I’d now embraced was that my professor for the Pauline Epistles, a priest who seemed to be an existentialist agnostic, was with us in the chapel daily praying Morning and Evening Prayer, and he came faithfully to the community’s weekly Eucharist. Remembering John Snow’s words I wondered at my new professor’s faith. Could this be how my new church’s theological messiness was a holy gift? Maybe there was some grace in sharing prayer and Eucharist with Christians I didn’t understand. Maybe the gift was praying with this priest I didn’t understand and (still not understanding him) discovering he was my brother in Christ.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Past Posts