It’s hardly news when conservative Episcopalians become Roman Catholics. But prominent conservative Episcopal lay leader Greg Griffith’s embrace of Catholicismis notable. Here’s a passage from an essay Griffith wrote announcing his conversion:
So for me, a move to Rome is not about a revolution in my theology, and certainly not about a rejection of Anglicanism. It is about a very painful choice between two dilemmas:
On the one hand there is Anglicanism, an expression of faith that in the abstract – its doctrines and theology – is as nearly perfect as I believe man has ever succeeded in achieving, but which in practice has unraveled into a chaotic mess. There is of course the heresy and false teaching that infects all but a handful of Episcopal parishes in this diocese – including its bishop, its cathedral, its dean, almost all of its clergy, and a distressing number of the few laypeople who have made the effort to pay attention and learn what’s happening – but the promise of the orthodox Anglican movement outside of The Episcopal Church never materialized either. Populated as that movement is by many good people, it has the institutional feeling of something held together by duct tape and baling wire. It is beset by infighting and consecration fever, and in several of its highest leadership positions are people of atrocious judgement and character.
On the other hand there is Roman Catholicism, some of whose doctrines give me serious pause, but which in practice has shown itself to be steadfast in its opposition to the caprices of the world. Even the horrific pedophile priest scandal forces one to concede that Pope Benedict’s purging of the ranks, while not complete, was at the very least spirited, and based on a firm rejection of the “everything is good” sexual sickness that’s all but killed the Episcopal Church.
I hope he finds what he’s looking for in the Catholic Church, but I would caution him not to think he has escaped all of the problems that drove him out of TEC. Friends and acquaintances in the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles, for example, could open Griffith’s eyes about a lot of things in American Catholicism. It sounds like he’s found a great Catholic parish with strong pastoral leadership, but I assure him this is not universal among Romans.
I would say to him if he were coming into Orthodoxy that he had better not believe that he’s escaped problems; Orthodoxy’s problems tend to be different from the problems faced by Western Christian churches, but we sure have problems too. Don’t misread me: overall, I believe that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are in vastly better shape than mainline Protestant churches in terms of small-o orthodox Christianity. I just feel the need to express caution in these matters. All churches are made up of people.
From reading the essay, it doesn’t seem that Greg Griffith has decided that Catholicism is true, exactly, but that it’s a safe place in which to practice Christianity and to raise kids in the faith. There was a time in my life when I would have said no, you had better accept that it’s true, or stay out. Now, I understand exactly where he’s coming from — my embrace of Orthodoxy was kind of on the same basis at first — and I wouldn’t say he’s wrong to have made the jump.
Still, it was strange to read about Griffith and his wife looking at youth programs for their daughter as they were figuring out which church to leave TEC for. On second thought, though, I understood this a lot better now than I would have 10, 15 years ago, as a Catholic whose experience of the faith was primarily intellectual. Griffith, who has been a prominent activist and writer on Episcopal issues for a decade or so, said in his essay that his 12-year-old daughter has only ever known a relationship to her church in which her father has been battling it in a high-profile way. Maybe Griffith and his wife thought something along the lines I did in 2005, when I was so burned out from fighting over the abuse scandal and all the rest in the Catholic Church, and sick and tired of having to teach my oldest child (one was still a baby, and the other was not yet born) to mistrust his church before he had even learned to trust it. I remember well driving home from mass one Sunday morning, with my son in the backseat asking about Father’s sermon, and me having to tell him that that’s not what the Church teaches, and in fact a lot of times what you’ll hear from the pulpit is not what the Church teaches. I was exhausted by anger over the whole mess — an anger that was massively exacerbated by being on the front lines reading, talking to folks in the trenches, and writing critically. I bet Greg Griffith knows what I’m talking about.
I realized one day that I was a terrible icon of Christ to my children, in this state. I was showing them that being a faithful Christian was a matter of living in a state of anger, anxiety, and fear for their souls, growing up in this church in which orthodoxy didn’t seem to mean a lot. I thought about what kind of relationship with Christ they would have if we stayed in place. Yes, I mean in terms of the teaching they would receive, but I mean just as much the example they would get from their father, who had long since lost his joy in the faith, and had passed the point of being able to get it back.
We started attending an Orthodox parish, not intending to become Orthodox, but simply so we could worship at a parish that had the Real Presence, without being so sad and mad and tied up into a thousand knots. Eventually, we knew we weren’t going back. The liturgy was reverent and beautiful, everybody appeared to believe what the Church taught, and it seemed that this was a good place in which to raise children. By then, I really had lost my Catholic faith. The point I wish to make here is that the practical matter of where to raise your children so that they hold on to Christianity in any small-o orthodox form played a much bigger role in my own story than I would have figured.
Pay attention: I don’t say that to start a theological fight in the comboxes. If you want to fight about this, don’t bother posting, because I’m not going to approve it. I’d like to discuss it, though, and don’t hesitate to be critical, as long as you’re respectful. Mostly I’d like to hear from you readers, of whatever wing of whatever church, about how your thoughts about your children’s spiritual and religious lives and futures affects the way you think about your church, and the prospect of leaving it, or why you stay put. I’ve known a fair number of people over the course of my life who have said, one way or another, “I hate what they’re doing in my church, but by God, they’re not going to drive me out!” That can be noble and brave, but at some point, if you cannot connect with God there, and are losing Him, shouldn’t you consider your options?
I think Griffiths will find that he no longer has authority to speak in a leadership role to conservative Anglicans. He says he’s going to keep blogging at the Episcopal blog Stand Firm, though as a Catholic. But how can you blog for something called Stand Firm, the title of which encourages Episcopalians to stiffen their spines, when you did not stand firm, but rather jumped ship? When I confided to a fellow conservative Catholic friend that I was thinking of leaving the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy, he cautioned that I would lose all influence in the battle to clean up the Church’s Augean stables. I knew he was right, but at the rate I was burning out, I didn’t care about cleaning out the stables; I needed to save my soul.
I still write about Catholicism, of course, as I write about most forms of Christianity. Religion is what I’m most interested in, and besides, this is a news and opinion blog, not an advocacy blog. I don’t know him, but if I were Greg Griffith, I would leave Stand Firm, and focus instead on resting and repairing the damage of a decade of intense ecclesial combat. Continuing to fight the Anglican wars after one has left for Rome not only makes Griffith a less potent combatant, it also keeps him from fully re-orienting himself in his new church. Continuing to fight battles after the real battle — the one for your own soul, and your own future — has been concluded is a waste of time and energy that ought to be focused on learning how to the the best member of your new church that you can be. You don’t want to be the guy who has just married his second wife, but who spends a lot of time thinking and talking about the awful first wife he divorced.