All it took the other day was hearing pop star Olivia Newton-John's
recording of the "Ave Maria" for Father Paul Zahl to feel that old,
familiar tug at his heartstrings.
Then came the voices in his head asking those nagging questions that many
weary Episcopalians have pondered in recent decades: "Why keep fighting?
Why not join the Roman Catholic Church?"
Every now and then, Zahl feels another urge to "swim the Tiber." This is
somewhat problematic because he is dean of the Trinity School for
Ministry in Ambridge, Pa., a post that makes him a leader among
Evangelicals in the embattled Episcopal Church and a strategic voice in
the broadly Protestant, low-church wing of the global Anglican Communion.
"I could become a Roman Catholic in a heartbeat," said Zahl. "But the
minute I say that, I stop and think about it and I know all the reasons
that I am an Evangelical and why my spiritual home is in Anglicanism. ...
But that doesn't mean that I don't understand why so many people --
people I love and respect -- have fled to Rome and why many more will
Many Episcopalians, stressed Zahl, are seeking what he called a "truly
objective form of church life" that provides authoritative answers to the
moral and doctrinal questions that have -- for at least a quarter century
-- caused bitter conflict and declining statistics in the American branch
of Anglicanism. Their complaints run much deeper than mere discontent
over the 2003 consecration of a noncelibate homosexual as the Episcopal
bishop in New Hampshire.
But if they want that kind of church structure they are going to have to
join that kind of church, he said. The Anglican approach, built on a
unique blend of compromises between Protestantism and Catholicism, will
never be enough.
"Anglicanism can only give you an ersatz form of that kind of church,"
said Zahl, a Harvard man whose graduate work took him to England and
Germany. "If you want the kind of authority that comes with Roman
Catholicism then you should run, not walk, to enter the Church of Rome. ...
That's where you have to go to find it. You either become a Catholic or
you simply stop asking the big questions about ecclesiastical structure.
You move on."
This will be a painful step for some Episcopalians to take, in an age
when newspapers are full of reports about legal and theological cracks in
the foundations of the mother Church of England and its bickering
relatives around the world.
The big news on this side of the Atlantic Ocean is that eight
congregations in Northern Virginia -- including two of America's most
historic parishes -- have voted to leave the Episcopal Church to join a
new missionary effort tied to the conservative, rapidly growing Anglican
Church of Nigeria.
Meanwhile, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams faces a revolt in his
own backyard, with Evangelical leaders saying they will revolt if he does
not allow them to answer to conservative bishops, rather than to
liberals. And then there was that Sunday Times report claiming that Pope
Benedict XVI has asked officials in his Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith to research ways to reach out to disaffected Anglicans.
The temptation, according to Zahl, is for Episcopalians caught in these
conflicts to assume there is "some church body out there, some
supervising entity or person, which, when we find it, will be seen
definitely to be 'The One.' The question of 'Whither?' is based on the
idea that there is, at this point in time, a verifiable protecting safe
Instead, those committed to Anglicanism must embrace another image of the
Christian life found in scripture, argued Zahl, in a missive to
supporters of his seminary. While it will be hard, they should see
themselves as the "wandering people of God" who must spend a long time in
the wilderness as they "seek the city which is to come."
It will be hard to find clarity and unity during the years ahead, he said.
"I hold out exactly no hope of a safe haven in the Church of England,"
said Zahl. "If you have any hope of finding safe answers for the big
questions of church identity within Anglicanism, then you are going to
need to be patient because that is not going to happen anytime soon."