In an age when every Christian denomination seems to lose more members than it gains, it is easy to overlook a category of sincere mature Christian women and men who struggle with quite a different issue. Whether it be through the sharing of life with a spouse of another denomination, through a maturing of faith which results in tension with the beliefs and practices of one’s adhering church, or simply through a “holy encounter” facilitated by a pastoral presence or liturgical witness in another Christian tradition, making a denominational switch can be attractive and easy, but can also bring about an agonizing period of painful questions, doubt and struggles. In all cases a switch of this nature is considered, not because of a lack of faith, but because of its opposite, i.e. a deeper and maturing faith.
Whether brought on abruptly or gradually, the inner transformation leading to the decision to change one’s religious identity and allegiance can be heart-wrenching, dangerous and painful as well as attractive, inviting and affirming.
The biblical figure of Ruth is an apt companion for anyone who embarks on such a journey. In the face of tremendous loss (husband, brother-in-law and father-in-law all die) Ruth felt compelled to choose an unknown and precarious future (Ruth 1:15-18). It is not enough for Ruth to be thrust into uncertainty by the deaths of the men who secured women’s social status, security and future. Ruth ruthlessly exacerbates this already chaotic situation, this liminal space, by turning her back on her native country, religion and culture by choosing to go to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi. Those who see her leaving shake their heads; those who see her coming shake their heads (Ruth 1:19). What is she doing? How dare she renounce social and gender status, ethnic origin, religion and culture? What makes her think life will be better as a foreigner, a widow and an outcast in Naomi’s homeland? Why?
While the outside world may look on with shock and incredulity, the Ruths in our churches (women and men) enter a powerful and comprehensive transformation facing all the risks and dangers, which the very act of leaving behind the familiar and cherished entails. It bears the features of a crisis — doubt, fear, chaos, anxiety, loneliness, resistance, loss. It is an intense journey from orientation through disorientation to re-orientation. It is a dangerous opportunity, indeed, but if undertaken with honesty and humility, trust and courage, the dangerous nature of this type of transition can indeed lead to new life.
Such has been the experience in my Anglican move, and I am all the more thankful for it. However, a Google search did not result in many accounts of religious transitions such as the one I have undertaken. Surprising, really, as this type of transition occurs more frequently than is publicly visible. As my Anglican bishop has commented: “There’s a lot of traffic between our two traditions — in both directions!”
This phenomenon has in fact been formally acknowledged by our respective churches. Already some 25 years ago, the Canadian Anglican — Catholic Dialogue group produced a document addressing the moving of clergy from one tradition to another. The tone and content of these guidelines convey the utmost respect for a person’s decision to change traditions while urging all involved to avoid both judgment and attitudes of triumphalism.
Early on in his pontificate Pope Francis wrote: “Truth is a relationship, modelled on the Trinity.” As I am living into my new Anglican self-identity, that line keeps twirling through my thoughts and feelings, through my actions and motivations: truth, a relationship, a relationship . . . When I can keep relationships of love intact, placing this call to love unconditionally above the need to be right and above any urge to defend or argue my point of view, then gone is any desire to enter a boxing match with anyone. And so my spiritual trek from Rome to Canterbury was marked with the deep call to love — intentional love, no-strings-attached love, Christ-like love, painful love; love generously, graciously and deeply, especially those who challenge my loving: Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you (Eph 4:32).
Rev. Marie-Louise Ternier is now an Anglican deacon, serving the Anglican and Lutheran parishes in Watrous, SK. In her spare time she serves on the programming team at Queen’s House in Saskatoon. Marie-Louise is a published author and spiritual director, retreat leader and conference speaker. This column is co-published with the Saskatchewan Anglican. Marie-Louise blogs at http://graceatsixty.wordpress.com