My Search for the Perfect Church

My Search for the Perfect Church May 20, 2020

Welcome to this new Patheos blog, Light in the West!

As you can see from the large number of posts already here, I’ve imported my previous blog, “Ithilien.” I’ve been blogging there rather intermittently since 2005. I’ve admired many of the Patheos bloggers for years and have hoped to join their number some day. I’m honored finally to be able to do so.

I’ve been in full communion with Rome since Easter 2017. However, I spent the previous 20+ years thinking about Catholicism. I was in RCIA off and on repeatedly beginning in 1996. Finally I decided that since this obsession was not going away, I should actually take the leap. I’ve written about that long process of discernment elsewhere and won’t repeat myself here. Instead, in this post I’m going to describe how my upbringing in an unusual Wesleyan Holiness family shaped my approach to the Church and contributed both to my becoming Catholic and to my being the particular kind of Catholic I am today.

Protestant monasticism

My story begins with my great-grandfather, Henry Harvey, and his brother Edwin, self-made Chicago businessmen at the turn of the 20th century who left the Methodist Episcopal Church to found their own Holiness denomination, the “Metropolitan Church Association.” (No, this has nothing to do with the Metropolitan Community Church.) They left Chicago and bought an old hotel building in Wisconsin, into which they moved with their followers. They believed that as part of giving your life wholly to God, you should give up private property, resulting in a kind of Protestant monastic community. As with many communal groups, this idealism didn’t last too long. But the commitment to follow Jesus and to resist the pressures of materialism and consumerism has remained a powerful influence in my family.

My grandparents, Edwin and Lillian Harvey, moved to Scotland just before WWII to run a Bible College for the church. (I’m the third Edwin in the family.) Eventually they left the MCA and became non-denominational. They engaged in evangelistic work all over Scotland and northern England, finally settling in a small village in Staffordshire which is the site of my own earliest memories. My father was one of their converts–a nominal Methodist born in the Shetland Islands and brought up in Australia who met Jesus (and later my mother) when he came to Blackburn to visit his aunt.

The gift of not quite fitting in

In 1981, when I was six, my family decided to move back to the United States. We’ve lived here ever since, although I have remained a resident alien. We settled in East Tennessee at the end of 1982, and I spent most of my formative years there. As a result, I have a weird nondescript accent that is certainly not Southern and is not really British either. It sounds generically American but slightly odd, suggesting Canada to some people. Perhaps that’s significant. My religious views are often hard for people to categorize too. A wise Methodist pastor once told me, “no matter what church community you join, you will bring the gift of not quite fitting in.”

My mother homeschooled me, and we didn’t formally belong to any church. We were, essentially, a house church, though we visited various local churches off and on. Sometimes we attended quite regularly until we decided the pastor was “compromising” in one way or another. We didn’t really fit in with the ultra-conservative wing of the Holiness movement that was defined by strict dress codes and insularity. They thought we had gone “worldly” because my mother and grandmother wore wedding rings. But we also didn’t fit with the burgeoning evangelical subculture, which we found hopelessly worldly. We were a bit too mystical for the fundamentalists, way too fundamentalist for the moderate evangelicals. Non-evangelical versions of Christianity, of course, were right out.

A Church continually falling

My family published devotional books, many of them compilations from evangelical writers of the 19th century or spiritual biographies (basically hagiographies) of people my grandparents admired spiritually. One of my grandmother’s relatively few writings that didn’t fit into one of those categories was a short pamphlet called My Search for the Perfect Churchin which she described her journey from the belief of her childhood church that they were the one true remnant to a more expansive understanding of the “invisible Church” consisting of all true believers. She saw her calling as encouraging those who were spiritually serious by pointing them to the long line of saints who had consecrated themselves to God and stood up against the corruptions of their own age. Like many radical low-church Protestants, she had an alternative, “underground” church history narrating what she thought was spiritually important in and under and sometimes against the standard, “visible” narrative.

Our effective sense of identity went back to Wesley and before that it got a bit fuzzy. The Reformation was a heroic age, of course, but like many Protestants we assumed the Protestant Reformers were a lot more like us than they really were. The Middle Ages were the “Dark Ages” but there were spots of light–not just the usual Protestant heroes such as the Waldenses and John Hus but also figures like St. Bernard of Clairvaux, for whom my grandmother had great admiration. The “early Church” was the ideal, but again we didn’t know much about it except the martyr stories.

My family held to the standard low-church Protestant narrative that the Church “fell” at the time of Constantine. But my grandmother came to believe that this was a continual pattern throughout church history. She was deeply critical of nearly all forms of Protestantism as well. She was, of course, a dispensationalist in her eschatological beliefs, and she thought that no version of Christianity could keep its purity for long. We were now living in the “Last Days,” and that’s why no church was really good enough. People shouldn’t leave and try to start a new church–it was too late for that. What mattered was to keep alive the small networks of people who really cared about holiness, both within and outside what she called the “visible Church.”

Visible and invisible

The “invisible Church” is, of course, a common Protestant concept. But it became increasingly central to my grandmother’s theology, and thus to that of my family, since after my grandfather’s death she was our unquestioned spiritual leader, the only authority we had. For her, the fundamental spiritual choice all Christians faced was between the “invisible” and the “visible.” Solomon was her archetype of someone who mistakenly chose the “visible” and caused the spiritual downfall of God’s people as a result. She found these patterns all through the Bible and church history.

The Catholic Church, of course, embodied the “visible.” My grandmother was more broad-minded than many of our fundamentalist friends. She admired certain Catholic authors immensely. The usual somewhat unorthodox suspects like Madame Guyon, of course, but also mainstream saints like Bernard and, perhaps most surprisingly, F. W. Faber, one of the Oxford Tractarian converts and author of “Faith of our Fathers” and “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy.” (Newman himself left my grandmother completely cold.)  But the “Roman Catholic system” was for her the ultimate example of Christians missing the point, creating a “visible” substitute for the true inner work of the Holy Spirit.

The Victorian evangelical books that crowded our shelves reinforced this point. I spent many sleepy Sunday afternoons with J. A. Wylie’s The History of Protestantism, a massive volume with dramatic illustrations of noble Reformers standing up against pompous prelates, or heroic martyrs confessing the truth of the Gospel  amid the flames while fanatic friars thrust crucifixes in their faces.

Wylie devoted a long section to the Waldenses, the medieval dissenters in the Alps who were, he argued, a pure remnant of the early Church that had never accepted the “corruptions of Rome.” While my grandmother might see value in some Catholic mystics, it was clear that Catholicism as an institution was the enemy. Eventually–so most of the people I took seriously as Christians believed–Catholicism and liberal Protestantism and non-Christian religions and no doubt a lot of mainstream evangelicalism as well would all unite into a “one world religion” that would persecute the remnant. I imagined myself a hero of some latter-day struggle against the armies of the World State, rolling rocks down the Appalachian hillsides on the invading armies just as the Waldenses had done against 15th-century Crusaders. (My family were basically pacifists, but hey, a kid can fantasize.)

Cracks in the armor

But my grandmother’s eclectic spiritual curiosity, her willingness to listen to anyone she thought really loved Jesus, left a crack in my ideological armor. As I got older, I became increasingly curious about just what those medieval Catholics had actually believed. If Bernard of Clairvaux was one of them, they couldn’t be all bad. And like many kids I was fascinated by the Middle Ages.

Then, when I was 15, my mother decided she couldn’t homeschool me anymore, and I enrolled in Milligan College, a 20-mile commute away. Milligan was affiliated with the “Independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ,” a tradition that was not exactly friendly to Catholicism. But the professors at Milligan were scholarly, moderate Christians who forced me to think critically and fairly, and widened the cracks that my family’s mystical quirkiness had already left. I thought they were a bunch of scary liberals, of course. (They were actually, for the most part, moderately conservative adherents of “mere Christianity.” And if I were to describe what I owe them it would take a book, not a blog post.)

My first year in college, I read Dante. This was a bombshell. Dante blew the lid off my conception of what poetry was. And, of course, he was Catholic, though like most late medieval Catholics he wasn’t a big fan of his own hierarchy. At the same time, I was getting deeper into C. S. Lewis. Then I discovered Chesterton. And Tolkien. And, eventually, Julian of Norwich, and Flannery O’Connor, and Graham Greene, and Walker Percy, and. . . .

But you can write the story yourself. You’ve heard it before: young provincial evangelical discovers Catholic authors and his mind is blown, and he becomes Catholic and lives happily ever after.

Was my grandmother right after all?

My road turned out to be a bit more winding than that. Due both to my own doubts and to my family’s opposition, I kept pulling back from actually “swimming the Tiber.” By the time I finally did, in 2017, I had long come to realize that my grandmother was right about one thing at least. The “search for the perfect Church” is indeed a delusion. Triumphalist narratives lead us nowhere that is good or holy. The problem with the “invisible Church” narrative is that it is its own kind of triumphalism–a story of the pure remnant who somehow float above the corruption of the visible Church even though they remain officially within it.

We need the visible Church not because it is free from flaws but because we are not. We need fellowship with other flawed people, even those extremely flawed people who wear funny hats and claim succession from the apostles. If the “invisible Church” is really invisible, then it’s not a Church and is of no use to us.

But my grandmother was right about something else too. The story of the Church is a story of temptation, and more often than not, of failure. Over and over again we do, indeed, make our conception of Christianity or the Church or even Scripture into an idol and put it on the throne that belongs only to the crucified Christ. And she was right that as a young man, I was, largely, chasing a mirage. I wanted a Church that I could admire wholeheartedly, a Church I could trust completely, a Church that had the answers.

I haven’t found that Church. But I have found a Church that, for all its hideous faults as a human institution, places the crucified and bleeding Christ at its center, and points to his open heart as the source of all truth and all beauty.

And in that, I can rest.

Image: Livioandronico2013, used under Creative Commons

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