Into The Half-Way House: The Story of an Episcopal Priest

Oct 26th, 2011 | By | Category: Blog Posts

This is a guest post by Michael Rennier. Michael received a BA in New Testament Literature from Oral Roberts University in 2002 and a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School in 2006. He served the Anglican Church in North America as the Rector of two parishes on Cape Cod, Massachusetts for five years. After discerning a call to conversion, Michael and his family moved to St. Louis, Missouri where he now works for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Michael and Amber Rennier, and their three children, and the Most Rev. Archbishop Robert Carlson

“Hear yet my paradox: Love, when all is given,
To see Thee I must see Thee, to love, love;
I must o’ertake Thee at once and under heaven
If I shall overtake Thee at last above.
You have your wish; enter these walls, one said:
He is with you in the breaking of the bread.”

- From “The Half-Way House” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

At Yale, there used to be an auxiliary library buried underneath the green in front the Sterling Memorial Library. One fine fall day, I happened to find myself not out amongst the foliage but rather tucked away below the sunshine and the sod, reading a book. I suppose it was an odd choice. This was the ugliest space I know of on an otherwise beautiful campus. So ugly, in fact, that it was targeted for a remodel and is now gone. But there I was, and perhaps even more odd, I, a good Anglican-priest-in-training, was reading Cardinal Newman. Not the good parts that we Anglicans agreed with; the parts about the Oxford movement and the Church Fathers. No, I was reading the Apologia; the story of his conversion to the Catholic Church. I was particularly bothered by one specific bit. I was at the part where Newman makes his point that, fundamentally, there is no difference whatsoever between Arianism and Anglicanism. One is reviled and discredited, the other respectable and vital. But look closer, Newman argued, look underneath. What is there? Rebellion. There, buried beneath the sartorial splendor, the monarchy, the gorgeous liturgy, the incense, the polyphonic chant, and the prestige of Oxford … was a group of Christians steeped in the bitter throes of willfulness. Yes, it is wrapped up in the respectable sounding doctrine of the Via Media, but of course, the Via Media is the last refuge of all theological scoundrels. Newman got to me that day, blinking in the fluorescent lights of a now disappeared world. My own world, comfortable as it had been, began to slip away as well.

Or perhaps it really slipped away the day I read the story of another convert; Gerard Manley Hopkins. This is the Hopkins who I am convinced could convert the world through his poetry if only we gave him our attention. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” indeed. But for Hopkins, this only became the case through his own participation in the mystical life of the Church. His poetry before his conversion he came to consider vain; worthy only of being burned (Yes, he actually did burn all of his poetry). While still at Oxford, Hopkins saw the beauty of the Catholic Church and determined to convert. In the intervening period, as all his friends and sometime prospective employers tried to talk him out of it, he wrote in his journal that he felt “like an exile.” I read those words and the Holy Spirit did His work and I understood that until I converted, I too would feel the pain of exile.

It had taken me a good bit of time to work my way to this point. I grew up a free-church Pentecostal of sorts. I never thought of myself as anti-Catholic. But in retrospect, goodness, was I anti-Catholic! The problem with Catholics, everybody knew, was that they worshipped statues. Nothing could be more clear. As a child, I simply assumed this to be the case. There were statues in their churches, none in mine, prima facie idolatry.

Sadly, this manner of thinking is implicit in Protestantism. I suppose it is the blindness that comes with rebellion; like Adam hiding from God in the garden because he had lost sight of the true Good. It isn’t necessarily our place to blame our separated brethren, after all, most didn’t choose to be born Protestants and be indoctrinated in the habit of divisiveness; but it certainly is our place to be patient with them and to pray for them, and when the occasion calls for it, to attest steadfastly to the truth of the teachings of the ancient Church.

I bring all this up because this was the position in which I found myself as a young college student. Dissatisfied with my own brand of the Christian religion which denied it was a religion and my own inherited tradition which denied it was a tradition, I thought briefly about Catholicism. I even went to Mass a few times. It was fascinating. I was attracted to it. I felt something solid about it, comforting, and yet, I knew for a fact that these people worshiped statues! Okay, with age my critique became a bit more subtle. But in the long run, aren’t all our arguments against the Church just as silly and vain? She outlasts us all. We can kick and scream and throw tantrums; legislate against her, slander her, outlaw her priests and persecute her children: the Church still prevails. She fears nothing. And because of this, she is able to be generous and patient.

The greatest novel of all time (no one argue with me on this) is Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. In it, Waugh describes a family who keep their country seat at Brideshead in the ancestral home. The family itself is a mixed lot; A father living abroad in sin, a domineering mother, a son who is a flamboyant dandy, a worldly daughter, and an overly-childlike daughter. Waugh describes the slow decline of Brideshead as the family disintegrates and scatters. This dissipation works itself out universally in the advent of the Great War, which finally swallows up all of England and turns Brideshead into quarters for Army command. In the end, though, we are left with a scene in the house’s private chapel, where the altar lamp is still lit and a lone priest says mass for an old woman. I am a lot like that family. Many of us probably are.

You see, conversion is a gift. Mother Mary holds her Son for us, patiently suffering at the foot of the Cross. We can ignore her, go our own way, rebel … it doesn’t matter. Hanging on the Cross, Christ says to each and every one of us “Behold your Mother.” She is here still. Waiting. We may be elsewhere, doing God knows what, but above the altar the candle still flickers. This is the light by which, in time, we find our way home.

As a young Pentecostal, I wasn’t yet ready for the Church, but she is patient. And so my story continues. I became an Anglican. This was a place that seemed to have it all: dignity, beauty, wonderful music, good order, tradition, and of course, they didn’t worship statues. I don’t like the idea of tearing into the Anglican tradition as far as specifics go, so let’s be content with Newman’s fundamental insight. As nice as my sojourn in Anglicanism was, I began to feel a lack. It was like the Nothingness from Never-Ending Story (the scariest movie of all time, don’t fight me on this). It’s hard to explain, I just know that after a while my heart wasn’t in it. I was still wrestling every single, little belief I held. There was never any rest.

What was worse, having been taught that a good follower of Jesus always goes to his Holy Word for life-giving truth, I could not help but notice that the word of God speaks of something called “The Body of Christ.” This Body is identifiable; it consists of those who have been united with Christ through Baptism and have received the Holy Spirit for purposes of holiness and witness. It is ordered by the governance of Bishops, thus allowing orthodoxy to flourish and the ancient Gospel truth to be defended; as Paul advises Timothy, the Church is the “foundation and pillar of the faith.” The Body of Christ is the Church, visibly united, gathered around the crucified and risen Lord, and fed by Him in the sacrament of Communion. This is the way in which Christ is present to His people. He is, of course, not confined to simply being present in the Communion feast but this is His chosen way, a marked moment, if you will, by which all other moments are defined. If Christ is potentially present in this world in any place, it is because He is first present in the Communion. This is why He says “unless you eat of my flesh and drink of my blood, you have no life in you.” He is our sustenance. He is our all. So, as Church, we are called to visibly gather around the Lord’s altar to give thanks and to be fed. This is not just a mysterious, ancient rite. It is the redemption of the world.

You can see the problem here, right? I was on the outside looking in.

In a real sense the Church has fractured. We no longer gather around the table as the One Body. To me, this means much more than an organizational difficulty. This means that we have presented to the world a scandal. We have divided up the Body of Christ. We have protested against each other, separated ourselves, held our own judgment up against that of the Spirit-inspired Church. A close reader of the Bible will come to the conclusion that Christ and his Church, the Head and the Body, are inseparable. And yet, in our practice, we pretend that this is not the case.

It is a big deal, a really big deal, for Christians to hold themselves apart from visible communion. We might all protest from our various theological kingdoms that we aren’t the ones who have gotten it wrong. We are not to blame. Perhaps not. Or perhaps all of us in every corner of Christendom are to blame. No one gets off easy with this one.

Ultimately, my goal is not to point the finger at others but to examine my own conscience. Had I held myself apart from visible communion with the Catholic Church because I thought I knew better? The answer is, yes, I had. My journey towards the Catholic faith has not, at core, been a journey of personal enlightenment or one in which I have held up the Church to my own opinions and finally found it acceptable. This would be to make the Church too small, and as G.K. Chesterton reminds us, the Church is ever so much larger on the inside than it seems from the outside. Mine has been a journey towards faith. I have learned to believe first so that I might later begin to understand rather than understand so that I might then believe. My intellect simply isn’t up to the challenge that the latter option presents. I trust that when Jesus breathed His Holy Spirit into His disciples He was anointing His Church to be, among other things, the guardian of the sacred and simple truth of the Gospel.

I have learned to rest in the truth that the Church teaches. I do not make my own salvation through knowledge or emotional experiences, through following this teacher or that. Whether I realize it or not, God is doing a great work in me. It was begun at the Cross, is sustained by the Holy Spirit, and will be completed at the final judgment.

I borrow this analogy from the English poet and convert John Dryden, but it fits me. In the Aeneid, Virgil writes about an encounter that Aeneas has in the forest outside of Carthage. He has wandered there after losing many of his men at sea during a storm. In the forest, a woman approaches him, falls into conversation with him, and comforts him in the midst of his troubles. It is only after she turns and walks away that he recognizes her. It is his mother. He recognizes her by the way that she walks.

I am sure that I could put up a good fight on all of the various theological and biblical reasons why I believe in the Catholic Church, but I would really prefer to say simply that the visible, undivided Church, the Church that Jesus prayed for in His last moments with His disciples, the Church that is the Mother of us all not on her own merits but because she holds Christ within her womb; this I have recognized by the way that she walks.

Even though I’m making a bit of an attempt, this is not the kind of thing that one explains between the soup and dessert course while at dinner. At least this is what Newman once said when asked “why become Catholic?” It is a deeply personal and intimate spiritual journey. It is the search for one’s mother. In this case, she has been here all along.

I can say this, in turning to the Catholic Church I do not turn to something foreign and alien to Anglicans or evangelicals. I turned, rather, to the Catholic Church in order to become more fully what I already was. I have been raised to expect joyfully the activity of the Holy Spirit in my life; I expect Him all the more. I have come to understand the beauty of the English liturgy, the patterns that are formed through Common prayer, the primacy of Scripture, and salvation through Christ alone apart from my own efforts; I believe in those all the more.

I have decided to give what I am to God, which means to take my place in his Body here on earth. My hope in Christ is that my gift given and carried along by the work of the Cross will be acceptable and pleasing to God, and that the promise to those who die to the old life is that they will have new life more abundantly.

I would like to quote from the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, also a convert to the Church, who spoke these words to his parishioners. I too spoke these words to my parishioners during a tearful farewell. I wish I had written them, but I will make these words mine: “To those of you with whom I have traveled in the past, know that we travel together still. In the mystery of Christ and His Church nothing is lost, and the broken will be mended. If, as I am persuaded, my communion with Christ’s Church is now the fuller, then it follows that my unity with all who are in Christ is now the stronger. We travel together still.”

This wouldn’t be a conversion narrative if I didn’t make note of the fact that on October 16th, 2011, my wife and I publicly professed our faith to be that of the Catholic Church and were given the sacrament of confirmation by the Most Rev. Robert Carlson, Archbishop of St. Louis. This was the best day of our lives.

Feast of St. Cuthbert, Archbishop of Canterbury

29 comments
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  1. Welcome Home Michael, Amber and family. May your faith, hope and personal commitment to Our Lord grow every day.

    You do know that on the day you came home there was much rejoicing in Heaven. Could you hear them singing, and praising GOD for your return? I hope so.

  2. It won’t be the last “best day”. Every day from now until eternity will be the best day of your lives. No matter what befalls you, God is always present, physically as well as spiritually, in your new home.

  3. Dear Rennier family,

    Welcome home!!

    Reading your post was, for me, a great benefit, and something that happens at this site often. Someone will write from the intellect and the heart, expressing with clarity and joy the discovery of Truth. You did that for me again.

    I am not departing the Church, having been graced to find it, but it is always wonderful (as in full of wonder) to hear from that great cloud of witnesses who surround me and have them remind me of what a gift I have received.

    Your testimony is keenly appreciated.

    Cordially,

    dt

  4. This is such a beautifully written article. I wanted to share a line or two with a friend and just could not stop – it is beautifully told. Every Word.

  5. From another ORU grad 03′ (Theo-Historical), a hearty welcome Home! Your words were deeply moving, thank you for sharing. Newman’s Apologia and Development of Christian Doctrine were pivotal in my conversion. By any chance, did you go to school at Yale with John Thorpe? I’m close friends with his father, Sam. Were you friends with Mark Johnson who went on to Duke Divinity?

  6. Really great. Thanks for taking the time to contribute this to Called to Communion.

  7. So many quotables from this post. Thank you. My favorite one:

    My journey towards the Catholic faith has not, at core, been a journey of personal enlightenment or one in which I have held up the Church to my own opinions and finally found it acceptable. This would be to make the Church too small, and as G.K. Chesterton reminds us, the Church is ever so much larger on the inside than it seems from the outside. Mine has been a journey towards faith. I have learned to believe first so that I might later begin to understand rather than understand so that I might then believe. My intellect simply isn’t up to the challenge that the latter option presents. I trust that when Jesus breathed His Holy Spirit into His disciples He was anointing His Church to be, among other things, the guardian of the sacred and simple truth of the Gospel.

    When announcing my intent to convert to Protestant friends, they will always ask what I think of Doctrine X or Y of the Catholic Church. My response is that I didn’t do a doctrinal juxtapose. It began with a step of faith, to first believe that the Catholic Church is the church Christ founded. It was in the prayer of John 17. I needed to believe first!

  8. Someone needs to add a like button to the articles!

  9. Dear Michael,

    Thank you for sharing this work with CtC. Blessings to the Rennier family!

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom B.

  10. […] The Story of an Episcopal Priest (now Catholic) – Bryan Cross, Call to Communion […]

  11. Welcome home!

  12. Good grief! I feel for you my friend. I am an Anglican priest and a former Catholic. It appears you have spent your life looking for the ultimate authority figure and have been duped by the claims of the Roman Church. Your testimony was ‘beautiful’ and sentimental… But it does not have the ring of truth. I find it hard to believe that you actually studied for the Anglican orders and were not made aware of the very clear facts of church history that show that the Bishop of Rome had no historic, spiritual authority… rather there was from the 400’s on a gradual gathering or political and ecclesiastical authority that did not result in universal authority until the 13th century. The church is not Rome, or Canterbury for that matter. Jesus said to Peter, ‘flesh and blood revealed to you that I am the Christ (Lord and Savior) this rock (of revelation) is what I will build my church upon’. The church is those who are called out and connected together by a common, universal, yet personal revelation by from God the Father, by the Holy Spirit that Jesus is the Son of God. Please do not use your testimony to lead people back into the bondage of Rome.

  13. James,

    If you have a comment and an argument to make that is fine. If you want to make attacks on character and person, then this is not the place for that.

    God Bless,
    Tom

  14. I am not attacking anyone. I am, as a former Catholic who took the trouble to study church history, just amazed that any educated person could be gullible enough to swallow the Bishop of Rome’s claims to supremacy, being the Vicar, and etc.. These are all late historical developments as any honest scholar knows. This really reminds of the story of Joseph Smith, the Golden Plates, Israel in America, etc… Everyone educated Mormon knows its not true, but can’t admit it because it is the foundation of their organization and their hold on the masses. (no pun intended). I am afraid you all take Tertullian out of context when he said “you must believe in order to understand” he was talking about believing in the Love of God, Salvation by Faith, and the person of Christ… not throwing out objective history so that you can embrace revisionist Roman history.
    The Body is One Body… If you truly know Christ as your Savior and have been born again by His Spirit you are my brother and we are members together of the One True Church… the Body of Christ with it’s Head in Heaven not in Rome or Canterbury

  15. James,

    The claim that the bishop of Rome has a supremacy on account of Christ giving the keys to St. Peter is not a late invention, but can be found in the Church Fathers. See “The Chair of St. Peter.” See also St. Cyprian: “St. Cyprian on the Unity of the Catholic Church.” See also our post on the fourth century African bishop St. Optatus, regarding his work on the subject of schism, in reference to the Donatists. That post is titled “St. Optatus on Schism and the Bishop of Rome.”

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  16. Dear Bryan… I am sure you are a great guy and a sincere person. But I’m already aware of those documents and all the other Roman arguments for supremacy. I am more than convinced, after nearly thirty five years of study, that the Bishop of Rome’s ‘supremacy’ came as a result of his relationship with the emperor not his relationship with Christ. I am a Catholic, just not a Roman Catholic. Did you know that there was a fully functioning national church of England before the Roman bishops ever visited in the sixth century. Would encourage you to take a look at the writings of John Jewel in the 16th century for an enlightened view in a few pages concerning this whole issue from an English and reformers (not rebels) perspective.
    please take a look at… http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/17678
    also for a scholarly, and objective look at the rise of papal power take a look at “The Church in the Times of the Barbarias: 461 – 1003 AD
    you shall know the truth… and the truth shall set you free

  17. James

    I am… just amazed that any educated person could be gullible enough to swallow the Bishop of Rome’s claims to supremacy, being the Vicar, and etc.

    How in the world is that not to be construed as a personal attack?

  18. James, (re: #16)

    We want to bring about reconciliation between those Christians now divided by schism. And we believe that a necessary condition for doing this is a certain stance of charity. And that’s why we have the “Posting Guidelines” that we do, because in our experience, personal attacks tend to divide us further. So, we ask those who wish to dialogue with us to avoid ad hominems. And calling Michael’s education into question and accusing him of being gullible are personal attacks, so please refrain from that sort of thing. Moreover, it is question-begging to claim that “any honest scholar” knows that the authority of the bishop of Rome is a late historical development. The quotations in the articles linked in comment #15 are sufficient to refute that claim. Of course the form and expression of the exercise of that authority, as well as the titles taken by the bishop of Rome, have developed over time, in the way of development explained by St. Vincent of Lérins. But the primacy of the bishop of Rome has been recognized from the first century; we see it exercised already in St Clement’s first letter, as I have argued here.

    I am aware that there was a church in England before Pope Gregory’s mission in the sixth century, and the establishment of the Bishop of Canterbury. But that does not show that the communion of the bishops of England with the bishop of Rome that was established at that time, and their recognition of his authority, was a distortion or corruption. There is no need to presuppose some form of ecclesial deism when interpreting the establishing of ecclesial relations in the sixth century between Christians in England and the bishop of Rome. St. Augustine of Hippo teaches that the seat of St. Peter is the touchstone for what counts as schism from the Catholic Church, writing:

    You know what the Catholic Church is, and what that is cut off from the Vine; if there are any among you cautious, let them come; let them find life in the Root. Come, brethren, if you wish to be engrafted in the Vine: a grief it is when we see you lying thus cut off. Number the Bishops even from the very seat of Peter: and see every succession in that line of Fathers: that is the Rock against which the proud Gates of Hell prevail not.” (PL 43.30.)

    What exactly, is schism from the Church, in your opinion, and where in the Fathers do you find your definition of schism from the Church? To bring about reconciliation between those in schism, we have to be willing to examine the evidence together, and carefully weigh it together. As for Jewel, is there something specific in Jewel’s work that you would like to discuss? The book is too long to discuss as a whole.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  19. Took us 70 years to discover the Church Jesus started – we were Bible teachers, loved the Lord and running from denominational church to denominational church – but because there was no Authority, we, too, did some Church history and found the big black hole – 1500 years of it – whoops – stopped, went back to John 6 and the Eucharist and Acts and the beginning of the Church – and came Home – at 71 and 76 – to the greatest worship we had ever seen and the Eucharist we had never had. We pray for others to follow. There is no other Church and that is why it is called the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

  20. Rev. Shulze,

    You said you are “not attacking anyone” but in the same breath call people “gullible” and imply they havent studied church history, and that scholars who disagree with your “late developement” claim are dishonest. That’s not much of an argument. Not a convincing one anyway. If things are as clear from church history as you seem to think they are, it should be easy for you to point it out. Until then, I will stick with what I have drawn from church history which is the primacy of Rome being all over the place in the early Fathers. What do you do with the explicit language of papal primacy used by the Fathers which Bryan mentions in comment #15? It seems to me the only options are to either ignore them, claim the Fathers were wrong, or to submit to the same apostolic line they point to.
    I converted to Catholicism last year partly because of these statements from the early Church Fathers. I can give you a list of hundreds of highly trained, highly intelligent men who have converted for the same reason since the Reformation. Chesterton, Kreeft, Newman and hundreds of others… all “gullible”? Look at the credentials of the contributors to this site, one of whom is a former Episcopal Priest:

    http://www.calledtocommunion.com/about/authors/

    They don’t appear to be stupid or gullible. And to call them dishonest is outrageous.

    David M.

  21. A wonderful article. As a member of the St. Louis archdiocese, I am delighted that you and your family live within our community. I look forward to your being with us and making a valuable contribution. Welcome home.

  22. Likewise, welcome Home Michael, Amber and family. God bless you for your witness to the faith.

  23. Michael and Amber, welcome Home. Thank you for this beautiful account. I wish you many years of rest (and into eternity!) in the truth that the Church teaches! (Very well-put, Michael!)

  24. […] to me that we (Evangelicals) could be in schism from the visible catholic Church. I recommend “Into the Half-Way House: The Story of an Episcopal Priest,” “An OPC Pastor Enters the Catholic Church,” and “Ecclesial Unity and Outdoing […]

  25. […] One of the most eloquent testimonies I’ve read recently is Michael Rennier’s Into the Half-Way House. […]

  26. Hi Michael Rennier,

    Welcome Home, awesomely inspiring.

    I knew I’m late :-) but then, I find the comments mixed with Hate, Love and Truth.

    Rev. James,

    “Aware of those documents and all the other Roman arguments for supremacy. I am more than convinced, after nearly thirty five years of study, that the Bishop of Rome’s ‘supremacy’ came as a result of his relationship with the emperor not his relationship with Christ.”

    I suggest look for other source of evidences not just reading materials i.e. utilize archaeological evidences to prove what your saying is true. Or Check archaeological Evidences that proves CC is founded by Christ through Peter and the consistent succession of the Popes. Perhaps visit Vatican Library and Museum or perhaps bring scientists to do carbon-dating for you.

    Archie

  27. While the gates of hell will not prevail against the Roman church I ran like hell from it for the sake of my personal sanity as to escape a dreary mother-in-law. My experience was constantly confronting a propositional. transactional , dogmatic fundamentalism stuck in a dysfunctional hierarchal polity, engaging in a revisionism against the reforms of Vatican 2, the pessimism of the Augustinians had over taken the more optimistic Thomasists. I can only wish you well and with Pope Francis reordering priorities at the helm your new church home will do well.

    I went where you left and find the sacramentality and catholicity unimpeded but rather enhanced by a participatory polity of the Episcopal Church. Also it is home for two of my favorite contemporary theologians the recently passed Fr. Robert Capon and Fr. Matthew Fox whose divergent theologies merge in the a great appreciation of the Incarnation in creation and I rejoice in this comprehension as provided in the via media

  28. I am only reading this blog post in Feb of 2014. Some time has past since the author’s conversion. As he seems to be a person of careful reflection, I would be interested to read of his experiences as a member of the Roman Catholic Church since that time.

  29. Hi everyone,
    I recently received a gracious email in response to this article and it inspired me to check in on the comments section. Thank you for all the response and I am honored that people are still reading the article!

    Now more than ever, it is apparent to me that the Catholic Church is Our Lord’s gift to us for our salvation. Although I am times frustrated that I do not understand a certain teaching of the Bishops or fret over a hymn I dislike, The charity, grace, and beauty of the Church overwhelm me on a daily basis. Her willingness to suffer for others and pray for them, the power of the mass, and the actual, ongoing creation of saints encourages me to no end. Looking back at it, it is difficult to put myself in the place of the man for whom this decision caused so much anxiety; now that I am Catholic all of my previous equivocations hold no sway at all. To paraphrase TS Eliot, the Church is truly the still place at the center of a turning world.

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