John Donne is of course one of the most famous of England’s poets. He is known for a large and varied corpus of works. His most famous line is, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” What interests me today, on his feast day, is his conversion to Anglicanism from Roman Catholicism.
Donne was born and raised in that church, being educated by the Jesuits from age 11. As this was in the height of the reign of Elizabeth I, whom the popes repeatedly tried to remove from the throne, being Catholic was in fact fairly dangerous. This did not induce Donne to change churches, not in the least. What happened was a crisis of faith after his brother died in prison for harboring a proscribed priest. For a time, it seemed that Donne no longer believed in God.
He came back to faith, I think, through the exercise of poetry. His works of that period are The Satires and lots of love poems. Years later, Donne wrote several anti-Catholic pamphlets, which showed his complete conversion to the Church of England. Eventually under pressure from King James, he took Holy Orders and became Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, a post he held until his death.
What does it mean to convert from Roman Catholicism to another church, especially Anglicanism? It is a journey which I myself took years ago. When you are raised to believe that the Catholic Church is the true faith, all others being deficient, and that to convert would expose you to hellfire, it is a hard transition! The heart of the matter, of course, is no longer being in communion with the Pope, or as we call him, the Bishop of Rome. That is the peculiarity of Catholicism compared with all other Christian traditions, that the legitimacy of the local church’s life depends upon being under his authority.
My move away began when I was nine years old. I had a lingering pneumonia, and my mother had to bring in a babysitter. Her name was Mrs James, and she was a Quaker. She was curious about Catholicism, and with all my childish fervor, I tried to answer her questions. Meanwhile, I learned a little about the Quakers, better called the Society of Friends, which has no sacraments. I remember that I was shocked. Then I began to like Mrs. James. Her husband was killed in action on Normandy Beach on D-day in 1944. She had never gotten over her grief. I asked her if he had gotten a medal. She brought his Purple Heart on our last day together. I gazed at the piece of metal that Mrs James received in exchange for the life of the man she loved, and I knew even then that she had shown me a private place in her heart.
What shook my religion was that Mrs James was obviously a devout Christian, despite not being a Catholic. This was the beginning of my doubts about Rome.
Of course, like John Donne and so many others, I had my atheist phase, reading the modern French existentialists like Sartre, Camus, and so on. But it was when I actually met Jean-Paul Sartre that I realized the problem of atheism. At the end of his life, when I met him, Sartre had given up on philosophy. “I live only to smoke,” he declared to Le Figaro. Who wants to end up like that? I thought. Slowly, I made my way back to Jesus, and then discovered, thanks to Melinda, my wife, then my fiancée, the Episcopal Church.
Like Donne, and uncounted others who have made the same discovery, I found my catholic faith anew. Anglicanism is a basic way of being Christian, not an ideology. It seeks to give the faithful the minimum necessary that each requires in order to follow Christ. We do not claim to hold the fullness of the faith, as opposed to all others. I can savor the whole of Christianity, Reformed, Orthodox, and Roman, from within my church. But most importantly, I can “work out my salvation with fear and trembling,” as Paul told the Philippians. It is not necessary that I hold every single opinion of the church, only that I can worship God with conviction and integrity through the liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer. With the Bible, the Prayer Book has the minimum necessary for any Christian’s life.
John Donne lived and celebrated the goodness of our way of being Christian. It is not the only way, of course. I expect to see Mrs James again in heaven. But it is my joy that God has called me to be a Bishop of the Episcopal Church, within the Anglican Communion, to set forth this way of worshipping God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the catholic faith. This is the road to heaven. Here anyone can find a living relationship with Jesus, and walk in the hope that we share, the promise of eternal life in the resurrection of the dead.