Holding Tension is Classic Anglicanism, by The Reverend Julio Valenzuela
Updated: Sep 29, 2022
My pilgrimage through the ecclesiastical landscape
The Christian life is a journey. We have heard this so many times that it has almost become a cliché—but it is true.1 From the moment we are born of water and the Spirit we start a spiritual journey. It is a pilgrimage through the deserts of this world to the Promised Land, the fulfilled kingdom of God.2
We easily understand this metaphor as Christians not being of this world, yet still living in the world. However, does this mean that a Christian should leave their church for the sake of their personal journey of sanctification to heaven? Is this goal not achievable in any decent Christian denomination? It is the goal of this essay to reflect on these and other questions, within the context of my personal journey into the Anglican tradition.
“The grass is always greener on the other side,” says another cliché. It might be just a popular saying, yet we all recognize wisdom in it. This warning could be rightly applied to those who go from church to church in search of the perfect church.
I am fully aware of the dangers of sliding into the greener-grass syndrome, especially as I consider my own journey of faith. Nevertheless, it is my firm conviction that my pilgrimage through various ecclesiastical bodies has not been driven by a pathological sense of dissatisfaction, but by a genuine love for truth and the Church. All along, it has been my prayer, my hope, and my desire
to submit to the lead of the Holy Spirit.
In the spirit of that disclosure, I will start with a brief spiritual biographical section. I will then move to consider the theological criteria and concerns that have led me to where I find myself at this point in my journey.
My Christian pilgrimage started in the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico. I was baptized as an infant and later confirmed at the tender age of four. The experience of my Confirmation is my first recollection of the Church, followed by captivating stories from the Bible I learned at a Catholic kindergarten at five years old. My next spiritual milestone came when I received my first Holy Communion at age eight. That was a most significant event, since I wholeheartedly believed, with the faith of a child, in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist - body, soul, and divinity, as the
Roman church teaches.
By the age of fifteen I had already lost much of my devotion to God and the Church. However, it was precisely in that impoverished spiritual state that the Holy Spirit of God reached me. It was through the sacrament of reconciliation that I was again reconciled with God. This was also a very emotional experience – of the born-again kind, according to evangelical culture. And it all happened quietly and unceremoniously within the bosom of the old Roman Catholic
church, the only church I knew.
A few months after that conversion experience I entered in contact with a Baptist church. There, I was exposed to a more personal preaching of the same old Gospel I already knew – Jesus died and was raised for our salvation. What was new was this concept of raising my hand to accept an invitation to receive Jesus Christ as my personal Savior and Lord and going down the aisle to say the so called sinner’s prayer. At that time, this seemed to be more of a big deal to the pastor and the congregation than to me.
Also new was the idea that from that moment on I was born-again and forever saved. Because all my past, present, and future sins had already been forgiven, nothing I could ever do, willingly or unwillingly, would be able to break my saving relationship with God. No risk of falling away or apostasy at all. As a contemporary evangelical song says, “My sin can't separate... I'm Yours forever.”3
This opposition of faith against works, even “works of faith”4 or works of “the obedience of faith,”5 was new. Soon, however, I grasped the hard logic behind it. It seemed to be as simple as this: justification is absolutely by faith alone, 6 therefore no human works, whether bad (sins) or good (perseverance), can ever affect the outcome of an individual’s salvation once they have been justified.
As a Baptist, I once asked one of my pastors if it was possible to lose one’s faith. I did not want to ask directly if we could “lose” our salvation. I already knew the answer from the book, that salvation depends solely on faith. I, therefore, framed the question in terms of faith, not works. That made absolutely no difference. His response was something like this, “No. Christians cannot lose their faith because that would mean they could lose their salvation. Therefore, since Christians cannot lose their salvation, they cannot lose their faith, either.”
Even without any formal theological training at that time, I knew his answer was mostly an exercise of logical deduction. This stunned me. I was expecting a theological explanation directly from the Bible. He gave me instead a logical deduction directly from Protestant presuppositions. I needed to know the reason for this dogma. I just got the dogma back.
After a few years as a Baptist, I spent a very brief time in the Evangelical Free Church, not so much because of theological concerns, but mostly for pastoral reasons. It was as a member of that denomination that I started Bible College in 1996. The education I received during my Bible College years was of a strong fundamentalist Protestant and Calvinist flavor. Despite that, I started noticing passages in the Bible that contradicted the Protestant doctrine I had received during my pilgrimage at that point.
As a Baptist I used to go knocking on doors and quoting Isaiah 64:6, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” I would use this text to prove the doctrine of Total Depravity and the opposition of faith against works—of any kind. Nevertheless, I started to notice discrepancies with other Biblical passages. In Acts 10, for example, we read the conversion story of “devout” Cornelius. Before he became a Christian, the Bible affirms that his prayers and good deeds of almsgiving had “ascended as a memorial before God.” Cornelius’ good works did not stink like filthy rags, after all; they rather seemed to have a pleasant aroma ascending unto God.
Coincidentally, as I began to question my Calvinism, I started to visit a Methodist Church. Soon I found the teachings of John Wesley more in tune with my convictions, except for his radical understanding of Christian perfection, but, in any case, his disciples had already tamed this doctrine. I also began to enjoy the light sacramentality of Methodism. It was enough to awake the catholic piety of my childhood, but not too strong to make me uncomfortable as an Evangelical.
The Methodist stage was incredibly significant in my spiritual pilgrimage, not only because it was the longest – almost twenty years – but because it allowed me to mature in my theology and understanding of historical Christianity. It was during my time in seminary, Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University (SMU), that I developed a healthy criticism of my own Protestant tradition, and finally abandoned my prejudice and distrust against all things Catholic or Orthodox. It was also at SMU that I discovered Anglican worship and spirituality, and I was immediately attracted to it. From there, transitioning to the Anglican church was the more natural thing for me to do. After all, I was returning to the mother church of Methodism, the church of John and Charles Wesley.
What I have learned along the journey
It may appear to some that my attraction to Anglicanism was mainly influenced by my Roman Catholic upbringing. I do not deny that my original faith has had some psychological impact to it. Nevertheless, thirty years in Protestantism have deeply touched and transformed all aspects of my life. Ironically, it could be argued that my Hispanic identity has made my reconciliation with the ancient Church catholic more difficult rather than easier. Unfortunately, among Hispanics there are mostly two big poles that oppose each other with Latino passion and might—you are either an anti-Protestant Roman Catholic, or you are an anti-Catholic Protestant. Room for middle ground, or a Via Media, is almost non-existent.7 In my case, it was no different.
The Protestant Evangelical tradition has significantly nurtured my spiritual life, for which I will always be thankful. A love for the Holy Scriptures, an emphasis on conversion, a genuine personal relationship with Christ, and a passion for mission and evangelism are some of the life-sustaining gifts harvested throughout my way. These churches were like green, leafy trees along my path through the dry deserts of this world.
Despite all that goodness, I had come to a point in which Protestant spirituality was not sufficient to satiate my spiritual needs. These trees were certainly full of life and refreshing, but they also have serious deficiencies. One of them was worship. There had to be more to Sunday worship than singing a few songs, or a lot, and a sermon. My decision, then, to come back to the historic Church through the Anglican Church was mostly for spiritual and theological reasons, upon several years of prayerful reflection and struggle.
I could go over a long litany of such deficiencies or limitations, but I will focus here on the one issue that initially caught my attention: a reductionist version of the Christian faith with a tendency to create artificial dichotomies8 and a desacralization of the spiritual life.9
The most obvious example of this reductionist approach is evident in the famous Sola formulas that gave birth to the Reformed movement, Sola Scriptura, Sola fide, Sola gratia. We know the legitimate context of medieval Roman Catholic excesses and corruptions to which these phrases raised opposition – Scripture over tradition, faith over works, and grace over merit. However, in trying to correct certain errors, Protestantism incurred others by going to the opposite extreme.10 This Protestant reductionism, especially in puritan or pietistic groups, affects a wide range of the Christian faith and its practice – soteriology, ecclesiology, sacraments, worship, ethics, etc.
I came to the realization that because most Protestants had renounced the rich sacramental and mystical heritage of the Church, their worship and spirituality ended up being mostly cerebral, directed toward the intellect. In this regard, there certainly seems to be an obvious affinity between some of the features of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Sociologist Rex Ambler observes, for example, that “the ultimate validity of the subjective viewpoint … the strong affirmation of the human self,” is a key feature of modernism that has even survived into postmodernity and goes back until Kant and the Enlightenment.11 Consequently, when we consider Modernism as a fundamental attitude to life, and the priority Luther gave to his own experience and self-determination12 in the discovery of a new reality, we can say that Martin Luther, among others, “initiated modernity, or at least marked symbolically its beginning.”13
The implications of this desacralization and emphasis on reason over mystery in the worship life of a traditional protestant congregation are remarkable. With few exceptions, the main dish in a typical Protestant worship service is the sermon, always depending on a good performance from the preacher. This tends to produce a man-centered worship experience rather than a God-centered act of worship. Worship has become what I can get out of it rather than what I give to God – a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. In contrast, the ancient liturgical worship of the Church is not based on human performance.
Since the time of the Apostles, the preaching of the word of God must always prepare the congregation for the mystical encounter with the risen Lord, “in the breaking of the bread,” in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.14 It is the Bread of Heaven, the Lord himself, who is the main dish, the main spiritual food.15 Whenever we diminish the centrality of the Blessed Sacrament, we impoverish ourselves.
During this time of reflection and examination of my Protestantism, it was refreshing to discover that I was not alone in my quest for a more complete version of Christianity. Authors like Robert E. Webber (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail; Ancient-Future Worship; Common Roots), Thomas Howard (Evangelical Is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament), and Peter Gillquist (Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith) helped me to better understand and give expression to my own insights and concerns.
After this tortuous period of examination, I concluded that I had only three options by which to return to the ancient faith and worship of the early Church – the Roman Catholic church, the Orthodox church, or the Anglican church. What helped me to decide to join the Anglican way was its Via Media approach to incorporate what God the Holy Spirit has produced in two millennia of the life of Church. I cannot ignore or minimize the rich fruit that the Holy Spirit has produced in millions of lives through the Evangelical movement of renewal. Neither can we lift the anchor of the ancient Church that saves us from floating with the times. When it comes to conflicting interpretations of the Scriptures, the consensus of antiquity, the wisdom of our Fathers, is like a lighthouse that sheds light in our surrounding storm and chaos of Protestant sectarianism.
At this point in my journey, it is my conviction that the Anglican church is a legitimate branch of the one original tree,16 the Church that Christ established upon the foundation of the Apostles.17 As such, it is a catholic church—a reformed catholic church.
Unlike the other two catholic branches, Roman and Orthodox, Anglicans do not claim exclusivity to the Church catholic. This is the dimension of the Anglican ethos that is attractive to me – its inclusivity of what is genuine and true. As I mentioned above, we cannot reject the spiritual life and renewal that the Holy Spirit has brought about through Protestants and Evangelicals. The Church needs to find a place for all that is true and faithful to the Gospel in them. Living out the tension of the Via Media is never easy.
It is precisely that aspect of the Anglican ethos – the tension – that other Christians criticize, for it has the potential to embrace contradictory doctrines and practices. Nevertheless, if Anglicans remain committed to unity in the essentials of the Christian faith, as historically received, the non-essentials should not reduce us to the scandal of schism. Yet more scandalous is the abandonment of the essentials, which is the challenge facing the Church of our times.
The Reverend Julio Valenzuela’s academic achievements include a Bachelor of Sciences in Computer Science from his native Mexico (1992). He later earned a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Studies (2000) and obtained his Master of Divinity from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University (2009). He was received in the Anglican Church and ordained to the Priesthood in 2016. He currently serves as a Staff Chaplain in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and a Brigade Chaplain in the New Mexico Army Reserve National Guard.
1 Hebrews 13:13-14; 1 Peter 1:17.
2 1 Corinthians 10:1-6; Hebrews 11:8-10; Philippians 3:20-21.
3 Aj Pruis, Jonathan Smith, Matthew West. The God Who Stays. Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., 2019.
4 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3; also, Romans 2:6-11; Philippians 2:12; James 2:14-26.
5 Romans 1:5; 16:25-27. On this regard, it is worth noting that the Old Testament does not set faith/trust and obedience in contrast to each other; they are virtually synonymous. See Edmund Perry, “The Meaning of emuna in the Old Testament,” Journal of Bible and Religion, Volume XXI, Issue 4, October 1953, p. 255-56.
6 Sola fide, the theological heart and battle cry of the Reformation, means that salvation is radically by faith alone (See The Smalcald Articles, Article I: The First and Chief Article; Book of Concord, p. 292.) The traditional understanding of this Protestant axiom is based on an interpretation of the letters of Paul to the Romans and Galatians more in accord with the concerns and presuppositions of the Reformation than on Paul’s own terms. See Jouette Bassler, Navigating Paul: An Introduction to Key Theological Concepts. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2007), p. 6; E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977); James D.G. Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul,” BJRL 65.1 (1983):95-122; repr. in Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990), 183-206; N. T. Wright, Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision (London: SPCK, 2009).
7 Even in the United States, where the antagonism between the dominant Protestant culture and the Roman Catholic Church is a lot milder than in Latin America, the Roman Catholic anti-Protestant ethos among Hispanics is a reality that cannot be ignored. For example, the Roman Catholic devotional magazine The Word Among Us has a Spanish version which is exactly the same as the original one in English. However, when the editors decided to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (“The Quest for Unity,” October 2017), the Spanish version was completely different. They decided rather to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Marian apparitions in Fatima, Portugal, in May 1917 (“Nuestra Señora del Rosario, la Virgen de Fátima,” October 2017). See https://wau.org/archives/36-09/ and https://la-palabra.com/archives/article/una_senora_vestida_de_blanco/
8 Faith versus works, justfication versus sanctification, totally depraved or perfectly holy, imputed justification versus infused justification, God’s sovereignty versus free will, the Holy Scriptures versus tradition, symbol versus reality, etc.
9 Desacralization is here broadly understood as skepticism, produced by modern rationalism, that denies that which is sacred, supernatural, supramundane, or wholly other than the everyday natural world of ordinary experience, resulting in a loss in the individual of a sense of awfulness, overpoweringness (majestas), energy, and fascination. I am borrowing here from Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, translated by John W. Harvey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1926), pp. 12-31.
10 It is worth mentioning here that in more recent times both sides have come closer to a mutual understanding of the underlying issues in the Solas, mainly the doctrine of justification by faith alone. See the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification: The Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church, 1999. Nevertheless, differences persist, especially at the level of popular piety. Along those lines, Sola Scriptura can also be fine-tuned to understand it as the primacy of Scripture instead of a total rejection of the legitimate tradition of the Church.
11 See also Ernest Troeltsch, Protestantism and Progress: The Significance of Protestantism for the Rise of the Modern World. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), and Kieran Flanagan and Peter C. Jupp, Postmodernity, Sociology and Religion (New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1996).
12 In What is Enlightenment Kant asserted that “the motto of the enlightenment is […] Sepere aude! [‘dare to know’] Have courage to use your own understanding!” This was precisely what Martin Luther did, and upon this base we could consider Luther’s attitude totally modern. His daring “Here I Stand” was an ontological self-affirmation that broke with the worldview of the ancients. Rex Ambler, “The Self and Postmodernity” in Kieran Flanagan and Peter C. Jupp, Postmodernity, Sociology and Religion (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), p. 137.
13 Ibid, p. 137.
14 Luke 24:25-35.
15 The invitation is first to come and hear, to “come and reason” (Isaiah 1:18a) on the goodness of the Lord. At the holy table, however, the invitation is now to come and “taste that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8a). This is the climax of our Christian worship, at the consummation of the most intimate union between Christ and his wife, the Church, “‘…and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32).
16 Mark 4:30-32.
17 Ephesians 2:19-22. Revelation 21:1-9.