Anglican & EpiscopalianConversion Stories

A Chance Remark Rocks My World

Mark Gamble
December 9, 2016 No Comments

 

I was raised in a small Baptist church, where my father served as Sunday School Superintendent and Chairman of the Board of Deacons. As a family we were always active in church functions. If there was something going on at church, we were there as a family. I especially enjoyed Sunday evenings after church service, when there would be a social time for families. Our life as a family revolved around church activities, except for hockey and other sports that my brothers and I were involved in. My parents were faithful, committed Christian parents and their lives reflected what we learned on Sundays.

Early Life

After supper my father would read a passage from the Bible and explain how we could apply the teaching to our own lives. Dad loved to read the stories from the Old Testament. We got to know them well. He would then lead us in prayer, giving thanks for God’s goodness, asking for His forgiveness, and always remembering to pray for our friends, neighbors, family, and special activities. Sometimes I would have a friend over for dinner and hoped that Dad would skip the Bible story and prayer so we could get out to play, but it never happened. Dad was not into skipping Bible reading and prayer. Moreover, visitors presented an opportunity to share the Gospel, which was the responsibility of every Christian and something my father took seriously.

While my parents strongly encouraged our active participation in church activities, they stressed that following Christ was a personal commitment that we each had to make for ourselves. It was while attending a Christian summer camp that I responded to an invitation to receive Christ as my Savior. Soon afterwards, at age 14, I chose to be baptized in our local Baptist church. Throughout my high school years, I tried to live a Christian life, attending youth group and Bible studies held through organizations such as The Navigators and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. My summers were spent working at a Christian conference ground. It was at this conference ground that I heard some of the best Christian (Protestant) speakers from all over the United States and Canada. I always enjoyed hearing good Bible teaching.

Not long after my baptism, my parents became concerned with a less biblically faithful trend in our particular Baptist denomination and viewed this as the Lord’s call to leave and form a new Bible church in a neighboring community. I went with my parents. I continued in that worship tradition through my high school years and later went away to LeTourneau University, an evangelical Christian school in Texas, where I majored in engineering.

My faith in Christ was always an important part of my life. While I did not always express my faith boldly to others, I never experienced a time when I did not want to be in worship or in a Bible study with other believers.

After I began my work career, I continued to worship in independent Bible churches and even met my wife-to-be, Kris, in one such church. Kris had been raised and confirmed in the Catholic Church but had left to attend Green Bay Community Church, where we met and were later married. After we began our life together, we joined the Presbyterian Church. Sunday worship and participation in our local church were always important to us. Despite the concerns we had with our denomination on a national level, our local church was firmly Bible based, and I felt that we could even be a part of an eventual renewal of the larger church.

Work assignments took us to Brazil and Korea, but eventually we arrived near Seattle with our three children and settled into a more traditional family life.

Questioning and Awakening

It was while working, raising a family, and serving as a teacher and elder in our Presbyterian church that I developed a friendship with a work colleague named Pat. It surprised me to discover that Pat was Catholic, since he was a serious and knowledgeable Christian. Up to that point in my life, I had a stereotypical view of Catholics. Attending Bible studies and sharing one’s faith as he did was not part of that view. Pat and I shared similar Christian values. He was strongly pro-life and known for his Christian faith within the company.

It made me think. I always considered that any Catholic who had a real biblical faith would ultimately leave the Catholic Church for a “sound Bible church.” My friend Pat didn’t fit into that scheme. I knew that some Catholics had a real Christian faith but believed that many just went through repetitive and sterile religious motions. Pat’s life and witness made me question my shallow and prejudicial view of Catholics.

One of the Bible classes I taught at our Presbyterian church dealt with the authority of the Scriptures and their origin. I tried to explain to the class why we should accept the whole Bible as the Word of God. However, I found it difficult to explain how we know that the New Testament we now have is truly Scripture. I knew that the Lord had put His stamp of approval on the Old Testament, but the New Testament canon formation was somewhat of a mystery to me. Jesus had never even mentioned that there would be new writing added to Scripture. My sources told me that there was a consensus reached as to what books were authoritative and what books were not. This did not ring true to me. Who was involved in the establishment of this “consensus,” and how was the final decision made? How do we know that we have all the books and that they are the right books? Surely it would have been challenging, even impossible, to obtain consensus among believers if the Church looked anything like it does today.

In my class there was one challenging skeptic. This individual had an unusual viewpoint and was quite strident in his belief.  He would only accept the actual words and teachings of Jesus as the Word of God. He did not accept the Epistles or anything that Jesus did not actually say or do. I could not really explain to his satisfaction (or mine for that matter) why he shouldn’t believe the way he did, apart from what the Church has traditionally believed. My arguments were not effective, my meager resource materials of little help. I had not yet discovered the Church Fathers or Catholic Church history.

Kris and I gradually became discouraged with the Presbyterian Church USA, which we had previously thought of as a home for life. The denomination had become increasingly “pro-choice,” and other cultural accommodations were being voted on. Kris and I were pro-life in our views, largely shaped by her early Catholic education and family teaching. It puzzled me that the Catholic Church should have it right on abortion and our denomination had it so wrong. “Who holds to the truth on this issue?” I asked myself.

While it didn’t answer our pro-life concerns, Kris and I started attending an Episcopal church after relocating to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Kris liked the formality of the worship. I had an interest in the Episcopal Church because of my father’s upbringing in the Church of Ireland (Anglican). We had some familiarity with the Anglican Church from our years overseas. In fact, our three children had been baptized in the Anglican Church when we lived in Korea. We proceeded through the intensive new member’s class, learning about the creeds, the formation of the scriptural canon, and Church history, all of which culminated in our being accepted into the Episcopal Church USA. Again, I thought my journey was ending, having now reconnected with the church of my grandparents on my father’s side and finding a beautiful liturgical worship that we both appreciated so much. Our Episcopal pastor was a wonderful Bible teacher and also a man well versed in history. He was an Anglo-Catholic (high church) Episcopalian and very committed to ecumenism and the concept of Christian unity. I believed, as many Protestants do, in an “invisible” church which was made up of faithful people from every denomination. Nevertheless, it bothered me that Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would guide us into all truth, yet we could find folks claiming to be led by this same Holy Spirit who would have contrary views on Baptism, salvation, church organization, as well as other issues. It troubled me that it should be so difficult to know the truth. Meanwhile, we continued to grow in our appreciation of the more liturgical approach of the high church service and learned the meaning behind many liturgical customs. Kris said it reminded her of her Catholic upbringing.

We lived close to a large Catholic church, Santa Maria de la Paz. One day, while driving to our Episcopal church and passing this local Catholic parish, Kris remarked that we might as well start going to the Catholic church since it was the same liturgy and a lot closer to our home. I was taken aback and bristled at this comment. “I am not going to be Catholic,” I said, but her comment had made me think. I had never really tried to understand why Catholics believed as they did. I just knew they were wrong. But I certainly could not explain any Catholic teaching.

My thoughts went back to the Catholics I had known who had a deep devotion to Christ. If our liturgical practices are nearly the same, why don’t we go to the Catholic Church? The Catholic Church claims continuity back to Peter and the Book of Acts. In fact the roots of the Anglican Church and Catholic Church are the same up until the 16th century. Our classes at the Anglican Church began to open our eyes to Church history. For Anglicans, Church history does not have a mysterious 1400 year gap as it did for me in my evangelical tradition. For this I am truly grateful. We learned about the creeds, the Church Fathers, and the formation of the canon of Scripture. My career had taken us to diverse regions of the world, and we had seen the Catholic Church in every country we had lived in or visited. Surely it represented the face of Christianity to the world. After all, when the Pope speaks, the world listens. No other voice represents Christianity to the world. Even the other denominations define themselves by what they do not believe in relation to the Catholic Church. Why wasn’t I Catholic? The question bothered me. What were those issues on which I could not possibly compromise? I decided to write them down and at least be able to explain to Kris why we could not be Catholic.

Dealing with the Issues

My list had most of the common issues that Protestants deal with in approaching the Catholic Church. Mary headed the list, followed by Church authority, purgatory, the Communion of Saints, and confession to a priest. I had no intention of ever becoming Catholic, but somehow it always bothered me that the Lord would allow this giant Church to last so long, accomplish so many good works, be right on so many issues, have so many good people worshiping, and still be a false church (as some of my Protestant friends believed). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Good Shepherd really did leave us an earthly shepherd we could follow? If Christ wanted us to be one, then why didn’t He design a single Church? Or did He? If the Catholic Church was the true Church, it would be wonderful — but I knew it wasn’t. Then again, it seemed to me that the claims the Church was making were so bold that it was either a great deceit or actually just what it declared itself to be, the Church that Christ founded. The Catholic Church claims that the Pope is the successor to Saint Peter, that bishops are directly linked to the Apostles, and priests are able to absolve sins and preside over an altar where bread and wine are changed into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord. These are strong claims and compel more than passive indifference on the part of any serious Christian seeking truth.

My first stop was the “worship” of Mary. There was no way I could or would ever worship Mary. She was just a vessel that God had chosen to bring Christ into the world. She needed a Savior just like me. Why, she even said so herself (“My spirit rejoices in God my Savior” Lk 1:47). My view of Mary was shallow indeed. I simply believed she was a good Jewish girl, chosen by God to deliver the Messiah. I did not believe that she was anything special. We would mention Mary at Christmas, show her in a manger with the animals and baby Jesus, and then put her away like a Christmas decoration, not to be mentioned or thought about until next Christmas.

Worship Mary? That would be idolatry. My friend Pat assured me that Catholics do not worship Mary. He explained that the Catholic Church forbids the worship of Mary or any other creature — but yes, they certainly do honor her. After all, she was the mother of the Savior. I still wasn’t convinced. But you pray to her! Pat explained that we ask her to pray for us the way we would ask a close friend or family member to pray for us. I needed to think about this, but the light was starting to shine through a crack in the wall that I had built between my beliefs and anything Catholic.

It was here that I began to realize that I really did not understand much about what the Church taught. We had on our bookshelf a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, given to us by Kris’ aunt, who was with the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity. I looked up all those topics which were of concern to me with the intention of highlighting things that I could not accept. Finally, I began for the first time to understand what the Church really taught. I was amazed at the clarity and coherence of the Catechism.

In her Magnificat, Mary prophesied, “All generations will call me blessed” (Lk 1:48) yet I had never called Mary “blessed.” Neither had anyone I had known in my Protestant circles. Only Catholics did that! “But why don’t we do that?” Giving honor to Mary, I reasoned, would take away from the honor we give to Christ. Still, this inconsistency bothered me.

I went looking for books on Mary from a Catholic perspective. I chose Scott Hahn’s Hail Holy Queen, figuring that a former Presbyterian minister should be able to explain to me the Catholic emphasis on Mary. Reading that book was an eye-opening experience. I discovered that Catholics viewed Mary as a New Testament fulfillment of the Ark of the Covenant. If this was really the case, then I could understand why they honored Mary so much. I knew well the honor that Israel gave to the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament. After I read Dr. Hahn’s case for Mary as the new Ark, I knew I had a problem.

This book also explained how the Church down through the centuries had viewed Mary’s roles as the new Eve and the Queen Mother. It really began to sink in that Catholics didn’t just invent these things about Mary. I began to see that Mary derives all her importance because of her relationship with her Son Jesus and that she always points to Him. “Do whatever He tells you” (Jn 2:5) were the words Mary spoke to the servants at the wedding feast of Cana. One thing after another about Mary started to make sense. I had turned a corner, but there were more twists in the road.

The next issue was Church authority. I determined that, if the Church was what it claimed to be and the Pope was who he claimed to be, then so many other issues would just fall into place. By man’s standard, the Church is an amazing institution. Pope Francis is Pope number 266. By comparison the United States has had 44 Presidents in roughly 230 years. When the United States Declaration of Independence was signed, the Church was already on Pope 250. What a history! What other human institution compares? The Church was not flawless, but it was certainly under divine protection for two millennia. By God’s grace, the Church has prevailed. So many Catholics have left the Church when they are misled into believing that their new Protestant friends know more about interpreting Scripture than the Magisterium of the Church. Saint Peter tells us that no Scripture is of private interpretation (2 Peter 1:20 KJV). The proliferation of denominations is the result of personal interpretation of the Scriptures. I started to see that it made perfectly good sense to trust the same Church that validated, preserved, and protected the Scriptures down through the ages to interpret them.

Christ had prayed for unity. In fact, He prayed three times in John 17, on the night before He was crucified, that we might be one. I asked myself how I had contributed to that unity; I had not. In fact, the opposite was probably true.

I realized that I needed some good reasons not to become Catholic, and I was running out of them fast. We had been encouraged that the Anglican Church had a stated goal of ultimate reunification with Rome, but recent events made this less likely. They were moving away from Rome and disintegrating at the same time. I became convinced that the confusion of denominations, independent churches, and para-church organizations was not what Christ intended for His flock. It made no sense. I realized that I was in the wrong place. I needed to get home to the flock with a shepherd appointed by Christ.

The doctrine of purgatory was also problematic but not a show-stopper for me. On this point, the teaching of our Lord in Matthew 18 was helpful. Here we find the parable of an unforgiving servant who is forgiven much by the master but does not, in turn, forgive his fellow servant a relatively small amount. The Lord expected us to forgive as we had been forgiven (Matthew 6:12). The servant who did not forgive his debtor (as we often do not forgive our debtors) was turned over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. “So will my heavenly Father do to you unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.” This passage showed me that if we arrive before the Master and have not forgiven others as He has forgiven us, we will be expected to complete that forgiving process. No, purgatory is not a “second chance,” as I thought Catholics believed, but it is that final opportunity where the Lord can complete His work of sanctification in our lives.

Coming Home

I made an appointment to speak with our Episcopal pastor about my decision to become Catholic. My purpose in meeting with him was to explain the reasons for my decision and assure him that I was not leaving because of problems in the Episcopal Church USA (and there are plenty) or because of any local church issue. In fact, we loved our local Episcopal church and the friends we had made there. I told him that I had come to believe that the Catholic Church was the Church that Christ founded and that I had eliminated all my reasons for not being there. I thanked him for his part in my journey and for introducing me to the Church Fathers and Church history. I assured him that we were not leaving for better liturgy, better singing, better fellowship, better teaching, or preaching, but because of my personal conviction that this was what I must do to be faithful to Christ’s call. For me it was a matter of being obedient to my conscience. He was most receptive to my explanation, proceeded to encourage me, and gave me his blessing.

My first Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) class made me excited and yet somewhat anxious. There was so much bad news in the press about the Church and the recent scandals. In fact, the newspapers that week had been full of news of pending lawsuits against the Church. I had some second thoughts. The words of one individual echoed in mind: “Why would you get into that mess?” Then I remembered the Old Testament story of Samuel. Hannah had long prayed to the Lord for a son. When her prayer was answered she took young Samuel to the temple and entrusted him to Eli the high priest. Hannah was a faithful, godly woman. Eli, the chief priest, had two sons who were abusing worshippers when they came to the temple. No doubt their reputation was well known even to Hannah, and yet Hannah still took her only son and entrusted him into the care of Eli. My thoughts were on Hannah. Despite the failures and imperfections, this was the form of worship established by God.

I saw this parallel in my own life. Despite failures and imperfections on the part of the leaders and members of the Catholic Church, the Lord had not given us direction to develop a “better way” than the way He had established under Peter and the Apostles. I could see that the Church was both divine and human. I had made my decision.

When I sat down in the church library for our first RCIA class, there was a notebook at each place. On the cover of the notebook, Sister Paula, our RCIA director, had placed a Scripture verse: “Speak Lord, your servant hears.” It was exactly what Eli told Samuel to say to the Lord when he heard God speaking to him in the night. It seemed like the Lord was telling me that He knew exactly where I was and that I should open my heart and ears to what He had to say and that He would take care of all those other concerns.

Because Kris had been baptized and confirmed as a Catholic, she did not need to attend RCIA. But she became so interested in what she was hearing from me about the class that she received permission to attend with me. Together we shared a wonderful year of discovery and adventure.

On March 11, 2006, I was presented to the Archbishop to be recognized as a candidate for Confirmation at the Easter Vigil. There were several hundred candidates presented. I did not expect a question from the Archbishop, so was surprised that he paused with me. He asked me what my faith tradition was. I told him Presbyterian and Episcopalian. He asked why I was coming into the Catholic Church. I told him that I had become convicted that, to be faithful in my call to follow Jesus, I must enter the Catholic Church. He said. “Welcome, God bless you.” At the same Easter Vigil Mass, Kris went forward to receive the Eucharist for the first time in over 30 years. We were both home together.

Surprised by Peace

Entering the Church has had a profound impact on our family and my relationship with Christ. I no longer feel the need to be the authority on every issue. I can rely on those who had gone before. This gives me the freedom to learn — and I have so much to learn. I have only begun to explore a Church that is so deep and so wonderful. What appeared from the outside to be shallow has proven to be so deep.

I had wondered what it would be like from the other side. Would I find myself in Mass some Sunday thinking, “What in the world have you done?” Would I start running for the exit and not stop until I had found a good Bible church? What I discovered was something quite different. I felt like I had arrived home. I discovered that there was a whole world of God-fearing folks who were concerned about knowing Him, loving Him, and doing His will. Why had I doubted this? I have found the Catholic Church to be even more beautiful when viewed from the inside than the outside. An actual church building may look large and cold from the outside, but from the inside this same church building is seen in all its beauty, as the sun shines through its stained glass windows. Likewise, it has been so with the Church itself: what appeared large and cold from the outside is seen in all its beauty when viewed from the inside. Both of us are happy and grateful to be home.


Mark Gamble

Mark Gamble is native of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. He holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from LeTourneau University, Longview, Texas, and MS in Management from the University of Texas at Dallas. Prior to recent retirement he had a career in Project Management including assignments in Brazil, Korea, and Thailand. Mark and his wife, Kristine, a cancer treatment nurse, have three children and seven grandchildren. They attend Saint Anne Parish in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Mark was a guest on The Journey Home October 3, 2016.


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