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Anglican & EpiscopalianBaptistConversion Stories

Deep Theology, Deep Grace

John Bacon
November 30, 2023 No Comments

In the fall of 2010, my friend Clayton and I discussed my recent mission work in the Andes Mountains as we drove our van to the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas. The previous summer, after completing my freshman year of studies at Ouachita Baptist University, I had spent ten weeks as a short-term church-planting missionary in rural Peru. Clayton had spent time on a similar assignment in the past year. As Southern Baptist Christians, we had inherited the assumption that adventure, evangelism, and bold faith were ordinary components of the Christian life.

My passion for evangelization and mission had started in the summer of 2003, when as a seventh-grade boy, I traveled from Little Rock, Arkansas to Memphis, Tennessee for a week-long mission trip. During that time, I had the opportunity to put on Vacation Bible School for children in inner city housing projects, pray with families in hospital waiting rooms, and feed the homeless. I was even volunteered to preach to two hundred homeless men! I was too nervous to remember any of what I said, but it ended with thunderous applause and the intoxicating feeling that I had been used by God to aid people in their belief that Jesus is able and willing to save them, no matter what they are going through.

I rode the van from Memphis back to Little Rock with my Bible across my lap, praying that God would allow me to serve him like that for the rest of my life. More than anything, I wanted to live a life of evangelical commitment — obeying and proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom. Never in my life had I experienced the sense of joy and purpose that I did while serving others in Jesus’ name. I desperately hoped that God would allow me to serve him for the rest of my life and that he would use me to bring others into communion with him.

As a college student, my adolescent dream to be an evangelist and missionary began to find fulfillment. Clayton and I discussed our shared studies in Bible, theology, and missions, as well as our similar experiences in the Andes. To my left in the van, I noticed a pretty blond girl, eyes beaming with excitement as she discussed her recent return from Niger in Africa, where she, too, had been a foreign missionary. In less than a year, that college senior, Lauren, would become my wife. We had a mutual passion for Jesus Christ, the Gospel, the Scriptures, and evangelism, so it was easy to fall in love, believing that God had a purpose and calling for our new life together. Excited to join in His mission, we had no idea that this desire would eventually draw us into the Catholic Church.

My ten-week missionary endeavors did not result in the expected church-plant. The experience was, nonetheless, invaluable for my own formation. My ambition for the salvation of the people there revealed gaps in my theological formation. I had been raised to bring people into the “Church,” yet I had very little theological clarity as to what the “Church” was. Secondly, what are the boundaries of theological belief that determine whether or not a body of believers is actually Christian? Third, I realized that, although my background had laid much emphasis on initial conversion, it had less emphasis on ongoing conversion. I had pastoral intentions, yet very little pastoral training for helping people follow Christ across the long journey of life.

Returning to college, I put myself in the shoes of the people that I had attempted to evangelize. They were frequently proselytized by Evangelicals, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but they had cultural ties to Catholicism. If I were a villager in Peru, how would I adjudicate the competing claims to orthodoxy between these churches? My senior year, I took a course in American Christianity and was astounded by the proliferation, not only of varying denominations, but even cults in America. Having trained for foreign missions, I was deeply sensitive to religious syncretism. Indeed, even in the Old Testament, the people of God had attempted to blend Judaism with Canaanite practices (God was not impressed, as the prophets told them). I now looked at Christianity within my own cultural context and wondered if, as a foreign missionary, I was not a pot calling the kettle black. How much of Christianity in America was distinctly Christian and how much was just my own cultural values with a bit of Christianity sprinkled on top?

There were two axes that I could measure my own Christian upbringing against: history and universality. How did my understanding of the Bible and my own practice of the Christian life compare to that of Christians in other places and other times? Since Christianity proclaims the incarnation of God in time and space, it locates itself within history as an actual reality, accessible by faith. If the Church is the Body of Christ in time and space, then surely the Church as a recognizable, apostolic body did not vanish following the last chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.

From Newman to Early Church Fathers

At the time, I had no inkling that I was looking for “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” (I had not at this time even encountered the ancient Nicene Creed), nor was I aware of the conclusion that I would eventually share with Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman: “And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this” (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,1). I had, however, decided, that if I discovered something that had been consistently true of Christianity in the past, then I would conform myself to that norm, rather than stubbornly clinging to my own familiar expectations. Setting out on a grand adventure for theological truth, my wife, Lauren, and I moved in 2013 from Arkadelphia, Arkansas to Birmingham, Alabama, where I would begin studies at Beeson Divinity School.

Beeson Divinity School is an interdenominational, evangelical Divinity School with a strong emphasis on the Protestant Reformation. I thoroughly enjoyed the academic rigor and ecumenical camaraderie of Beeson. There I was given the opportunity to learn from Baptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Lutherans and observe how their theological beliefs translated into pastoral praxis. I was introduced to the early Church Fathers, and my mind was blown. I was overwhelmed by the beauty, integrity, and profundity of the theology and devotion of the early Church.

Exposure to Justin Martyr, a second century Christian apologist, demonstrated to me that the Church had a common liturgy, centering on the Eucharist. While still at Ouachita Baptist University, it had struck me that, if the Scriptures were a grand, epic narrative of salvation, then our Sunday gathering should be some type of liturgical reenactment, rather than a mere assortment of songs. The rich symbolism and imagery of Scripture, especially the book of Revelation, had convinced me that the Church’s worship on earth should pattern itself off the heavenly liturgy of the angels and saints. Through Justin Martyr, I discovered that the early Church had such a liturgy, which was rooted in the Scriptures and centered in the Eucharist. Testifying to the Eucharistic liturgy that the Church observed on every “Lord’s Day” (Sunday), he writes:

We call this food Eucharist; and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and regeneration, and is thereby living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus. (First Apology, 66)

The early Church witnessed to a reality even greater than what I had hoped for. I longed for a liturgy that presented the redemptive work of God in Christ, according to the Scriptures. They offered a liturgy that presented the saving mystery of Christ because it actually participated in that mystery. The Eucharist was no mere symbol, but the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (see John 6:51–58; 1 Corinthians 10:16–17).

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, a second century bishop, who was taught by St. Polycarp, who in turn was taught by the Apostle John, built upon what I discovered from St. Justin Martyr. If Justin Martyr introduced me to the early Church’s worship, then Irenaeus introduced me to the apostolic harmony between Church governance, worship, and faith, according to the Scriptures. He writes:

“The true knowledge is the doctrine of the Apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the body of Christ according to the succession of bishops, by which successions the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere; and the very complete tradition of the Scriptures[.]” (Against Heresies, 4, 33, 8)

I was discovering a church whose witness, worship, and design were inherited from the Apostles, overflowing with beauty, and crowned with the glory of the martyrs. This Church could trace its origin to the Apostles themselves through this line of bishops. The Church that I discovered was intellectual yet devotional, speculative yet dogmatic, diverse yet unified, and organic yet organized.

Let the Little Children Come to Me

I was like a newborn child, filled with wonder and drinking deeply of the early Church’s young, deep faith. In the midst of this joy, my wife and I discovered another joy: her pregnancy with our first son, Ezekiel.

Space does not permit to share the full story of how and why Lauren and I knew before we met that we would have a son named Ezekiel. The fact that we did, and the meaning of the Hebrew prophet’s name — “God is my strength” — suggested to us that God had a special purpose for this boy. We wondered what future adversity called for such a strong name.

The imminent arrival of my firstborn son increased the urgency of the baptism question: should babies be baptized or not? My education in biblical theology taught me not to discount the many biblical depictions of water, Spirit, and rebirth (see Exodus 14, 2 Kings 5, Ezekiel 36:25–26, John 3, Romans 6, Titus 3:5). I began to see and understand the early Church’s belief that baptism is a sacrament, through which God grants us new life, incorporating us into Christ. As Christian parents, it was our joy and duty to present Ezekiel for baptism.

Being convinced that Baptism, the Eucharist, and Holy Orders were sacraments, Lauren and I joined the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). We fell in love with the Anglican patrimony and its liturgical celebrations of the Christian year. During our second year in the Anglican Church, tragedy struck when I received a phone call from my son’s pediatrician. I was informed that my son was being admitted to the emergency room at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, and that we were needed there as soon as possible. Hospital staff hovered over my thirteen-month-old son, poking him with IVs in the attempt to prevent diabetic coma. Feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders, I felt a strong voice saying, “Don’t worry; that’s my son.” From that moment, the adoption that we receive in Baptism became a source of deep comfort to me.

In 2017, my wife and I left Birmingham, Alabama, with two healthy sons and a bright future. I had received my Master of Divinity degree from Beeson Divinity School and had been ordained a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. We drove south to Panama City Beach, Florida, where I would serve as a curate for church-planting. As a way to get to know and serve my community, I also became a police chaplain for the Panama City Beach Police Department. Church-planting brought everything we loved about evangelization and missions into a more historic form of Christianity. However, one of the darker chapters of my life was just beginning.

As a police chaplain, I rode along with police officers to provide spiritual accompaniment, pastoral care, and a listening ear. One fateful night, a man arrived at the police station, after hours, at the same moment that I arrived for a scheduled ride along. When the officer asked the troubled man what we could do for him, with haunted eyes and constricted voice, he explained that he was having difficulty breathing because of the demons that had just entered him through his and his uncle’s voodoo curses on each other.

The Battle Belongs to the Lord

Here I was, a Christian minister with increasingly Catholic beliefs, educated in a Protestant Divinity School. I had never had a class on exorcism. Yet in my classes, I saw very clearly that Jesus exorcized demons frequently. As a priest, I had the duty and honor of representing Christ in his compassion to deliver. Training or not, I had faith (and, so I thought, priestly authority)! With no explicit formula, I prayed with the man as best as I knew how and laid my hands on him. He improved, but I did not.

The police officers marveled at the demoniac man’s inexplicable transformation of psychological state. I, however, was plunged for months into paranormal activity that I did not understand. My senior pastor was concerned for my well-being and attempted to help me. My Anglican friends back in Birmingham were connected with the SSPI (Society for Special Pastoral Intervention) in the ACNA and said that I need to train with them in spiritual deliverance and exorcisms. I drove up to Birmingham, Alabama, for training in spiritual warfare.

I experienced much relief and am profoundly grateful for the care and compassion of the Anglican clergy who prayed with and for me. I was also deeply startled to hear from Anglican exorcists that demons were “triggered” by the Hail Mary and feared her intercession. This struck me as odd. Why were we Protestant Christians unsure of doing something that makes hell perpetually nervous? Just a year ago, I had received a beautiful Benedictine prayer book, but had shied away from praying the Hail Mary prayer in it. If, however, the demons actually feared the Virgin Mary, and if the blessing of her name was a perpetual reminder of that moment when the Word was made flesh in her womb, beginning the salvation of mankind, then maybe it was time to join St. Gabriel and proclaim the Virgin’s praises.

Part of my training at the SSPI was to study the spiritual gifts more and to discern what my personal spiritual gift might be. One of the discernment tools was a thought experiment: if I could have any three Christians of any time mentor me, who would they be? As an Anglican church-planter, I remembered the three British missionary bishops that I admired the most: St. Patrick of Ireland, St. Columba of Iona, and St. Boniface of Mainz. I prayed that God would show me which saint to study and emulate. Two weeks later, an experience convinced me that St. Boniface of Mainz was with me. I was so overwhelmed and confused that, while I did not address Boniface, I did ask God to please use that saint’s example to guide me. I then sensed God saying to me, “You feel comfortable here. Don’t get used to it.” Twenty-four hours later, I learned that Hurricane Michael was turning towards the Florida panhandle. In the dark of the night, my wife and I, with our three boys, fled back to Birmingham. Hours later, we learned that the hurricane had hit the part of Bay County in which we were planning to plant a church.

My diocesan bishop graciously released me from that assignment. Through a series of dramatic occurrences with clear messaging, my wife and I discerned a call to an Anglican church plant in western Montana. In 2019, we moved to Missoula. We loved Montana, yet ministry was difficult. My vision of pastoral ministry was different from that of my colleague. During this time, I asked St. Boniface of Mainz to pray for me. I learned that Boniface, like myself, had discovered a desire to be a foreign missionary at the age of twelve. Like me, he was shaped by Benedictine spirituality. Like me, he experienced disappointment and pain in his conflict with fellow missionaries, who claimed the Celtic missionary legacy, yet lacked sound discipline. Like me, Boniface’s first missionary effort was unsuccessful. Boniface’s solution? To unite more closely with Rome, so that his mission would be not of his own authority, but that of Christ’s vicar on earth — the Pope.

Schooled by Saints

I did what I could to ignore the striking difference between Saint Boniface and myself — unity with the Bishop of Rome. If Christ had actually set apart Peter as the prince of the apostles, then the apostolic succession in which I located my priestly authority was not what I thought. If the Catholic Church’s claims about the Petrine office were correct, then it would require me to pursue reconciliation with the chair of Peter, even at the expense of my ministerial office.

I connected with someone who I expected to be an ally against reunion with Rome, an Orthodox priest. As I spoke with Fr. Daniel Kirk, he and I both had the same anxieties. As pastors, we felt that our parishioners faced grave challenges, not only against chastity and sexual morality, but against human dignity itself, and that our respective traditions were powerless to provide sufficient solutions to people in the pews. Our churches had stopped “developing” doctrine since our respective communions broke with Rome. We had sixteenth and eleventh century answers for twenty-first century problems. Though not Catholic (yet), we were both looking to Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body for guidance to modern man’s most pressing questions about identity, love, and desire. The fact that we were looking to the papacy for answers made us think more deeply about the Catholic Church’s claims that the papacy is a divine institution of Christ, rather than a political invention of the medieval Church. We also discussed the famous work of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which he wrote during his own journey to the Catholic Church. Father Daniel, recognizing that I was asking the same questions he was, took a risk and invited me to a Catholic men’s group.

When I attended this group, I encountered men from a variety of trades and backgrounds, engaging at various levels with a discussion from St. Thomas Aquinas, praying the Divine Office of the Church, and singing beautiful Marian hymns. Here was a group where nothing had to be held back. Meanwhile, as I was planting an Anglican Church, I faced resistance from certain parishioners, who pitted my Catholic interpretation of Anglican theology against the Anglican Church’s own formularies of belief (the Thirty-Nine Articles).

My parishioners did not cause me to doubt my Catholic beliefs. They did, however, cause me to doubt the integrity or consistency of holding Catholic beliefs in the Anglican Church. As I became increasingly convinced of Catholic views on the Sacraments, of the Communion of Saints, and of the divine institution of the Papal office, I realized that two roads lay before me: I could either maintain my ordained office as an Anglican priest, all the while requesting my parishioners to trust my private judgment over their denomination’s teachings, or I could resign my position and submit to the teaching authority and institutional unity of the Catholic Church.

Joining the Catholic Church would be not only financially disastrous, but it would also be, in effect, burning to ashes my singular childhood dream: to be a preacher of the Gospel. After months of prayer, study, consultation, and discernment, I embraced the painful truth that I could either throw my vocation and livelihood at the feet of Christ or place my office above obedience to Christ’s call for unity — a call made possible by the unity of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I chose obedience, in the faith that God accepts our sacrifices and can raise life from ashes.

The choice was not easy. Lauren was understandably leery about throwing our expected future away for a belief that Jesus chose Peter as the head of the Apostles. However, our Catholic priest in town suggested that she ask St. Joseph for prayer. Lauren was not sure about this whole invocation-of-the-saints thing. But she knew that her husband was becoming a full-blown papist, so desperate times called for desperate measures. She asked Saint Joseph that very night to pray for our finances, given the gravity of the situation. The church-plant received a donation on our behalf for several thousand dollars the next day.

On April 3rd, 2021, my wife and I, along with our four sons, were received into the Catholic Church. Saint Boniface sponsored my entrance into the Church and St. Joseph sponsored my wife’s arrival. Surrendering my childhood dream of the pastorate was painful, but whatever plans God had for me were only attainable through obedience to revealed truth, not despite it. Lauren expresses gratitude on a weekly basis that we were brought into the Catholic Church. We both believe that we have finally come home.

Although I had stepped down from the priesthood, I did not step away from the mission field. On the contrary, I entered a “new evangelization.” Weeks after being confirmed, I was hired as the Director of Religious Education for Saint Matthew’s Catholic Church in Kalispell, Montana. I began my journey within the Church by teaching religion class to middle schoolers, boys and girls who are at that stage of life where I first discovered that my life could only find fulfillment through an adventure of obedience to Jesus Christ.

During my tenure at Saint Matthew’s Catholic Church, I was invited by Divine Mercy Academy in Belgrade, Montana, to become the head of the school. Divine Mercy Academy is both Catholic and classical and is deeply committed to Pope John Paul II’s vision of Christian humanism. Serving as the head of Divine Mercy Academy allows me to prepare young evangelists for a life-long vocation of witness in a modern world. Only God could weave together the various chapters of my family’s life into this integrated calling. The journey home to the Catholic Church has brought my entire family into a New Evangelization.

John Bacon

John Bacon and his wife, Lauren, were raised Southern Baptists in Arkansas. Together, they were raised with a passion for Scripture, for the Gospel, and for spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. While serving as an Anglican priest and church-planter, John came face to face with the reality of spiritual warfare and the anthropological crisis of secular modernity. Encountering the intercessory power of the saints and discovering the evangelical and pastoral genius of Pope St. John Paul II led John to consider the Catholic Church’s claim that it is a divine institution. John and his wife live in western Montana with their four sons, where he serves as the head of Divine Mercy Academy, a classical Catholic school, and runs a podcast entitled Thirty Minute Theology.

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