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Anglican & EpiscopalianConversion Stories

The Sign of Jonah

Fr. Scott Wooten
November 9, 2020 No Comments

Matthew 16:1-4 (RSV-CE): And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.

Have you ever had a verse from scripture just stick with you — for years? Matthew 16:1 was one that puzzled me for a time. Why this one? It is not a particularly unique verse, it does not represent the “good news” particularly; indeed it is kind of sad. But this one stuck with me because I felt sorry for the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They seemed lost, and having read the rest of the story, I knew their end would not be a good one.

I was also very interested in Jonah. His was one of my favorite stories from Sunday School. I grew up an Episcopalian, a child who loved church. I begged my dad, and then our pastor, to let me become an acolyte at age 6. This took a great amount of pestering, but finally I was allowed to process and sit in cassock and cotta in the choir — but only if I kept quiet. I didn’t sit in the pews for the next 12 years. When I turned 10, my pastor put his hand on my head and told my parents I would one day be an Episcopal priest. And eventually that proved true.

All the while, another piece of my story was coming into existence at age 10. I was attending Catholic school. It was there that I discovered the true Church, and I knew it to be just that, the true Church. Strange as it seems now in hindsight, as I aged, I had no problem with being a member of an offshoot of the true Church. This schism was done for reasons. It would last until the end of my journey of conversion.

All seemed to be in place, my calling confirmed; I would be an Episcopalian priest. But I had no comprehension of my destiny. I was a modern Jonah, not understanding why I was called, and through high school and college, like Jonah, I would wander. I attended the Catholic school, Our Lady of Victory School in Fort Worth, for only a short time. It seemed that I was the only kid in class who actually liked going to Mass, even though, not being Catholic, I obviously could not receive communion. This experience was important. I had mostly Protestant friends, all of whom thought the Episcopal Church was wrong, since we looked too much like the Catholic Church. My time at OLV allowed me to see Catholicism close up, and I was very comfortable there — yes even with the nuns, who never disciplined me for anything I didn’t deserve.

These were all pieces of the puzzle of my conversion, but I only had one small corner deciphered. The rest of the puzzle would take much longer to complete. College was a struggle. I would never have made it through college had it not been for my high school sweetheart, who would eventually become my wife. I was an architecture major who could not draw, and I was horrible at math. I was sure of my calling and could see no reason to go into ministry. Again, knowledge without understanding. Jonah constantly asked God, “Why”? He wandered far and wide, trying to figure out why God wanted him elsewhere, and I did the same.

After many more years of college (more than I care to admit), and many different jobs, I finally did graduate. I was employed in the architectural field for six years, but by year three I was spending as much time at church as I could get away with. I simply could not shake the call to the altar. God always drew me back to church. Eventually, I found myself in my pastor’s office, asking him to remove this calling so I could get back to architecture. However, five years later, I had a Masters degree in Divinity and was a youth pastor.

Seminary was an important time in my journey of conversion. I attended Nashotah House in Wisconsin, then a celebrated home for Anglo-Catholicism. Nashotah House taught Catholic theology, and for the first time in my life, I learned that all those isolated stories that I had heard in Sunday school were all connected. A new world opened up to me as I began to understand the “why” of my call. But seminary left me with as many questions as answers. The early Church was Catholic, and its theology true; so why were we Episcopalians not in communion with Rome?

The answer given by my professors pointed to the Reformation: all of the excesses of Rome had to be answered. The Anglican Church was created sometime before the fourth century, maybe earlier. St. Augustine of Canterbury was greeted on the shores of England in God’s name, the English were not the barbarians that Augustine had feared, and given time, the English Church agreed to join the Roman Church. It made sense that the same Anglican Church could choose to leave in the 16th century, taking Catholicism with it. This is known as the branch theory, and it has held many Anglicans in place for quite some time. I resolved to be Catholic as an Anglican. It never struck me that this was duplicitous; that realization would not come until later.

Ministry is what I was put on earth to do, and I took to it naturally. Everything was fine until the boat started to sink. The Episcopal Church was a ship without a rudder from the beginning; we just did not understand this. The name “Episcopalian” came to be because “Church of England” would not sell in post-revolutionary America. The church was set up much like the new country, with a house of bishops and a house of laity and priests. Both would vote on all issues pertaining to the church. One bishop would preside over it all. Eventually, it was decided that the presiding bishop would be elected rather than appointed. All bishops would be approved by a vote of the diocese, followed by a vote by the house of bishops and the lower house of laity and priests. So, with Scripture as our rudder, and the two houses managing the church, the Episcopal Church would take off quickly, touting some of the larger congregations and prestigious people in the states. “Communion” would be kept with Canterbury, seeing it as the birthplace of Anglicanism; just like Rome, only not Roman. (Are we confused yet?)

The storm came in the 19th century, when scholars started to edit the Bible. “Is that really what God said?” (Where have we heard that before? Hint: Genesis 3). By the early 20th century, politics, rather than Scripture, decided the theology of the Episcopal Church. With no theological study, the church would adopt birth control, women in the diaconate, and women priests and bishops before three quarters of the century was gone. Lack of instruction left most of the church seeing the Eucharist as symbolic at best, and simply a long, boring service at the worst. The Episcopal Church, in fact the Anglican Church as a whole, covered a theological span from “high” church, with seven sacraments, all the way to theology more like the Bible church movement with no sacraments and little education for their pastors. It was a collage, but all still claimed communion. Each diocese was its own, the bishop its supreme law and ultimate theologian. One diocese proclaimed women clergy and two sacraments, while others claiming to be more catholic than the Catholic Church, with seven sacraments and Tridentine-like liturgy.

I boarded this ship in the mid 90s, a member of the prestigious diocese of Fort Worth. Fort Worth separated from the diocese of Dallas for political reasons: conservatives stayed in Fort Worth, the more liberal wing in the larger city of Dallas. Fort Worth was an island of the Oxford Movement in a sea of liberalism. I did not know of the presence of women clergy until I left the diocese for seminary. As a diocese, we thought we would hold the line and bring Catholicism back to the Episcopal Church, but the Episcopal Church had other ideas. Shortly after I was ordained, the conscience clause was removed from ordinations. The conscience clause stated if a bishop did not in good conscience want to ordain women, then that was the law of his diocese. All of a sudden, we Anglo-Catholics were under siege. Our bishop was threatened in every imaginable way if he did not ordain women to the priesthood. It was in this period, 1990–2003, that I first started hearing of the pastoral provision in the Catholic Church. Episcopal Priests were converting to Catholicism, then ordained Catholic priests. All I could think of was, “Why?” We had valid orders, we were the third branch of the Catholic Church, so why would one leave his ministry and go elsewhere? We could make the Catholic Church right where we were, and we could be the change agent that brings the Episcopal Church to understand Catholicism. We could save the Episcopal Church!

I was blessed with great calls to ministry, from my days as a youth pastor to the missions, to my first parish pastorate, God called me to serve wonderful people. I quickly found, though, that knowledge of the Episcopal Church was lacking in these churches, and I set out to catechize. After my first run through what the Episcopal Church provides as a catechism, in the back of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, I quickly realized I needed more in the way of a catechism. After three years in ministry, I found two books: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, and The Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition. These two books made everything fit together nicely. I taught using these books for years, gradually leaning ever more towards the Catholic Catechism. People ate it up! Of course, I did not identify my sources. I simply taught, and 98 percent of my Protestant students thought as I did, finally making sense made out of a hodgepodge of Christian education learned over a lifetime.

In the summer of 2003, I would turn 40. I had followed the Episcopal Church politic for years, and I was ready to get involved. General Convention was where all the action was, as the Episcopal Church voted on everything — yes, even doctrine. I was not elected as a delegate, so I asked my bishop if I could go and watch the convention, and he reluctantly agreed. I drove up to Minnesota via Wisconsin to pick up the man I was ordained to the diaconate with, Russ Arnett. We went to convention; it would prove to be pivotal in both our lives.

The order of business of this year featured a homosexual who had been elected bishop of New Hampshire. Convention had to approve his election. Divorce, homosexuality, alternate lifestyles, this one item on the agenda had it all. If elected, then homosexuality, just like women in holy orders, abortion, divorce and birth control before it, would be recognized as blessed by the church, without a single official theological paper penned or debated.

While meandering through the convention, I would be asked where I was from. The moment I said “Fort Worth,” I was either ignored or jeered. The Diocese of Fort Worth was known as the bastion of conservatism. It was hated and reviled within the Episcopal Church; we were aliens in what was supposed to be our own church.

Finally, the last day I was there, they took the vote and approved the homosexual to be bishop. I was crushed and managed to stop a bishop of a large diocese and ask him how he justified, biblically, his vote in favor. He replied, “Sometimes you just have to realize that the Bible is an old dusty bunch of stories that simply needs to be put on the shelf.” I met up with Russ and we both walked out of the convention center in sadness. I looked at Russ and told him that, for the first time ever, I just wanted to take off my collar. I didn’t want anybody to know that I was an Episcopal priest.

So, what does a Protestant who is upset with his current church do? He creates a schism! The Diocese of Fort Worth would quickly join a group that would eventually become the Anglican Church of North America, or ACNA.

There we were, out of the Episcopal Church. What now? The thought was, we would create a new church. Finally, a chance to create our own catholic church! Well, this is actually what I thought. Again, hindsight explains my loyalty to the cause. Remember, I believed my orders valid, I thought the Anglican Church as the third branch of the true Church. I saw this branch as sickly, yes, but I and others like me could be the arborist that brings this branch back to life. We had some of the most influential bishops in our communion, and we would now take that gravitas and start a true catholic church.

I went home again, proud to be an Anglican, not of the Episcopal Church. I received in short order my removal orders from the Episcopal Church. We were tried by two priests who I had worked with at one time. We had no chance of defense; we were tried in absentia. I still have the letter. As these letters began to come out, we did have one issue. Cut off from the Episcopal Church, we had no connection with Canterbury. My reaction to this issue was, “So what?” If I wanted or thought we needed a connection to a prestigious see for validity, I think I would rather it be Rome. This was the first time I gave any serious thought to swimming the Tiber. I was not alone. During the next few years, many of my colleagues would investigate coming into the Catholic Church, on many different levels. My friend Russ Arnett would choose the pastoral provision and is now a priest in charge of four parishes in the Catholic Diocese of Milwaukee.

Many more talks took place behind the scenes that would make a great novel, but I was a small-town priest and not included in such “upper level” talks. What is important for my account is the fact that, from 2003 onward, converting to the Catholic Church was being discussed and executed on many different levels. By 2012, conversion was common practice among Catholic-leaning clergy. Often I got a letter about someone renouncing his orders. So much so that our bishop, at one time thought of as a key candidate for Rome, began to hunt for those who might leave. This was the second time I seriously thought of leaving.

During this period, I spoke with many that had gone to the Catholic Church about their experience. I had two main fears. How would I earn a living if I quit my curé? How can I take off this collar and renounce orders that I still believed were valid? Many might be appalled or surprised at my stance. Barriers to conversion are usually papal infallibility or birth control. But not with me. All of those doctrines I had studied and had no problem with. I was a Catholic stuck in the Anglican Church by fear of income and a bad theory — the branch theory.

I had begun teaching from the Catholic Catechism, and before long I dropped all pretense and openly taught the Catholic Faith. My parish used the Catholic lectionary, Catholic Bibles, and had RCIA classes every Sunday. In the greater diocese, many of our best clergy went over to the Catholic Church, leaving experienced clergy to fill gaps in representation to the ACNA, so I was asked by the bishop to attend a meeting in Pittsburgh to work on a youth catechism. We were quickly informed that this group would work on an adult catechism for the ACNA as well as a youth catechism. Imagine my luck! Here I was, a small-town priest who had fallen into a committee that would work on the catechism! We planned a second, more intense meeting, and I was joined by a wonderful Christian educator from a parish in my diocese. The meeting was opened by asking everyone to imagine what a new catechism would look like. They went down the row asking each one their thoughts, and my fellow diocese rep looked at me and pulled out a green Catechism of the Catholic Church. “This is what a catechism should look like,” she said. I agreed. When it came to her turn, she asked, “Why are we making a new catechism when this one already exists?” — again holding up the green book. I applauded … until I noticed no one else was. Shortly thereafter, another Anglican cleric rose to tell us that all the ills of the Episcopal Church were caused by the presence of the sacraments, that we should rid ourselves of them. It was as if a spring were in my chair, so quickly did I rise to speak. I really cannot remember what I said, but it was a long defense of the sacraments, and things got heated. I was not asked back to Pittsburgh.

So back to my small church in the far westerly reaches of my diocese. I was voted onto the governing council of the diocese, known as the Standing Committee. From that time on, I was called “the tea party” candidate by my bishop. My election evidently did not meet his favor. By the time I was in my third year, I was elected president of that committee; we met three times that entire year, the agenda was set, and I was “educated” on how I had to vote.

So, let’s recap. I was an Episcopal priest that could not abide with the church’s heresy, so I became an Anglican priest. Thinking we would be free to “become” catholic, I was at first enthusiastic … until I found that the vast majority of the ACNA roundly rejected the Catholic Church. But I always had my diocese … until I found that we were to ignore all doctrine and proper practices to make for a smoother tenure for those in power. But I had my parish! And it was a very comfortable pastorate.

But then there was that pesky call. I knew it well from high school, college, and my career as an architect. God was calling me to the Catholic Church. It got stronger and stronger. I could not continue as I was, but why and how was I to become Catholic? I started to pray to the Lord for a door, a door into the Catholic Church, because I had three kids and a wife, and a mortgage and bills. This was an unfunded call!

Calls from God grow. They start with a nice tap on the shoulder and progress to something that feels that you are being torn apart. Midway through this progression, a church came open in Arlington. I declined to put my name in. Then I had three friends call and tell me to put my name in. Then my bishop called and said the same. Is this the call God has been after me about? I thought the call was to the Catholic Church, but if the Lord wants me to go to a bigger church and get a pay raise, who am I to argue? I resolved that I would put my name in, and if the lot fell to me, I would go. I should have remembered that the lots cast for Jonah were to throw him overboard.

I was elected rector of a large (in Anglican terms) parish in Arlington, Texas. The vestry told me they were very divided on whom to call, but I won unanimously on the first ballot. They saw this as God’s call, and so did I. From the minute I stepped into that curé, I knew it was not for me; something was wrong. God had opened the door to my conversion, not to a new ministry, and I had no idea. The first three months were wonderful, kind of surreal. At the three-month mark, everything fell apart. Everything! By the two-year mark, I was so beat up I did not recognize myself. I had gained almost 30 pounds. 80 percent of the parish really enjoyed my ministry, 20 percent could not forgive me for decisions I had to make. I had 16 years of experience in pastoring churches, and now nothing worked. Everything I did was countered by overwhelming opposition.

I paused to reflect. I took all of my vacation time. Through everything, I knew I had to be Catholic. I would pass Catholic churches and have an overwhelming desire to go in. I spoke with Fr. Arnett and Fr. Kennedy, two longtime friends. Both echoed the call. My wife also agreed it was time to go to the Catholic Church. There was no hope of building a catholic church out of any part of the Anglican Church; it was up to me to obey God’s call.

I was humbled and pummeled. I wanted out. To me, The Episcopal Church was lost, ACNA was lost, the diocese was lost, and now my pastorate, though not lost, was going to be an uphill climb. There was no greater communion to be a part of, there was no diocese to be catholic within. All the work I would put into this rebuilding would be for nothing — not for God, certainly not for creating a better Anglican Church. I knew my call was to go to the Catholic Church, and goodness knows God had cleared away all reasons to stay where I was.

The problem was still money. How could I leave my job; where would I go; how would I keep a roof over my head? And then it came to me: I was the Pharisee. Why would the Pharisees not follow Christ? Because it meant leaving their ministry and giving up what was a very nice income. The Pharisees, mostly, believed in what Christ was saying. They could not deny the miracles they saw right in front of their eyes, but they could not see a life without the style of living to which they had grown accustomed. It was then that I recalled Matthew 16:1-4. The sign of Jonah — what was it? Now here, I must say there are many different theories on the sign of Jonah, but most revolve around resurrection. Resurrection came from the work of Christ on the cross. If we want to be resurrected with Jesus, we must sacrifice ourselves, die to self, to allow God to re-create you in His image, discarding the broken one that we have from birth. I must follow God in a path that I do not understand, to get to the re-creation of my life. I had no clue what I was to do, but I knew I could not stay in the Anglican Church.

By moving back to the Metroplex, I was close enough to have lunches with my Dad, who was in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a fact we were all (including Dad) doing our best to ignore. One day in all the mess of what was my job as an Anglican priest, dad called, distraught. I dropped everything and told my secretary that I would be gone for an hour. I found him in his office, staring at a conference table full of bills. “I can’t do this,” he said. My response was confusion, “What can’t you do?” “I can’t understand these bills,” Dad sadly replied. I quickly came to realize that he had lost the ability to add. I took over his bills and started to clean up the mess. Not long afterwards, I realized I was doing a job. Though this one would only pay $1,000 a month, it was a start, and it reminded me that God will take care of me.

A few days later, my senior parish warden came to me, worried. I had taken too much vacation and just seemed to have “checked out.” Honestly, I did have a lot on my mind. He wanted me to make a decision right then that I would “get back to work.” I heard God’s voice unmistakably say, “Here is your door.” I resigned. I walked out, not knowing how I would make a living, but I already knew that I had a start. I will always be thankful that the vestry voted to give me two months’ severance.

I helped Dad, I cleaned his office, and fended off offers for work as an Anglican priest. I renounced my orders and joined RCIA at St. Stephen Catholic Church in Weatherford. The weight was lifted from my shoulders.

A month later, a saint from my previous parish called and asked if I would be interested in working in the field of roofing. As an architect, I knew a bit, but would be happy to learn more. I learned an estimating program from watching YouTube, and soon I was a commercial roofing estimator. This was a great job, one I enjoyed. It halved my income, but it was steady work, and I was comfortable. But God was not done with me. I again felt God calling me. I entered into the discernment process for the Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter. God was indeed still calling me to ordained ministry. I studied through guided reading and four intensive weeks in Houston at the chancery. It was so nice to be among friends, those who would support me. The liturgy for the Ordinariate is different from the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. It has elements of Anglican patrimony that made me feel right at home.

I grew to find a home in the Catholic Church, helping to teach RCIA at St. Stephen’s with a great group of faithful catechists, all the while learning and discerning the priesthood in the Ordinariate. My wife, Stephanie, and I grew spiritually like neither of us could have imagined. The Catholic Church was exactly what we needed, the answer to prayer. I am now a transitional deacon and the parochial administrator of St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Cleburne, Texas. I am blessed to have been brought to the Catholic Church and though unworthy, I am very blessed to be able to minister within the true Church.

God calls all of us; God works in all of us. There are no “insignificant” Bible verses. They all give meaning to our lives. Don’t be concerned about where you will live or what you will eat. God has you in His best interest. Don’t be stuck in heresy, like the Pharisees. Follow God’s call, even when you don’t understand the how or the why of it. Jonah is in all of us, but in the end, if we will listen and obey, like Jonah, we will find our lives re-created according to God’s plan.

Fr. Scott Wooten

Fr. Scott Wooten was born in Weatherford Texas and raised in Fort Worth. He attended Texas Tech University, graduated with a degree in Architecture in 1991, then worked for three architectural firms before going to seminary in 1996. Attending Nashotah House Seminary in Wisconsin, he earned a Masters in Divinity in 1999. Scott was ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church in 1999, and priest in the same year, moving back to Texas in 1999 to serve in a number of Episcopal and Anglican parishes. In 2015, he was elected rector of St. Peter and St. Paul Anglican Church in Arlington, Texas. In November of 2017, he resigned the position and renounced his Anglican orders to seek reunion with the Catholic Church. After discernment, Scott entered the process for ordination in the Catholic Church, through The Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, being ordained a transitional deacon in the Catholic Church on May 21st, 2020 and a priest on October 21, 2020. He serves as Parochial Administrator at St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Cleburne, Texas. Father Wootens family includes his wife, Stephanie, and three adult sons.

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