I spoke to Peter Holmes tonight on the phone: “Mum, I’m tired, can I go home now?”
I have spoken about the road ahead to lots of people in the last few days: to members of my congregation, to my mother on the phone, to my seminary mentor, and to Fr John Fleming (who phoned as a "pastoral call").
The latter believed that my District President was "playing games" with me. He wanted to be quite sure that this is my own free decision, and that I was not being coerced. His question was: Could I ever see Cathy becoming a Catholic?
I had an argument with Cathy, a phone call from D. (one of my closest pastor friends) on Tuesday afternoon, and another call from my seminary mentor. I spent a lot of time preparing and mailing job applications.
I wrote the following letters to my family.
This is what I sent to my brothers, and to my Grandmother at the Hope Valley Homes:
11 Piperita Road
Ferntree Gully 3156
4th February, 2001
I am glad we got to talk on the phone the other night. I would have preferred that I could have talked to you both in person, but I will have to use a letter to explain what has been happening. I have sent a similar letter to [my other brothers], and to Grandma. This will probably not be an easy letter for me to write, but I want to explain to you a little of why I turned down the call to Hope Valley and have taken leave of absence.
To begin with, I should say that the call was everything I could have wanted. Over a year ago, when the position was first created as a part-time chaplaincy, I said to Cathy “There is a job that I would really love to do.” I really thought that Aged Care might have been a direction for me to take, with my experience here as a chaplain for Martin Luther Homes in Boronia. The fact that I would have been moving back to Adelaide, closer to my family (right next door to Grandma, and practically next door to you!), and working with Pastor J.H. again (he was my senior partner at Warradale and is now the senior chaplain at Hope Valley), made it all the more attractive.
Yet in the end I had to turn it down. The reason for this is that I no longer believe that God is calling me to be a pastor in the Lutheran Church. When J.H. rang me to ask if he could put my name forward for call, I said ‘yes’ thinking that if the Lutheran Homes did decide to call me, this might be a real sign from God that I was indeed meant to continue as a pastor. I have been having these doubts since Easter last year, so I have been living with this for a while. The call actually accelerated things, and in discussion with my district president, he said to me that it had become clear that I had to decide between either going to Hope Valley and reaffirming my call to the ministry, or taking “leave of absence” from the ministry to sort things out.
In the end, after a very great deal of prayer and a lot of discussion with other pastors and friends and with Cathy, I have chosen to take leave of absence. Today I gave my congregations notice that I would be resigning, and that my resignation would be effective from three months time or earlier if I manage to secure a job (I am applying for jobs as a librarian). Theoretically, this gives me up to two years during which I will remain on the roll of pastors of the LCA. Any time during that two years, I can return into the ministry by taking a call.
The fact is, however, that I will not be returning to the ministry. So far what I have written in this letter is now public knowledge, but the reason for me taking leave of absence is something that I have only told friends and colleagues and family members in private (although I have no doubt the rumours will start to circulate soon). I will not be returning to the Lutheran ministry because I am preparing to be received into the Roman Catholic Church as soon as possible.
Two events have led me to this point. First, there was the agreement between the Catholic and Lutheran Churches with regard to the doctrine of justification. This agreement has shown that we have been guilty of misrepresenting the Catholic doctrine. The fact is that the Catholic Church teaches just as much as the Lutheran church that we are justified by God’s grace alone, and not by our own efforts. Secondly, the Lutheran Church of Australia very badly mishandled the issue of the ordination of women at the pastors’ conference and synod back in July last year. The split vote of the pastors’ conference, and the narrow defeat of women’s ordination at synod, demonstrated to me that the Lutheran Church had no recognised authority upon which it could decide such a fundamental issue of what was and what was not true.
But on top of this has been an intense reflection on the question of what the church actually is, and the authority by which the church distinguishes between what is true and what is false. In discussing my concerns with Lutheran pastors and Seminary lecturers, I realised that the Lutheran Church had no satisfactory answers to these questions. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church did have answers, and they were answers that, after some reflection--I came to accept as the truth.
In the face of this, I could not really continue to excercise a ministry as a Lutheran pastor. This “leave of absence” will basically cover the time between now and when I am (hopefully) received as a communicant member of the Catholic Church.
However, everything is not as clear and as straight-forward as all that. The Catholic Church has clear and strict rules regarding those who have been divorced and remarried. Divorced and remarried Catholics are not allowed to receive Holy Communion. For a convert to the Catholic faith such as myself, this means that I cannot actually be received into communion until my marriage to Cathy has been “regularised”. This means that both Cathy and I need to receive an “annulment” of our previous marriages (as we have both been married before). An “annulment” is a legal decision by the Catholic Tribunal that our previous marrriages were not binding sacramental marriages according to the definition of the Catholic church (similar to the way the State can “annul” a marriage if it doesn’t meet the legal requirements for a valid marriage). The process is lengthy, and is not guarenteed of success. In fact, the Tribunal may uphold one or the other or both of our previous marriages as valid, and therefore declare that our marriage to each other does not meet the requirements for a sacramental marriage recongised by the Church. If this is the case, I will never actually be able to be received into the Catholic Church.
That all sounds very complicated, but in fact it will make little difference to me with regard to which church I identify with. I will regard myself as a Catholic, even if I am never received into full communion in the Catholic church. On the other hand, if I am received into the Church, then a whole range of possibilities arise--maybe even ordination as a Catholic priest, although that would possibly be a bit of a long shot!
Cathy is not, herself, becoming a Catholic. She is remaining in the Lutheran Church. But she is very supportive of this decision. While the business of annulments raises some very unpleasant considerations for us, we are both totally committed to one another, our marriage and our children.
I know that this decision will cause pain for a lot of people, not the least those who are members of our family. But in the end this has become a conscience issue for me. I could not have gone to Hope Valley because I could not honestly have made the vows of a Lutheran pastor at my installation. If I went, I would have been doing so under false pretences.
There is so much more to say about this, but I find it very difficult to put into a short letter. I sent Mum and Dad a copy of my journal since last Easter, in the hope that it would help them understand my decision, and it is more than 40,000 words long (about 75 typed pages)--so it really is a very, very long story.
I hope I get the opportunity to sit and talk with you some time. I think that will be the only way that I could convey some of the reason for what I have chosen.
I am so very sorry that I could not have gone to Hope Valley. Like the call to Hermannsburg, it was never meant to be. Last time, I realised that as exciting as Hermannsburg would have been, it was not the way in which God was calling me. Thanks to that decision, I now have a wife and two wonderful daughters--something that at one stage I had thought would never happen. Now, I am acting in faith again, passing up what many would have seen as the perfect call, to follow where I think God is calling me. I trust that like the last time, this will also turn out for the best.
Please pray for me. I pray that you will be able to accept my decision. We can never really be happy if we try to live in a way that goes against our own conscience. I am at peace with my decision now, even though it probably will cause a lot of heart ache for others.
God be with you.
All my love,