Image: Kentaro Toma
By: Mark Friesen
I was raised in an evangelical Mennonite church in Winnipeg, and in my teen years made this faith my own. This included being baptized in the church and being active in its youth group. This commitment continued into my adult life although at a more youth-oriented congregation within my denomination. When I was in my late 20’s, I lived in Wycliffe College dorm, an evangelical Anglican seminary at the University of Toronto. The dorm was available for those studying at the college and also for graduate students in other fields who wanted to live in a Christian environment.
During this time I had many opportunities to engage or otherwise explore the Anglican tradition including Wednesday chapels before supper, and going with Anglican dormmates to local Anglican parishes. Yet I did not attend a single chapel, and I only attended one Anglican service in the entire two years I was there. I remember reacting negatively to the sermon which suggested that regular engagement with both the bible and communion were two keys to growth in the Christian walk. I saw the bible as God’s word, but communion as merely of symbolic significance. I did not have the conceptual categories to see communion as imparting spiritual life in a way similar to the bible.
I eventually found the closest thing to a Mennonite church that I could find in downtown Toronto: a Baptist church. I very much appreciated the Anglican Christians that I met at Wycliffe and considered them fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. But my own identity was as an evangelical Anabaptist, and it was as such that I lived my life while at Wycliffe. I really had no curiosity in exploring the Anglican tradition for myself. Fast forward 20 years and in my late forties, I made the decision to become a member of the evangelical Anglican parish of St Margaret’s. Sometimes I have reflected back on my time at Wycliffe College and wonder: how did I go from a place of disinterest to full embrace of the Anglican Christian tradition?
As I grew older, I found myself reading more and more from Christian writers who drew from a wide range of the Christian tradition. I found that it was often Anglican writers who spoke to me most powerfully. Anglican writers such as Leanne Payne, Agnes Sanford, and C.S. Lewis combined an openness to the Spirit, a love of Scripture, and powerful engagement with sacrament and liturgy. They seemed to see sacrament and liturgy as means by which God’s Spirit moved powerfully in people’s lives. Their views and experiences challenged my Anabaptist understanding of sacraments as mere symbols that had no power in themselves. In other words, I was encountering a more sacramental way of viewing the world.
Because the Christians who were presenting this worldview to me were broadly “in my tribe” as evangelical protestants, I was willing to be open to their ideas. For example, Agnes Sanford wrote of mystical experiences where she could see the light of Christ’s presence in the consecrated elements of bread and wine. At first, I was not sure how to understand these experiences. But they planted the seeds of beginning to think in a more sacramentalized way.
As time went on, I began to desire for a deeper, more grounded, rooted faith than I had experienced up to that point. I also got a devotional book that followed the Christian Liturgical year. One year, I went to Saint Margaret’s church for Ash Wednesday. It was my first time at this church and I noticed the church was packed for this marker at the beginning of the season of Lent. I also noticed how much we used our bodies during the service: the extended time on our knees as we prayed “The Great Liturgy”; the leaders processing around the congregation with banners; and of course, the imposition of the ashes on our foreheads. The seeds planted during that Ash Wednesday service started to work their way into my heart, and prompted a desire to explore further.
I started to visit Saint Margaret’s Sunday evening service. I eventually reached out to the pastoral staff and met some of them for lunch periodically such as Kurt Armstrong, a pastor of community life. I really appreciated that as I continued to attend Saint Margaret’s Sunday evening services for a number of years. I experienced the presence of Christ in a powerful way in the liturgy and sacrament. I also appreciated the theological depth of the preaching.
Eventually, I started to attend more and more regularly until I came to the place where I wanted to make Saint Margaret’s my home church. Around the same time, I started to engage in the Liturgy of the Hours. I had discovered The Divine Hours, a book based on the Book of Common Prayer by Anglican writer Phyllis Tickle. I started to pray the morning, noon, and evening prayers in The Divine Hours everyday. In some ways, I found them to be a more helpful sustainable template for daily prayer than trying to put in a long period of time in the morning for prayer that was supposed to sustain me for the whole day. It felt like a flexible structure to my prayer life throughout the day. At this point it felt like my conversion to a sacramental, liturgical life was complete. A few years later, delayed by the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, I would participate in the rite of confirmation and be fully received into the Anglican communion.
So, what had changed in my life from the time in my late twenties where I had been benignly disinterested in Anglican tradition to my late forties where I made the move to become Anglican? The short answer is I found that the Anglican theology and practice of sacrament and liturgy provided a more solid basis for me to live my Christian life than the tradition I had grown up with and identified with so strongly in my youth. I still appreciate many aspects of the Anabaptist faith tradition including a love of scripture and its historic peace witness. Saint Margaret’s is a church with a lot of people just like myself, people who grew up in Mennonite churches who made the journey to a deeper connection to the ancient church. I found myself among like-minded people who appreciated both their Mennonite heritage and the depth of the ancient faith found at Saint Margaret’s. I am thankful for God taking me on this journey. He has led me to a place where I can grow in my daily walk with Him in ways that I could not have imagined. Thanks be to God.
Mark Friesen is a parishioner at Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church. He lives with his wife Maryann and two teenage boys in Winnipeg. He works as a hospital pharmacist. He is grateful to Kurt Armstrong (Community Development Pastor) for making space Saturday mornings for writing during which this article was written.