The Ex-Episcopalians

Author: Sursum Corda


Conrad Kimbrough

Like Zaccheus

Conrad Kimbrough was a Methodist until he went to Brevard College.

"I had to take a religion course from a Methodist minister and he didn't believe in much. I probably would have become a Catholic right then, but there was no Catholic church there; so I became an Episcopalian. The Episcopal priest was good. I had conditional Baptism and my sponsor gave me a book that had Rosaries and Sacraments in it."

That was 1943. Kimbrough went on to Nashotah House, an Episcopalian seminary in Wisconsin—"a very Catholic-like place."

An Episcopal bishop there asked him to take a small church in a remote fishing village. Kimbrough spent the next 25 years in Wisconsin, while the Episcopal Church changed its marriage laws, made deaconesses into deacons—"without ordaining them"—and progressed towards the ordination of women.

"One day I decided I had to do something, so I went off to Ireland and climbed Craugh Patrick, praying, asking God what I should do. That was stacking the deck, going to Ireland to find that out! So when I got down the mountain, I thought, 'I'm going to be a Catholic.'

"Back in Wisconsin a short time later an important man came to town. I went to hear him speak at dinner and then we had a conversation after dinner. And then I went to the Mass. I went way up in the bleachers out of the way because I wasn't going to Communion—I was still an Episcopalian. But when the procession passed by, somebody said, 'Father Kimbrough, come down!' So like Zaccheus I came down. I had already met the man, but nobody else knew that; so I wasn't going to stay up there and refuse to come down. So I went down and met the man who's now the Holy Father.

"And after I heard him I thought, 'It's time now to go. I'm leaving.'

"I saw a Catholic bishop and he took me into the Church. He said, 'I can't promise you'll be a priest.' I said, 'I'm not expecting any promises. I've got to be a Catholic.' So after I was received into the Church he said, 'Report to the seminary in three weeks.’"

Father Kimbrough came home to North Carolina and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1978—and given his own parish. He discusses parish work today with enthusiasm and hope. He has been arrested twice for abortion protests; he is also being sued by an abortionist. ("I don't have anything so he can't get anything.") Some nearby priests consider him too conservative; he declines the label.

"I refer to myself as being orthodox. I like my parish. I hated to leave my last parish because I had seven seminarians and a girl who went to the convent, from a little tiny parish. Three are priests already; four have studied in Rome. And I got a Christmas card from another young lady from there and the return address was a convent, so I may have two in the convent.

"In my new parish they're all young, but there are several that I've got my eye on. Even little kids I'll ask, 'What seminary are you going to?"'

One Lenten evening a college student came to Stations of the Cross and Fr. Kimbrough asked him to serve.

"What were you doing out there?" Father asked. The boy looked down at the floor.

"I was-uh-I was praying."

"What was that you had in your hand?"

"It was-uh-a rosary."

"I didn't think anybody your age knew what a rosary was. What seminary are you going to?"

"I've been thinking about it for seven years but I never mentioned it to anybody."

"That," says Fr. Kimbrough, "is a terrible thing. Nobody ever asked him. He's a priest now. He's in South Carolina, at the Cathedral in Charleston. I see great hope in the seminarians. I really do believe things are changing."

"I used to belong to a clergy group up in Lenore, NC. One of them finally said to me, 'You really believe the Catholic Church is the true Church, don't you?' I said, 'I sure do, or I'd be a Methodist.' No point in going to all this trouble if you don't really believe it."

You've Lost Your Mind

Half of Kenneth Whittington's family are Lutherans and half are Episcopalians. He was brought up in the Lutheran half, in Virginia.

"I would guess I had a more explicit attraction to the faith than my family," he recalls. "They went to church and my father served on the parish council; my parents were active, but I was the one that was really drawn."

In high school Whittington considered becoming a Lutheran pastor, but he got more encouragement for his study of music. He went to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and loved it. Music was to be his ministry.

"I didn't know anything about other religions. In Baltimore, just by accident—not accident, now that I look back—I stopped into an Anglo-Catholic church on Good Friday. The liturgy had begun; they were just beginning the veneration of the Cross. I was absolutely wiped out. It still wipes me out. At that age—I was 17 or 18—I thought this had fallen out of Heaven." Whittington received instructions in that church, and joined it. It was a congregation that emphasized Catholic identity, after a fashion.

"They considered themselves a part of the Church and looked down on Roman Catholicism quite a bit. But I do remember talking to people about the Council. There was even talk about a vernacular liturgy and someone said that would absolutely never happen."

Whittington had jobs in other churches as an organist. The churches of other denominations did not jar as much as other Episcopal churches did.

"I had joined a parish but I did not have any sense of what the Episcopal Church really was. The other Episcopal churches were a shock. There were huge differences. I realized I had joined something that was unique. I was in a quandary."

He got a scholarship to study music in Germany. There he became involved with an evangelical Lutheran church.

"I sometimes did go to Catholic churches in Germany, and there was always an attraction that I couldn't understand; but I guess it was a question of emotional maturity and commitment. It was nice to go, but to be on the outside was also nice."

Whittington came back to the U.S., and got a job in a girls' Episcopal prep school, teaching music. There he tried to practice his original Episcopalianism. "It was not a high church, but I tried to see that it was the same thing." Then he went to serve as organist and choirmaster at an Episcopal church in Connecticut.

"But then I got a call one day from a former teacher who had just designed an organ in a Catholic church here in North Carolina. He wanted me to come and start a music program. I did not want to get involved because by that time I had seen some of the wreckage of the Council. The music that was in the Catholic Church at that time was so horrible. The thought of it hurt. But he was an Anglo-Catholic, himself. He said, 'You know, the Catholic Church—they just need someone to guide them. The priest would be very supportive. Just come and try it.' I said, 'I will, but I'm going to come in a suitcase because I know I won't stay.' "I went to the church. The priest was supportive. He didn't quite know what he was supporting, but he was supportive. He knew he wanted something good but he didn't know what good was. I really liked him. I started to invest some blood and energy.

"Then the priest was transferred, and a much more liberal priest came. He was a good administrator, though. Within his parameters, I was still free to do what I considered good things. We did a lot of Gregorian, a lot of Renaissance polyphony. People began to come to the church just for that. I'm talking about my career and not my faith, but I cannot completely separate them."

Whittington was deeply impressed by the faith of that parish, "especially the people in the choir, who were absolutely devoted to their faith. I saw them living it. I saw a unity between what was being professed and what was being lived, at I least in this small community. And I felt increasingly included."

He would practice at the organ late at night; and afterwards he would stop and pray before the Blessed Sacrament.

"One day I woke up and something had matured to say this was it. I did not come in blind, the way I think some converts do sometimes; they join a church that they see as ideal. I knew the turmoil and the agony that the Church was going through. I joined this Church knowing that. It was wounded in many places but nevertheless there was a beautiful core that could never be taken away."

Whittington went to see the pastor and said, "You know, I think I want to be Catholic."

The pastor said, "You've lost your mind."

After coming in, after Easter, he listened at Mass to the account in Acts of the growth of the early Church.

"Somehow, listening to that, there hatched in my mind a sense of being called to the priesthood. I didn't say anything to anybody because I was in my late 30s and I thought it was crazy. It really was connected with the Acts of the Apostles. I knew all the things

about the initial blush of the convert so I decided to give myself a year. I prayed and read and thought and talked a lot about the Church. I didn't quite keep to my schedule because by the New Year I was convinced that I had to try."

Didn't he know by then that as an orthodox Catholic he would encounter a lot of trouble in almost any seminary, and that there was no guarantee of what he might get for a bishop?

"I knew that. When I go back to that inner core of faith, and I'm going to say it's located in the Blessed Sacrament, there is a security there that can't be shaken. That was the sustaining thing.

"I walked in to the same priest I'd told I wanted to be Catholic. I told him I wanted to explore my possible vocation. And his response was, 'I was wondering when you were going to come in.'

"I enjoyed seminary. Of course there's nonsense, but a good thing about being older is that you don't necessarily get caught up in it. We had a wonderful library. There were individual priests there who were wonderful. I made my time there. If I'd just followed the curriculum I would have hated it."

Father Whittington now serves as pastor at St. Charles Borromeo in Morganton, NC.

Real Worship

Carleton Jones grew up in New Hampshire, in an old Yankee family of Congregationalists and Unitarians, with two Unitarian minister uncles. Good moral values, but no dogma?

"That's right. A strong moral education, but no dogma. I encountered the Episcopal Church in prep school—not an Episcopal school, but many of the students attended an Episcopal church where there was a good tradition of preaching and liturgy. That was what first got me interested, or was the first step towards Catholicism, seeing real worship for the first time, instead of just a meeting for edification."

Jones attended Yale during the Second Vatican Council. Through friends he had occasional contact with St. Thomas More Chapel.

"The Council was causing a big stir and making the Catholic Church something of interest to non-Catholics. Through the influence of friends who were good Catholics, well-educated Catholics who had gone to Jesuit and Benedictine schools, I got interested enough in the Faith that I wanted to inquire a little more. I went to St. Thomas More once and knocked on the door. The priest who answered was kind, but he was a little hesitant to enroll me in instruction right away. I think he thought I was too immature. He advised me to wait and see whether this desire to learn more about the Catholic Faith persisted."

Jones studied at the Episcopal Theology School in Cambridge, Mass., and was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1968. He served in two churches in Connecticut, and then joined the Society of St. John the Evangelist, the Cowley Fathers.

"The Cowley Fathers are the first religious order for men to be formed in Anglicanism since the Reformation," he explains. "They were an outgrowth of the Oxford Movement. Living as a member of a religious community, living under the vows, living religious life, seemed to be definitely in my vocation. "

All along he was reading heavily in English Catholic authors, especially Newman. He began to pray the Rosary. But for several years he continued to think he could believe as a Catholic within the Anglican communion.

"When Anglicanism began showing its nature as a schismatic body—the ordination of women, but even before that the ambiguity of Anglican teaching on matters that involved absolute moral norms such as abortion—it alerted me to the fact that there was no clearly discernible authority in the Anglican system. I was drawn to Roman Catholicism because of that lack."

Twenty years after that knock on the door of St. Thomas More at Yale, Carleton Jones sat in the refectory of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington. In walked the priest who had answered his knock.

"I asked him whether he thought his advice had been good and he said of course he couldn't answer that question. But then he did say that if he had encouraged me more, and if I had actually become a Catholic then and had a vocation to the priesthood it would have been exactly the wrong time to go to seminary, because look what happened in the late '60s and the early '70s. It was a time of mass exodus of clergy. It would have been a time, he said, that could have tested my faith beyond its endurance. Maybe the Lord had good reason to keep me away for that time. That was a nice thought."

Did he encounter difficulties on the way into the Church?

"I think I'd resolved any serious doubts about the Faith earlier on. I was gravitating to it intellectually for a long time. The only real difficulty was leaving behind a good number of friends. But I can't think of any difficulty within the Church or the Order. It was really quite the opposite. I thrived."

Rev. Carleton Jones, O.P., now serves as pastor of St. Mary's Church in New Haven Ct.

This article was taken from the Spring 1996 issue of "Sursum Corda!" Published quarterly and mailed in December, March, June and September by the Foundation for Catholic Reform. Send all subscription requests to "Sursum Corda!", Subscription Dept., 1331 Red Cedar Circle, Ft. Collins, CO 80524. RATES: $26.95 per year.