Journalist James Hastings reveals why he left the Catholic Faith. And why he returned.
It wasn’t so much a Damascus Road experience, more a Sauchiehall Street stroll.
As I walked along Glasgow’s legendary shopping street, I was shocked at how dismal it was despite the bright August sunshine. Just a week earlier, I had returned to my native Glasgow after spending ten years living in England.
Keen to familiarise myself with the numerous changes the city had undergone, I walked into the city centre. Suddenly, a hand thrust something in front of my face. “What’s this?” I asked the young guy holding up a small leaflet.
“This is your opportunity to accept salvation,” he replied sternly.
“Salvation from what?” I asked studying the leaflet. “From your sins and going to hell.”
“I’m going to Marks & Spencer’s. My wife wants red cabbage.”
“This isn’t a time for jokes. God knows you are a sinner. God wants you to avoid hell.”
My accuser was in his early 20s, handsome, with designer sunglasses half buried in his perfectly combed hair. Dressed in a light blue jacket, white shirt, white chinos and black leather shoes, he looked more like a Premiership footballer than a street preacher.
He said his name was Steven (I told him mine) He was a member of an Independent Calvinist church. Steven explained that he loved me, his church loved me, the Bible loved me but, unfortunately, God hated me.
“James, you are a sinner but you can redeem yourself before God by being saved,” he explained.
“How do I do that?”
“By reciting the sinner’s prayer, right here, right now.”
What, outside M&S?”
“You’re not taking this seriously, James. Do you want to go to hell?”
“I never shop in Asda.”
“James, this is not a joking matter. Today you have the choice between assured salvation or eternal damnation. If you recite the sinner’s prayer, accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour then all your sins, past, present and future will be forgiven. You will be sealed by the Holy Spirit and your place in heaven is guaranteed.”
That sounded like the deal of the day, easily beating an offer in Marks & Spencer’s window of three cooked chickens for £10 (Sparks Card holders only) Steven’s fingers glided through the pages of a small Bible he produced from inside his jacket. He referenced passage after passage to support his once saved always saved theology.
Placing the Bible flat on his hand, he held it inches from my face: “Show me where I am wrong,” he snarled. “Show me the passages in this Bible which contradict what I have told you.”
I could do better than that. I played my trump card.
“Steven,” I smiled, “I’m a Catholic.”
Shocked, his answer took a few moments to escape his judgemental mouth: “There are no Catholics in heaven, James. Not one. You must leave that harlot church or you are going to hell.”
“I’ll be going there a lot quicker if I don’t get my wife’s red cabbage, Steven. Goodbye and God bless.”
Actually, I wasn’t a Catholic. Well, I had been one, a cradle Catholic I suppose. I didn’t leave the Church in anger. I don’t remember the day I left. I sort of just wandered away sometime in my forties and I was never sure why. As a child, I attended Catholic schools. I spent twelve years in the Legion of Mary, went to Sunday Mass, prayed the Rosary, became a reader and Eucharistic Minister, had wonderful relatives who were priests and religious, and my mother had a strong Catholic faith. Holy Moses, my father even worked full time in the chapel house! How Catholic is all that? But, somehow, I wandered and now I wasn’t attending any church.
In England, I became a member of an Anglican parish, mainly due to the real living faith of the vicar and his wife. At the Sunday service, the vicar wore similar vestments to a Catholic priest. The liturgy was similar and there was a full Holy Communion including kneeling at the altar rail. However, while it looked like a Mass, sounded like a Mass and tasted like a Mass, I was never convinced: it was like the vegan equivalent.
During the following fourteen years, I was a member of a Baptist church, then an independent Bible-believing church, an Evangelical church, a house church and latterly, a Pentecostal parish. The more churches I attended, the more troubled I became. I couldn’t fault the love and fellowship members showed towards me and everyone they met. To use an oft repeated phrase, ‘they desired to know Jesus and to make Jesus better known’.
But, while all those congregations believed in the same core Christian teachings such as the Trinity and the Virgin birth, there were many significant differences between their theologies. My encounter with Steven brought all those memories sharply back to me as I continued my walk down Sauchiehall Street.
In less than half a mile I was approached by a second leaflet-waving person.
“Good afternoon, sir. May I offer you a leaflet from our church?” asked a smiling lady. She explained her church – an independent Evangelical church – in a nearby town had been planted three years earlier by two South American missionaries. The pastor was from Brazil. I informed her of my encounter with Steven, asking if her church taught once saved always saved theology. She replied that she didn’t believe so then suggesting her pastor could explain better, she lead me over to a tall, casually dressed man in his 50s. To break the ice, I started talking about football.
“I’m probably the only Brazilian who doesn’t like football,” he laughed. “I prefer basketball.”
He played the game in college which is where he met an Evangelical Christian who “led me to the Lord.”
“I was an atheist before that and didn’t really think much about God or the Bible,” he explained. Ice broken, I asked the pastor if his church taught once saved or blessed assurance theology as it is also known? “No, that’s not Biblical,” he said.
“You mean you can lose your salvation?”
“Yes. The Bible tells us that can happen.”
“I’ve just been told by a Christian at the other end of Sauchiehall Street that you can’t lose your salvation. He quoted several Bible passages to support his theology.”
“The Bible doesn’t teach once saved always saved. That’s false doctrine.” He opened a Bible he had in his hand: “I can show you the texts.”
I declined then we talked about other Christian beliefs. Water baptism was necessary for salvation, said the pastor, something opposed by the Baptists and Pentecostal churches I attended. Women pastors? No, he answered but yes claim the Anglicans, bishops too. Speaking in tongues? No, he insisted, yes say the Assemblies of God (I was also with them briefly) and definitely not insist the Calvinists. What about the Eucharist? Simply a memorial claimed the street pastor which any church member may perform; a spiritual experience which only a pastor or elder may perform, a Baptist theologian had explained to me when I joined his church; the real presence, body, blood, soul and divinity claimed a High Church Anglican vicar I met on a charity cycle ride.
By now, I was exhausted. My mind, and my heart, were heavy with exegesis, eisegesis and a fair bit of hermeneutics for good measure.
I cried out, silently, to God and in the middle of Sauchiehall Street I saw the light – no, not the celestial one that struck down St. Paul on the Damascus road. I also heard a voice (I wish I could claim it came from on high as well.) It was the voice of a priest I met many years ago during a long-forgotten visit to Pluscarden Abbey in the Highlands.
I met him in my days of youth when I was around 20 and set off on a Grand Tour of Scotland on my small motor bike, spending a few nights at the Benedictine monastery guest house.
“Your bike sounds like an old sewing machine,” laughed the monk.”It’s not as loud as twenty Benedictines munching their Rice Crispies during what is supposed to be a silent breakfast,” I giggled. I can’t remember the man’s name, but we enjoyed a wonderful chat about all manner of things from vocations to football, French food to Shirley Bassey. The monk told me that as a young man his faith became weak. He left the Church for several years, wondering why there were so many Christian denominations with such varied teachings? How could anyone know for certain which was the true Church and which doctrines to follow?
After leaving Scotland, he worked in America and Australia where one day he wandered into a small parish in Melbourne as Mass was starting. He had no reason to go to Mass that Sunday, indeed, it had been many years since he’d stepped inside a Catholic church but somehow, he felt called to do so.
In the sermon, the priest spoke about the Early Church Fathers, people such as Justin Martyr, St.Ignatius and Polycarp. Many of them, like Polycarp, knew the Apostles personally, were taught by them and, after their death, were given authority to lead the Church that Jesus founded in Matthew 16:18. “I realised,” said the Benedictine, “that what I needed, what all Christians should seek, was authority. Who had God’s authority to teach and preach? Jesus started His Church, while people like Luther, Calvin, Knox and others started their version of Jesus’ church.
They taught their understanding of Scripture and the resulting doctrines which flowed from it as truth, but had no authority to do so. Only the Church Jesus founded, despite its faults and problems, had authority to do that.
“His words were never truer than today when there are tens of thousands of Protestant churches all over the world teaching numerous theologies. They can’t all be right. Are we to believe that the Holy Spirit is telling one denomination “I want you to teach water baptism is necessary for salvation,” then He pops into the church at the other end of the street telling that congregation: “I want you to teach that water baptism is not necessary for salvation.”
Denominations are not the result of Divine insight or command but born of human pride – we know more than God and His chosen apostles; we’ll start our own church.
After years of confusion, my mind and heart were clear. That August day, on Sauchiehall Street, somewhere between Marks and Spencer’s and Greggs’, I made my own sinner’s prayer, ‘Lord show me the way.’ There was only one way to go, one place where I could find true authority: it was time to go home to the Catholic Church.
While I had wandered away, I rushed back, firstly to Confession. I told the priest: “I’ve been away for many years. How do I return?”
“You’ve just done it,” he replied.
Over the next few months I studied the Early Church Fathers. There are wonderful Catholic resources, many of them free, on the internet where I devoured programmes like Catholic Answers and books by people such as Scott Hahn and Jimmy Akin.
Now, years after my Sauchiehall Street Conversion, I return every other weekend to this and other streets in the city, to engage with Protestant evangelists and preachers, including the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. We enjoy charitable, non-confrontational discussions. A number of Mormons have attended my parish where I give them a tour, explaining Catholic art and theology. My parish priest is fully supportive and welcoming and we end the visit with prayer and a cup of tea. Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to enter any other church building, so they come to my house for discussions.
I believe Catholics have a lot to learn from these religions and Christian denominations.
1. Scripture: Protestants of all denominations love the Bible. Most attend a weekly Bible group held in someone’s home, while many churches provide free Scripture courses. I’m shocked at how many Jehovah’s Witnesses tell me they were once Catholics but knew nothing about their faith or the Bible so when the Witnesses knocked on their door they found answers to their questions.
2. Service: In Evangelical churches especially, every member is expected to fill some service or duty, from cleaning the building to teaching or running a youth meeting, street preaching, leading a Bible study or running the food bank. Service is not optional. You do not simply turn up for an hour or two on a Sunday but are expected to be active during the week. Many Evangelical churches are open all day, seven days a week and have a cafe, counselling rooms and creches.
3. Fellowship: most Evangelical churches train members to look out for and to welcome Sunday visitors. It’s more than just coffee and donuts. It’s about making people feel welcome and establishing friendships which, formed in those first few encounters, often lead to life long church membership.
4. Evangelisation. All church members are expected to spread the Word whether in their places of work, with their neighbours or families. Why is it only Mormons and Evangelicals who evangelise on the street? When were you last approached by a Catholic in your local High Street?
5. Tithing: while Catholic dioceses and parishes regularly lament about lack of funds, every Evangelical church I attended was debt free, owned its own building and had money to spare. Employed staff were paid a fair wage. While one or two pastors were over zealous talking about money, most were balanced in this area.
Yes, we can learn a lot from Evangelicals – but we Catholics have so much more to share with them, because we are the One, True, Holy and Apostolic Church.
I thank God for answering my cry that day on Sauchiehall Street. But, looking back, I never did buy that red cabbage.