By Jeff Brumley
Spiritually and professionally, Malcolm Marler’s transition from Baptist preacher to Episcopal priest was neither easy nor quick.
It’s taken time to adjust to everything from saying formed prayers and making the sign of the Cross to wearing a collar and being called “father” by some lay people.
“This has not been a sudden turn-around,” said Marler, 58, a chaplain and director of pastoral care at the University of Alabama-Birmingham Hospital.
But the switch may have struck some people as sudden, he said, after news reports detailing his Jan. 15 ordination at the hospital as an Episcopal minister.
However the rite followed about six years of sometimes difficult self-examination. And sometimes it’s still tough.
“I’m in Alabama, and there are times when I get different kinds of reactions,” he said. “We’re strongly in the Bible Belt and of course they say 60 percent of people in Alabama are Baptist — and some of them make certain assumptions.”
He’s even been asked what he thinks his late father, a longtime Alabama Baptist preacher, would think of his becoming an Anglican. The answer would likely have been similar to when Marler became the chaplain of an HIV/AIDS facility in Birmingham in 1994, when its patients were mostly gay men.
“He said, ‘Well, Malcom, everybody needs somebody to love them,’” he said.
“I think if my daddy was listening and he was watching and present at my ordination — and I believe in spirit he was — he would say ‘good for you for listening to God’s call, because that’s always changing.’”
‘Faithful to their callings’
Marler said his father always pushed him to follow his calling, regardless of how that might look to others. He got the same message from his most recent Baptist pastor, Sarah Jackson Shelton.
Shelton, pastor of the Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham, said she helped counsel Marler and his wife through the process of exploring and eventually becoming Episcopalians.
“My job is to encourage those who want to pursue their calling, and if it takes them into a different denomination, that’s OK. I want them to be faithful to their callings,” she said.
Shelton said she was eager to participate in Marler’s ordination service because they are friends dating back to Southern Seminary days and because she knows how seriously his discernment process was.
“I don’t see the Episcopal Church as a different religion, I seem them very much as Christian and bringing about change for the Kingdom,” she said.
‘Let’s go try it out’
Marler said it took him a while to come to see that himself.
While Marler’s path to Episcopal ordination began with a formal discernment process in 2009, becoming an Episcopalian began even earlier when his wife, who was raised Catholic, expressed her yearning for liturgical worship. They were members at the Baptist Church of the Covenant at the time.
“I said let’s go try it out.”
Marler said he struggled for some time with what felt like cumbersome liturgical practices.
“I remember leaving worship many times, many times almost angry, because I couldn’t keep up with the two different hymnals and the Book of Common Prayer and the bulletin,” he said.
He also struggled with formed prayers, which he said ran counter to his Baptist thinking that saw them as formulaic and not from the heart.
Then it occurred to him to close all those texts and his eyes and just listen. The result was powerful, he said.
“That’s when I began to love the liturgy,” Marler said.
It’s also when he accepted written prayers as genuine petitions to God.
“I learned that the prayers that were being prayed were expressed more beautifully than I could pray.”
Marler and his wife, Mary Bea Sullivan, were confirmed in their new tradition in 2008, and about then it dawned on him the transition had implications for him spiritually and professionally.
It didn’t feel right that he was now working as a chaplain ordained in the Baptist church while being a layman in his Episcopal parish. While not against any church or hospital rules, the situation ran counter to his sense of ministry.
“I was called into ministry when I was a junior in college and I have been a minister and I am a minister,” he said. “To be a minister in my work, but a lay person in my church, didn’t feel consistent.”
In 2009, he began the steps necessary for eventual ordination into the priesthood. His wife did the same and, upon earning a master of divinity in December, recently accepted a position as rector of a congregation just south of Birmingham.
‘Not a far stop’
While it may seem surprising or even shocking to some, Marler said his leap in faiths is really the result of his spiritual and pastoral formation in then-Southern Baptist churches and schools.
Marler holds master’s and doctorate degrees in theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and has worshiped and served in moderate and progressive Baptist churches all his life.
“So for me it’s not a far stop to become an Episcopalian.”
He’s even come to embrace very non-Baptist practices such as infant Baptism and seeing salvation as a lifelong process, not a one-time event.
Other practices have come less easily.
Crossing himself at church was awkward at first, as was being referred to as “Father Malcom” on occasion.
“I remember how different I felt when I began to wear the collar because that was new for me coming from congregational, Baptist tradition to a diocesan polity where our priests wear collars,” he said. “Now I feel comfortable wearing that collar.”
No hurt feelings
Marler said he’s received no negative feedback from members of his church or other Baptists. In fact, his former pastor at the Baptist Church of the Covenant, preached the sermon at his ordination ceremony.
He said it’s much easier to make such transitions from his moderate Baptist roots and also in a time when, culturally, such transitions are more acceptable.
He agreed it was more difficult as recently as the 1980s when John Claypool, then co-pastor at Second Baptist Church in Lubbock, Texas, announced he was seeking to become an Episcopal clergyman in 1985.
Marler added that his change in churches did not result from any shortcoming of the Baptist tradition.
“I am not mad at anybody in the Baptist church,” he said. “The Baptist church taught me about God and about Christ — how could I be mad at that church?”