All it took the other day was hearing pop-star Olivia Newton-John's recording of the "Ave Maria" for Father Paul Zahl to feel that old, familiar tug at his heartstrings.
Then came the voices in his head asking those nagging questions that many weary Episcopalians have pondered in recent decades: "Why keep fighting? Why not join the Roman Catholic Church?"
Every now and then, Zahl feels another urge to "swim the Tiber." This is somewhat problematic because he is dean of the Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, a post that makes him a leader among Evangelicals in the embattled Episcopal Church and a strategic voice in the broadly Protestant, low-church wing of the global Anglican Communion.
"I could become a Roman Catholic in a heartbeat," said Zahl. "But the minute I say that, I stop and think about it and I know all the reasons that I am an Evangelical and why my spiritual home is in Anglicanism….
But that doesn't mean that I don't understand why so many people — people I love and respect — have fled to Rome and why many more will follow them."
Many Episcopalians, stressed Zahl, are seeking what he called a "truly objective form of church life" that provides authoritative answers to the moral and doctrinal questions that have — for at least a quarter century — caused bitter conflict and declining statistics in the American branch of Anglicanism. Their complaints run much deeper than mere discontent over the 2003 consecration of a noncelibate homosexual as the Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire.
But if they want that kind of church structure they are going to have to join that kind of church, he said. The Anglican approach, built on a unique blend of compromises between Protestantism and Catholicism, will never be enough.
"Anglicanism can only give you an ersatz form of that kind of church," said Zahl, a Harvard man whose graduate work took him to England and Germany. "If you want the kind of authority that comes with Roman Catholicism then you should run, not walk, to enter the Church of Rome…. That's where you have to go to find it. You either become a Catholic or you simply stop asking the big questions about ecclesiastical structure. You move on."
This will be a painful step for some Episcopalians to take, in an age when newspapers are full of reports about legal and theological cracks in the foundations of the mother Church of England and its bickering relatives around the world.
The big news on this side of the Atlantic Ocean is that eight congregations in Northern Virginia — including two of America's most historic parishes — have voted to leave the Episcopal Church to join a new missionary effort tied to the conservative, rapidly growing Anglican Church of Nigeria.
Meanwhile, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams faces a revolt in his own backyard, with Evangelical leaders saying they will revolt if he does not allow them to answer to conservative bishops, rather than to liberals.
And then there was that Sunday Times report claiming that Pope Benedict XVI has asked officials in his Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to research ways to reach out to disaffected Anglicans.
The temptation, according to Zahl, is for Episcopalians caught in these conflicts to assume there is "some church body out there, some supervising entity or person, which, when we find it, will be seen definitely to be 'The One.' The question of 'Whither?' is based on the idea that there is, at this point in time, a verifiable protecting safe place."
Instead, those committed to Anglicanism must embrace another image of the Christian life found in Scripture, argued Zahl, in a missive to supporters of his seminary. While it will be hard, they should see themselves as the "wandering people of God" who must spend a long time in the wilderness as they "seek the city which is to come."
It will be hard to find clarity and unity during the years ahead, he said.
"I hold out exactly no hope of a safe haven in the Church of England," said Zahl. "If you have any hope of finding safe answers for the big questions of church identity within Anglicanism, then you are going to need to be patient because that is not going to happen anytime soon."