The Wall Street Journal
By CLARE ANSBERRY March 3, 2015 1:08 p.m. ET
Identical twins, the brothers grew up in Elkin, N.C., a small town in the Bible Belt, the only children of devout Baptists. As boys, they attended the First Baptist Church of Elkin, studied Scripture, went to vacation Bible school and sang in the choir, as did many of their cousins, classmates and neighbors.
Today, Brad, 43, is a Roman Catholic priest in the Diocese of Charlotte, and Chad is an Anglican bishop in Atlanta. Their parents, Jo Anne and Robert, remain faithful members of their Baptist congregation. When their sons visit, each celebrates mass according to his own rite in the dining room or living room of what has become a very ecumenical Jones household.
More than half of the U.S. adult population has changed religious affiliations at least once during their lives, most before they reach 50, according to a 2009 Faith in Flux report by the Pew Research Center. In many cases, the move is from one major religious tradition to another, say, Protestantism to Catholicism, but it also includes those who leave organized religion altogether.
While some people leave their childhood religion, only to return later, about 44% do not currently belong to the religion in which they were raised. “Many people offer more than one reason for having changed religions,” says Greg Smith, Associate Director of Research at Pew. A spouse or partner belongs to another church, so they join that one. As adults, they disagree with teachings unquestioned in their youth. For others, the break is less about external factors than internal needs for something more spiritual and finding another church to fill that void.
That was the case of Brad and Chad Jones. The brothers shared a sense that something was missing in the Baptist Church and embarked on a common path to find it, but ended up in different places, far from their roots and each other. One is celibate, the other married with four children. Father Brad embraces the authority of the pope. Bishop Chad doesn’t.
“My brother went one direction and I went to another,” says Bishop Chad. Each, though, is deeply committed and content with his decision.
Tucked in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Elkin is a rural working-class community, historically dominated by farms and mills and the Baptist Church. The Jones family blended in, their father working for a large building contractor and their mother a homemaker.
The boys were well-behaved and inseparable. Kindred souls, as preschoolers they spoke to each other in “twin language,” their mother said, using words that no one else understood. Neither was athletic, but both were musically inclined, joining the choir at the age of 6 and later playing in the high school marching band. Father Brad played the tuba and sousaphone. Bishop Chad, the more outgoing of the two, was the drum major his senior year. They were avid readers, digesting encyclopedias and discussing them.
“They were always in a corner, reading a book,” says Mrs. Jones.
Like many kids, in their early teen years they began questioning things, including the teachings of the Baptist Church, she says. Their curiosity was piqued in large part by an older, much-respected cousin, who lived in Greensboro and had recently converted to Catholicism. During one visit, their cousin took the boys, then about 12 or 13, to Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church. It was their first time inside a Catholic church. That Sunday morning remains 30 years later one of their most vivid memories.
The beauty of the building itself—the vaulted ceilings, marble steps, intricate woodwork, statues and stained glass—the smells of burning incense and the sounds of bells had a mystical quality that is hard to explain, says Father Brad. What struck Bishop Chad was watching the priest standing in front of the altar and elevating the Communion host.
For them, the Catholic liturgy made the invisible God palpable and tangible to the senses. Their own Baptist Church, where the walls are white and flat, the altar austere, and the worship focused largely on Scripture alone, didn’t. “We weren’t theologians. We were children. But as children we had open hearts and minds to it and were very receptive,” says Bishop Chad. He remembers painting a picture of Jesus during vacation Bible school, hanging it on his bedroom wall and wishing his church had pictures.
Back home, they began researching, studying and debating, mostly with each other, about which church contained the fullness of Christianity. They experimented, visiting different services.
On Sundays, their parents would drop one off at a Catholic Church and another at an Anglican one, before going to their own Baptist Church. While somewhat apprehensive, their parents didn’t try to stop them or convince them otherwise. “I always felt, ‘Who was I to question God’s spiritual plan for these young men?’ ” says Mrs. Jones. “They were very intelligent, spiritual, loving, caring and enthusiastic about the future.”
Bishop Chad joined the Anglican Church at the age of 16. After he delved into the history of Christianity, he decided Anglicanism was “the true church arising from the apostles and fathers of the early church,” he says. His brother, Father Brad, joined the Catholic Church at 17.
The change was, in their words, “somewhat revolutionary.” In rural North Carolina in the 1980s, entering the Catholic community left Father Brad on the fringe of his own. It “meant that a southern boy was befriending northerners,” says Father Brad. Indeed, most of the Catholics were transplants, and there weren’t many of those either. At one point, he says, less than 2% of the population of western North Carolina was Catholic.
For his brother, it wasn’t so much breaking with his old community as entering a new one, which has historically attracted the community’s most elite members. The small-town teen from a middle-class family found himself at coffee hours surrounded by bankers, doctors and lawyers discussing investments, practices or legal cases. “It was a language I didn’t understand,” says Bishop Chad. “I was a teenager. I didn’t have the breadth of life experiences.” He never felt unwelcome or rejected—in fact, his church members threw him a surprise high school graduation party—but it took a while to feel like he belonged, he says.
Eventually, the brothers became priests, and in 2010, Chad was named Bishop. Both celebrate mass and administer sacraments. They agree on many theological points, but disagree strongly on the pope.
“It really boils down to a question of authority of supreme role of the pope as the universal shepherd. That is where we differ,” says Father Brad.
“We have debated it for years at length,” says Bishop Chad.
But now, in their 40s, having outlined and made their respective arguments, they accept that neither one is going to change. “He is where he is and I am where I am,” says Father Brad. “I still pray for him.” They both laugh.
The brothers remain close, and they say they have more in common now than ever before. As pastors, they deal daily with parishioners, who have lost jobs, homes and family members, or have mental health problems. Without betraying confidentiality, they seek each other’s counsel. “That is the great advantage of twin clergy,” says Bishop Chad.
Recently, they discussed the possibility that one or more of Bishop Chad’s four children might take the path the brothers did, and change churches. Bishop Chad hopes not. “Of course, I would love for my children to remain Anglicans and to relish that beautiful tradition and flourish within it,” he says. His parents, he says, “might have wished the same for us.”