New rector discovers path to priesthood in Communion
“The stories and language of Scripture have always saturated my consciousness since early childhood.” the Rev. Charles Owen, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
The new rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church said his life can be marked by Epiphanies and epiphanies.
“I’m an Epiphany child,” the Rev. Charles Bryan Owen, 44, said, referring to how his birth on Jan. 6, 1969, coincided with the Christian celebration of the Magi’s encounter with the Christ Child.
Owen’s first Sunday at St. Luke’s came this week on the first Sunday of Epiphany.
But Owen, taking a break from unpacking boxes of books, also talked about epiphanies with the lower case “e.”
“We think of an epiphany as these discrete moments of instantaneous transformation and — pow! — but many of mine have been over time,” he said.
An academic with a quick smile, Owen explained that he wanted to be a college professor, but thanks to several divine awakening experiences, he is living out his Christian faith in ministry instead of just teaching it.
“The stories and language of Scripture have always saturated my consciousness since early childhood,” Owen said, explaining how his first epiphany came when his mother gave him a blue, leather-bound King James Bible for his 10th birthday. It still sits within easy reach, along with several other Bibles, on a shelf behind his desk.
“I read it cover to cover by the time I was probably 13. Mind you, I will not claim I understood it all,” he said with a laugh. “I wouldn’t even make that claim today.”
Owen grew up near Tunica, Miss., with an older brother, Sterling, 45, on a historic family farm. Cleared from primeval forest around the time of the Civil War, the 4,000-acre farm grew soybeans and cotton.
They regularly attended a nearby Methodist church where his dad served on various boards and his mother taught Sunday school.
“As a little kid, I hated church,” Owen said. “It was boring and had long sermons I didn’t understand.”
In junior high school Owen experienced another epiphany by attending activities at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Tunica. Decades later, after becoming an Episcopalian, he attended the same church with his wife, Julie. When he was accepted as a postulant for the Holy Orders, that church was his sponsoring parish and he was ordained to the diaconate on Sept. 18, 2001, there as well.
Owen began ninth grade, in 1983, at McCallie School, a private Presbyterian boys school in Chattanooga, Tenn., where he experienced a Eucharistic epiphany.
“There was real wine in a chalice and a loaf of bread — not the chicklets and shot glasses of grape juice I was used to in the Methodist church,” he said. “It was almost like being in the Upper Room. For the first time I really experienced Communion in a way I didn’t have a language to process it.”
If he had to describe what many evangelicals call a conversion or “born again” experience, that would be it, Owen said.
“It wasn’t an instantaneous or explosive sort of thing that some people experience,” Owen said. “It was organic like a planted seed that started putting down roots and began to grow.
“Many years later that seed began to blossom and bear some fruit to the point where I realized — I understood — that my identity was grounded in the Eucharist and what it signifies and what it does,” Owen said. “It shifted me in a way to where, later in life, I was receptive to the (Episcopal) tradition that Methodism had come out of and receptive to a sacramental understanding and practice of the Christian faith.”
He graduated from McCallie School in 1987 and enrolled in Kenyon College, a small liberal arts college in Gambier, Ohio, where he earned a degree in English literature in 1991 and particularly enjoyed the Romantic poetry of William Wordsworth and John Keats. “It fed my soul.”
His love for religious literature took him to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., with the goal of becoming a religion professor. He earned a master of theological studies degree from the Divinity School in 1993, a master of arts from the Graduate Department of Religion in 1994, and was working on a doctorate of philosophy when he had another epiphany late one night with a group of friends.
“One of my colleagues said, ‘Brian, everybody knows what we believe, but nobody knows what you believe,’” Owen said. “It burst my bubble of what I had created: studying religion more-so than actually professing and living it. It threw me into a mini-existential crisis.
“It forced me to start questioning why I felt drawn like a moth to a flame. I wanted to get close to it, but not actually get in there and risk being burned and changed and transformed,” Owen said. “It got me back to church, and it got me back in my Bible. I got into the Episcopal church and immediately reconnected with what the Eucharist means. I began to realize this may be the thing I’ve been running from.”
He took a break from academics to work at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Nashville where he learned how the Episcopal church works on a daily basis. He also met and married Julie, who was also attending Vanderbilt on a clergy track.
“We were in classes together for two years. I just suddenly realized I need to get to know her,” he said. “One evening, I was very nervous, I remember going to library — she was a librarian — to ask her out. I was terrified, but she was very receptive and said ‘yes,’ and we’ve been together ever since.”
With advice from his wife and from a spiritual counselor, Owen slowly approached the priesthood. “When I said OK to the possibility of just looking at this priesthood thing, I had a sense of relief, a sense of peace that I hadn’t experienced in a long time,” he said.
Owen gives his wife much credit for support and wisdom.
“In many ways she is a colleague, because if I am stuck on a sermon, she’s got great ideas,” he said.
They have two children: daughter Mary Emerson, a 13 year-old seventh-grader, and son Hobson, 10, a fourth-grader, are attending the St. Luke’s school.
Owen took Anglican studies courses at The School of Theology at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tenn., and first served as rector at Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in West Point, Miss., where he was ordained into the priesthood on March 20, 2002.
His most recent service was as canon for Parish Ministry at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Jackson, Miss., where he had served since 2006.
While some priests seem to perform the Eucharist rites “like they are reading the phone book,” Owen said, “I try to approach it every time as though this could be the last time I have the privilege of doing this.”
Owen, who plays acoustic guitar and electric bass, at his last church performed in a rock band, “Rubrixx,” a play on words from the italic sentences in the Book of Prayer describing the order of the service. “We were pretty good,” he said with a smile.
Owen, St. Luke’s sixth rector, replaces the Rev. Canon R. Brien Koehler who retired last year.
The church has 1,500 baptized members and an average attendance of about 330, according to its website. It shares a 22-acre campus with St. Luke’s Episcopal Day School, pre-K through eighth grade, which serves about 370 students taught by 30 teachers.
“We clearly felt that God was pulling us to (Owen), and he felt the same way,” said Margaret Lawhon, a 20-year member who chaired the search committee. “He is obviously highly educated, but he is a Southerner who gets the South Louisiana culture.”
Owen views the day school as an opportunity for evangelism, because many of the students don’t attend the church, a view search committee members appreciated.
“He recognizes how important education is and how important the school is to the church and how the school touches those students and impacts their lives,” said Mike Gaudet, search committee member and longtime member of the church and school and its boards.
Owen said he is excited about the church and its possibilities.
“Everybody, whether they know it or not, they are looking for Jesus and for what Jesus has to offer,” Owen said. “One of my great hopes is to find ways to channel the love and energy that is here and let God use it to bring renewed vitality and growth.”