The diocese in which I live (Pittsburgh) was recently visited by Dwight Zscheile, author of People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity. In the book, Zscheile describes our ‘establishment’ past and its legacy, and urges us to put it out of our minds and seek a new way of being the church. Our bishop had recommended the book earlier this year, and there have been many groups studying it since. The parish of St Andrew’s, Highland Park, led by our regular contributor Bruce Robison, invited Dwight to come and speak about it, and various other members of the diocese to give their responses to the book. I was asked to give an evangelical response.
My general response is that our study of the book has been very productive, not only in thinking about how we witness to Christ in the world, but about the role Evangelicals could play in that, and I commend the book to Episcopalians of all sorts. Click on the picture above if you’d like to buy a copy. My particular response, or at least the notes from which I spoke, follows:
Evangelicals are a tiny minority as far as US Anglicanism is concerned, and not well known even in this diocese, despite the casual way the term has been used in recent years, so I hope some of what I say will be interesting, even if you can’t agree with a word of it. There are lots of things in Dr Z’s book, not to mention his talk last night, that I would cheerfully second; he says many things that Evangelicals have been saying for generations. But that would make a boring talk, so instead I’ll concentrate on the areas about which Evangelicals would want to say a bit more, or be a bit more specific.
The first concerns our establishment past. He is spot-on in his assessment of that past—if it is past—and its continuing influence; I could even make a case that he does not go far enough in his rejection of some aspects of that legacy, but there are also some good things about establishment, at least in its original form, that we have already tossed out, and which I think it would be good to recover and nourish rather than reject. Let me just mention the one that has been most important to Evangelicals over the years.
The original form of establishment was the establishment by law of the Church of England, in England and in many of the American colonies, and the most important thing about this establishment was that it guaranteed a place in the church for a wide variety of approaches to Christianity, at least after Parliament began to rein in the authority of kings over the church. After Parliament took control of the C of E in the 17th century, a control which it exercises to this day, the church was accountable to a body representative of the whole nation, and not to the arbitrary government of a single person. The church had no choice but to cater to the whole range of English Christianity. Wise kings had always been sensitive to that; that’s why Henry VIII, about as authoritative a king as you can get, had Parliament establish his authority over the church. And during the period of active royal supremacy all the monarchs except Mary and Charles I respected the broad church principle to some extent, but none of them as much as Parliament. Establishment meant you could be as Catholic or as Protestant as you liked, as long as you were willing to be in a church where there were both. By the 17th century you could even be as sceptical as you liked about traditional Christian teaching, as long as you didn’t publicly contradict it. The king could only have his own understanding of Christianity; Parliament had them all. Because the church was legally established, it had to make room in it for all those under the protection of the law, no matter what they believed or didn’t. Even after the existence of separate denominations became legal in 1689, those who broke away from the C of E to form those denominations were only a tiny minority of the traditions they represented. The great majority of Puritans, for instance, did not leave the Church of England when they had the opportunity. They stayed in the Church of England because the church had to put up with them, and who knows what you might be in for if you leave and join a church accountable only to the minister or the current congregation? Anglican Evangelicals are the descendants of those non-separating Puritans. It was the rôle of Parliament in the church that made the diversity of the C of E possible, and that preserves it in England to this day. Historically, Anglicanism is not a form of Christianity, it is simply a commitment to a place in a single church for the diverse forms of Christianity.
The Episcopal Church has already lost much of this self-understanding; we are committed to social diversity, but over the course of the last two centuries we have lost most of our theological diversity. Evangelicals have suffered most from this; at the beginning of the 19th century the evangelical wing of the Episcopal Church was very strong, with a dozen or more evangelical bishops most of the time; by early in the 20th century, there were very few left, and the revival of the evangelical wing that has taken place since the 1970s has consistently been described as an alien invasion rather than the renewal of a native species. The Episcopal Church finds it much harder to be theologically diverse than the C of E does, simply because there are no legal restraints on it. Episcopalians have to actually choose that diversity; in the C of E, they only have to put up with it, which is a lot easier. It would be great if we could regard theological diversity as part of our heritage that we not only wanted to keep, but to strengthen. The recent loss of so many Evangelicals, and so many of the more traditionalist Anglo-Catholics, is going to make this even harder for Episcopalians in the future, and that will be a loss to the church. We seem to be quite careless of this; at least, if we’re in serious thought about how we can preserve what little diversity we have left, I haven’t read about it. And I take this opportunity to deplore that.
But, enough about that. Let me move on now to one of Dr Z’s positions that Evangelicals would applaud, but which could use some help from Evangelicals in thinking through, namely that the way forward for the church is to ‘seek the world’s hospitality’, to join in with what the world is doing, in ways we never have before. His chapter on this was one of those places I mentioned earlier where he says what Evangelicals have been saying for generations, and there’s a ton of stuff in that chapter which I would love to see taken up by the church. I particularly enjoyed his description of ‘arcane rituals done by designated “holy” people set apart from others and confined in antiquated buildings’; that kind of stuff will always get a cheer from my pew, no matter how loud the groans from everywhere else. It sums up so much of what Anglican Evangelicals have been working for, especially since the middle of the 20th century, and in some parts of the Anglican Communion are actually achieving. Evangelicals have always repudiated the idea that clergy are any different from any other Christian, before or after their ordination, we have always thought that when we celebrate Holy Communion ritual is to be shunned in favour of a simple obedience to Christ’s command to share bread and wine in remembrance of Him, and ever since the Gothic revival of the 19th century we’ve been telling people that antiquated buildings send the wrong message about the church; although it’s only in the last couple of decades that we have begun to question the idea of having a more modern sort of building set apart for preaching and worship. We heard a lot about this from Mike Moynagh last year when he was talking about Fresh Expressions, a movement which emerged from the evangelical wing of the C of E, although it has quickly spilled over into all areas of the diversity of the church, and is growing fast here—mostly in non-Anglican denominations, I’m sorry to say. But we need to be very careful about how we go about this. First, happy as I am to talk about arcane rituals when Evangelicals get together, I think it is not an appropriate way to put it when addressing the entire church. For many people those arcane rituals, that Gothic gloom, and even that so-called holy person, have become profoundly associated with some of the basic truths of Christianity. And while I think we desperately need to become comfortable as an institution with other ways of modelling those truths, I don’t think it’s helpful to use language which those individuals who like those traditional ways could interpret as saying that they are somehow an impediment to the renewal of the church. It’s the belief that we should all be doing things the same way, that those rituals and all that goes with them should be imposed on the whole church, that is the impediment to its renewal. Those who find their greatest treasure in a vested priest, a robed choir, processions, genuflections and all the rest of it should be free to enjoy them in peace. Which means that the few Evangelicals left in the church are actually a great resource—they’re happy to leave all those things behind and go out into all the different communities that Dr Z and Mike Moynagh describe and be the church there in non-traditional ways. It actually comes naturally to them, and all the church has to do is to encourage them to be themselves.
Another, and more important caution that I have to express, is that we must not make the mistake that so many are making at the moment, and which I thought I saw traces of in some of the things Dr Z says, that a full-blooded evangelism, culminating in an invitation to accept Christ as Saviour and Lord, is not necessary or not appropriate in these external community settings. He quotes a definition of evangelism that I think is unhelpful: ‘that set of intentional activities which is governed by the goal of initiating people in the Kingdom of God for the first time.’ There are all sorts of issues raised in this statement; even the word ‘in’ rather than ‘into’ is capable of enough misunderstanding that I could spend the rest of my time on it, but let me instead suggest that we stick to what for the last century and more has been the standard Anglican definition of evangelism: ‘so to present Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, that men shall come to put their trust in God through Him, to accept Him as their Saviour, and serve Him as their King in the fellowship of His Church.’ This I think is more useful, because it doesn’t just focus on what we intend, but what we achieve: if our activities don’t actually result in people accepting Christ as Saviour, they’re not evangelism, and we’d better do something else. The idea that Christ is already present in these external communities simply because they are composed of good people doing commendable things has no foundation in Scripture. What Jesus said was where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them. When we join these communities, we have to ask whether they gather in Jesus’s name, and when the answer is, most often, No, we have to start wearing our Christianity on our sleeve. Jesus tells the disciples, when they were discussing what could be called one of these non-church communities, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward. We’re to bear the name of Christ clearly enough for someone to say Hey, you’re a Christian, yet you seem so normal, maybe I don’t know enough about that, let’s have a cup of tea and talk.
The idea of somehow choosing between Luke 10.1–12 and Matthew 28.19f is also problematic. The very idea of it is against the teaching of the Episcopal Church; Article XX, p 871 of the Prayer Book, says ‘it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.’ Luke 10, Matthew 28, Jeremiah 29, and all the other relevant passages have to be understood in conjunction with each other if we are to have a biblical understanding of spreading the good news. I simply don’t find the conflict between them that Dr Z does, I must admit. In Luke as in Matthew, Jesus sends us into the world not to find Him but to prepare the way for Him among those who have not yet found Him: He sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come. There’s no point in going if we’re not going to bring the good news of Jesus to those communities. We certainly won’t find Jesus there unless He has actually been invited in. He was specific about that when He appeared to John on Patmos: Behold I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. We go ahead of Him, but we only go effectively if the need to get those communities to open their hearts to Him is on our agenda the whole time we’re with them. That means referring to Him by name and teaching people Who He really is rather than whom they have always assumed He is. Paul taught Christ to the communities he founded; remember how when he heard that one of them had given themselves up to licentiousness, he reminded them You did not so learn Christ—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus. Yes, by all means let’s get out of our gothic castles and into the living communities around us, but let’s proclaim Christ crucified in them. I know we’re all afraid of being obnoxious, but an increasing number of Anglican Evangelicals in those parts of the Communion where they have remained strong seem able to do this without being obnoxious, and it would be good to encourage their growth among us.
The way to restore all people to unity in Christ is by telling others what Christ told us to tell them and urging them to make a response, not to us, but to Christ Who sent us. The Prayer Book baptism service shows us in the clearest, most unmistakable terms, what that means. I’m not talking about the baptismal covenant, which is for those who have already made their commitment to Christ, rather than a guide to what that commitment is. I’m talking about the baptismal vows on pp 301f of the Prayer Book. Before anyone can be baptised in the Episcopal Church, they have to commit themselves to Christ in terms that could not be more explicit. They must renounce the world, the flesh and the devil, and make a faith commitment to Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. This is the faith on which Christ builds His church, and anything not built on this is going to collapse no matter what else we do. Turn to Jesus Christ, accept Him as Saviour, trust wholly in His grace and love, follow and obey Him as Lord. It couldn’t be more explicit, right there in the Prayer Book. We have no excuse for being vague about all this.
Although I must say that the structure of the baptismal service doesn’t help. Unless you’re lucky enough to be baptised as an adult, you never get to say these words. When you’re baptised as an infant, your parents say them on your behalf, and when you come to be confirmed, instead of saying them for yourself, you merely reaffirm your renunciation of evil, and renew your commitment to Christ, by saying ‘yes’ when asked if you are willing to do that. Only those baptised as adults are ever asked to say these words for themselves. I’m lucky, in that sense: I was baptised when I was thirty years old, and I got to make my commitment to Christ for myself, and I’ve never forgotten that day, or the effect that saying those words had on me. Words have power: that’s why people who have been living together for years find that things change when they get married, because they have said those words out loud in public, ‘till death us do part’. The words ‘accept Christ as saviour’ and ‘follow and obey Christ as Lord’ should be on our lips in church regularly if we’re to use them outside the church occasionally. We say the creed every week, we reaffirm the baptismal covenant, the part of the service that talks about the life of the community, three or four times a year, but we talk about accepting Christ as saviour once, if we’re lucky—is it any wonder that we’d rather talk to people about joining the church than having faith in Christ?
Without an explicit commitment to Christ as saviour and Lord, a commitment we’re serious enough about that we’re actually willing to talk about it, in those terms, to the people we work with, study with, live with, and even to our fellow-Episcopalians on an occasion like this, there will be no renewing of the Episcopal Church, just further decline and deeper decay. If we want to be used by God for His purposes, if we want to bring rewards to others just by being recognised as Christ’s and given a cup of cold water, we need to get so serious about the baptismal vows that we won’t even care about renewing the Episcopal Church, we’ll only care about following Christ.
So the bottom line from me is this: in our commendable enthusiasm for bringing new people into the Episcopal Church let’s not drive out those who are already there, especially our Evangelicals, because it might just be that what has historically been our least wanted element, is the very one God has kept for such a time as this.