When the English Reformation was brought to a sudden halt on the death of Edward VI, and Protestants who refused to return to Roman Catholicism were threatened with death at the stake, the vast majority of those who refused to be intimidated were lay people—men and women, some of them still in their teens. Matthew Foxe, who kept a record of all those who were put to death, said of one congregation that its members were “exceedingly well learned in the holy Scriptures, as well women as men, so that a man might have found among them many that had often read the whole Bible through, and that could have said a great sort of St Paul’s epistles by heart, and very well and readily have given a godly learned sentence in any matter of controversy”. When any controversial question arose, Anglican lay people knew that the answer was to be found in Scripture, and they knew their Bibles well enough for any of them to be able to answer for themselves. In the trials that led to the burnings, the question was constantly being asked, “Who are you, a tailor or a housewife or a miller, to challenge the judgement of the best theological minds of the Church?” The inquisitors—many of them conforming Anglican clergy just a year or two earlier—were scandalised that ordinary people claimed to be as able to “give a godly, learned sentence” as the theologians, but they did claim exactly that, because they had learned God’s word.
The Episcopal Church needs another generation of lay people who have learned God’s word so well that they are no longer reluctant to face those who would order the church according to the word of Man rather than the word of God. The cure for timidity in the face of false teaching or immoral living is a better knowledge of God’s word. When evangelicalism began to revive in the Episcopal Church in the 1960s and 70s, the means of reforming the church was the foundation of an evangelical seminary to train clergy. That doesn’t seem to have worked. It’s time for lay people to reclaim their Anglican birthright.