Episcopal Church Doings

Puritan RecordTomorrow is commencement at Harvard. Their commencement hymn, which I believe they still sing, assumes those who have studied there have ‘deepen’d the streams/That make glad the fair city of God’, and prays ‘Let not moss-covered error moor thee at its side/ As the world on truth’s current glides by’, and urges the graduates to ‘Be the herald of light, and the bearer of love,/Till the stock of the Puritans die.’

No doubt many of the graduates hold fast to the biblical principles which guided those who founded the school, but they didn’t learn them there, and nor did anyone who came there without having learned them. (‘There’ being the institution itself; no doubt there are some wonderful campus ministries and local churches bringing students to faith.) As far as Harvard is concerned, the stock of the Puritans is already dead.

John Harvard was a Church of England clergyman, a graduate of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, founded during the English Reformation for the express purpose of training preachers. He took 400 books with him when he sailed for Massachusetts, and served briefly as a minister at Charlestown. He died of consumption after only a year in the new world, leaving his books and half of his capital to the school being organised not far away. Since that bequest tripled the seed money for the proposed college, it was named after him.

In 1638, the year of his death, many of its clergy, even those serving in the plantations, still hoped that the Church of England would complete or return to its reformation, depending on how they read the history, Emmanuel graduates especially. It is those who still have that hope for the Church of England’s daughter in the new world that are Harvard stock, and they are not dead.


In various conversations in which I’ve taken part recently, a desire has been expressed for evangelical lay people to be involved in one project or another, but in the diocese where I serve, at least, they have been hard to find, and hard to recruit when found. One rector I approached, asking for names of such people in his parish, told me that those he knew were ‘gun-shy’—presumably a reference to what it was like the last time they became active outside their own parish.

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.

A Strategy that Changes the DenominationA dozen or more clergy in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, together with the bishop, Dorsey McConnell, agreed today to undertake a study of evangelism, using John Richardson‘s book, A Strategy That Changes the Denomination. Their first meeting will be on February 26th, and all parishes in the diocese will be invited to participate.

The book and matters arising therefrom have been discussed before on this site, here and here and here and here. I’ve read some useful and interesting discussions on Richardson’s own web-site, here, but it doesn’t appear to have a way to search the site for them.

To quote the review linked to above, ‘The heart of Richardson’s case is that Evangelicals have been content to be a party within the Church with evangelism as their specialty, when in fact evangelism is the purpose for which the whole Church exists. Mission societies, the means by which Evangelicals have pursued the goal of evangelism for generations, actually undermine the evangelistic enterprise, because they don’t involve the whole Church, which was founded by Christ as a mission society: ‘God’s mission work to the world flows from Christ through the Church… the Church is the missionary organisation seeking people’s conversion’ (88f). Evangelism is not part of but the heart of all the Church’s mission (pp 30, 90).’

The book is only $5.63 plus shipping, and can be ordered here, and I hope evangelical clergy elsewhere in the Episcopal Church will follow the Pittsburgh example.

Not a few Evangelicals in recent years have longed for some point of contact with Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, and have tried to blend one of those traditions with our own. Dewey Wallace‘s book, published last year, Shapers of English Calvinism 1660–1714 (Oxford University Press), reminds us that if we will only revisit our own tradition, this un-natural blending will not be necessary. He examines the life and thought of five Church of England Calvinists, including Peter Sterry, the Calvinist mystic. Michael Brydon, reviewing the book for the latest  Journal of Theological Studies, observes that ‘Calvinists are supposed to be hostile to mysticism, for fear that it might compromise the evangelical message of the Reformation. In fact, the tradition of Reformed mysticism can be traced back to Calvin, and Sterry continued to give it a distinct identity by setting out a mystical model that was to be lived not by solitary celibates, but within the family and community. He was also able to describe classic Calvinist emphases in mystical ways, as shown by his description of predestination as the ravishing of the soul by God.’

The idea of my soul being ravished has no appeal for me, even (especially?) when described in terms of predestination, but some readers of this blog will be glad to know. The stained-glass window featuring him is in the chapel of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Anyone willing to read up on Sterry and tell us more?

It’s about 35 years since I first set foot in an Episcopal Church, and I’ll bet that in the first year alone I met ten people who told me they had ‘become Episcopalian’ in college, usually because a friend or room-mate took them to an Episcopal Church or Canterbury Club (as most Episcopal college chaplaincies were once known). After entering ordained ministry some years later, I continued to hear similar accounts, but also became depressingly familiar with its contrary: parents telling me that their son or daughter had dropped out of church while in college, or, what seemed to some of them to be even worse, were attending a non-Episcopal Church—again, usually because a room-mate or friend had taken them to one.

Next week is orientation week at many colleges and universities around the country. Another cohort of freshmen will be free, often for the first time, to make decisions about how or whether to continue any commitment to the Christian faith.

What can you or your church do to help them?

I watched the rest of the videos that are intended to accompany the Evangelism Commission’s report to General Convention, as described in the post immediately below this one (click here if you have trouble scrolling down) at least twice, and have re-read the report, and I think I can now state without fear of contradiction that the report is, from the evangelical point of view, uninspiring.

Least depressing turned out to be the focus on the need to restructure the church, even though I had suggested in my last post that it was a distraction from the Evangelism Commission’s proper business. The report asserts an ‘urgent need to re-imagine General Convention and our Church governance structures so that they serve the mission of God’, and certainly makes a case that the way that we select and train people for ministry makes the development of non-traditional churches difficult, and points out that clergy, vestries, bishops and commissions on ministry are all in too much of a rut to know how to deploy someone who might be good in a non-traditional situation. And the statistics certainly raise the possibility that the traditional parish is not the wave of the future, so their concern in this area is a rational one.

What’s still depressing is the resulting suggestion: set aside a million dollars to fund the creation of ‘diocesan mission enterprise zones’ in which faith communities focussing on particular age-groups, ethnicities etc would be set up. From what I hear, the national church is so broke that this is not likely to be approved, but the fact is that money is not needed for such communities—they don’t need and don’t appear to want highly trained ‘expert’ leadership, and certainly don’t need their own building, which account for most of the costs of the faith communities we are familiar with. And if the Commission had looked around a bit further, they would have discovered that these things have been tried in some places and have for the most part led nowhere. A few years ago my diocese was all excited about such communities, which were popping up in lots of places because so many people were graduating from seminary without a traditional parish job to go to. They were aimed at twenty-somethings or thirty-somethings or the underprivileged, and they had names like ‘Three Nails’, ‘Charis 24/7’ and the like, but the jury is still out on whether or not they are the future of the church. Some have faded away, some have become satellite ministries of traditional parish churches, some are still soldiering on, but I don’t think one has become anything like what the Evangelism Commission urges us to imagine in their videos.

What’s embarrassingly bad is the fact that the Commission seems so vague about the gospel. The only reference to an actual evangelistic encounter comes when students at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale are shown discussing what ‘authentic episcopal evangelism’ looks like, and they say they have ‘discovered the deep value of “invited spiritual conversation”’, where a Christian is invited to discuss a spiritual matter with another person. The response to the invitation, according to these students, is to help the inquirer identify what is holy, where God is already at work in their life and in the concern that they have. ‘We have found that people [responding to the invitation] are able to bring up to the surface the deep things of their relationship with God and find themselves sharing that with someone else and having that heard and people are actually excited about that.’ Whether those deep things include the recognition of sin, the need for repentance and amendment of life, and new life in Christ through accepting Him as Saviour and obeying Him as Lord, as the Prayer Book puts it (pp 302f), is not stated. And if we can’t even bring ourselves to mention such things in the Evangelism Commission report, how likely are we to mention them in Starbucks or wherever these new faith communities are to be formed?

There is no suggestion about what to do while waiting for an invitation, either, but presumably we acquire the tools for evangelism. These, I’m afraid, are ‘community organising, racial organising’, ‘story training’, multicultural training’—anything, apparently, but training in how to lead a person to Christ.

Despite Anthony Guillen’s plea that General Convention be about evangelism and not about resolutions, the Commission will introduce several, asking for the national church staff to prepare an evangelism guide, for two changes in the canons, adding to existing canons about requirements for ordination the category ‘the practice of ministry development and evangelism’ as a subject in which training is needed and naming the groups in the evangelisation of which ordinands are to be trained (people of Asian descent, people of African descent, people of indigenous/Native American descent, people of Latino/Hispanic descent, young people and sexual minorities), for the creation of the mission enterprise zones already referred to, for diocesan evangelists be identified, trained and sent, and for the church to reform its structures (including General Convention) so as to encourage evangelism.

Is there no Evangelical capable of getting him or herself elected to this committee and bringing them up to speed?

Last fall we had a good discussion about the work of the Evangelism Commission (pardon the informality, I know that’s not its full name), and now we have its report to this year’s General Convention. You can read it in the Blue Book here; it begins on p 497.

It’s not an easy read, because many of the points it wants to make are apparently not in the report, but in a series of videos produced by the Commission and accessible on Youtube or Vimeo, and the report asks the reader to watch those videos at the appropriate point in his or her reading of the report. I haven’t done this yet, so these are merely preliminary observations, but two things stand out at the first reading: a note of panic about the church’s need for new members (which of course is not the purpose of evangelism), and an assumption that evangelism is an activity directed at groups rather than individuals.

The panic is expressed on the first page, which talks about ‘the reality of our church’s continued, systemic decline’, the ‘alarming’ statistics of which are presented on p 499. The statistics are concluded with the somewhat mysterious observation that ‘half of all Episcopalians will die in the next 18 years.’ Since all of them will presumably die eventually, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, but the Commission is clearly made very anxious by our decline in membership.

The assumption that evangelism is a group activity rather than something any particular individual does determines the report’s description of who needs to hear the gospel. One resolution talks about evangelising ‘groups who are under-represented in the domestic church’, and the goal of evangelism appears to be the creation of ‘new faith communities’ rather than new Christians. We are to ‘share the gospel in new communities… grow faith communities’, p 504. The report also assumes that it is groups that evangelise: it is congregations and dioceses who ‘invite all people to experience God’s amazing grace’ and ‘can live into our baptismal promises and thrive, if  we’re equipped to respond as mission-hearted evangelists’, p 501. The report acknowledges the failure of the Decade of Evangelism and the 20/20 project, but does not analyse the reasons for their failure; I wonder if it was because they too gave too little attention to the fact that the gospel is good news for sinners, and will only change communities as it changes the members of them.

One negative effect of thinking of evangelism only in organisational terms is that the Commission has felt obliged to weigh in on the divisive subject of the structure of our own group as it is manifest in General Convention, asking the reader to ‘imagine a General Convention that provides training and inspiration for mission and evangelism’ and then giving the members’ opinions about restructuring the convention. I’ve been imagining an Evangelism Commission that provides training and inspiration for mission and evangelism, but apparently that’s not how it’s done. I’m afraid that this intervention in what must surely be the affairs of some other standing commission is likely to distract Convention from a serious consideration of evangelism.

I look forward to considering the report in more detail, although I must say I find the requirement that I resort to Youtube, of all things, highly irritating, and can’t help suspecting that if it can’t be said clearly in written words it probably isn’t going to be said clearly in video either, but that only shows what an out of touch dinosaur this particular Evangelical is. I’m sure there will be readers who will set me straight on this. At any rate, this is where the Episcopal Church is as far as fulfilling the Great Commission is concerned; how can we encourage further progress?

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