Sunday, April 29, 2012

Reforming the Episcopal Church: "Reformation from Sin, or Improvement in Goodness"

I wanted to begin thinking about church reform in the next few posts.  The issue of reforming the Episcopal Church is one of personal interest to me, since it is the body in which I find myself.  There are two myths often associated with reforming churches, and especially with the Episcopal Church.  The first is that the Episcopal Church has somehow stepped outside of God's "boundaries" and is incapable of reform.  This is obviously false and rather dangerous a theology to hold.  We know from the Scriptures that God has said to us, "I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee," this includes us as individuals and us in this portion of the Catholic Church in the United States.  I find it a particularly dangerous statement to make and I, for one, am not in the business of limiting the Almighty.  If God can save me from sin into righteousness, the Episcopal Church will be a "piece of cake" so to speak.  The second myth is that other churches, particularly Anglican churches, are not in need of reform.  This is also a dangerous idea because it equates schism with reform.  Leaving the Episcopal Church, or any church, doesn't necessarily solve any problems (it can, obviously, but it is not an automatic response).  For a schism to actually reform the church, it has to correct the problems that the original body did not.

The subject of reforming the Episcopal Church brings certain feelings to some, perhaps who have sought this for many years.  The feeling among some is that they have tarried long and hard in this matter and that because the Church has yet to be fully reformed that it is a sign that God is calling them elsewhere.  While I don't presume to have any answers (or at least any better than others), I think the idea of a "quick fix" to the Episcopal Church's problems results far more from American culture than divine intervention.  If we look just at our own Church's founding in the Church of England, we see a long and slow process of Church reform.  We know that Cranmer was of a reformed mindset long before 1549, yet it took him many years to accomplish his goal, and he had royal support.  We know that "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day".  We also know that the Episcopal Church has been void of Gospel preaching and solid theological education for over 100 years.  Can we really expect to fix a century-long problem in a few short years?

The beginning of reform is not to be found in the seminaries, nor in the pews.  Reform is not brought about by bishops or councils or commissions.  The General Convention cannot pass a resolution to reform the Church.  No, the reform of the Church starts in the heart.  The hearts of the laity and clergy must be reformed from the inside to the out.  I like the quote from Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Secker, in his ideas on church reform beginning as a "reformation from Sin, or improvement in goodness."  I can't expect to reform myself from sin completely tomorrow, much less in a decade.  I think on my deathbed I will still be struggling to "improve in goodness".  The same is true for the Church, no matter how much work I pour into reforming her, the Church will always be in need of reform, semper reformanda, because the Church is made up of sinful men.  This ideal of having a perfect Church is something that we must learn to let go of if we are to truly work to renew anything.

Perhaps the ideal of reform in the Episcopal Church seems more a dream than anything which could actually happen.  Perhaps so, but it always seems that when the results of something seem the most unlikely, that is where we see the fruits of the Holy Spirit at work.  I'm not saying that the Episcopal Church can be reformed in my lifetime, nor that I am wholly convinced that God is only going to use the Episcopal Church in reviving orthodox Anglicanism, that would be presumptuous and beyond my knowledge as a mere man, but I do know that God is faithful and that he has called me, at least at this time, to work for renewal and reform in this Protestant Episcopal Church.


Philip Wainwright said...

God bless you. You're exactly right, reformation begins with a change of heart, and nothing will change the Episcopal or any other Church except a new heart in its people.

Keep the faith.

Anonymous said...

A good start. I look forward to seeing where you go with this. I definitely agree that reform begins in the heart. I would add that, at the level of the institution, I think that reform will have to filter up rather than down. We need reformed parishes before we will have reformed dioceses, and dioceses before synods, and so forth.

Have you seen Ephraim Radner's latest essay on staying in TEC? It's quite good, and you might see there some of what you're hoping to achieve:

One thing to be cautious of, however, is to exaggerate the extent of the problem. While it's true that the problem has been getting acutely worse in the last century, I think it's a bit much to suggest that there has been no Gospel preaching or good theological education in TEC for a hundred years. The problem as I see it is that there has been little consciousness about the difference between classical Anglicanism and other "streams," which has lead to the ascendency of various competing forms of liberalism (I would include modern Evangelicalism within this).

But at any rate, I applaud the effort to emphasize the need for reform and the effort to see it through.

The Hackney Hub said...

Thanks for the comments!

Perhaps I had used a bit of hyperbole, Conciliar Anglican, but I do think that solid theological education has been slowly disappearing from the Episcopal Church, which is a huge problem. I agree with you about the lack of consciousness regarding classical Anglicanism. I think my point was that this will take a long time to fix, since it's taken a long time to get to where we are.

I think a good way of "getting the message out" is through blogs like this one and the ones that you both write. I suppose the more noise we make, the better. And I'm still convinced that most Episcopalians don't know what classical Anglicanism is so perhaps just providing information for them could be a good start.