Rather like wanderers on a foggy journey, who suddenly, in a break in the clouds, discover they are on the wrong path, leaders of our church are becoming aware that we are losing parishioners at an alarming rate.
I’ve noticed that even in Bishops’ Charges, given at diocesan conventions, the truth is being told. It is difficult for those admitting the crisis not to obtain comfort by noting that even Southern Baptists are in decline. We must be in trouble if we are claiming Southern Baptists as fellow travelers!
Two hundred years ago a similar moment of desperation descended upon Episcopalians. The period immediately after the Revolution signaled an enormous decline in religious affiliation. It has been suggested that only ten percent of the population were formally “churched”. Episcopalianism fared worse than most. It was even suggested that PECUSA dissolve and its members join other churches. Many Anglicans left the country after the Revolution. The whole church was tainted in the popular imagination with “Tory” sympathies. It’s first Bishop, Samuel Seabury served as a chaplain to the British Army as it moved to attack General Washington’s troops in New York. When General Convention debated including the Fourth of July as a Feast in the Prayer Book, the Presiding Bishop, William White sought unsuccessfully to have the motion “tabled” because its observance would cause discomfort to those clergy and laity who had been Loyalists.
The remarkable revival which followed was not engineered by a national policy or even diocesan initiative. The revival, under God was driven by Evangelicals of the like of Chase and Polk and High Church people like Hobart and Kemper. Reading the visitation schedules of these leaders, who covered vast areas in horse and buggy along roads which were little better than tracks, in all kinds of weather exhausts and amazes. These great people didn’t subscribe to any “method” for church growth. They taught, preached and lived the life of Scripture and the Prayer Book with an unflagging enthusiasm for the Gospel and the Church. Evangelical religion and Apostolic Truth enthused these saints to take the Gospel to Rationalistic cynics and unchurched immigrants as they moved West. Advocating a patient religion anchored in the Christian Year, and the cycle of lessons, the predictable rhythm of common worship, memorable and emotive, room was made for all sorts and conditions of people.
In our present predicament a study of the great domestic missionaries of the 19th Century would enlighten and perhaps enthuse. When I feel discouraged I reach for the biography of Bishop William Hobart Hare, first Bishop to the Dakota people and then of the church in the State of South Dakota. Following him in his buggy, taking refuge in homes and boarding houses during blizzards, fighting fleas and mosquitoes in the summer, or in his latter years suffering from a frightful cancer of the face, battling for the sanctity of matrimony in Sioux Falls which had become a place where instant divorces and re-marriages could be obtained, I am humbled and inspired.
Tragically the dynamism of Evangelicals and later Catholics was sapped by the debilitating “party” wars which followed and an eventual schism in 1873. Enthusiasm for the Gospel and the Faith of the Prayer Book which revived the church and sent it westward and abroad transformed into internal sectarian wrangles. Despite this, TEC continued to grow and reached its highest point in the late 1950s, and then lost its nerve and its vision. Now the decline has reached an alarming point. The late Eighteenth Century was not unlike our own day. The Age of Reason brought with it doubts and agnosticism about the central teachings of the Church. The rest of the population as many uprooted themselves and moved to new territories, mingling with waves of immigrants saw little relevance in the stuffy social conformity of Anglicanism. And then God acted in the lives of men and women who differed in their approaches to the Gospel and the nature of the Church, but who fell in love with Jesus and injected that love into the forms and structures of the Episcopal Church.
God is calling for a similar devotion now.
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