Category Archives: Ecclesiology

A Four-Legged Stool? Blogging Richard Hooker on Ecclesiastical Polity

Richard HookerIn his disputation with Puritans, Richard Hooker assumes that people on both sides of the argument agree on basic theological matters and participate in a broadly reformed consensus shared with Protestant counterparts in continental Europe. So Hooker’s argument with Puritans rests in matters of practice, or what he describes in the title of Book V, chapter 6 as “the outward publique ordering of Church affaires.”

Hooker sets out four propositions for evaluating arguments over the ordering of the Church. As mentioned in a prior post, he draws these arguments from the Preface and the statement “Of Ceremonies” in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer.  These principles are that of reason, ancient practices of the Church, ecclesiastical authority, and equity. It is a commonplace to argue that Hooker introduces a three-fold hermeneutic of Scripture, tradition, and reason into Anglicanism, commonly referred to as a three-legged stool. Yet nowhere does Hooker explicitly lay out this hermeneutic. In light of his proposals here, one could just as easily refer to a four-legged stool for evaluating Anglican ecclesiology and practices. A quick look at these four propositions is fruitful.

Regarding reason, it is important to keep in mind that Hooker does not understand reason in our contemporary sense of something like common sense or rational deliberation or personal insight. Rather, reason for Hooker is aligned with the concept of natural law, that there are universal principles of the universe ordained by God. Humans, made in the image of God, operate according to natural law. Reason is one of the clearest ways that humans operate according to natural law. In this sense, Hooker can speak of reason this way: “In the powers and faculties of our soules God requireth the uttermost which our unfained affection towards him is able to yeeld” (V.6.1). Reason is one way in which humans know how to and are capable of conforming themselves to God. Crucially, religion, especially the act of worship, as expressed in the life of the Christian Church is the vehicle for this conformity. Furthermore, because there is one God and one natural law, so also there ought to be only one form of religion for any given commonwealth so that all can alike perform worship of the one God. This first proposition is designed to militate against the Puritan view that multiple approaches to the worship of God might be possible in any given commonwealth.

Hooker’s second proposition concerns ancient practices of the church. He argues that any practices in the life of the Church must be taken seriously if they have been “allowed as fitt in the judgment of antiquitie and by the longe continewed practise of the whole Church” (V.7.1). Here Hooker resists the Puritan charge that existing practices in the Church of England should be eliminated because they are not found within the New Testament. Affirming the importance of the traditions of the Church, Hooker counters with a general rule of thumb for evaluating practices. “Whereby wee are taught both the cause wherefore wise mens judgments should be credited, and the meane how to use theire judgments to the increase of our own wisdom. That which showeth them to be wise is the gatheringe of principles out of theire owne particular experimentes. And the framinge of our particular experimentes according to the rule of their principles shall make us such as they are” (V.7.2). In other words, wisdom is a collective process. Long standing practices are sustained by a collective discernment of the wisdom of past practices preserved in the contemporary life of the Church. Change in practices then should be undertaken judiciously. “In which consideration there is cause why we should be slow and unwillinge to chaunge without verie urgent necessitie the ancient ordinances rites and long approved customes of our venerable predecessors” (V.7.3).

The third proposition of Hooker’s concerns ecclesiastical authority to make decisions about practice. As he notes, “All thinge cannot be of ancient continewance whoch are expedient and needfull for the orederinge of spirituall affares: but the Church beinge a bodie which dyesth not hath alwaies powers, as occasion requireth, no less to ordeine that which never was, then to ratifie what hath bene before” (V.8.1). In other words, the Church itself can ordain new practices or laws; it can also abolish pre-existing ones. In both cases, Hooker says, the Church “doe well” (V.8.2). But this authority to alter practice does not extend to doctrine. “But that which in doctrine the Church doth now deliver rightlie as a truth, no man will saie that it may hereafter recall and as rightlie avoutch the contrarie. Lawes touching matter of order are changeable, by the power of the Church; articles concerning doctrine not so” (V.8.2.). In other words, Hooker argues that the Church of England properly embraces the universal faith of the Church as represented especially in the core doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity (more on the Incarnation later in Book V). But Hooker, arguing against the Roman Catholic and Puritan perspective of that period, also holds that each local Church (here England) can adapt its order and practices as befitting it. In other words, neither the polity of Rome or that of Geneva is fitting for England but that represented in the current structure of the Church of England at his time are most fitting.

The three-legged stool is a popular distillation of Richard Hooker’s theological method. While he himself never uses that concept, I believe a toehold for it as popularized by later writers is embedded in this chapter. As he tries to explain how a Church can appropriately decide how to alter or retain aspects of its order, he writes “Be it in matter of one kinde or of the other, what scripture doth plainelie deliver, to that the first place both of creditt and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever anie man can necessarelie conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiasticall authoritie also shall probablie think and define to be true and good, must in congruitie of reason overrule all other inferior judgmentes whatsoever” (V.8.2). Here we find embedded the three legs of the fabled stool of Hooker: Scripture, tradition, and reason. Three things stand out to me. First, if this is a locus for Hooker’s stool, it is a decidedly wobbly stool. Scripture is clearly set apart as a primary locus of authority. Second, reason here again means something that is clearly discernible to any person. Reason then is not a private realm of personal interpretation or insight in the modern sense but rather a commonly held consensus. Finally, the function of this method is limited to the areas of order, polity, and practice. Theological doctrines around which the Church has derived consensus, especially Christological and Trinitarian doctrines, are not a subject for this approach.

Hooker’s fourth proposition is that of equity.  By this he means all of the grey areas in which church polity, as with any institution, necessarily operates. Here he states, “when the best thinges are not possiblem the best maie be made of those that are” (V.9.1). Implicit in this is the notion that no Church polity or governance is in itself perfect. Rather, allowances must be made on a regular basis for contingent circumstances in matters of order and polity. The specific issue lying behind this was Puritan concerns over ecclesiastical appointments. Hooker here argues that ecclesiastical appointments ought to occur on the basis of equity rather than abiding by hard and fast rules. Day to day affairs often need to be ordered according to the principle of equity as applied to widely diverging circumstances.

Following upon his four principles of reason, ancient practices of the Church, ecclesiastical authority, and equity, Hooker elucidates the principle that the “rule of mens private spirits [are] not safe in these cases to be followed” (V.10). Hooker urges that in matters where “the worde of God leaveth the Church to make choise of hir own ordinances, if against” the four principles he has set forth “it should be free for men to reprove, to disgrace, to reject at theire owne libertie what they see done and practised accordinge to order set downe . . . what other effect could hereupon ensewe, but the utter confusion of his Church under pretense of being taught, led, and gudied by his spirit” (V.10.1). In other words, when deciding upon matters of order and practice for the Church of England, these four principles are the means of discerning a way forward. Crucially, Hooker urges against individual interpretation of these matter or competing approaches followed by one congregation in one place and another approach by a congregation in a different place.

This final point helps us appreciate Hooker’s larger attempt to elucidate his four proposition for ordering the life of the Church of England. Against the his fear of a sectarian Puritan impulse, Hooker emphasizes a collective approach that mitigates against individualized interpretations or application concerning order and practice. This is a stance against an individual or sectarian application of reason or experience or interpretation of tradition. Whether one decides to imagine Hooker proposing a four-legged stool of reason, ancient practices of the Church,ecclesiastical authority, and equity or a traditional interpretation of Scripture, tradition and reason as a sort of three-legged stool, one must remember that Hooker envisions a method that is performed collectively for the life of the entire Church. It concerns order and practice, not settled doctrine. Personal preferences and insights are not the drivers of the decision making process but rather a consultation of a collective repository embedded within the life and structures of the Church itself.


Filed under Ecclesiology, Episcopal Church and Anglicanism, Richard Hooker

Reading Richard Hooker, Book V.2-5

For this week, we read Book V, chapters 2 through 5. The most interesting dimension of this section is the issue of superstition. Here Hooker addresses the Puritan critique that superstitious practices in the worship of the Church of England reveal that it is not a truly reformed church. In addressing this critique, Hooker echoes arguments contained in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as found in its Preface and Of Ceremonies.

Hooker seeks to establish that the worship of the Church of England is not superstitious. He does this first by arguing that its worship is distorted neither by zeal (given over too much to argumentation) or fear (lacking true understanding in regard to worship of God) (V.3). For Hooker, “Superstition is, when thinges are either abhorde or observd, with a zealous or fearfull, but erroneous relation to God” (V.3.2).

Building upon this definition, Hooker goes on to distinguish what he means by proper worship. Two things can be meant. The first is an inward, reasonable form of worship belonging to God. The second is “all manner vertuous duties that each man in reason and conscience to Godward oweth” (V.4.3). As fitting the controversy with the Puritans, Hooker is intent on addressing only the second aspect of worship in order to show that the worship of the Church of England is not superstitious. Notable in this distinction is that Hooker assumes that his Puritan opponents agree with him that the Church of England is reformed in theology. His goal in this book is to persuade them tht it is also properly reformed in practice.

Here we see that in the late 16th century, the operating assumption was that the Church of England was a national church that participated in a broader reformed consensus as opposed to seeing itself as a middle way between Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions.

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Filed under Church of England, Ecclesiology, Richard Hooker

Reading Richard Hooker

At CDSP I have led the Richard Hooker Reading Group since the fall semester of 2009. The purpose of this group is simple: to read through Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity from beginning to end. If you have ever tried reading this work, you know this is a massive task. In the critical edition, this is a three-volume work full of challenging late Elizabethan prose. To make this task manageable, I decided that reading Hooker would involve people sitting together and simply reading his words out loud for about an hour.

The process is simple. One person reads until they get to the end of the sentence. Then the next person reads. Then the next. I offer explanations as we are reading, either drawn from my own learning or by utilizing the commentary from the Folger Library critical edition.

This semester at CDSP we have finally gotten to Book V of the Laws. For Anglican this is probably the most famous part of the Laws due to his detailed defense of the worship of the Church of England and his articulation of sacramental theology and participation in Christ via the sacraments.

When this reading group first began, I kept a weekly blog summarizing the weekly discussion. Unfortunately, after the first year I fell out of practice with this. I am hoping, however, to blog through Book V as there is more general interest in this portion of Hooker’s work.

With that in mind, this past week we read the first chapter of Book V. In it, Hooker seeks to rebuff Puritan critiques of the worship of the Church of England. As he did at the beginning of the Laws, Hooker starts with first principles. Specifically, he argues that any well ordered society contains within it a form of religion that guides citizens towards the common good. Hooker allows that all religions serve this purpose, even imperfect ones, such as Roman religion in his example. His overarching point is that Puritans must be very careful in critiquing the worship of the Church of England. This worship has been designed to ensure that the entire commonwealth of England is oriented towards the highest good. In Hooker’s mind, the worship of the Church of England is ideally suited for an English context due to the royal supremacy over the church. Trying to impose a more reformed, Genevan style of worship, as is the Puritan’s desire, would ill fit the English context.

The overarching lesson rests in recognizing how for Hooker worship and good ordering of the English commonwealth is meant to go hand in hand. I would venture that this notion is far from most theological perspectives of contemporary Episcopalians.


Filed under Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Ecclesiology, Richard Hooker

Why an Episcopal Church in Poland?

Something new happened in Krakow this Saturday. People gathered in an upper room of St. Martin’s Lutheran Church to spend a day together learning about the Episcopal Church and discerning whether it is God’s will that an Episcopal community be established in Poland.

People gathered from all over Poland representing the range of Polish Christianity. There were Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Old Catholics, and Mariavites.  People came from Krakow, Warsaw, Czestochowa, Poznan, and beyond. The participants were male and female, gay and straight, with the vast majority under 40 if not 35. Bishop Pierre Whalon of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, his wife Melinda, and myself acted as representatives and ambassadors for the Anglican expression of Christianity found in the Episcopal Church.

Those gathered did what Christians have always done. They prayed. They learned from one another. They shared a meal. They talked together, discerning what God might be doing among them. And they worshiped together. In fact, history was made as the celebration of the feast of John Donne, presided by Bishop Whalon, was the first celebration of the Episcopal liturgy in the history of Krakow. And unlike the great barriers that exist between Protestant and Roman Catholic bodies in Poland, all were welcomed to receive communion and all who desired this did.

As we discerned together, it soon became clear that those who had come to this meeting keenly felt the need for an Anglican way in Poland. As one person noted, there are many Christians in Poland who cannot finds themselves in the Roman Catholic Church, the Polish Old Catholic Church, or the various Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed churches that make up the Polish Ecumenical Council. There is no church in Poland that is rooted in the Catholic traditions of the ancient church, ordered according to the apostolic succession and retaining the primacy of scripture while also admitting all people to ordained ministry, including women and members of the LGBT community.

The Episcopal Church is especially attractive because it is located in a wider communion and tradition. It is not one of the many sectarian movements that have sprouted up among disaffected Christians in Poland over the past twenty years. The Episcopal Church has a clear set of doctrinal teachings that are minimally defined so that people may engage with the teachings of the church in a reflective way.

The baptismal ecclesiology of the Episcopal Church offers a means of equipping laity for ministry in Poland. This is a radical departure from Polish Christianity which has traditionally fostered an attitude where the clergy dispense the gifts of the church to the laity without including them deeply in the ministry of the church. Given that the mission of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe is to foster local expressions of the Episcopal Church, there is support for an ongoing project to translate the BCP and other resources into Polish. Those who celebrated the Eucharist with us in Polish found it familiar and comfortable.

In other words, the Episcopal Church has a tremendous opportunity to offer a way of being Christian in Poland to those who are looking for a church that adheres to ancient traditions but flings wide its doors to include all people – male and female, gay and straight, lay and ordained – into its ministry of carrying out God’s mission in the world.

As the workshop concluded people expressed gratitude, joy, and a willingness to journey onwards. Some important things were learned. One was that it appears Krakow is not the best location for starting a community. More interest appears to exist in the west and north of Poland. As a result, one of the next steps is to organize a retreat in Anglican spirituality for interested people from this workshop and elsewhere to be held at the end of June in Poznan, a large university city in the west.

I am not certain what I thought would happen this weekend. On the one hand, I was very hopeful and optimistic. On the other hand, I knew a church could not blossom in a day. Church planting is just that, planting. A lot needs to happen on the way from a seed to a tree. This weekend the Spirit’s presence allowed us to break open the soil, scatter some seeds, and pour some water. But more working of the soil, more scattering of seeds, more nourishing with water is needed. God will grow this tree if it is meant to take root. Pray for good soil, fertile seeds, and plentiful water as this work unfolds.

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Filed under Cracow, Ecclesiology, Episcopal Church and Anglicanism, TEC in Europe

Children at the Table and Open Communion, or, the Agape Restaurant

One of the unexpected elements of moving from worshipping in the context of the Episcopal Church to the Church of England is a different approach to the Eucharist.  This has been more a difference of emphasis than of importance, but I think it points up divergent ecclesiologies between the two churches.

This experience of difference is felt most strongly for me at the local parish church my family attends. Two things stand out for me (keeping in mind that I came to the Episcopal Church about 15 years after the introduction of the 1979 BCP). First, the Eucharist is not celebrated as the primary service every week. Rather, once a week there is a type of Morning Prayer that is labelled ‘All Ages Worship’ and includes ‘family’ oriented songs and prayers. In practice, this is geared for those ten and under. That there could be a primary service without Eucharist reveals the broader approach to worship in the Church of England where there is more need to encompass a wider set of worship practices than one finds in the Episcopal Church.

But why no Eucharist at the All Ages Worship?  Because it is not normal practice in the Church of England to communicate children. The norm is for children only to receive communion after confirmation. In 2006 regulations were introduced to permit diocesan bishops to allow parishes to communicate baptized prior to confirmation. Now about 15% of parishes do this as a regular practice.

This practice brought up short my children, especially my 5 year-old son. Both of our children were communicated for the first time the day they were baptized. I realize now that our assumption (and that of our priests and parish) that this was acceptable is in part due to our location. I mean this in two ways. One reason is that the Episcopal Church has taken it that Eucharist is the central act of Christian worship and ideally is done as the principle Sunday service (I realize there are still some Morning Prayer churches kicking around out there). A strong piece alongside this is the baptismal ecclesiology of the Episcopal Church which holds that once one is baptized, one is brought fully into the life of the church. In this ecclesiology, communicating baptized infants makes sense.

The second reason is that our children were baptized in two different parishes in the East Bay in California. Of course the seminary where I teach, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, is also located there in Berkeley. And at CDSP, there have been important professors of liturgy who have championed this very idea of baptismal ecclesiology. One of them was Massey Shepherd who had a great hand in writing the 1979 BCP and was a clear articulator of its baptismal ecclesiology. The second figure was Louis Weil, who was oversaw the writing of the Baptismal Covenant of the 1979 BCP. More importantly for this post, he was a clear proponent of communicating children prior to confirmation and incorporating children into the worship of the congregation. This did not mean dumbing down the liturgy but making sure children were actively involved in it. Indeed I was honoured to have Louis preach at my son’s baptism at St. Mark’s Berkeley in 2007.

What all this means is that my children have a highly developed awareness of the Eucharist. Between attending weekly community Eucharist at CDSP during the school year and attending most Sundays at our current parish, All Souls in Berkeley, I would guess my son has received communion about 300 times and my two year-old daughter about 130 times. My son especially is very serious about receiving the Eucharist.

So when we got to our parish church here in England, we were surprised to find that children leave the service soon after the opening hymn for children’s church and are not brought back for communion. In fact, they never return to church but parents get them afterwards during fellowship time. This really distressed my son in particular though my daughter noticed it as well. After some asking around, I found out that a child from another province of the Anglican Communion who has regularly received communion in that province may also receive communion in the Church of England prior to confirmation.  With that knowledge, we worked it out with our vicar to ensure both our kids could regularly receive communion and this has worked out very well.

All of this throws the current debate in the Episcopal Church about open communion or communion without baptism into sharper relief for me.  You can follow some of that debate in a recent thread on the Episcopal Cafe here.

The first observation is that the current set of assumptions about the role of the Eucharist and who has access to it varies greatly between the Episcopal Church and the Church of England. I cannot speak for other provinces of the Anglican Communion on this front, but I suspect more are closer to the CofE than to TEC.

The second is that these differences stem from different interpretations about the meaning of the sacrament of Baptism. Baptism and Eucharist are inextricably linked, but how that linkage matters is different in the two churches. If Baptism means that you are commissioned for ministry, which is at the core of the Episcopal Church’s baptismal ecclesiology, it makes sense to give communion to anyone baptized. In the Church of England there is a more traditional ecclesiology, shared with Roman Catholicism, for example, in which the mission of the church is identified with ordained ministry. Flowing from this come the differing views on communicating children.

The third observation is that if there are such obvious differences between communicating children in the two churches, then one can only imagine the amazing gap that would open if the Episcopal Church were to endorse communion without baptism (as proposed by the Diocese of Eastern Oregon) at the General Convention this summer. I am not sure it would deepen the divisions that currently exist in the Anglican Communion as a whole, but it would be a notable departure.

Finally, I would argue that welcoming baptized children at the table is not the same as explicitly  inviting those who are not baptized. First, the baptized child has had promises made by godparents, parents, and indeed the entire congregation to ensure this child is raised in the faith of Christ. My wife and I have powerfully experienced this at our parish. Our children receive communion in the context of those promises.  This sort of act of making promises and acting them out as a body of believes is a clear expression of baptismal ecclesiology.

But no one in the congregation stands up and makes promises that they will lead those unbaptized people who come up for communion into a deeper faith in Christ. We don’t because it would not make sense in the context of our baptismal ecclesiology. I fully believe that the desire to practice open communion comes from a place of good intentions. But it lacks the Anglican virtue of coherence in which a practice or belief reasonably coheres with the fullness of scriptural witness and apostolic tradition. In essence, it contradicts our proclamation that full participation in the Body of Christ begins from baptism. How then could one receive the Body of Christ before baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection?

This takes me to a possible solution: get serious about sharing meals on Sundays.

One of the themes in the debate around open communion is whether it is about replicating Jesus’ table fellowship or the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. I hold that Eucharist is directly linked to the Last Supper and less obviously linked to other gospel accounts about table fellowship. A reading of early church literature also bears this out. However, proponents of open communion are absolutely correct in arguing that Jesus’ practice of radically open table fellowship is a necessary element of Christian witness.

Curiously, an atheist intellectual has pointed the way on this. Alain de Boton, in his new book Religion for Atheists, has argued that the agape meals practiced by early Christians can provide a model for how to overcome the modern problem of alienation. Boton envisions creating secular ‘Agape Restaurants’ where strangers become friends. He describes it this way:

Such a restaurant would have an open door, a modest entrance fee and an attractively designed interior. In its seating arrangement, the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart. Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach. By simple virtue of being in the space, guests would be signalling—as in a church—their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.

What strikes me about this is that Boton identifies what can be best about church – that it makes strangers friends – but rarely is manifested. But I argue it can.  I live in foodie heaven. My parish is two blocks from Berkeley’s so-called ‘Gourmet Ghetto.’ When I moved here I was struck about how food oriented coffee hour is here. Back in Boston, coffee hour was just that – coffee, and usually bad. Here there are delicious spreads of cheese, sweets, and desserts often from the fruit tree in someone’s backyard. It is never elaborate, but it takes works. And it also creates a space where people linger and connect.

Now, imagine if instead of a coffee hour, the time after church involved a full blown meal. Every week.  And imagine if at communion, the priest said that all baptized Christians were welcome to receive and that afterwards everyone was invited for a full meal that would continue the feast begun at the altar. Such an invitation would show seekers that here was a church that both took its worship of God seriously but also truly invited all to explore the way of Jesus.  I also argue this would create a deeper sense of fellowship in Christ among congregation members. A weekly agape meal would require greater commitment for all, since clearly all members of the congregation would be expected to pitch in. But it would be a tangible piece of discipleship and deeply countercultural in our overscheduled world. And it is already working in its own way at places like St. Lydia’s.

In short, what would it look like if every time we celebrated the foretaste of the banquet of the Lamb we actually had a banquet? Kids and seekers welcome.


Filed under Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Church of England, Ecclesiology, Episcopal Church and Anglicanism

A Lateral Move

Wednesday nights are the occasion for a community Eucharist at Ripon College Cuddesdon (a bit like Community Night at CDSP). Tonight I had the pleasure of hearing Tim Naish (Dean of the Oxford Ministry Course and Lecturer in Missiology) preach. It was a very fine Lenten sermon. Tim unpacked the readings — the act of covenant making between God and Israel in Deuteronomy and Jesus’ declaration that he had come not abolish but fulfill the Law. The core theme was the ways in which people are drawn into the life of God and the transformations that unfold from that.

What might have been an offhand illustration in the middle of the sermon struck me. Speaking of invitations to a deeper life, Tim asked how should church leaders respond when parishioners, after being moved by formation programs like Alpha, ask what is next for them to do in that community.  The implication was that, generally, church leadership is not always equipped to take people deeper.

In my mind flashed all the amazing things that parishioners can do if they are empowered to. And not just inside church walls or doing explicitly “churchy” things like helping with the parish soup kitchen. I got to thinking of Martin Luther’s conviction that all Christians have a vocation to minister and that their occupation is where they are called to live out that ministry.  When a parishioner asks what is next, perhaps the best thing to do is to ask, “What is God calling you to where you are already?”

This is a different way of envisioning being church.  It makes being church less vertical. Parishioners are not only receiving things from church. It makes church more lateral.  Parishioners are being church. Not just on Sunday, but every day. They bring the church into the world. What can you imagine empowered parishioners doing? Reading the letter of resignation from a Goldman Sachs employee, I can envision brave stands for corporate ethics, a move away from decisions made solely on dividends and market share, a fair distribution of executive and worker pay.

Of course, what I am describing depends on the baptismal ecclesiology embedded in the existing life of the Episcopal Church and expressed in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. I have written about this elsewhere with my colleague Ruth Meyers on the subject of sanctity. At its core, the baptismal ecclesiology of the Episcopal Church holds, much as Luther did, that all Christians by virtue of their baptism are commissioned as ministers of Christ’s reconciling love. This love has practical expressions in acts of compassion, charity, and justice. Ministry in this forms does not require ordination. Ministry in this form can be lateral.

To emphasize the lateral dimensions of ministry, that all Christians are called to it, might be a way of moving the Episcopal Church out of its current structural crisis.  If, as has been argued by the Crusty Old Dean (aka Tom Ferguson), the era of centralizing denominational systems is over, if the vertical alone won’t cut it anymore, then it is time to make a lateral move. When we speak of the riches of the Episcopal Church we name our sacraments, our historic episcopate, our tradition, our appeal to a reasoned interpretation of the Scriptures. But we also have a gift in our baptismal ecclesiology. We still need funding sources form the national church. We still need offices and centers that can help people coordinate ministry and offer resources, best practices, and sites for making common cause. But we do also need a new way of expressing our core ministries of worship and mission. If Episcopalians really mean it the Baptismal Covenant when they vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons, they can find ways to fulfill it in lateral forms of ministry

What would it look like if parishes and dioceses set to work to ensure that the Christian life carried over from Sunday to Monday by explicitly linking the worship and teaching in church to the rest of life? To be sure there are many places that strive for this, but many that falter. And regardless, there are still more to be reached with the message of God’s transforming grace. And there are more corners of our culture that need the witness of Christ’s love and desire for justice. All levels of the church (Episcopal and otherwise) need to awaken to the need to nurture disciples of Christ who will take Sunday to Monday. Discipleship breeds mission. It is time to pick up the pace and to spread our mission out of the vertical structures and make lateral moves that educate, equip, and empower all Christians to be ambassadors of Christ’s reconciling love and desire for justice.

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Filed under Discipleship, Ecclesiology, Episcopal Church and Anglicanism

Whitterings: The Anglican Covenant and the Experience of The Scottish Episcopal Church: Rewriting History for Expediency’s Sake.

Whitterings: The Anglican Covenant and the Experience of The Scottish Episcopal Church: Rewriting History for Expediency’s Sake..

This post is a few months old but worth reading for those interested in other models of Anglican ecclesiology outside the orbit of the Church of England. It also raises important questions for claims made in the historical section of the proposed Anglican Covenant.

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Filed under Anglican Covenant, Ecclesiology

Disestablishment and Discipleship

One of the biggest benefits of being a professor is the opportunity to have a sabbatical. Since mid-January I have been on sabbatical from my church history position at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. I have been living with my family in Oxfordshire and enjoying my position as a visiting scholar at Ripon College Cuddesdon, a theological college preparing people for ministry in the Church of England and elsewhere.

Over the past few years I have found myself increasingly drawn to questions of ecclesiology.  So it has been a great pleasure for me to be at Cuddesdon (as they call it) and to spend time listening to and talking with Mark Chapman, an important voice in Anglican ecclesiology. Mark Chapman has been teaching at Cuddesdon for 20 years and last weekend there was a symposium held in his honor.

I was only able to attend his lecture (a family outing to see Thomas the Tank Engine at the Didcot Railway Centre held precedence for most of the day). In his talk, Mark Chapman spoke of the decline in the established Church of England. He quuickly laid out the statistics showing decline in the Church of England in terms of active membership (about one million), current baptism rates (about 20% of the population), and current confirmation rates (about 12%). But he refused to bemoan these statistics. Chapman argued instead that it is in keeping with the gospel vision that Christianity should be a minority religion. When a church becomes established, becomes normative, it loses it vitality and sense of mission. But a small church is one in which all members are called to do the work of the church and engage in a life of active discipleship. When an established church devolves to the work of being a local church it can overcome the stultifying effects of bureaucracy. People are called upon to act for themselves to achieve the gospel vision of a community of love, justice, and peace. As I interpret these words, when a church begins to conceive of itself in local terms, and not in established terms, it also begins to conceive of itself as a community of disciples, not a community of consumers.

All of this got me thinking about the difficult situation the Episcopal Church has found itself in. There has been a signficant decline in membership over the past decade. Currently  there has been much outcry about the new budget for the Episcopal Church. Behind those budget cuts is the story of the decline of this denomination. For a long time, the Episcopal Church has acted like a quasi-established church in the United States. It has assumed that it held a place of cultural prestige because of its wealth, its association with American elites, its aesthetically pleasing liturgy.  But none of those assumptions have held.

Amidst the tumbling down of assumptions, Chapman’s words are useful.  It is at the moment of decline and of crumbling assumptions that we can best hear the call to discipleship.  Perhaps now is the best time to abandon Henry Hobart’s dream that the Episcopal Church will become the national church of the United States. Now is the time to stop assuming that if we just show how we worship in the right way, people will be drawn to us. Now is the time to stop assuming that because we once were influential we still are. Now is the time to take up the opportunity to reimagine how best to be a church called to discipleship.  If the Church of England needs to own up to these questions, so do we.


Filed under Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Church of England, Discipleship, Ecclesiology, Episcopal Church and Anglicanism, Ripon College Cuddesdon