Two Altars    (by Jon Shuler​​)

Many years ago a visiting minister had led a weekend of renewal in my friend’s congregation, and was meeting with him on the morning after. There had been much excitement and evidence of some lasting fruit, and they began to discuss the ministry of making disciples. “Do you want your ministry to be ‘making disciples,’” the visitor asked? “Yes,” said my friend (the Sunday School answer). “Then you are going to have to make a decision,” the visitor replied. “Are you going to worship at the altar of God or at the altar of the denomination?”

My friend began, in that long ago year, to seek to learn to be a disciple-making pastor. He continues on that course to this day, and he has been a dear brother to me. I have learned much from him, and I dare to believe that we have been “iron sharpening iron” in one another’s lives, though we are ordained in different families of the church. His story, shared with me over twenty-five years ago, has remained in my mind and on my heart. I think what that visiting minister told him was true.

There is no doubt in my mind that most of my brother Anglican clergy understand themselves to be serving at the altar of God, as I certainly did for many years. But I gradually realized that, in my own life, the best energy and effort I was making was to reinforce a particular way of serving God, not serving God. I was committed to seeing a particular pattern of religious life lived, and had become dull to focusing on the inner reality of the lives of many of my people. I presumed that the central reality for them was a desire to love and serve the Lord, if they conformed to Anglican norms. I had very little understanding of what it meant to be a faithful disciple of Jesus in any and every circumstance. And even further, I did not know how to make a disciple who would make a disciple.

When I asked God for forgiveness and began to reorient the pattern of my ministry I found that over and over my ecclesiastical superiors, and my brother clergy, stood apart from my understanding. When I left the parish I then served, after six subsequent years of ministry designed to make disciple-making central, the bishop of the diocese told the senior layman of the parish: ”We need to find a new rector who will bring this parish back into the Episcopal Church.”

That was twenty-seven years ago, and much has transpired to challenge business as usual in the various Anglican communities of the world, but the question about altars is still pressing. Are we worshipping at the one altar that matters, or at an altar of our own making?

Many of us are concluding Fall stewardship campaigns at this time, and developing budgets for the coming year. What do those budgets show that we really value? What do they show us we worship?

 Next Week: Discipling ABC’s

Facing the Truth   (by Jon Shuler​​)

Why is it so hard? Why do we resist so strenuously when we are faced with unpleasant truths? Why do men find it so hard to admit error? To acknowledge fault. To repent of sin?

Of course we know the answer. We are sinners. We are fallen creatures. We prefer to pretend that all is well, rather than admit we are lost. We lead without knowing where we are going, or how to get there, and we dare not admit it. We have salaries, and offices, and pensions that would be thrown into jeopardy. So we paint buildings, and redesign liturgical spaces, we add new wings onto old buildings, we revise our liturgies.

In 1977 I first asked the question of my seniors; “Why has the church declined so much since 1965?” The question was universally met with some version of this response: “We are interested in quality, not quantity.” I heard this from the Presiding Bishop and the Diocesan Bishop. I heard it from the senior clergy of my diocese. I heard it from Standing Committee members and Vestry members. It was puzzling to me since the clear teaching of Jesus seemed to presume numerical growth among his followers. A tree was to be judged by its fruit. Was I wrong?

I was a young Curate when I first asked those questions. When I was finally trusted to lead a parish I learned a lot. Growing an Anglican Parish was not easy. Many traditions and patterns of organization militated against any significant growth. But with effort and focus it was possible I found. With significant teaching, preaching, and much hard work we could gain a few percentage points each year. A few more in average attendance, a slightly higher budget figure. An increase in the number of adults confirmed.

And then a day came when the wider church called for us all to rethink our ministry. In that year (1988) the entire Anglican Communion was called to a Decade of Evangelism. I thought it was a call from God. I gave myself to it. I thought our parish had some good lessons to share with others. I wanted to see the whole Anglican Family grow. And then God confronted me with the truth.

It came in the form of two questions and a statement while I was at prayer. First I believe the Lord asked me: “How many adults have been added to the parish?”  We had spent several million dollars and had seventeen adults net. Then he asked me: “Would any of them die for me?” I began to weep in a deep repentance. Next came this statement: “I called you to make disciples, and you are making Episcopalians.”

I have never recovered. I have been trying to realign my life and ministry in the light of that day ever since. I have become passionately convinced that to make disciples is the most central of all ministries. When this is prioritized everything else begins to change. When this is neglected, everything else begins to decline. Facing this truth is essential.

Next Week: Two Altars

Who Will Repent?   (by Jon Shuler​​)

Anyone who has honestly begun to follow the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord has a testimony of repentance. No one seriously begins the journey of Christian Faith without facing their own sins, both of commission and omission. True repentance before the Lord is always life changing. It is never forgettable. His grace and love are showered upon the repentant sinner. Always. But what of the life we then begin to lead?

The custom of the church to have a publicly recited confession every week is ancient, and I believe to to be good. But I know that the reality for myself and many others is that we do not usually repent at all well on a normal Sunday morning. At best most of us utter a prayerful “Please forgive me Lord” without any focus whatsoever. At least this has been my experience. Because of that I began years ago to make a regular time in my life to be alone with the Lord and to review my life before him while on retreat. I have found that often those days have led to a profound awareness of error and sin, and have brought me back to my “first love” over and over again.

Individual repentance is a continuing part of following Christ Jesus, and surely the corollary for the ordered life of the church is continuing reformation. But true reformation never comes without an admission of error. Is the organizational church in error? What if the path she is treading is the wrong one? What if she has gotten as entangled in the world as any other company of men, and is actually leading people in a direction that is contrary to God’s will? Is that possible? The entire witness of the Holy Scriptures makes it perfectly clear that it is possible. But how would we know, and what would we do if we did?

Suppose that the measure of any community’s faithfulness is measurable, and that it is possible to gauge that measure annually. Suppose also that the numerical growth of the community of faith is the single most important external evidence of faithfulness. Then suppose that you belonged to a community that got smaller every year for nearly fifty years. Would anybody notice? Would anybody care? Would that require repentance in the body of Christ? Would any of her leaders heed that call? Would anyone repent?

The English Reformers asserted that there were major errors that had been committed by ancient communities of Christian People. The XIXth Article of Religion was extremely blunt: “As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.” What should be said today, I believe, is that “the Church of England” needs to be added to the Article.  So do her American children. Western Anglicanism has been in numerical, doctrinal, and moral decline for over fifty years.

How can leaders not notice? How can pious language about mission and the extension of the kingdom of God keep being uttered when decline is everywhere visible?

Next Week: Facing the Truth

Clarifying the Mission.   (by Jon Shuler​​)

One of the greatest managerial consultants of all time, the late Peter Drucker, taught me that the most important question to ever ask when evaluating an organization is this; “What is reality?” Organizations that are in trouble, or disarray, or decline, are almost always not facing reality. Until their leaders are willing to face reality, they will continue to unravel. Some will hang on in a marginal fashion, others will simply die.

The second question that Peter told me must be asked, when reality is finally being faced is this: “What is the mission?” He actually told me that this is often the harder question to answer because troubled organizations are not clear about what they are doing. They are usually doing many things that are actually working against one another. They have competing understandings of their mission alive and well inside their walls, and that impedes – if not stops – most progress toward accomplishing the mission. Clarifying the mission inside a troubled organization is never simple, but it is essential.

What then is the mission of the church of Jesus Christ? No matter how it gets phrased, I would argue that it is most centrally seen in the opening call of the Lord Jesus to his first disciples; “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” That is the mission. That is the only mission. And when the season of preparation had ended the mission was restated in our Lord’s Final Command: “Go and make disciples of all peoples….”

What would be different in any local church that took that mission seriously? Almost everything. A series of questions would have to come to the fore. Where is time being spent? Where are resources being directed? How are people mobilized to accomplish that mission? What are the results we expect to see if we are effective?

To honestly ask those kinds of questions, if there is true conviction about the mission the Lord Jesus gave to the church, is to be faced with the clearest possible evidence that there most be a change in the priorities of her corporate life. Her best energies, her best resources, and her best people are not being used to accomplish the mission. They are all almost all propping up the organizational life of the church.

It brings this question to our honest scrutiny: “Do we want to realign the work we are doing so as to more effectively serve the mission? Do we have the will and the heart to face this challenge? Do we feel the weight of the impending judgment upon those who are wasting the talents that God has given us, for the sake of the salvation of the world?

Or do we turn aside and continue as we are?

In 1991, I heard Peter declare that all the major complex organizations of the world were based on presuppositions that were no longer true. The 21st Century had already begun he said (it was 1991), and it was going to be necessary for all such organizations to be restructured or they were going to rapidly become obsolete. I actually thought he was speaking prophetically, but I did not realize it was going to effect me. I did not see.

Next Week: Who Will Repent?

Local Leadership Reform? A Proposal.   (by Jon Shuler​​)

A good friend and reader of this weekly blog asked me the other day: “Why do you dislike bishops so?” I was not surprised by the question, as I have heard it before, but it shows my friend has not understood what I have written. I love and respect my bishop. I am a faithful Anglican Christian. I believe the Lord of the Church brought the ancient episcopacy into being in the first century, but I believe the current understanding of this office in the church has strayed from the original purpose for which it was instituted by God. I believe God desires the spiritual oversight of his church to be very local, and tied in a living way to a worshipping community that gathers week by week at the table of the Lord. I believe that the ministry of oversight given to bishops is meant to be exercised by a man called by God to that office. I believe he is to be the head of the local community of leadership, both ordained and lay. His principle work is to preach and teach the Word of God, to preside when faithful believers gather for worship, and to take order for the extension of the church’s full time ministry. But this is not what the modern episcopate does. It must be reformed, I believe.

But where can this begin? In the long run, only God knows, but now some things are very clear. First, the ordination vows that all the clergy take commit them to a higher duty than to obey canonical complexities and liturgical rubrics. I do not believe they are free to cavalierly disobey the authority that is placed over them by the present ordering of the church, but I do note that for centuries they vowed to submit only to “godly ad-monitions,” and to “godly judgements.” These are frequently not the same thing as the latest guidance from the diocesan office, or the meeting of the bishops of a province. Nor is it always the same thing as obedience to things “lawful and honest” as the 2019 Book of Common Prayer states. I do not say it is not, but it may not be. Are there bishops who recognize this, and who will publicly acknowledge it?

Second, are there bishops holding office now who would be willing to relax the hold they exercise over their clergy in dozens of minor things, in order to free them all to focus on major things? Could the attention to many institutional and highly clericalized matters be dispensed, for the sake of a new and radical obedience to only that which the Lord Jesus commanded? What if everything that is now funded and supported by the existing structures was brought under the scrutiny of the only one mission given by the Lord of the church? What if everything began to be evaluated by its fidelity to that one mission, that the church is to be “making disciples” conformed to all that Jesus taught?

Third, are there not a few local rectors in every diocese whose faithful gospel integrity has been proven over time, and who could be “released” by these bishops to pare down the ministry of their local congregation to earlier apostolic example, and thus to become a test case for the restructuring of the local church for mission?

I can only speak as one voice, but when such reform has begun in times past there has always been a surge of new life and growth given by God. Sometimes even revival.

Next Week: Clarifying the Mission

Can These Bones Live?  (by Jon Shuler​​)

The threefold episcopal polity defended by the Church of England at the time of the Reformation, and defended by all her progeny, has yielded no ground in conflict for the past five centuries. Indeed, what has clearly happened has been the elevation of this pattern into a rigid institutional commitment with less and less connection to its most ancient roots, let alone an understanding of the 16th century attempt to reform it. Meanwhile, in those parts of the world which are most developed, the demographic data reveal that the Anglican churches are everywhere in decline. In some countries precipitously. Could there be a connection between these realities?

Reading the New Testament suggests that when the gospel is preached and lived with authenticity the life of God’s people flourishes. Church History reveals the same truth. The natural conclusion from those facts suggests that something is wrong in the Anglican Family. But what is it?

The life of Christ’s Church is predicated upon one simple foundation: the gospel of Jesus Christ is true. Christ is risen from the dead, and the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon all believers. Submission to the revealed will of God and his Christ is the evidence that one is grafted into the body. The multiplication of true believers is the evidence that disciples are being made and the kingdom of God is being extended on earth. Leadership in the church that is not producing those outcomes is leadership that is not aligned with the will of God. Some would even say that the Anglican experiment in reformed catholic faith and order has failed. But has it? Can these bones live?

The biblical narrative reveals again and again that God can intervene when all human hope seems gone. To suggest therefore that the end has come, when there remain thousands upon thousands of congregations scattered throughout the Anglican world, in nation after nation, is surely a sign of little faith. A saving remnant may certainly exist in place after place. But to presume God’s blessing on our extended community, rather than to mourn and grieve over our condition, is surely a sign of sin.

Our Lord Jesus has taught us that to follow him would lead to trials and tribulation. He clearly predicted that the road that leads to life would be narrow and hard, and few would choose to travel it. But for those called, it was the glorious path to all that was truly worthwhile. The question that remains is this: Will the rising generation of leaders turn their faces toward the Son of God, and submit to his leadership?

Organized churches do not die quickly. they fade away inch by inch. Hundreds of small denominational groups and networks are hanging on throughout the world. Even once great church movements and communions are shrinking rapidly in many places. New believers, when they are added, are being added far too slowly to offset the inevitable. But will the leaders who hold positions of prestige and power, with worldly respect and secure pensions, pay the necessary price of reform?

Next Week: Local Leadership Reform? A Proposal.

Oversight of the Congregation  (by Jon Shuler​​)

The history of the parish and its ministry in England is so historically complex, and unique to that country, that their patterns have not generally prevailed in the wider Anglican Family. Where there was a high degree of hierarchical authority in the culture, Anglo-catholic patterns of top down authority have sometimes prevailed. Where the more historic reformed Anglican church has been strong the authority has stayed in the parish. In the United Sates of America, where the very first daughter of what would one day be called the Anglican Communion came to birth, it stayed local. The parish priest was expected to give spiritual oversight, assisted by a vestry of committed laymen. For almost two centuries this pattern prevailed without the presence of a bishop.

Life in the colonial parishes went well with good local leadership, but suffered in its absence, and the cry gradually went up for bishops to be consecrated for America. The “completion” (as it was called) of the Episcopal system became a fact soon after the establishment of an independent nation. But there were many voices calling for a reformed episcopate, not the monarchical episcopate of medieval England, and a “constitutional Episcopacy” was the result. Bishops were accorded their customary roles, but they were subject to the consent of their clergy and laity in a constitutionally ordered way. And they had little of the hierarchical authority and trappings of old.

Nothing signified this more than the expectation and requirement that the bishop was in charge of a local congregation. He had Sunday duties every week in the same place. He had all the responsibilities of any other parish priest, plus those of his episcopal office. When the diocese were small, this duty was not onerous, but as the church grew it became more and more difficult for some men. Those with clear leadership vision and ability brought on younger men to share in the ministry of the parish, to be trained for an eventual call to lead a parish of their own. This lightened the burden for the bishop and freed him to care for the wider community. As the churches multiplied the division of diocese was resisted, however, and the span of care remained the state. The ability of any bishop to care for all the churches under his jurisdiction suffered in the nineteenth century, and by the twentieth administrative structures and systems were being adopted from the business world. Soon bishops ceased to lead parishes, and again the episcopal office was completely separated from the care of a local community.

Once more the ancient pattern of oversight in the local church suffered. Parish priests had spiritual duties, but less and less authority. Bishops gradually ruled. Little by little doctrinal confusion, scriptural laxity, and grave moral error crept in to many parishes often without the bishops knowing it. It was not long before even the episcopal office was corrupted. When godly efforts to bring moral reform commenced, there was frequently a blindness within the reforming movements to the problems which were endemic to the very system presumed. To defend the “historic episcopate,” as some tried valiantly to do, turned out to be defending a system that was divorced from the ancient ministry understanding that had once given it shape.

Next Week: Can These Bones Live?

A Reformed Episcopate?      (by Jon Shuler​​)

Until recent decades, one of the defining characteristics of the English people has been an innate conservatism. Patterns of life changed very slowly. Village traditions were kept alive for centuries. Titles, dress, speech, and governing institutions were very resistant to change, even of a modest kind. Those days are now gone, except as kept alive for the sake of tourism and the money it brings in to the country. When I was first a student in England in 1969, customs still prevailed in church and state that had not changed for four hundred years. That is largely gone from modern England. It is a new day.

The same English cultural pattern, that is the older conserving one, prevailed in the tumultuous changes of the 16th century. As the cry of “reformation” swept over the country the forces resisting change were strong. Nevertheless when a combination of political, economic, and social forces prevailed, and the old king was dead, those desiring ecclesiastical change rushed into the breach. Between the death of King Henry VIII in 1547 and the ascendancy of Elizabeth I in 1558, the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church of England were all subjected to reform. By 1570 the central instruments that would shape the Church of England had all been put in place: the Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal, and the 39 Articles of Religion. And the governance of the church by bishops had been retained. A very conservative revolution had been accomplished. And it shaped all of subsequent Anglicanism.

What did not happen, was a biblical reform of the ancient patterns, or at least not a very thorough going reform. Bishops still lived in palaces, sat in the House of Lords, and commanded great wealth. Two archbishops remained, one in York and one in Canterbury, with the ancient primacy granted to the latter. But the authority of bishops had been made subject to law, and the law made them subject to the Book of Common Prayer as approved by Parliament. Ancient prerogatives survived in many places, especially in the wealthiest diocese, but the unfettered power of earlier centuries was reigned in. Bishops still had sole responsibility for confirmation of those baptized as infants, the power of ordination, and the presidency of ecclesiastical courts. But most of the laity, and most of the clergy, almost never saw or interacted with a bishop in any personal way. The pastoral ministry of overseeing a local community, which had once been the bishop’s principle ministry, had long since devolved to the parish priests. The ancient duties were now theirs, but the name bishop belonged to others.

Thomas Cranmer knew that the evolved structures were a long way from the early patterns of the church, and sought to reform them. Whenever a man was ordained a priest he was now called back to the standards of the first century, as revealed in the New Testament. He was to be faithful to the “doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ.” The plumb line was not medieval tradition, but the teaching of the Lord Jesus. And he was given authority, by ordination, to exercise oversight in the parish, in the same “office and ministry” as the “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.” Cranmer sought to restore the ancient episcopate to the parish priests.

Next Week: Oversight of the Congregation

The Basic Unit of the Church?    (by Jon Shuler​​)

A good friend, leading a large Episcopal parish, was deeply involved in a national movement among larger congregations. Boldly he proclaimed that the local congregation was the basic unit of the church. Then he was elected bishop of a strong diocese. Within a short time he was proclaiming that “the diocese is the basic unit of the church.” Another friend, impishly, said: “I guess Ed thinks the basic unit of the church is whichever unit he leads.”

There is no historical doubt that within several decades of the death of the last of the apostles, the church universally embraced a pattern of ministry known as “episcopal.” It became constant and continuous practice to maintain that pattern, with one man in each local community of faith designated as the “bishop” or “shepherd” of that congregation. But he was assisted by other men, some called “presbyters” and others called “deacons.” They were the collective leadership of that place, with the bishop thought of as “the first among equals.” But it was never one man ministry. And it was very local.

The church universal grew, and as she did the conserving tendency of all organizations was as applicable to the ecclesiastical organization as it proves to be in all others. Men with a position do not give up their prerogatives easily, nor do traditions once established change quickly – if ever. In the first centuries when there was one congregation in a city there was one bishop and college of clergy. The jurisdiction they were responsible for was called a “parochia” in Greek. By the time cities had dozens of congregations, a few centuries later, there was still only one bishop and one college of clergy caring for them all. The title of bishop remained, but the function had changed.

When the administrative complexity of many congregations grew too great, diocese were invented to solve the problem. One bishop would oversee one diocese, and be the chief minister for all the clergy therein. Though originally, in the Roman Empire, a diocese contained many provinces, now the nomenclature was flipped. An ecclesiastical province came to contain many diocese. Now there was one very special bishop, named an archbishop, who would coordinate and give order to a whole province. Then in time some of the provincial archbishops would be thought more special than others, and their jurisdiction would be called a “patriarchate.” After centuries of this structural arrangement, some theologians would argue that this pattern was by divine intention. The next step to argue that by divine intention there was one very extra special bishop who would come to be called the “vicar of Christ.”

What stayed constant was the leadership of a man called “bishop.” Now there was one who claimed the oversight of all the churches of the world. And everywhere, all bishops had drawn to themselves the sole leadership of the church. Some of these leaders were holy men, but many were not. By the time of the Reformation, the structural pattern cried out to be rethought. The reforming fathers thought it should be subjected to biblical  scrutiny and judgment. The Church of England, in modern form, was one result.

Next Week: A Reformed Episcopate?

“None are So Blind….”.     (by Jon Shuler​​)

Our Lord Jesus Christ has taught us that it is very possible to be leading in the community of God’s people and yet be blind to the error that is being modeled. In his own time for every Nicodemus, secretly struggling with the truth, there were many who simply turned on Jesus. Even in his own home town he was driven out, with some wanting to kill him. What did he do or say that caused this hostility? By God’s grace we have the four gospels to tell us. He called the leaders to obey God’s Word.

Recently several dear friends have told me of episcopal elections soon to be held in their diocese. In each case, the process that has been inaugurated to elect has been a near replica of the system used in the Episcopal Church for the last seventy years, at least. Yet I know no one who believes that the current way the ministry of bishops is carried out is a good one. There are good and godly men, that is a fact, but the exercise of the diocesan episcopal ministry is – by almost all accounts – far from effective. Anyone who has had a private, and deeply honest, conversation with a current or retired bishop will confirm this. To many the system seems broken. Prophetic voices have said so for over a century. Yet the church goes on doing the same thing over and over.

One of my favorite sayings, learned these past few years, is this: “You have the perfect system for the results you are getting.” How might that apply to the leadership system in place among the new Anglicans of North America?

No one who knows the New Testament can argue that the current Anglican pattern of diocesan episcopal ministry is taught there. Indeed, any honest survey of the teaching of Jesus would bring forth a number of overt challenges. Is the bishop our “Father in God?” Jesus said: “Call no man father.” Is our bishop a “successor to the apostles?” The phrase and concept is nowhere. Should the bishop have the “chief seat?” It is the enemies of Jesus in the New Testament who want those seats. “My Lord Bishop?” There is only one Lord. The vestments and mitres and other external signs of office? “They make their tassels long and their phylacteries wide.”

I will be the first to argue, passionately, that the evidence is everywhere in the Holy Scriptures that God gives leaders to his people, and that they have positions of God given responsibility and authority. But the pattern of their leadership is to be different from that of the world. Special buildings, executive teams, a large support staff, multiple committee chairmanships, large budgets, and complex administrative systems were unheard of in the early centuries of the church. And yet she grew and prospered. The kingdom spread, throughout regions, nations, and continents.

What is the evidence that the leadership system we now have is effective? That it is helping the kingdom be extended from shore to shore. Indeed what evidence is there that this system is, in any real sense, biblical?

Next Week: The Basic Unit of the Church?