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?

Presbyopia.     (by Jon Shuler​​)

The heretical and institutional challenges facing biblically faithful clergy today are quite complex, but the problems did not appear overnight. They came steadily, sometimes through the front doors of the church, sometimes through the chimney. But they came, pressed on by the enemy of men’s souls. And most clergy did not see what was happening, especially the presbyters. They had clerical presbyopia.

Elders, or presbyters, were the backbone of the church’s leadership in the early generations of the historic Faith, and they have remained so. They are placed on the front lines of the church’s ministry in every parish. Without godly priests, the church falters. But they have gradually forfeited more and more of the authority given unto them by their Lord and his church. They have become dependent on higher authority. And many do not see the problem. Much that ennobles their calling has been lost.

Recent discussions in my diocese have illustrated this, as parish clergy grappled with the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic. In place after place men were incapacitated until detail instructions were given from diocesan headquarters.  Reams of paper were printed that sought to give explicit detail and direction to men charged by God to give oversight to the flock in which they serve. Holding the keys to life and death, men were showing themselves unable to decide when or how to share communion or preach the gospel without direction from above. The height of this sad state came when we were instructed we could not do communion in a natural and dispersed manner because the Archbishop had forbidden it. It was not so at the Reformation in England.

Of course in those days the issues were life or death, not just institutional conformity. To be on the wrong side of the authority of the realm could mean, and often did mean, martyrdom. But men went to their death rather than forfeit their freedom won in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many of them were lay Christians, others were ordained priests and bishops. The blood of those martyrs watered the soil that finally gave birth to the reformed Church of England. And Thomas Cranmer sought to preserve that freedom in the liturgy he bequeathed to the ages. Nowhere more than in his guidance and teaching given to the presbyters. They were to take up the ancient mantel of the apostolic office. They were to enter into the ministry of the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Ordained to preach the gospel and guide the local church into holiness, they were called to stand in the shadow of those martyrs and lead boldly. They were not ordained to be passive.

How then do we explain the gradual surrender of priestly, presbyteral, authority to the bishops as “always in charge” instead of rightly seeing bishops as historically evolved servants of those “actually in charge” in the parish? It started slowly, and grew for over a century, but it was finally explicit in the Book of Common Prayer of 1979. And because clergy eyes had grown old, most did not see. In that book he is now the ordinary leader for all services. He was now the fount of all authority. He had become again a “prince.”

Next Week: “None are So Blind….”

The Frog in the Kettle.     (by Jon Shuler​​)

That a once highly respected denomination could plunge in one lifetime from a place of general esteem, among serious orthodox observers, to a reputation for radical departure from the revealed truth of Holy Scripture, is breathtaking. Then to see the current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church as the preacher at a Royal Wedding, with the blessing of the Church of England and most of the world’s press, is even more confounding. Unless one knows the New Testament teaching of Jesus.

The world does not esteem the way of the Lord. Nor do those who seek the approval of the world. Nor does the enemy of men’s souls. But the leaders of the church of Christ Jesus? Those sworn to uphold the truth of the gospel? Those who promised to be loyal to the “doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ” as it was first received? How could a house of bishops go from overwhelmingly “wanting” to condemn heresy in 1966 to applauding the election of a proponent of gay and lesbian sexuality by 1997?

There is an often repeated tale that if you want to boil a frog, you need to start him off in cold water. As the water warms up he becomes more and more comfortable, until at length the water boils him alive. If he had been thrown into a pot of boiling water to begin with, he would have leaped out and survived. Burned, for sure, but alive. It is a perfect parable for what has happened in the Anglican Family in so many places.

When a much younger man, and trying to defend the historic Faith and Order of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, I was accused of believing in the “old slippery slope argument.” Naive and sensitive to social pressure from colleagues, I drew back. I did not think I was wrong, but my confidence was shaken by the widespread rejection of my opinion. Little by little my conscience grew stronger and my willingness to stand my ground grew, yet all the while I was drowning in a larger context of revisionism. After the General Convention of 1994 I thought the hour was perhaps too late, but I gave my best for three more years. In 1997 I had to say “No more.”

Twenty-four years later I am still seeing the effects of the incremental changes that so many of us got used to, even though we repented and fled. I watched as an entirely new denomination, the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), came into existence, and as the number of smaller offshoots (calling themselves Anglican) from the Episcopal Church has grown. But it is very clear that these “protest movements” are not gaining ground in the current moral and political confusion in America or Canada. The theology and polity of these groups is not gaining traction in the culture. It seems this is so for at least two reasons. Firstly, and commendably, they are absolutely opposed to the cultural trends shaping the society of the West. And secondly, but unfortunately, they are still continuing to trust in patterns of leadership and ministry that have failed effectively to assist the church of Christ Jesus to grow and flourish for many generations.

Sadly, in 2020, many godly leaders are not seeing reality, nor facing the consequences.


Next Week: Presbyopia

Why Did We Let It Happen?   (by Jon Shuler​​)

The beginning date for the modern attempt to bring renewal to the Episcopal Church is undoubtedly 1960, when the Rev. Dennis Bennett received what he called “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” That event set off a wave of new life that swept through the church, and indeed the Anglican Communion, and soon spread to many other historic denominations. In place after place, and life after life, the renewing work of the Holy Spirit gave hope to many that the historic biblical Faith was again about to become ascendant. The movement for a new beginning was soon added to by the re-emergence of a sizable Evangelical group of clergy and laity in America, and soon Evangelical Renewal was a more comprehensive descriptor. The high water mark for that hope, for many, was the New Wineskins for Global Mission Conference of 1994. But later in the Summer of that year it was clear that the bishops of the church did not have the political or spiritual will to restore biblical orthodoxy to the Episcopal Church. But many of us could not see, or refused to face the truth.

Why did we let it happen?

As one who gave thirty years to the struggle for that renewal, I include myself in the question. What made us believe that the forces of revisionism would yield to the truth of the gospel? Why did we go on expecting the House of Bishops to join us in the fight, when year by year more and more of them were patently liberal in their theology? The late Elton Trueblood, writing in 1955 could see what was happening, and wrote about it his book The Company of the Committed. He had interviewed Bishop James Pike in 1955, and it was clear to him that the man was on a trajectory of heresy and apostasy. He was not the only voice saying there was major trouble brewing in the Episcopal Church, but those voices were gradually drowned out. But still the evidence was there.

As more and more bishops refused to uphold the historic Faith and Order why were so many of us so blind? I first heard warnings from trusted clergy and my bishop in 1968. From 1955 to 1994 was there ever a single institutional sign that the trajectory was going to change? Why did so many of us go on believing there could be a change? That we could make a difference?

Certain things were true of most of us. We were sons of the men who fought WWII, and they taught us loyalty to authority. We believed the promises we vowed at ordination, and thought the bishops did too. We had a defective understanding of the biblical meaning of “being a Christian,” and confused it with faithful churchmanship. Surely a major reason, apart from the deceptive power of the Enemy of our souls, was the truth and beauty of the historic liturgy. For anyone coming to the Table of the Lord in true faith, praying the Daily Office, and imbibing the theology of the historic collects and Prayer Book, it was easy to imagine we belonged to a godly and orthodox community of faith, devoted to the teaching of the apostles. But we did not.


Next Week:The Frog In The Kettle

The Crisis of Leadership.  (by Jon Shuler​​)

James Pike burst on the public scene in 1952 when he became the exciting young Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Well known in Episcopal Church circles as an articulate and winsome leader, he had risen to prominence as a teacher of the orthodox faith. But little by little he moved more and more to the liberal side of the church’s doctrinal teaching. By the time he became the Bishop of California in 1958 he was well along in his departure from the historic faith. He wrote and spoke in support of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, encouraging young people to abandon all that had historically been taught to the followers of Jesus. It was a scandal to the church. The media loved him.

At a gathering of the House of Bishops, in 1966, he was censured after a tumultuous session in which many bishops argued for his suspension from the sacred ministry. They did not prevail because the majority feared the media response to a “heresy trial.” Less than two years later Bishop Pike resigned from his office, and became a speaker and writer for the liberal world. He died tragically some years later near the Dead Sea, after a complete renunciation of the Faith. But in spite of all this he was never defrocked by his fellow bishops.

In the 1970’s a new Book of Common Prayer was published and approved, and within it were some of the seeds sown by Bp Pike. The groundwork had been laid that would allow more and more departures from the faith to become acceptable. Those who planted these seeds did much of their work in darkness, just as the Lord Jesus predicted so long ago. If the truth behind that revision of 1979 had been known earlier in that decade, the revision would almost certainly have been derailed. There were many dissenting voices, but not a majority. Most of the orthodox were eventually lulled by the inclusion of a number of “options” and “historic” additions.

By the 1980’s the ascendancy of leaders who actually admired Bp Pike was beginning to be seen. More and more conserving forces were mobilizing to try to turn the tide, but in retrospect it is clear they were doing too little too late. What now seems beyond doubt, is that the consenting majority – which included the orthodox – were not seeing clearly the extent of the dangerous takeover that was occurring.

A new Presiding Bishop, Edmund Browning, was installed in 1988 and he was begged by some of his brother bishops (in secret) not to push forward the revolutionary sexual agenda being spearheaded by the gay movement. Their appeal was in vain. When at the1994 General Convention biblical conservatives managed to move a resolution affirming monogamous marriage between a man and a woman as the church’s teaching, and denying homosexual unions, a sizable group of bishops subsequently declared that they would not obey it. Browning’s successor was chosen at Philadelphia in 1997, and he was a bishop who openly supported the gay and lesbian agenda. When the election was announced the House of Bishops rose to applaud him.


Next Week: Why Did We Let It Happen?