By Richard Kew
Episcopal evangelicals are a species seldom seen these days. This isn’t new; on the American shore we’ve had a bit of a bumpy ride ever since the 18th century, beginning with the departure of Methodists, and then the independence of the American Colonies. Yet for much of the 19th century evangelicals were the force to be reckoned with, until Tractarians, Ritualists, and Rationalism became too much for them. One-third of all congregations opted in favor of the newly formed Reformed Episcopal Church.
While evangelical Anglicanism continued to flourish around the world, until the 1960s classic evangelicals were barely visible here. This was until the Fellowship of Witness came into being under the guidance of Anglo-Australian scholar Philip Edgcumbe Hughes and Peter Moore, then the Director of FOCUS (Fellowship of Christians in Universities and Schools). John Guest and John Howe, both then at St. Stephen’s, Sewickley, Pennsylvania, were cheerleaders and a lot more. This accelerated an evangelical renaissance: Trinity (Episcopal) School for Ministry was founded, SAMS (now the Society for Anglican Mission and Sending) came into being, and the Canterbury Trail was rapidly becoming a well-trodden path.
Yet as the culture wars and sexuality battles came to a head in the 1990s, another exodus was precipitated. Departures were accelerated by an ecclesial climate that denigrated evangelical Christianity as dangerous fundamentalism entirely inappropriate within the American Anglican fold. The 1870 Reformed Episcopal tragedy repeated itself amid the 2003 events, with the preponderance of evangelicals making for the exits. Leavers would occasionally glower back at those of us who remained. For example, I was accused of being apostate, and of staying just because I treasured my pension!
The evangelical cause in TEC had been set back to where it was before the Fellowship of Witness. The relative absence of this productive stream of global Anglicanism is one reason the Episcopal Church has become a poorer and far less representative place. In most dioceses we are considered to be undesirables. There is a catalogue of reasons for this, but progressive attitudes tend to be Americo-centric both culturally and theologically, which means ours is a denomination with a limited understanding of worldwide Anglicanism despite living in an increasingly global climate. The denomination sits light to creedal Christianity in general and has all but forgotten its Reformation roots in particular.
The seriousness with which evangelicals approach Scripture and its authority is disdained as a mindless, naïve, unreflective literalism. I don’t know how many times I have been told “people like you do not belong in the Episcopal Church” by people whose theological credentials on paper come nowhere near mine (and I am no scholar). However, those who speak like this have little idea of the intellectual depth of the Anglican evangelical tradition, nor do they know of the world-renowned theological and biblical scholars that evangelicalism is continually nurturing. By comparison the progressive agenda seems to me thin gruel. It should be added that Anglican evangelicalism has over the last few decades become much more than an Anglo-European phenomenon, and has done much to encourage the intellectual life and scholarship of both the Communion and the wider Church catholic in the Global South and beyond. Encouraged along by the likes of John Stott, N.T. Wright, and Alister McGrath, the African and Asian churches, for example, are nurturing new generations of biblically-focused thinkers and scholars.
We evangelicals are easy to label as troublemakers, for our convictions are deep and we refuse to play dead when Scripture is fumbled or the cardinal doctrines of the Nicene faith are botched. Desiring to speak Christ forcefully into an alien culture, we are unfashionably unwilling to cooperate with the encroachment of secular postmodernism into the church. If confronted, we dig in our heels, get nitpicky, become uncooperative. Anglican evangelicals rejoice in being part of a comprehensive church, but we are a leavening influence with a mandate to challenge our ecclesial household to be faithful to its biblical roots, as defined at the Reformation and mediated ever since within the global Communion.
One misconception is that we are by nature non-liturgical. Nothing could be further from the truth. Great evangelicals like Charles Simeon and John Stott of England, Bishop Festo Kivengere from Uganda, and Bishop Charles Pettit McIlvaine of Ohio were rooted and grounded in Scripture and the classic Books of Common Prayer. We walk in their footsteps. However, evangelical Anglicanism has historically preferred the simple dignity of Protestant worship, although a younger generation in the United States is comfortable with the ritual and ceremonial that only became common in Anglican Christianity in the wake of the Oxford Movement.
When it comes to worship, the most significant evangelical hallmark is our assertion that God has called us to a ministry of both Word and Sacrament. Preaching is our passion, especially the expository opening of the Word of God to the people of God. Evangelicals have no more patience with ill-prepared ten-minute homilies than we do with the sloppy administration of the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
Most Episcopal evangelicals believe our Anglican province has lost many of its bearings, as it has turned its back on its Reformation heritage from which emerges a red-blooded biblical theology, accompanied by a missional life and lifestyle. We are very much a corrective in the life of the church. We are unapologetically evangelistic, ardently biblical, intensely committed to the historic creeds, and at home within the doctrinal parameters set by the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. As an evangelical Episcopalian, I believe the Articles deserve a far higher profile than being a historic document relegated to the small print at the back of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
Following 2003, Episcopal evangelicals found ourselves in limbo. Yet reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. The message that seemed to reach the church in the wider world was that we had all fled. This is clearly untrue. The schism certainly thinned our ranks, but both as clergy and laity we were far from scoured out. Certain dioceses still boast a critical mass of the historically orthodox, while in other places evangelical Episcopalians have managed to maintain a faithful biblical witness.
As the 21st century begins to play itself out there is cause for encouragement. I recently attended the annual gathering of the Evangelical Fellowship of the Anglican Communion (EFAC-USA) in Orlando, Florida, of which the Fellowship of Witness was the forebear. Not only did TEC and ACNA Christians gather together for fellowship and faithful reflection, but EFAC is being led and shaped by an exciting younger generation of Episcopalians, many of whom are recent pilgrims on the Canterbury Trail, and strikingly mature.
More than once there were allusions to Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones. The question facing the entire Episcopal Church today is that posed to Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” (Ezek. 37:3). The answer to this question in both Ezekiel’s time and ours is in the hands of the Spirit of God — but I have a sense that in our little corner of God’s vineyard something new and encouraging is starting to happen. Don’t count evangelicals out for yet a while!