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The Episcopal Church and Evangelism

The Rev. Samuel Moor Shoemaker (1893-1963) was rector of Calvary Church, New York, from 1925 to 1951 and of Calvary Church, Pittsburgh, from 1952 to 1961. A graduate of Princeton and the General Theological Seminary, Shoemaker was a popular radio preacher, a missionary in China, and a major 20th-century evangelical leader both inside and outside the Episcopal Church. He is sometimes credited as a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, but this is not accurate; rather, his work with the Oxford Group movement for “moral re-armament” inspired the founders of AA, and Shoemaker supported their early efforts.

The program of evangelism Shoemaker mentions in this reflection for The Living Church took place during the tenure of Henry Knox Sherrill (1890-1980, Presiding Bishop 1947-58).

Samuel Shoemaker is commemorated on January 31 as “Priest and Evangelist, 1963” in Holy Women, Holy Men.

“The Episcopal Church and Evangelism,” from The Living Church (Jan. 23, 1949), pp. 14-15.

By Samuel M. Shoemaker

The Episcopal Church is embarked, under the leadership of the Presiding Bishop and the National Council, on a program of evangelism. Can we get an effective evangelism — and if so, how?

It is not the first time within the easy memory of many of us that this has happened. As long ago as 1926, there was something called the Bishop’s Crusade. Later the women started a movement called The Message. There were The Seventy. And last there came the Forward Movement. We should gladly acknowledge the good these efforts accomplished, and we must confess honestly that they fell far short of expectations. No one can begin to claim that they did more than scratch the surface of spiritual awakening. The present enterprise begins very much like the rest. Is it to travel the way of the other efforts which have come and gone?

One of two things seems to be true. Either the Episcopal Church is fundamentally distrustful of, and impervious to, anything remotely approaching an evangelistic appeal and awakening; or else we have heretofore gone about such an awakening in the wrong way.

We must seriously consider the first possibility. Whenever I hear men talking too enthusiastically about our Communion, I want to show them the passage from one of William James’ letters in which he goes for Anglicanism: “So massive and all-pervasive, so authoritative, and on the whole so decent, in spite of the iniquity and farcicality of the whole thing. … Never were incompatibles so happily yoked together. Talk about the genius of Romanism! It is nothing to the genius of Anglicanism, for Catholicism still contains some haggard elements, that ally it with the Palestinian desert, whereas Anglicanism remains obese and round and comfortable and decent with this world’s decencies, without one acute note in its whole life or history, in spite of the shrill Jewish words on which its ears are fed, and the nitro-glycerin of the Gospels and Epistles which has been injected into its veins.” Those are harsh words, and they come from a man who was not sympathetic to organized religion; but we must all feel the truth and force of them.

In the days when Dr. W. E. Orchard was a Congregationalist, he had some similar things to say about us: … “it (the Anglican Church) is built on the system of compromise by which we Englishmen rule our lives; it is essentially the Church of ‘good form’ … an essentially conventional Church, it is the Church of all respectable people, it is the gentleman’s Church. It is snobbish, squiry, and a bit feudal, of course … but the chief thing is that it fits the average Englishman like a glove. It is decent, it is not fanatical, its devotion is reticent, and it knows better than any other Church in Christendom how to administer just enough religion to keep the soul quiet and contented. It has discovered exactly how much religion the Englishman can stand. …”

With appropriate alterations in the use of the word “Englishman,” the case closely fits our own situation over here. We wince at the repeated use of the word “decent,” for it is used in a sarcastic and satirical way, in both quotations. That part in Dr. Orchard’s book about having “discovered exactly how much religion the Englishman can stand” has a far wider application; and again, it makes us wince. Are the qualities which these two brilliant outsiders see in us essential, irremediable and fatal qualities? One of our bishops said not long ago that he thought it entirely possible that the Anglican Communion might disappear. Are we doomed to die of our decency?

I don’t want to see that, and you do not. We believe in the basic thing that Anglicanism stands for. We believe that it represents a blend of freedom and authority, of exploration and tradition, of individual conscience and institutional continuity, which the world needs. Many who cannot swallow Rome come to us knowing that ordinary Protestantism is too inchoate and uncertain; and many who find modern Protestantism barren and unsatisfying come to us knowing that they cannot brook the authoritarianism of Rome. We never had such a chance in our lives as we have today.

But the question is: Are we in any position to take it? We know the deplorable figures concerning our membership, our closed and sold churches, and our missionary giving. We seem to produce nice, civilized, reasonable people who in many cases do not feel very deeply about their religion. It is said that when the Boxer uprising persecuted the Chinese Church half a century ago, the Christians brought up in the Anglican tradition fell away in greater numbers than those of any communion. As a communion we seem so desperately afraid of getting excited about the wrong things that we managed not to get excited even about the right ones. Not that you cannot find genuine devotion in our people — of course you can: but deep spiritual life is not wide-spread. Something in our Church seems to stifle it even when we call for it.

Let us leave the question whether our Church is impervious to spiritual awakening, and try the other possibility. Maybe we have been going about awakening the wrong way.

We rightly distrust too much emphasis on personality, and believe more in the central wisdom and experience of the Church itself. This means that we have usually gone about seeking for an awakening by gathering responsible people together, finding out what marks we think spiritual awakening should have, and starting a movement which will safe-guard these qualities. Perhaps the chief of these marks have been safety and reasonableness. I believe it to be true that in the past awakening has usually begun in the deeper conversion of one man, who drew about him a few other men, imparted to them his experience, and then together they began spreading it to a wider sphere, and finally it became a movement. I think it to have been much less a self-conscious search for awakening than a profound desire to cease from personal compromise and to please God better: the drawing in of others, and the growth of a movement, seem to have been secondary, as though one must not dictate to the Holy Spirit what He shall do, but simply bring Him penitent and subdued hearts and ask Him to use us. I think this to have been true about St. Francis of Assisi, John Tauler, George Fox, John Wesley, Charles Simeon, and our own Bishops Moore, Mead, and Griswold. Did any one of the awakenings associated with these names begin in a committee seated round a table, trying to set in motion a spiritual revival?

Our Church has been very emphatic about what evangelism shall mean for us. That is why we can tell so much better what kind of evangelism we do not want than what kind we do want. It must not be emotional — this in spite of the fact that many of us are conscious of the failure of education to educate the emotions while emphasizing only the mind. It must have nothing in it which even borders on the dramatic, let alone the sensational — and this means an Anglican committee would have doused the fires of Pentecost with the waters of caution so quickly that it would never have been heard of. It must all proceed in an orderly, Anglican fashion; and moreover, not only must it be acceptable to our tastes, but it must redound to our denominational benefit, both in the securing of converts and in financial returns. It is my humble opinion that such caveats and requirements hog-tie awakening entirely, not strangling it at birth, but murdering it before it comes to birth.

Now let us try to answer our initial question: How can the Episcopal Church get an effective evangelism? Let me suggest six ways.

1. We must begin with repentance. All the awakening I have known has begun with a conviction from the Holy Spirit not only about our sins, but about our virtues. It is often our goodness (or what we think of in this fashion) that stands between us and God’s full power. When we think of all that we have been given, not only in our own faith, but in the richness of our church-heritage, and how little we are doing with it, we ought to be in dust and ashes. All of us give lip-service to the idea of awakening, and then go on our unruffled and unchanged personal and parochial ways. I suspect that the gravest danger today is not the atomic bomb, nor poison germs, that may kill our bodies; but the sin, especially the respectable sin, that is already killing our souls and the souls of thousands who but for us will never know what the Christian Gospel is. If some of us cared enough to repent enough we should have power enough to change the face of the earth. No one else can do this for us.

2. We must look for a miracle within ourselves. It says in Towards the Conversion of England that “a large proportion of worshippers are only half-converted.” This report says also, “It must be remembered that the Church is at present itself a field of evangelism rather than a force for evangelism.” Shall we lightly apply this to others, and fend it off from ourselves? Does this not mean you and me? We cannot look for it to begin at national Church headquarters, nor in any evangelistic committees somewhere. It will begin with us and in us clergy and loyal laypeople, or it will not begin at all. Are we satisfied on the whole with what we are doing? Then we shall not change. Are we dissatisfied enough to face ourselves drastically, possibly going to a priest for a full and unreserved confession (whether we make this in the formal or informal way), and praying God to shrive our souls and change and convert us and give us genuine spiritual power? We are not called today to do more of what we are already doing, or to do it a little better; we are called to do something we are not now doing, at least on any wide scale — something that will take more power than you and I possess, and that is to convert men and women to Jesus Christ. But that power can and will be given to us if we repent and are converted.

3. We must expect far more in our daily contacts with people. Our clergy are fairly good at answering people’s intellectual questions, or referring them to books that can do this. We help tide them over many a bad patch of personal sorrow or bereavement. But how often do we use their present predicament to reach way inside them to dig out of them the real motives and wrongs and desires of their lives, and to make the present difficulty the means and the occasion of personal conversion to Christ? I asked a devoted Churchwoman about her rector, whether he changes people; and she said, “He helps many, but I don’t think he changes any.” Our parishes should be feeling the effect of the constant infusion into them of new life through converted individuals who have been brought decisively to Christ, who live on a new level, and go on a new principle.

4. We must realize the importance of small spiritual “cells,” where a few people gather regularly to share together their successes and failures in the spiritual life, especially along the lines of evangelism. Specifically, might we not profit by some cells of those who would be dug out of their personal and professional spiritual ineffectiveness by learning from others, and be held up to effective spiritual work with individuals until it became part and parcel of their ministry? There are few of us without some contribution to make in such a company, and few of us who do not need to be kept up to scratch in our work. Is it too much to say that every one of us clergy should average at least one fruitful conversation with someone every day?

5. We must train our lay people in evangelism. This obviously cannot be done unless we are doing it ourselves. We shall fight the air, talk negative nonsense about the wrong kinds of evangelism without ever telling them how to do the right kind, unless this is for us a constant practice. The leaven in a group like that is always somebody who is doing it. The death of a training-group is ideas unrelated to people, preachments apart from illustrations, a great deal of “ought” plus a very little “is.” We Episcopalians are noted for our reticence, and we think it one of our virtues; if so, it is a virtue of which we need to repent, for it is not humility, it is pure pride, when we cannot and will not learn how to articulate in a natural, human, arresting, convincing way what the experience of Christ is meaning to us. We did not cause this, we are simply beneficiaries; what we have done is nothing to crow about; but what He has done for us is our version of the Good News. The big objective “mighty acts” will be remote and theological for many till they get incarnated in modern people whose lives show the effects of the “mighty acts.” We do not want talkers who are not doers, nor preachers who are not experiencers; but we do want our churches filled with laypeople who can make Christ live for other people by showing them how He has met their needs and begun to solve their problems. What we are actually doing with some of our lay people who need and long to do vital spiritual work, but whom we continue to use in merely a little mechanical “church-work,” is to impact their frustrations, to baptize their conventionality, to endorse their spiritual ineffectiveness, and to make of them spiritual dead-ends and terminals when they should be spiritual fountains and junctions.


6. We must pray. The Source of what we are speaking about is the Holy Spirit Himself, and not a man or group of men who have done all that they should do. I wonder what God is thinking about atomic fission, and germ-war, and Russia? I wonder what He is thinking about His Church. I wonder what He is thinking about the Episcopal Church. We talk so much, and we pray so little. We plan so adequately, but it comes to grief because we pray so inadequately. We must pray to get open to God, and then pray to be filled up by God. As it won’t do to pray for the United Nations with just one collect a week, but will take daily prayer if it is not to fail, so with evangelism in the church. Let us get it on our hearts and keep it on our hearts. Let us lift it to God in prayer till the prayer burns backwards into our own lives and we become ourselves instances of that which we wish others would become.

Then I believe we should have an effective evangelism in the Episcopal Church. We couldn’t help it.

Richard Mammana is the Archivist of the Living Church Foundation.


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