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Are We Ready for a Second Reformation?

Are We Ready for a Second Reformation?

By Cheryl H. White, Ph.D.

There has been much talk of late about a “second Reformation” in the
church – this one, involving the Episcopal branch of the church catholic
and apostolic. In theory, such an undertaking will involve purging the
modern revisionist elements from within the Episcopal Church to stay the
course for the historic and orthodox faith. Reformation and renewal were
sixteenth century buzzwords too, among learned men who sought a return
to the authority of Holy Scripture in a church catholic that had drifted
far from its Biblical basis. Sound familiar?

Yes, we must have a return to the recognition that Holy Scripture is the
final and ultimate authority for the whole Body of Christ. However, the
first Reformation did not happen in a vacuum devoid of education, and
neither can this one. Education of the laity (and in some cases,
apparently, the clergy) is absolutely necessary to prevent future crises
like the ones facing the Episcopal Church today.

This point is a salient one, for the current condition of the Episcopal
Church did not happen suddenly and without warning. Somewhere along the
way, there has been a slow and gradual corruption of our identity, and
the blame lies with all of us. Now we find ourselves in a struggle to
let the world know who we (the orthodox) really are, amidst the
influence of a post-modern element that has been cultivated within this
church for many years.

The Elizabethan notion of the Anglican Church as the via media – a
brilliant sixteenth century settlement of religion for England – was
intended to provide a broad and ecumenical path for the faithful. There
is no question that the via media (middle way) of fully developed
post-Reformation Anglicanism provided a uniform means of worship that
appealed to a broad and diverse group of Christians.

However, the history of early Anglicanism shows us that the authority of
Holy Scripture and the Creeds were the fixed signposts for the via
media. Diversity was permitted, with the understanding that there were
limits to what the Anglican Church would sanction, based on those
boundaries just described.

Today, a movement within the Episcopal Church has invoked the name and
historic recognition of the via media, yet with seemingly little
understanding of its bases, origins or tenets. To make a bold and
sweeping claim that Anglicanism was conceived in diversity, therefore,
we must allow all diversity, is representative of a dangerous
deterioration of our Anglican identity. It is a deterioration that must
be addressed through education.

Are we truly ready to meet that challenge? Episcopal parishes across the
country should be examining their curricula for Confirmation classes –
not just for young people, but adults as well. Are we teaching our
historic origins? Do people entering the Episcopal Church understand our
beautiful and historic liturgy? Are we stressing the orthodoxy of the
Church Fathers and the faith delivered to the saints? Most importantly,
are we offering Bible-based education for all of our members?

While it is true that the Episcopal Church can provide a spiritual home
for a great variety of people, perhaps it is time to recognize we can no
longer afford an attitude that accepts all diversity for its own sake.
Our anchors must be Holy Scripture and the Creeds – in keeping with the
rich and orthodox tradition of the via media. Do we understand what it
truly means to be Anglican? Ours is a rich inheritance, full of meaning
for today.

Understanding our origins and embracing our history must be an essential
element of a Second Reformation, if there is to be one. If we cannot
define ourselves fully in terms of the historic catholic faith, we have
little hope of avoiding future schism-producing issues, and the inspired
via media will potentially be lost forever.

-Cheryl H. White, Ph.D., is a professor of history at Louisiana State
University in Shreveport and on the Vestry of St. Paul's Episcopal
Church. Her primary field of study is Church History and Reformation
Studies, and her doctoral dissertation, "The Struggle for Catholicity in
the Tudor Church of England" explores the unique historical aspects of
early Anglicanism.

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