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...By schism rent asunder, by heresies distress..."

By Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison
February 1, 2023

"In these latter years, watching the Episcopal church has been like watching a father kill himself with strange debauchery." So writes a contemporary in a recent issue of the National Review. Not all agree to such discouragement but none can be particularly happy about the Episcopal Church whose statistics show an approximate 70 percent rise in the number of clergy while registering an approximate 17 percent decline in members from 1964 to 1977 and losing more than half its members between 1984 and 2016!

Yet the history of the church is a history of its enduring and prevailing over even greater distresses and discouragement. Such a time the church faced the American Revolution. Although consecration of bishops was secured from Britain after the the War, the Church was at the point of expiring two decades later. There was no bishop at all for Massachusetts from 1804 until 1811, for South Carolina from 1802 to 1812; and only two bishops attended the General Convention of 1808.

Bishop Provost of New York resigned in 1801. Bishop White made only one general diocesan visitation in his long tenure as Bishop of Pennsylvania. Bishop James Madison seemed to have resigned himself to the demise of the church in Virginia after only one diocesan visitation and called no more conventions after 1805 and attended no more meetings of the bishops. Other dioceses were in even sadder condition with nothing of this world to give encouragement and hope to what Chief Justice John Marshall, himself a churchman, described as hopeless.

Yet it was as this juncture that a revival within and of the Episcopal Church began with the inspired leadership of such evangelical figures as Richard Channing Moore, William Meade, Alexander Viets Griswold, Philander Chase, Charles P. McIlvaine, William Holland Wilmer, Gregory T. Bedell and Manton Eastburn.

Each was a converted man, convinced of his own unworthiness before God, saved by the atoning work of Christ, justified by faith alone, and dedicated to the work of spreading the Good News of the Christian Gospel.

Griswold visited every church in his diocese (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island) and confirmed 1212 persons in the first year. Bishop Moore came to Virginia from New York and together with William Meade was instrumental in making that diocese one of the strongest in the church. William Holland Wilmer together with Oliver Norris and evangelical laymen such as Francis Scott Key founded Virginia Seminary from which a steady stream of evangelical clergy emerged for generations, fervently committed to the Gospel and to the mission of the church.

Philander Chase became the fist bishops of Ohio and founder of Kenyon College and Bexley Hall and later Bishop of Illinois. Charles McIlvaine, Chase's successor in Ohio, began as Chaplain at West Point. His preaching was so effective and so many of the cadets were converted (including Leonidas Polk, later Bishop of Louisiana) that he was accused of turning the Military Academy into a theological seminary.

These were all low churchmen but their distinctive beliefs in man's fallen nature, in justification by faith alone, the atonement as satisfaction as well as example, and their fervent vitality in preaching the Gospel was shared also by the early high churchmen: John Henry Hobart of New York, John Stark Ravenscroft of North Carolina, James Otey of Tennessee, and Theodore Dehon of South Carolina. (Hobart and Ravenscroft differed from their low church colleagues as to whether non-episcopal denominations were really churches, but not on the essential teachings of evangelical Christianity or of Reformation Anglicanism.)

Each of these early leaders through which the church was revived and came to flourish stood squarely against the secular tide of the times.

The College of William and Mary was regarded as the seed-bed of the French Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson produced his version of the Bible from which the miracles and transcendent witness was literally scissored out. It was stated that only two students at Princeton in 1782 professed and called themselves Christians. William Meade attributed no religious commitment to his education there. The secular contempt for Church and Gospel was at least as virulent then as it is today.

This evangelical tradition in the Episcopal Church was then and is now the means of recovering the full vitality of the Church. Between those great and effective church leaders and us to day many things have intervened. Not the least among them is biblical criticism, the ecumenical movement, and now challenges from the secular world. One can never simply copy the tactics of prior periods, no matter how revered, to the present and future situations.

However, in contrast to tactics, the basic strategy is always the same for Christians in every age. It is God "that hath made us and not we ourselves." He has saved us by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and sent His Holy spirit to sanctify us and "guide us into all truth." The great evangelical ("Good News") doctrines are the enduring substance of the Church's mission in all ages and we will continue to be sadly crippled by the absence of them in our witness.

This is not to say that it is a simple task with no large problems involved. There is always danger of defensive, grim-spirited, and narrow return to traditions without life. The increasing general awareness of what the contemporary sociologist, Peter Berger, calls the religious "poverty of modernity" can tempt us to a blind authoritarianism or a spiritual escapism. But it can also give us the opportunity to recover the grace of a very great heritage: The Episcopal Evangelical Tradition.

This great heritage has been characterized by sound scholarship, esthetic quality, great preaching, loyalty to the doctrine and discipline of the church, and a tenacious refusal to accommodate the essentials of the faith to the fads of the age.

It is nurtured by the devout study of scripture and by prayer. It is not the possession of one party or one denomination but is an essential part of all authentic Christianity. As the Church Times said of the recent Nottingham Evangelical Anglican Congress: "The end product is not even discipline and duty, it is joy and peace in believing."

Christopher FitzSimons Allison, 96, is a retired American Episcopal bishop (South Carolina) and an author. He is known for his role in the Anglican realignment, which led to his participation in the controversial consecration in 2000 of two bishops opposed to the blessing of same-sex unions by the Episcopal Church, that took place in Singapore. He resides in Georgetown, South Carolina, where he serves as a retired bishop of the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina in the Anglican Church in North America since 2017.

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