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The following is the second in a series of essays on Anglican reformation

By Jon Shuler
Special to Virtueonline
October 19, .2019

From Renewal to Realignment

I became convinced that the Anglican Communion was being called by God into a season of reform in 1973, but I was very unclear about what that might mean. I had witnessed firsthand the decline and decay in much of the church in my own country and in England, but how was that to be turned around?

My early life was shaped by an Anglo Catholic sensibility, and my ministry had been deeply affected by both the Evangelical Resurgence taking place in England in the middle of the Twentieth Century, and the Charismatic Renewal. I was fortunate to be working as a Curate in an English parish that was undergoing significant renewal, but my own prayers were causing me to focus more and more on that portion of the English population that was outside the established church's ministry. I did not believe I was called to be an evangelist, but I did think the fields were "white for the harvest." Gradually I began to turn my attention toward the work of planting new churches. It seemed to me to be a need that God was calling the church to address.

While a doctoral student I had begun to hear rumors of a movement to plant new parishes. At Chester-le-Street, in the Diocese of Durham, such a movement was taking flesh. It was motivated by the historic failure of the parish to reach the bulk of its people in the centuries since the Industrial Revolution. Cultural differences had become so great, between the remnant of people who worshipped in the parish church and the much larger general population of the outlying mining villages, that the priest in charge of the parish had decided to start new congregations in the villages. His vision was to keep them linked to the Parish Church, but to foster as much spiritual autonomy as possible. His desire was evangelistic, and it quickened my soul.

Though I had become aware of a small number of other existing parishes in England that had successfully entered into significant renewal and growth, and which were trying to find new ways to share the gospel beyond their bounds, my own thinking and prayers continued to lead me toward new church planting, and away from the effort needed to renew old wineskins. It seemed to have the potential to awaken the long dormant Celtic missionary heritage that underlay the structure and shape of so much Anglican life, even after more than a thousand years of missionary decline. I could see it as a possible contributor to the reawakening of vital faith in the Church of England. Perhaps even a precursor to revival in the nation. But every conversation I had with leaders of the church about this subject seemed to go nowhere. Diocese after diocese was facing decline in existing parishes and they were consolidating, mothballing or selling parish properties. The idea of supporting a new movement of church planting seemed too unrealistic to most of the establishment, and the maintenance challenge of existing parishes was too great.

I came home to the United States in 1975, and again tried to advocate for new church planting. Soon it became clear to me that, as in England, the implementation of this idea was confronted by an established order that saw the maintenance of what already existed as more pressing than any need to establish new parishes. Eventually, by pointing out the demographic evidence of growing centers of population in the diocese, and suggesting the increased revenue new work could generate, a small group of clergy and laity were able to facilitate an effort that led to several parishes being established between 1978 and 1983.

A geographic relocation that latter year put me in charge as rector of a large and growing congregation in another diocese. While we were doing all we could to keep the life and ministry of that congregation healthy and growing, I once more began to advocate for new church planting. A receptive bishop was willing to partner with such an endeavor, and several new parishes were started. But the energy and resources to do so were hard won.

Turmoil in the national church was growing at that time, and theological and political battles were brewing, both in my diocese and around the country. The increasing influence of an aggressive liberal revisionism was more and more dominating the future trajectory of the Episcopal Church. Various groups and movements had tried to make a difference that would lead in a more historic direction, and they were having some success. But in retrospect it is now clear that a defining moment of grace had come in 1976. In that year the founding of Trinity School for Ministry brought focus and emphasis to biblical orthodoxy and mission, and its historic place in the Anglican tradition. Gradually almost all vibrant effort to see new gospel ministry in America, as well as concern for global mission, came into the orbit of Trinity Seminary. Much spoken against by the voices of revisionism, its influence became unstoppable. Trinity had started small, but its influence was becoming significant.

When the full history of those times is written, much more will need to be said about the role of that seminary and its faculty in all that came after. The voice of rigorous and faithful biblical scholarship was sounding forth from Ambridge, and it was matched with an openness to the renewal the Holy Spirit which God so clearly seemed to be giving in many places. These realities, together with the steady stream of graduates starting to find their place around the nation, was clearly bringing a serious challenge to the more liberal forces in the Episcopal Church. Few dioceses were growing in those days, but most of those that were had opened their arms to the ministry of Trinity. They also were the same diocese engaging in new church planting. It was in this context that the Decade of Evangelism broke on the scenes in 1988.

General Convention was to be held in Detroit, Michigan in August of that year, and a proposal was put before the assembly that called the entire denomination to corporate repentance and renewal. This step was then to lead to the entire church mobilizing to proclaim the gospel to all in the U.S.A, Mexico, and the Caribbean who had not heard it. It was an astonishing set of goals, and to be accomplished in the decade of the 1990s. It was particularly astonishing for a shrinking denomination not known for its evangelistic fervor.

The resolution was passed without debate, and thus became the missionary priority of all churches and diocese for the immediate future. Unfortunately, large portions of the church hierarchy did not believe in the proposal. A sad, but funny, cartoon soon appeared in the press that showed a little old church lady speaking to her rector and saying (while standing next to a sign announcing: "The Decade of Evangelism") "I don't understand this topic rector. All the people who should be Episcopalians in this town already are." To those who had eyes to see the cartoon foretold a great division and realignment that would come before the decade had ended.

Within little more than three years, the energy of the Decade of Evangelism was severely depleted, primarily because the most senior leadership of the Episcopal Church opposed it. They had a plan, which had been forming and growing stronger in secret for many years, and it involved pushing a very liberal agenda on an unsuspecting church. They believed the historic faith of Anglicanism was becoming an embarrassment in contemporary American society, and needed to be changed. Godly leaders were aware of this hidden plan, but their ecclesiastical manners had kept their distress, and that of many orthodox people and clergy, much under wraps. Then, explosively, it burst forth at the General Convention in Phoenix in 1991.

In floor debates in both the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, overt and strong attacks on biblical orthodoxy came front and center. The revisionist forces were manifestly on the verge of gaining political control of the denomination, and though the voice of the orthodox was not yet crushed, it was coming. There were two Episcopal Churches revealed in Phoenix, a division long in surfacing, but now clear to all who had eyes to see. One church was committed to the historic Faith and Order that had stood for nearly two thousand years, and one was determined to change both. Though those working for renewal at that convention managed to pass a resolution calling for one thousand new parishes to be planted in the decade of the 1990s, it was a resolution that would die in the battle that was soon to come.

One prescient clergyman, coming home to South Carolina from Phoenix, declared he would never again serve as a delegate to a General Convention. What he witnessed in Arizona distressed him, and he wanted nothing of the future that conclave seemed to suggest. He returned to his parish determined to continue the steady ministry he had there, a biblically based ministry which had been accompanied by a decade of healthy growth in grace and numbers. He wanted to weather the storm he believed was coming, if possible, as a parish priest in his conservative diocese. He had no other desire than to serve faithfully and well there. His name was Charles H. Murphy, III.

The retired Dean and President of Trinity, John Rodgers convinced me in 1999 that true gospel reformation had finally broken upon the Anglican Communion with the publishing of the Kuala Lumpur Statement in 1997. Not long after, Chuck Murphy would tell me he thought we were witnessing a global "realignment." By whatever name, reform, renewal, or realignment, both men would be thrust to the forefront of a struggle that would forever change Anglicanism.

Jon Shuler is an Anglican priest who lives in South Carolina. Since 1994 he has given global leadership to NAMS (New Anglican Missionary Society)b a church planting community serving on every continent. He is also Executive Director of AAi (Anglican Associates, inc.) a ministry focused on training church planting leaders. He holds a PhD in Church History from the University of Durham, Durham, England. He was made a Canon Missionary of the Diocese of Sabah by the late Bishop Albert Vun. His weekly blog "Canon Fodder" is found at www.jonshuler.com

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