When Robert Hunt and his shipmates celebrated Holy Communion on the banks of the James River in 1607 they were the only members of the English Church in the Americas. They brought with them the teachings, liturgy and structure of what would later be termed Anglicanism. In its structure, the English Church inherited what Philip Sheldrake describes as a developed sense of place, that is an understanding that the Church works out its vocation to fulfill its Lord’s commands in specific, designated areas of territory. The “ends of the earth,” for the local church, was to be the village boundaries. The business of the priest and active laity was to tell about Jesus, baptize, offer the Eucharist and worship on behalf of the village, and demonstrate objective, mindful, tactile love within the village.
This inherited system contrasted starkly with that proposed by the sectarians. They saw the church as a gathering of the saints, drawn from the world by preaching. In essence they offered a niche assembly, attracting the like-minded and those who wished to be like minded, a type of secular monasticism.
By the end of the 19th century, Anglicans in the United States had abandoned the parochial system. Proclaiming the gospel meant supporting the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. Meanwhile Episcopal parishes sought to attract new “members” (note the term, member), by offering what William Reed Huntingdon described as lychgates and robed choirs. Episcopalians believed, with some credibility, that a constituency of seekers existed who were attracted by faux Englishness, gothic churches, muted ceremony — a church at least of the Establishment, if not actually Established. Thus, unwittingly, the Episcopal Church embraced the structure of sectarianism.
In a rather religious country, a veritable shopping mall of denominations and sects, such a development was probably inevitable, yet a side-effect was the maintenance of introverted congregations, shepherded by nanny clergy whose primary function was to cater to the perceived needs of the membership, unionized by the vestry system designed, at its worst, to keep the priest in check. Red doors, a discreet sign, an advertisement in the paper couched in church jargon signaled that membership might be afforded to those who qualified.
By the 1960s this system was showing signs of dysfunction. At its best it created large, vigorous and faithful congregations, led by devoted clergy. At its worst it created small congregations, surviving on endowments, dominated by leading families. The market was drying up. The Episcopal Church was no longer the church of the Establishment. Of course, this didn’t stop it from continuing and even accelerating the volume of advice it offered to a deaf state through its General Conventions and politically active clergy. Rather like a restaurant facing a marked decline in clientele, the Episcopal Church decided to offer a confused menu crowned by a new prayer book, suffused with a text drawn from that proposed by the Second Vatican Council, tastefully rendered. Progressivism was embraced, to the fury of conservative Episcopalians. Love was featured on the dessert menu, unconditional and uncritical. The only remaining sins were either social, or perceived disloyalty to those who ran the church. This rather confusing combination pitted the wording of liturgical texts (e.g., the collects for mission in the prayer book’s offices) against the religion offered from pulpits and synods (e.g., General Convention resolutions). It is evident that this menu attracted and continues to attract disaffected Roman Catholics and evangelicals, but not enough to offset critical decline, caused by death, marrying out, failure to evangelize the past two generations, and a societal drift away from organized religion.
It is not my thesis that sharp decline might have been reversed if conservative Episcopalians had ruled the roost in the 60s. Adoration of an exceptional nation state, with its mantra of self help and survival of the wealthy fittest might have attracted more evangelicals, or at least those who could break from the cultural dominance of studied informality and revivalist fervor. It is doubtful whether many floating Roman Catholics would have converted, and, in any case, the ranks of disaffected Christians seeking a new church home have grown smaller and continue to do so.
Most Episcopal churches conclude worship with the injunction to go into the world to love and serve the Lord. The congregation piously thanks God and, after coffee hour disperses to live in the isolation modernity affords. Few know who lives in adjoining houses, particularly after children leave home. Community living is extinct. That an introverted church fails to engage the atomized families whose homes surround the church is hardly extraordinary. In many areas the church building has been left behind, visited only briefly for services on Sundays. While start-up congregations are being formed in some places, the emphasis remains on attraction, rather than on creating parish churches. The fact remains that the attractional model of church growth continues to create inward-looking communities of Christians who believe that the function of the church is to cater to their spiritual needs. The word evangelism frightens them to death, particularly when it involves their engaging with the neighborhood in a holistic manner, presenting the forgiveness of sins, the call to holiness and involvement in the lives of people perplexed by the changes and chances of this fleeting world.
A return to the parish model would involve training seminarians and young clergy to create core groups of lay people who live into their baptismal promises, having the courage to be missionaries in the territorial parish, caring for the sick, relieving poverty, providing young people with tools to live for Jesus in a secular world. In short, to obey our Lord’s command to be disciples who go tell, go baptize, offer worship to God, and love extravagantly. Those unable to embrace such a mission in the parish would be trained to support the work of the parish priest and team by active prayer and devotion. Now that would be a Jesus Movement.
The Rt. Rev. Anthony Clavier is a retired bishop serving two missions in the Diocese of Springfield.