By Titus Presler
Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?” Episcopalians are asked this question at every baptism celebrated according to the liturgies of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. “Word and example” — the phrase refers obviously to speech and action, and it echoes the common pairing of “word and deed.”
Episcopalians rhetorically affirm a connection between word and example, speech and deed. When it comes to practice, though, we typically say yes to example, yes to deed, but no to word, or, at best, maybe to word. Reticence about verbalizing the good news of God in Christ in actual speech is what underlies Episcopalians’ reluctance to engage in evangelism, still less to embrace it as a mandate for ourselves or for the Church as a whole.
Evangelism labors under weighty negative impressions of it: intrusive fundamentalists knocking on your door and telling you that only their version of the gospel and their church are acceptable to God. Televangelists who seem more concerned with raising money for themselves than with the welfare of their flock. Telling rather than listening. Arrogance and imposition rather than humility and affirmation.
It’s startling, then, that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has made evangelism a centerpiece of his ministry within the church and beyond. He quips that, for him, the title of CEO means that he’s the church’s Chief Evangelism Officer. The church now has a robust Evangelism Initiative, headed by Canon Stephanie Spellers and Jerusalem Greer. Periodic Evangelism Matters conferences are catalyzing evangelism initiatives in dioceses and congregations. Regional revival meetings highlight Bishop Curry’s stirring oratory, striking theology and delightful humor.
The initiative’s irenic and appealing definition of evangelism has the potential to disarm the concerns of the wary: “Evangelism is the spiritual practice of seeking, naming, and celebrating Jesus’ loving presence in the stories of all people, and then inviting them to more.” Here evangelism is seen as a spiritual practice, a prayerful orientation to God and the world, rather than as an aggressive program. The evangelist listens, confident that God, even Jesus, is already there in the experience of the other. The evangelist affirms and celebrates and avoids minimizing or dismissing the spirituality of the other. The evangelist discovers treasure in the experience of the other and finds her own faith challenged and enlarged. And then, yes, the evangelist invites the other to more, whatever that may be: to form or deepen a relationship with God in Christ, to express faith through a social justice initiative, to grow spiritually in a church community — whatever might be appropriate.
Episcopalians are intrigued as well as surprised by these developments. Certainly Bishop Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding in 2018 gave the church a heads-up that joyful gospel proclamation is compatible with being Episcopalian. Many church members are similarly inspired by the spontaneous faith-sharing among Anglican companions they encounter on short-term mission trips in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania.
Nevertheless many Episcopalians hesitate to engage in conversations about spirituality and faith in their own contexts, and they resist appeals to become more evangelistic, whether in their personal practice or the life of their congregations. Many factors are in play, and they highlight ways in which gospel reticence is inconsistent with faithful Christian practice.
What are those inconsistencies? Christian reluctance about verbal proclamation is, in short, linguistically nonsensical, historically amnesiac, genealogically disrespectful, and liturgically inconsistent. It is cognitively incoherent, culturally conformist, ecclesially establishmentarian, inter-religiously isolationist and missionally incomplete. Here I elaborate each of these critiques.
Reluctance about the verbal proclamation we promise in the Baptismal Covenant is linguistically nonsensical because it ignores the self-evident reference to speech in the verb “proclaim,” which is derived from the Latin proclamare, meaning to “cry out.” It is the “good news” of God in Christ that we undertake to proclaim as the baptized. News by definition is something people tell, broadcast or print.
The good news of God in Christ is not simply a principle or an attitude but a story, a narrative, a news story that begins in creation, continues through the struggles of Israel, culminates in the incarnation of God in Jesus, the word made flesh, and continues in the Spirit-filled life of the Church. Yes, one’s faithfulness to the import of this story will be verified (or not) by how one lives, but the story itself is news that requires telling, verbal communication, in order for it to be known. To imagine that deed alone can tell a story is illusory. Note also that the baptismal promise is about “word and example” rather than “word and deed.” An example of what? — well, of faithful living that shows forth the import of the story. That is, our actions as the baptized are linked to our words by exemplifying, illustrating, what we are assumed to have proclaimed verbally.
Reluctance about verbal proclamation is historically amnesiac. Word and deed were both prominent in the ministry of Jesus. Matthew’s introduction to Jesus’ impact in Galilee includes both in equal measure: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (4:23). As a result, the ordinary Christian today can pretty instantly recollect both various things that Jesus said and various things that Jesus did. Word and deed alike were prominent in the early ministry of the disciples as recorded by Luke in Acts. Word and deed have both been prominent in the mission of virtually all churches throughout the history of the Christian movement as evangelistic proclamation was accompanied by work in education, healthcare, social liberation, and economic development. Given this consistent history, on what basis can we arrogate to ourselves the privilege of dismissing verbal witness in favor of example alone? When we do so we are distorting our Christian DNA and distorting the image of the God within us who is the God of word as well as deed.
Episcopalians often have recourse to the aphorism attributed to Francis of Assisi: “Preach at all times. Use words when necessary.” The saying does not square with Jesus’ example, or Francis’ own practice, for that matter. A stress on example instead of word is often appropriate in settings where verbal witness incurs risk to life and limb, as in many parts of the Muslim world today. I recently heard the aphorism repeated by a friend in Pakistan, where evangelism is indeed risky. For the average Episcopalian, however, the Francis quote is simply a license for complacent silence.
Reluctance about verbal proclamation is genealogically disrespectful. Every Christian is a Christian by virtue of someone’s verbal witness as well as witness by example. Some have become Christian through hearing the gospel in their own life story as children, teenagers, or adults. Even those who cannot remember not being Christian have still learned the gospel story verbally at some point. And their family heritage began at some time in the past when someone became a Christian for the first time through someone else’s witness and then passed the faith on to their descendants. Dismissing verbal witness today as unimportant disrespects the experience of our forebears who became Christian through hearing and embracing the gospel story.
Reluctance about verbal proclamation is liturgically inconsistent, especially for Episcopalians. Upon arriving at church on Sunday, Episcopalians encounter a virtual deluge of biblical and liturgical word. We hear not just one scripture, but three plus a psalm. The canticles are steeped in Scripture. The typical four hymns are poetic and musical masterpieces. The sermon is of course a verbal event, and the prayers of the liturgy are eloquent and compelling. The average Episcopalian enjoys all this and is proud of it. Many have become Episcopalians partly because of the liturgy’s attention to precision and eloquence. Yet our worship is designed not only to inspire us in the sanctuary but also to strengthen our witness in the world, an intention that we affirm over and over again in our prayers. The third Collect for Mission at Morning Prayer is just one instance of many: “So clothe us in your Spirt that we, reaching out our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you.” It is strikingly inconsistent, therefore, to so glory in the riches of word in church and then dismiss the importance continuing that verbal stream of faith outside the walls of the church as we enter into conversation with people in our communities and workplaces. True, the liturgy itself has catalyzed the faith journey of many, but our evangelism should not end at the organ’s last note.
Reluctance about verbal proclamation is cognitively incoherent. Our cognition is bound up with language, and this to such an extent that child psychologists are still working to unpack the nature of pre-verbal children’s thinking, precisely because they cannot speak. Certain levels of thought require words. So, why are many Episcopalians in a quandary when it comes to putting what they believe into words? Is it that they don’t know what they believe, and therefore are unable to verbalize it? Mark Preece, a rector in Vermont, turns that assumption on its head: “No, they don’t know what they believe because they don’t talk about it!” It is often through speaking that we come to know what we believe. This is why some of the most helpful exercises in the current evangelism initiative are those where participants pair up to tell each other, in two or three minutes, how they came to faith, or what their understanding of the gospel is.
Reluctance about verbal proclamation is culturally conformist. Many Episcopalians pride themselves on being counter-cultural in their politics, social views, and artistic tastes. Avoiding faith discussion, however, is a vivid instance of cultural conformity, especially in the relatively well-educated circles in which many Episcopalians move. Of the three topics that the old cliché would have us avoid in polite company, religion may be more taboo today than either politics or sex. Moreover, the civic code of separating church from state in the United States has, for many, driven religion out of the public square altogether and confined it to a purely private sphere of personal opinion and devotion. When spirituality and religion are culturally sequestered as private matters, bringing them out into the relatively public setting of even a casual conversation with an acquaintance can feel like breaking a taboo, violating a code. Not so among Jesus’s disciples: “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard,” declared Peter and John to the elders of Jerusalem (Acts 4:20).
Reluctance about verbal proclamation is ecclesially establishmentarian. When George Whitefield and John Wesley, both Anglican clergy, started the evangelistic revival movement in the 18th century that came to be known as Methodism, the institutional church held them in such contempt that the movement ultimately felt compelled to form a new denomination. Going out to preach in streets and fields was thought to be undignified and populist in the Church of England, which was “established” in the sense of being the official church of the state. Though not established in these United States, the Episcopal Church has inherited an establishmentarian ethos: “Our doors are open. Our liturgy is so eloquent and our music so beautiful! How can you help but become one of us?” Many a vestry discussion of evangelism has devolved to redesigning the building’s outdoor signage and reorganizing the leaflet to make the liturgy more accessible. The focus shifts to attracting visitors and welcoming them in to become part of our group. That is the establishmentarian orientation of a now long outmoded Christendom.
As Dutch missiologist Johannes Blauw pointed out, that is centripetal mission, as in the world coming to Zion in the Old Testament, whereas New Testament mission, beginning with Jesus himself, is centrifugal: moving outward, crossing boundaries, encountering difference. Evangelism goes out beyond the church community to engage people in the dimension of spirituality. Doing so feels exposed and risky, because then we are a minority, maybe a sole voice, amid a possibly indifferent and secular majority. It is prophetic, the opposite of establishmentarian. The purpose is not to convert others, by the way, for that is the work of the Holy Spirit, and still less to make them church members, though that is a blessing if it happens. The purpose is rather, in the current Episcopal formulation, to “seek, name, and celebrate Jesus’ loving presence in the stories of all people, and then invite them to more.”
Reluctance about verbal proclamation is inter-religiously isolationist. The prominence of inter-religious distrust, conflict and violence is a major challenge of the 21st century in virtually all regions of the world, including North America. Many Christians of good will are reluctant to discuss faith with strangers lest they find that their conversation partner is a Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, or Bahai who may be offended by Christian expression. The reality is quite different. Not so affected by the US American secular paradigm that privatizes religion, people of other religions are often delighted to converse about faith, sharing their own and learning about another’s. Christians who engage formally in inter-religious dialogue agree that what is helpful is not apologetic vagueness about one’s own faith but forthright clarity. The solution to inter-religious conflict is not an isolationist retreat into silence but eager and humble engagement in conversation. Both physically and electronically, today’s world features a vast and cacophonous dialogue about ideas and values, and religious perspectives are prominent among them. Ordinary Christian voices are needed in that dialogue, whether with the neighbor next door, the colleague at work, or the seatmate while traveling. Seeds of hope in this distraught century are sown when such conversation nurtures interfaith understanding and friendship.
Finally, reluctance about verbal proclamation is missionally incomplete. The sense of mission among many Episcopalians today has narrowed only to deed, and typically it focuses exclusively on projects designed to alleviate the conditions of economically poor communities. Food and water security, housing, healthcare, education, and income generation are major emphases, whether at home or abroad. Poverty alleviation and economic justice are indeed crucial mission imperatives amid the 21st century’s widening gap between the rich and the poor both at home and abroad. Likewise the church’s mission must urgently address the crisis of climate change and environmental degradation. The church is faithful, though, only as it is faithful to the whole mission that Jesus set before us: “‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations. . . .’ . . . He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. . . . ‘You will be my witnesses . . .’” (Matt. 28:19; Luke 9:2; Acts 1:11). Episcopalians often screen out one side of the New Testament’s combination of proclamation and example, one side of the Christian movement’s twin emphases of evangelism and loving service to those in need. As a result, the Episcopal Church has a reputation for beautiful liturgy within our walls and social service beyond our walls, but few come to know Jesus through our sharing the gospel story with them. And we ourselves miss out on the spiritual growth we might experience through engaging with the spiritualities we would discover in conversation with others.
At a seminary I led there is a student residence where the open design puts all apartment doors on the outside and hence accessible to the public. One Saturday morning I received a phone call from a seminarian who was offended that two members of a local church had knocked on her door to invite a conversation about spirituality and faith. Could I as the dean do something to stop this happening? I was reminded of Moses’ response to Joshua’s request, “Stop them!” when two miscellaneous Israelites began prophesying in the wilderness camp: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:29).
Would that all God’s people were evangelists! For that is our call — and our promise.
Titus Presler, vicar of St. Matthew’s Church in Enosburg Falls, Vermont, is convener of Green Mountain Witness, the evangelism initiative of the Diocese of Vermont, and president of the Global Episcopal Mission Network. Former president of the Seminary of the Southwest, he blogs at TitusOnMission.wordpress.com.