By Christopher Wells
“To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often,” wrote John Henry Newman, with an inter-ecclesial bus ticket in his back pocket. He had doctrinal development in his sights, but faithful development incorporates — indeed, often amounts to — restatement: retrieval, for a new context. In the grammatical world of faith, to say something fresh is always to say something old that may be heard and understood anew, as times change.
This kind of a thing has informed our decision to introduce with the Sept. 5, 2021, issue of The Living Church a new/old tag line, displayed at the head of the Contents page: “Serving the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion since 1878.” Anyone familiar with TLC’s history may rightly think there is nothing new here. But the way in which this “new” tagline is, in fact, old is interesting and edifying. To emphasize our concrete and specific ecclesial rootedness as Episcopalians and Anglicans in the name of a/the “living Church” is the trick of it, for what is the connection between the two? To answer, we need to have a sense of the breadth and depth of the one Church precisely as catholic, evangelical, and ecumenical, and then be able to believe or hope that our immediate ecclesial location maintains some substantive tie to that Whole.
Church-historical geeks may enjoy surveying the consistency of TLC subtitling (and associated missiological reflection) in this light — sometimes displayed on the cover; more often affixed atop the masthead. With the issue of May 29, 1879 (vol. 1, no. 30), in our second calendar year of publication, editor Charles Wesley Leffingwell added a tagline to the front of TLC, placed immediately below the title: “A Weekly Record of its News, its Work, and its Thought,” the possessive adjective referring to the singular Church, presumptively — hopefully — alive. Leffingwell did not name the magazine, but he received it soon after its founding, and tended its pages for 21 years, before handing the work on.
Two issues prior, Leffingwell had reflected on his brief in an editorial “Greeting!” that introduced a program in several parts, placed in service of a living Church that apparently, without fanfare, comprehended his own locale and the larger Corpus in question. The relation between the two would inspire considerable parsing anon; but here, at the outset of an issue given entirely to detailed reporting of Episcopal Church news, he prescinded from denominational identification altogether, opting instead, in Anglo-Catholic fashion, for a principled slippage between church and Church. Thus, firstly, “the paper which represents a ‘living church’ should be an index of its life and growth” by telling “what is going on,” as “a mirror of the times.” In this way, it will “represent the vitality which is at work, unfolding and bearing fruit; it should ‘walk about Zion and tell the towers thereof.’” Second, Leffingwell continued, it should “teach,” helping its readers
form a right judgement on all questions of policy and organization, of means and methods, so that the Church may be conserved, and the work of saving souls may be set forward. A living Church paper must stand for the Church against all enemies and influences that would hinder her growth or obstruct her progress. It must watch for her interests, guard her honor, work for her recognition as the Body of Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. (May 15, 1879)
That said, Leffingwell hastened to add, a Church paper must not try to “determine questions of doctrine or settle theological controversies.” That would be to surrender its representative role in the life of the Church, functioning merely “as an organ of a party, a champion of some ‘school,’ an exponent of some editor’s idiosyncrasies.” Instead, Leffingwell concluded in a summons to unity:
We call upon all, bishops, clergy, and laity, to help us build up the Church, and to set it before the world as a living Church. Whatever tends to this is welcome to our columns. Whatever is merely controversial or personal, whatever tends to expose weakness or disagreement, we have no place for. We do not all think alike on all points; it is best we should not. But we all agree in the Faith once delivered to the Saints, and in loyalty to the Holy Catholic Church that was built upon the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone. (May 15, 1879)
To read the magazine in 1879, no less than in 1979, was to encounter, indeed, a “Church paper” interested in and eager to serve the whole Christian world from a particular place, to wit, the Episcopal Church writ large, as a member of the global Anglican Communion. The Living Church always existed in a post-Lambeth Conference world, having been founded 11 years after the first meeting of 1867. Accordingly, TLC’s Catholic-minded editors frequently adverted to the call to wider service, which, as the ecumenical movement gained steam from 1910 on, also led to a more honest wrestling with difference-as-division than Leffingwell had perhaps preferred.
Following the influential work of his father F.C. Morehouse, who helped craft the founding Faith and Order text at Lausanne in 1927 in the interstices of editing TLC, editor Clifford Morehouse took up the cause as a particular call to Episcopalians to set aside pride. With humility, wrote Morehouse, we should recall the Anglican Communion’s having
called upon all of Christendom, in the Lambeth Appeal [of 1920], to come together for conference, prayer, and sacrifice with a view to reuniting the shattered fabric of Christendom — not by glossing over our differences, but by recognizing them frankly and openly, and then submitting to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in reconsidering them and eliminating them, if in God’s wisdom the time has come so to do. (Jan. 6, 1934)
This both/and sensibility — rooted in the local church, mindful of the universal — accounts for the various tag-lining of TLC over the course of the 20th century. Morehouse the elder barely altered Leffingwell’s formula, to specify the singular institution in question: “A Weekly Record of the News, the Work, and the Thought of the Church.” In 1934, Morehouse the younger ran with the traditional formula but opted for a local emphasis, replacing “the Church” with “the Episcopal Church.” In 1967, editor Carroll Eugene Simcox opted for a return to the universal in a pleasingly alliterative trio of newly confected nouns: “A Weekly Record of the Worship, Witness, and Welfare of the Church of God.”
Simcox stuck with that until “some vestrymen of a Florida parish” wrote in to suggest that TLC make clearer the fact of its official independence from the Episcopal Church, and that it sometimes espoused “particular points of view on political and other subjects.” This led to a new tagline in 1974, which remained on the masthead until September 1998: “An independent weekly record of the news of the Church and the views of Episcopalians.” With reference to TLC’s independence, Simcox wrote that TLC speaks editorially “to rather than for the church which it exists to serve.” With reference to the phrase news of the Church, Simcox wrote that it “should be understood ecumenically and inclusively,” since TLC meant to continue imparting “information primarily but by no means exclusively about the life and doings of the Anglican Communion to which we belong” (all from Jan. 13, 1974). Here we find an embrace of the church/Church distinction — lowercase for a given denomination, including our own; uppercase for the Una Sancta of the creeds — that continues as TLC’s editorial practice to this day.
More recently, TLC tried out different subtitles on the cover of the magazine, complementing the masthead: “Serving Episcopalians Since 1878” (1988-94); “The Magazine for Episcopalians” (1994-98); “An Independent Weekly Serving Episcopalians” (Sept. 13, 1998-2007), repeating the same on the masthead with the addition “since 1878”; “An independent weekly supporting catholic Anglicanism” (June 3, 2007-10); and, finally, in my own time, a string of missionally minded adjectives variously beloved and perplexing, depending on who you ask: “Catholic, Evangelical, Ecumenical” (June 13, 2010-21).
The latter two iterations sought to emphasize the close connection between Episcopal and Anglican in TLC’s conception, set within a wider catholic ambit. As a 2007 editorial explained, “We value our Anglican heritage and take seriously our role as catholic Christians. We attempt to nourish Anglican faith, piety, and practice within the Episcopal Church” (June 3, 2007). In 2010, we wrote that “Catholicism, Anglican or otherwise, must be both evangelical and ecumenical, properly understood …. Our cause, as ever, is the truth and unifying power of the gospel of Christ, entrusted to his Church, and that is what we hope to continue to proclaim in these pages, in love” (June 13, 2010).
TLC, as a magazine and a larger ministry, has, for nearly 150 years, consistently articulated a core mission. I would summarize that mission as Catholic in the broadest sense — at once ancient and global, seeking consensus; evangelistic, via a steady focus on the Christian faith as personally and corporately transformative; and denominationally bound, with something of a Pauline connotation of bondage, accepted voluntarily for the cause at hand. “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:22-23). One sees this last in Leffingwell’s bid to gather all the parties of Anglicanism together in an incipient ecumenical movement — the very impulse that would inspire many Episcopalians and Anglicans to throw themselves into ecumenism proper, when it came along, and help guide the work. The Chicago Quadrilateral, after all: Made in America, 1886.
On all counts, The Living Church has narrated-so-as-to-elevate the news, debates, political protocols, liturgy, teaching, and even notice of appointments, retirements, and deaths of our corner of Christendom, as a petition to God to use the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion for his purposes. The present vision of TLC (livingchurch.org/mission) aims at this same thing, building on the labors of our forebears. We continue to believe that the future of the Anglican Communion is bound up with seeking and serving the whole of Christianity, and especially, in the West, helping the evangelical and the catholic to communicate and cooperate. With the Anglican Covenant, we accept the call of God to provisionality, marking our own incompleteness as a herald for the whole Church to stand down from one and another declared victory; to repent, confess, and make needed amendments of life on the way to restored fullness, for the sake of the proclamation and receipt of the gospel itself. In this holy work, we seek to start at home, confessing our own disorder on the way to needed reforms that may, by God’s grace, even improve upon the status quo ante. Looking back on the last 500 years with our Protestant and Catholic siblings, perhaps we will learn to say felix culpa, just insofar as the form of Christ has more surely been unveiled in our midst, through successes and failures both.
A prayer for all our readers, benefactors, fellow Episcopalians and Anglicans, Christian siblings, and others with whom we are called to walk in friendship and solidarity:
Lord, make us faithful in the work you have given us to do, in Jesus’ name. Give us grace to evince his character and courage. And guide our minds and hearts to cleave to the one hope, one faith, and one baptism of your one visible Body here on earth: even your Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, enlivened by your Spirit. Make your Church live truly.
Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director and publisher of the Living Church Foundation.