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This page last updated 13 August 2006
Anglicans Online last updated 19 November 2017

an essay for Anglicans Online
13 August 2006

Ecclesia Semper Reformanda
or
So It Goes

Part 2

The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.

The first part of this essay attempted to describe where The Episcopal Church is at present with respect to its inner life and the wider Communion, and try to provide some analysis of what needs to happen next. In it, I reviewed and analyzed briefly the process by which The Episcopal Church has tried to include gay and lesbian people fully into the life of our church.  The relevance of the slogan “ecclesia semper reformanda” — “the Church always needs reforming” — seems apt, as the church always needs reforming. The second part will attempt to point out historical resources overlooked perhaps in grappling with the complexity of our present situation. As we bid farewell to one Presiding Bishop, and a new Presiding Bishop begins her ministry, I want to speak encouragement and hope for us, based more than anything else upon the hope we share in Christ.

First things first, however: we need to come together around what we have in common. What Archbishop Rowan Williams has called for in his recent The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican — an agreement on the essentials that bind the Anglican Communion together — is the first condition by which any progress can be made in TEC. We need to come together around what unites us, for that is very great indeed. And in the history that is common to Episcopalians, we can find some resources to help in this present moment.

What follows is a reflection on first things, first loves, and the greatest Episcopalian.

There has been a lot of discussion concerning the roles of William White and Samuel Seabury in the founding of The Episcopal Church and the development of our unique polity. (In particular, Bishop Paul Marshall’s magisterial rehabilitation of Seabury, long reviled in certain quarters, deserves a wide audience. See One, Catholic, and Apostolic, Church Publishing, 2004.)

Another pivotal figure who has not gotten much consideration at all is John Henry Hobart. And yet the third Bishop of New York is arguably more than any single figure in our history the greatest Episcopalian. He left a mark on this church — not to mention the whole Church — which we should re-examine. He appeared at a time when even Presiding Bishop William White despaired of the church’s future. The American episcopate, established at great cost and generally despised as “English” outside the church, was on the verge of collapse. The clergy were few in number and poorly educated. Congregations were located in well-established cities, and the few Episcopalians were thought to be of the genteel classes, still vaguely tinged with a Loyalist brush. In England the American church was looked upon with disdain. The time before Hobart’s consecration has been described as “suspended animation.” But in fact the nascent church was dying a-borning.

Hobart ignited a new passion for what we now called The Episcopal Church not only with his extraordinarily fertile ministry — establishing General Seminary, Hobart College, dozens of parishes — but also in his writings, which had tremendous influence in England[1] as well as in this country. It is not too much to say that Hobart sowed the seeds of the Oxford Movement. He was also priest and spiritual director to Elizabeth Seton, and had a strong influence upon her in her early years.

His thought can be summed up in his motto, “Evangelical Truth, Apostolic Order.” What Hobart meant by “evangelical” is above all “good news” — the real meaning of the word. Specifically he meant “…this doctrine of justification and salvation only through the free grace of God in Jesus Christ, his divine Lord and Redeemer, which the Churchman daily and constantly cherishes as the only solace of his wounded conscience, and the only ground on which he can hope for acceptance at the tribunal of his Almighty Judge, and for advancement to the celestial glories which infinitely transcend the merit of his best works.” (Charge of 1819) And once accepted, this Good News leads people into union with the Church, which is the meaning of “Apostolic Order.”

 “Justification by a living faith in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and through the sanctification of the Divine Spirit, is a fundamental doctrine of the gospel. It pervades all the articles, and animates all the offices of our Church; and her ministers should make it the basis of all their instructions and preaching.

“But it hath pleased God to constitute a visible Church, and to make its ministry and ordinances the means and pledges of this justification. 'The Lord added to the Church', we are told, 'the saved'. Believers are always spoken of as members of Christ's mystical body; and it is the Church which Christ hath purchased with his blood, and which he sanctifies by his Spirit.” (Charge of 1815)

Clearly, this language cannot be simply taken up whole in today’s context. Some will object to Hobart’s lack of ecumenical sensitivity, though he lived well before the ecumenical movement started and needed to define The Episcopal Church over against its critics. Others will think his High churchmanship to be an obstacle to a wider appreciation of his views. However, he has a distinctly evangelical note in all his writing and preaching, and a great appreciation of the unique polity of our church — hardly the classic erastianism of the Old High Church party. Hobart’s church party is sui generis. In our day when the old party distinctions have blurred, this makes him curiously modern.

Hobart’s insight is the inextricable connection between placing one’s faith in Christ and becoming a member of the Church. They are two moments that are constantly reiterated in our life as Christians, as the sacraments recapitulate the Gospel and the Gospel invites to living a sacramental life — becoming people whose lives point toward God. There is the constant oscillation between my “personal relationship with Jesus” such as it is as an individual, and my participation in the faith and life of the Catholic Church as one of a myriad of members of the Body of Christ. Trying to split these two moments theologically (as opposed to liturgically) is clearly an error, but it remains an error often repeated and unnoticed. The dynamic of Gospel=>Church, Church=>Gospel stirs in every Christian’s heart, pushing us each and all together toward the consummation of our faith.

If we are ever to find healing for our church on the edge of schism, it can only come first from a recovery of the Gospel as Good News. And secondly, we need to  re-consider how God has given us the Church as the place in which our transformation is enabled and lived out. Without denigrating the great grace that the ecumenical movement has brought us, we need to stop and reflect anew on the extraordinary gift we Episcopalians have as we hold Bible and Prayer Book:  full and complete access to a life that never ends, in comparison to which this present life is but “the cover and title page… of the Great Story, which no one on Earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” (conclusion of The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis) And this is to be lived out not in blissed-out contemplation of our navels, but in the practical application of the Faith to the changing circumstances of human life, individual and communal.

Thus considering what extraordinary blessings have been showered upon us, we can then begin to re-value the church that we have, how critical it is to our life in the here and now. For we cannot wait passively for Christ to summon us home. Each of us is loved beyond measure, and called to be more than we think we are. We are asked to “come labor on.” Each of us has a role to play in God’s work of salvation. So we need the Apostolic Order — the church as it is here and now — as much as the Evangelical Truth. Through the church, cherished and considered not as a political arena but as a kind of school to realize the transformation of Christ in each of us, we can, we have, and we will bring this transformational power to societies that have too long wanted either just an evangelistic assurance that we are “OK” with God, a sacramentalist dispensing of divine favors that maintain the status quo, or a moralist lecture, if they want us at all. For if we are God’s children, and we are; and if all are endowed by our Creator with the innate dignity of every human being, and we all are; then the Church has a mighty word to speak and a great action to accomplish in the world we live in. That word and that action are as multifarious as the myriad talents, experiences and skills of its members, all under the aegis, empowering, and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Evangelical Truth makes us who we are; Apostolic Order keeps us that way, and refines and develops what is present in embryo in Baptism.

We tend to speak all too often as if the church has become only a political arena — though it has always been that as well. As if the Gospel has become only a political slogan — though it always has had profound implications for politics. We often talk as if living as a Christian seems an option among many equally acceptable ways of life.

And so we need to consider what we teach, how we decide upon its truth, and to whom we are responsible for it. We have become perhaps too enamored of acting as “prophets” who expect the church’s validation simply because we claim our words or actions as prophetic. Of course, the church requires prophets whose hard words keep the church on course, but it has not professionalized them. We need to re-read 2 Chronicles 18 — there have always been false prophets who serve the interests of the powerful as well as true prophets, and the former always outnumber the latter. Prophets should expect the church to react against them, to put them to the test, not cheer them on. Thus the origin of the prophetic word is tested and its expression refined, and the Church is built up.

Furthermore, we have become too satisfied that doing justice is the sum total of what Christian life is all about. It is absolutely true that followers of Jesus who have been transformed by the Good News lived out in the Church must be just and honest in an exemplary fashion. Moreover, making the church live up to God’s standard of justice is a continual process of reformation — ecclesia semper reformanda. It is immensely difficult, and never complete. Yet all people, no matter what they believe, are required to be just. Everyone is required to choose good and avoid evil, for others as well as for themselves. The Christian life cannot be just about morality, though for a long time this idea has held sway.

One cannot live under injustice, certainly. But if all one has is justice — one’s just desserts — to live on, it is pretty thin gruel indeed. For if we need justice in order to exist, we also need love in order to live. Without love, life is a very drab affair: nasty, brutish, and one can only hope, short. The Good News is that God is Love — that God’s Justice is framed within divine Love. This is what we have to offer the world that no one else can. This is what supremely we in the Church most need. Without the love of Christ that turns our hearts to others, we will do only the minimum necessary. Whereas God asks for the maximum possible, including justice, but so much more.

It may well be that the Anglican Communion splits. “So it goes,” Kurt Vonnegut’s leitmotif for the inevitability of death. And yet history, not to mention the Resurrection, calls us to hope that it won’t “go” this way. Considering afresh the first things, the Good News and its result the Church, is a way to revive hope.

Until we start again with first things, with appreciating what we actually have in our hands, we cannot get to the deeper questions. For we especially need self-discipline in the present moment, and that requires patience. For we need to trust again that God does love and value the Church, and works through us in it, and that requires hope for it. For we must examine critically how we order our common life, in order to repristinate our teaching and revalue our polity, and that will take courage. Evangelical Truth held firmly and Apostolic Order lived out faithfully will give us the strength we need to carry on. For we still have in our hands that great, that extraordinary blessing to be Episcopalians, still part of a greater whole, the Anglican Communion, in turn a part of the Church of Jesus Christ. How can we let it slip through our fingers, selling our birthright for a mess of lentils? How could we tell our elder brother, John Henry Hobart, that he and all who have gone before us were wrong about the Gospel of Jesus and Christ’s Church, and that their incredible work and ultimate sacrifices were in vain? That the truth of the Good News is only “relative” and that the church is only what we make of it?

No! Ecclesia semper reformanda — yes. “So it goes”… something needs to die in order to be re-born. So it goes, so it has ever gone, so it will go on until Christ ends the need for the Church. Reformed over and over faithfully because of and only through commitment to the Truth who is Jesus Christ, and to the Church, the divine society God created for us in our time in which we become fit by the Spirit to live in God’s presence forever.


[1] Hobart visited that country in 1823-25 to recuperate from exhaustion. His preaching was so inspiring that two volumes of sermons were printed and sold out several editions. The Preface reads: “The publication of Sermons, in England, by an American Clergyman, may require explanation. (. . . ) On [Hobart’s] arrival in England, he found that, in various publications, some of them extensively circulated, the charge is alleged against the great body of the Bishops and Clergy of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, of not faithfully inculcating the distinguishing doctrines of the Gospel; and the Author is ranked by name among those who are [thus] represented…” (Sermons on the Principal Truths of Redemption, vol.1: London 1824)

Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at bppwhalon@aol.com.


THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.