I originally wrote this article almost ten years ago on April 30, 2012. Were I to re-write it today, there’s not much I would change except for the implication that word and sacrament are competitors rather than siblings. My guess is that that sentiment was an overcorrection for the Episcopalian tendency to de-emphasize preaching and teaching in favor of an almost pagan/magical view of the sacraments.
In my experience many North American Episcopalians/Anglicans, even from very good orthodox churches, have only a rudimentary concept of what lies between Genesis 1 and Revelation 22 – and, worse, little desire to learn. Here are seven reasons (among many) why we are the way we are:
1. Many life-long Anglicans/Episcopalians have grown up with short devotional/poetic homilies only tangentially related to a biblical text rather than biblical exposition. This has bred a passionless, incurious, passive approach to giving and listening to sermons, engaging in bible study, and reading the bible.
2. Driven by the charismatic renewal movement in the late sixties and the growing severity of doctrinal disputes in the Episcopal Church, many Episcopal leaders began to focus on creating a “spiritual experience” to the exclusion of teaching biblical doctrine and ensuring that people understand what Christians believe and why. This created feeling-focused congregations hungry for mountain-top experiences, too impatient for the long slow work of reading, marking and inwardly digesting the word of God.
3. Many Anglican/Episcopal priests distrust the sufficiency of the word of God for the growth (Mk 4:1-20), health (2 Tim 3:16) and sanctification of the church (Jn 17:17), depending rather exclusively on the liturgy and the sacraments to do the work Jesus assigns to the word. This distrust carries the added benefit of making Sunday morning very easy on the priest. Just go through the liturgy and you’re done. This has created many congregations that consider themselves “eucharistically centered” but in reality have no interest in or desire for God’s self-revelation in scripture. The readings and sermon are a prelude to the really important part of worship.
4. A number of ACNA leaders and people are “recovering” from very rigid fundamentalist pasts where their heads were packed with lots of scripture but their hearts were left cold. The Anglican/Episcopal church is perceived as a place where these “mature” Christians might go to convalesce. These leaders and people often nurse a reactionary distaste for exposition, doctrine, and adult Christian education – associating all these things negatively with “fundamentalism”. This has created congregations in which new disciples starve for the lack of milk while those who might nourish and feed them pride themselves on their sophistication and spiritual depth. It is also true that many who believe they learned everything there is to know about scripture while sitting between their parents in a “fundamentalist” church are as ignorant as the converts.
5. In many Episcopal Churches, Sunday school is largely seen as something for children to do while the adults are quaffing coffee and downing powdered donuts in the parish hall. Having gone through Sunday school themselves they imagine that they know all there is to know. This has created a culture in which many Baptized, Confirmed, church-going Anglicans are inoculated against the intellectual demands of continuing in the Apostles’ teaching.
6. Children’s Sunday school (not to mention youth ministry) has been largely reduced to teaching kids to be good and make good life decisions. “Jesus was nice and came to model niceness. Here are some nice things he did. So now let’s all go out and be nice.” This has produced little deists who know some of the more popular bible stories but know nothing of redemption history and see nothing unique about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
7. Many Anglican/Episcopalian priests entered the priesthood because it seemed a good way to “care for people”, entertaining a soft hazy therapeutic vision of their role. This has created a culture in which many priests love their people and many people love their priests but also one in which the prophetic role – preaching repentance, sacrifice, and fidelity to Christ and his word – cannot be embraced without “breaking up the family”. Soft words have created hard hearts. Caring and sharing has left no room for exhortation.
These factors (and others) created an environment ripe for revisionist take-over. By the late 90s, Anglicans/Episcopalians had largely lost the ability to measure new ideas biblically. This made it very easy for revisionist sophists to wrest the words “love” and “grace” from their biblical moorings and use them to support non-celibate homosexual ministers and same-sex blessings, all the while “sounding” Christian to the untrained ears of many priests behind the pulpit and people in the pews.
Now many Anglicans are moving into a new post-Episcopalian era, rebuilding our congregations after losing property and people to the Anglican wars. But we need to rebuild on much firmer foundations or history will repeat itself. The only way to prevent that from happening is to begin the often painful process of re-catechizing the church from square one.
That will necessarily involve hard work for pastors. In many cases it will mean re-learning the gospel, rediscovering scripture, and embracing the hard study exposition demands. It will mean creating adult education programs, teaching bible studies and training bible study leaders, training people to actively listen and engage with scripture as it is preached and rather than waiting to be swept up or entertained from the pulpit. All of this means sacrifice and sweat.
And it will be divisive work because it will mean demanding a lot from people unused to seeing church as anything more than a comfortable and comforting place to go on a Sunday morning. It will be difficult work because we as leaders have lazily floated along with the tide and have become fearful of making demands on ourselves or the people in our care. Some people will leave because they will not want to go where we lead them. Let them go. Some priests will balk. That’s too bad. But if we carry the same deathly, vigor-sapping, know-nothing, sacerdotal, “its-all-a-mystery” DNA into the future we can expect desolation and ruin.