I’m currently reading one of the classics of Episcopal Church history, “Men and Movements in the American Episcopal Church”, and am struck by the power, simplicity, piety, and orthodoxy of the first generations of Episcopal clergy and bishops. This history features people like Alex Viets Griswold, Benjamin Moore, Philander Chase, Charles Pettit McIlvaine, John Henry Hobart, all so singularly committed to spreading the Gospel, making disciples, and building up the Episcopal Church according to the Scriptures and the Creeds.
What’s most encouraging to me about what I’m reading is that these people of such passionate and committed Christian faith in the Episcopal Church were coming of age and into ministry at a time when the Episcopal Church seemed on the verge of extinction.Based on where the Episcopal Church was in 1790, the idea that it would still exist in 1840 seemed something of a pipe dream. But personal commitment by faithful individuals to being faithful Anglicans in America was able to reverse the trajectory and bring about steady growth in our communion that lasted a century and a half.
So, I’m encouraged and inspired. I’m also challenged. When reading the story of the early Diocese of Virginia, it seemed like that Church was dead. Few communicants, fewer clergy, and a culture where the church seemed to exist for rich skeptics debating whether God existed or Christianity was ultimately a force for good (sound familiar?).
But the church was kept alive through the personal faithfulness of the laity and a commitment to personal and family devotions centered around the study of Scripture and the Prayer Book. It took over a decade of patient and faithful devotion but it eventually succeeded.
If we as Episcopalians commit ourselves and our families to strong spiritual and devotional lives centered on “the teaching of the Apostles and…the prayers”, we have a great chance to see our history return in the near future.