A Thirst for souls

A friend to whom I sent the last letter wrote back saying “You do like to tell the king he has no clothes, don’t you?” – which I suppose is true. The little boy was, however, right. One keeps speaking in the hope that others will eventually agree, and public ridicule save the emperor from freezing to death.

Signs of hope

Last weekend I attended the annual meeting of the American branch of the Evangelical Fellowship of the Anglican Communion. The group is much like Reform (though much smaller and much less politically active or astute). It is plagued with members who understand Evangelicalism to mean American pietism rather than the faith of the Anglican Reformers.

At the end of the meeting, the second dean of my seminary, John Rodgers, reviewed the history of the Episcopal Church in the last thirty years, in which he found hope. When he returned from Basel in the early 1960s to teach at Virginia Theological Seminary, then the most orthodox of the seminaries, he did not know any other faculty member at any seminary who believed in the bodily resurrection.

Now, in addition to everyone on our faculty, a few teachers at some of the other seminaries also believe in the bodily resurrection (which is better than one, but not the sign of renewal John thought). Everyone believes in resurrection, usually as a metaphor for transformation in this world; and you may, if you really feel you have to, believe in the bodily resurrection.

But you will get in trouble if you act as if disbelief is bad, and even more trouble if you extend your belief in the bodily resurrection to a belief in the authority of those the resurrected Christ left in charge, particularly if you accept their moral teachings and their assertion of male headship in the family and in the Church. At that point, as an American joke puts it, you’ve moved from preaching to meddling.

Contrasted with the slight growth of belief in the bodily resurrection is the exponential growth of moral innovation. At the General Convention in Detroit eight years ago, Bishop Spong stood alone in promoting homosexuality, and even his theological allies treated him as provoking but not significant. At the Convention three years later, five or six bishops indicated, some more openly than others, that they agreed with him. Two years ago, 75 bishops flocked to him to sign his Statement of Koinonia explicitly rejecting the biblical teaching.

If the emperor is not naked, he is out rolling in the snow in his underwear.

A thirst for souls

On the other hand, more and more Episcopalians want to help missionaries and evangelists, I think for three reasons: many people have been given an old-fashioned, indeed New Testament, passion for the saving of souls; there is nothing else to do; and whatever is done for good will survive whatever happens to the Episcopal Church.

Some, inevitably, talk of mission as if the word made ecclesiological problems disappear But, as I have written before, many others of us have been driven through the failure of our political action to see more clearly what our activism should have served, and have decided that if we cannot change the institution we can use it, at least for the moment, to serve the Gospel. I suspect also that conservatives instinctively feel that being faithful to the Great Commission will make their future course much easier to discern.

The traditional missionary societies are growing. The Church Army I described last month. SAMS (the South American Missionary Society) now has fifty missionaries in the field, when just a few years ago they had only fourteen and many of those were at home. Trinity’s own Stanway Institute, the only program of its sort in the Episcopal Church, is training growing numbers for missionary work, evangelism, and youth ministry.

New societies flourish. One, NAMS (the North American Missionary Society) sees this continent as a post-Christian mission field. Though less than two years old, NAMS has started four and adopted six new churches, and 15 dioceses are seriously interested in their help. “NAMS”, said its director, “wants to plant churches that plant churches, and that will make disciples who make disciples.”

Another, Anglican Frontier Missions, is working to get the Gospel to unreached people groups or the least evangelized peoples, meaning those who have no Church or evangelist from their own culture. 1.1 billion people (about one-fifth of the world’s population) cannot hear the Gospel from someone within their culture. And most of them cannot hear it at all. As AFM’s director has noted, “These are the remainder of all the nations of the earth our Lord commanded us to reach.”

A third, the Ekklesia Society, has just been formed and already has offices around the world. It will bring together believing Anglicans all over the world, so that those in the rich countries like mine and yours can help pay for ministries in ‘the two-thirds world’, thereby freeing these Anglicans from western Churches (which have used their money to demand theological conformity). Anglicans there can evangelize and teach us.

The use of alarms

A certain sort of optimistic conservative tells people like me to stop being alarmist. But if the building is on fire, an alarm is actually rather useful. Still, we have learned to be alarmed about the dangers to eternal souls, and less alarmed about the dangers to transient institutions as the Episcopal Church.

Even traditionalists are becoming as alarmed for souls that may be lost as they have been for a Church that may be (or perhaps already has been) lost. We are, after all, the last Anglicans who believe in the reality of Hell.

David Mills is the director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry and the editor of The Evangelical Catholic, the journal of the Episcopal Synod.