The Oxford Movement’s beginnings can be traced to John Keble’s Assize Sermon of 1833 on National Apostasy. The sermon criticized a piece of parliamentary legislation that was to reduce the number of bishoprics in Ireland. Now this hardly seems the stuff of a sermon that would launch a movement that would transform the shape and substance of Anglicanism, yet its themes struck at the heart of what it meant to be not only Anglican, but to be a Church of the Church Catholic.
Keble was criticizing the encroachment of the state on the affairs of the Church – more specifically, he was criticizing the nation for elevating earthly powers over heavenly ones. This was the National Apostasy. He opened the way for the Church of England to consider anew its relationship to the historic Church Catholic and to the wider universal Church.
The concerns hold just as fast today – and the need for repentance is as stark.
The Church is in the grip of secular powers as surely as it was in the 19th century – now though it is less an issue of state control than our own capitulation to the forces of the secular society.
We sue one another. We use zero-sum language of power. We downplay the reality of death and deny its power. We talk little of sin and redemption. Our priests are too often poorly trained middle managers. Our bishop elections are popularity contests. We let political issues define our spiritual purpose. We react in fear of scarcity rather than hope in the grace of abundance. We “process” our ordinands. We prize busyness. We have task forces.
We need a group looking at the structures of the Institution. Yet we more desperately need a task force not focused on the shape of the institution but rather more focused on calling us anew to fidelity to its essence. We need a task force renewing our call to be the Church.
What is the Episcopal Church? What is the Church? Who are we spiritually? What does it mean to pray? Who do we say Jesus is? Why Baptism? What is a missionary?
A new vision for our institution will not truly emerge until we have a compelling and clear understanding of why we are the Church – of what it means to be one, holy, and catholic. Across the Church, one hears anti-clericalism and anti-institutional sentiment running high. Yet the challenge is not our priests or even our structures – these are scapegoats for a deeper problem.
In elections, it has been said that people elect the leaders they deserve. My fear is that we are getting the leadership we deserve. Rather than prizing clarity of theological vision, deep prayer, and lives of sacrificial encounter, we have elevated sentimentalism and emotional “connection” as our prized traits in leaders.
So we too often get leaders who are emotionally needy and even manipulative. This has fed sickness within the system and bred a culture of deep wounding and abiding suspicion. Couple an emotional system with layers of perceived power imbalance and the infantilization of believers (whom we have dis-empowered in manifold ways even as we talk up lay leadership) and we have a recipe for a Church culture that doesn’t reflect the enduring self-offering of the cross but a system that relies on calculation, charm, and power to accomplish its ends.
It has become, in too many places and too many ways, a secular system.
In a system without hard power – the tools of soft power become that much more devastating. What I mean by that is that the Episcopal Church, as someone once said of the Vatican, has no tanks or soldiers. We have no real power in the lives of our faithful.
The only claim on their loyalty that we have is tradition and faith. As we undo those elements – and we have spent several decades undoing them and undermining their importance – we are left too often with manipulation rather than real empowerment as our chief means of holding on to fiefdoms. And those fiefdoms grow smaller and smaller.
The challenge for the Church is not re-imagining structures. The challenge is re-imagining ourselves – to re-imagine what it looks like to be faithful followers of Christ. To re-imagine what it looks like to live lives in which others see in us the very essence of what the Church is – His Body.
We need to get back to fundamentals of Church – to claiming that which makes us unique and to naming that which is less than worthy of us as the people of God. This will only begin when we change the criteria by which we live and by which we choose our leaders.
The training we need to choose our spiritual leaders is different than that which we need for choosing our secular leaders.
If we are not forming our people in the basics disciplines and doctrines of the faith, they will only have familiarity with secular tools and measures by which to choose their leaders – and we will be rewarded with leaders who understand and maneuver fluidly in the world of secular power plays but have little experience with the self-giving power of the cross.
We need to form people of prayer so we get leaders who pray. We need to form people of the Sacraments so that we get leaders who lead as walking Sacraments. We need to form people to be evangelists so we get leaders who share their faith with joy. We need to form people with sound doctrine so that we get leaders who maintain the faith of the fathers and mothers of the faith. We need to form people who wash feet so that we get leaders who are servants too.
We need to form a people who are different, who are changed, and who are transformed. We need to form people who are the Church.
Why Church? What makes us different from the United Way or Oxfam?
Why Church? What makes us different from the Elks Club or Rotary?
Why Church? What makes us different from the Republican Party or the Democratic Party?
Why Church? What can people find here that they can’t in the New York Times or Huffington Post?
Why Church? Why Prayer? Why Sacraments?
Do people outside see in the Church something different? Something Holy? Do they see in us and our Church a group of people that seem to be about the work of truly living inspired and inspiring lives that reflect holy purpose? Do they see in us a more holy way?
The structures will grow out of a restored, renewed, and reclaimed fidelity to what it means to be Church – to be the holy people of God.