by Barton Gingerich (@bjgingerich)
During the Anglican Way Institute, IRD’s Barton Gingerich had the opportunity to sit down with the Rt. Rev. Ray Sutton, bishop coadjutor in the Diocese in Mid-America of the Reformed Episcopal Church (REC) and Ecumenical Officer for the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). This is Part 1 of a four part series.
Bart Gingerich: I can’t help noticing that many of the lecturers and attendees of the Anglican Way Institute, including myself, are members of the Reformed Episcopal Church (REC). From what I understand, not too long ago, the REC was in fairly dire straits, but now the denomination seems to be bouncing back both in terms of clerical leadership and membership numbers. What are some factors that have been instrumental in its resurgence, as you’ve seen it?
Bishop Ray Sutton: Yeah, there are a good number of Reformed Episcopalians, of course it is hosted at a Reformed Episcopal Pro Cathedral now, Church of the Holy Communion, so it’s natural that we would draw our own folks. We did start it many years ago, before the Anglican Church in North America began, when we were involved as Common-Cause Partners. We have slowly reached out into other Anglican jurisdictions, so we’re glad to see clergy coming from such dioceses as our neighbors in the Anglican diocese of Fort Worth, not to be confused with the Episcopal diocese.
As far as the difficult period of The Reformed Episcopal Church goes, it had shrunk down to a little more than sixty congregations by the late 70s to early 80s. It was really self-consciously small due in part to faulty teaching about the doctrine of the Church in the mid part of the 1900s. The errant view presented was the notion that the Church that is smallest is purest. Furthermore, the way to maintain purity in the Church is to keep it small. The problem with that way of thinking is that it’s not Biblical; nowhere does Jesus say such things. He says many are called and few are chosen, as well as narrow is the way and broad is the path to destruction. But he doesn’t commend paring your Church down for the purpose of keeping it small to maintain purity, which translates into keeping it small for purity’s sake. If anything, the last words on our Lord’s lips were “Go out and disciple the nations.” Well, that sounds like a pretty global mission for the Church. You know, the size of it is not really the object; it’s spreading the Gospel to the whole world.
Not only is mission the Biblical model it’s in our own Celtic-to-Anglican DNA. I mean, if you go back to the Celts you’ll find a persistent emphasis on mission. By the way other theologians of different ecclesial jurisdictions have recognized the same, concluding that mission is the charism of the Anglican Way. As a result there really is no other church has been as missional-ly successful as the Anglican Way. The Celts, the Celtic monastic movement, from Columba to Patrick, to all around the Mediterranean world, we’ve talked some about this Gospel success at this conference… Look further at the great revival that took place after the Reformation of the 16th century, and at the Church of England missionary movements of the 1800s, all the way through to the 19th, and into 20th century, that gave us the Global South.
So, what happened in the Reformed Episcopal Church in the mid 1900s was a loss of the correct view of the Church and its mission. In the 1980s, however, some important historical research was done that surfaced the complete original vision of the first bishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church, George David Cummins. It was discovered that Cummins never wanted to be a [narrow] Anglican; he himself was low-church in his churchmanship, but he asked Augustus Muhlenberg who was very high church to be a bishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church. What he actually wanted, as expressed in his opening address, were the old paths of the Anglican way. He wasn’t trying to create a new church of a different kind from the historic Anglican one. He was only attempting corrections to restore what he called the “old paths,” the Church going back through the English Reformation to the ancient Church, back to the Scriptures, Jesus Christ and the Gospel. He saw that as the way forward. Interestingly, he also was very perceptive that baptism alone is the pre-requirement for Communion. He came under a lot of criticism for that. But he said this Eucharistic reality is embedded in the Anglican Way, particularly this side of the English Reformation. And so he was thought to be somewhat innovative, but virtually everyone in the Anglican Communion believes this now.
As for the restoration of Bishop Cummins’ vision in the 1980s this took place under the leadership of William S. Jerdan, who was the bishop of the Southeast at the time he became our Presiding Bishop; he was a great man, who helped the church to regain a sense of the large vision, which included being who we are as Anglicans, Biblical and Gospel Anglicans. He took seriously also as part the larger mission the necessity of becoming a national church. Plans were put in motion to plant churches across America, which has happened, well over a hundred and twenty or so successfully since the 1970s and 80s. (Of course many more were planted, which makes the numbers of church extension even more staggering, but the nature of mission work is that all church plants don’t survive.) And so successive Presiding Bishops have continued Bishop Jerdan’s restoration of Bishop Cummins vision, particularly through men such as Leonard Riches, our current PB, and his Vice President, Bishop Royal Grote, the latter of whom has demonstrated extraordinary church-planting ability. He became a missionary bishop helping the REC to multiply three-fold in the last twenty-five plus years.