Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Revisionism in the Reformed Episcopal Church—Part 1

By Robin G. Jordan

The introduction to the Reformed Episcopal Church’s Declaration of Principles on its website offers what it describes as “clarifications” which it insists anyone who is attempting to interpret the Declaration of Principles should bear in mind. These “clarifications” are themselves designed to influence how the Declaration of Principles is interpreted and reflect a revisionist reinterpretation of the Declaration of Principles. In this two-part article I examine the Declaration of Principles and how the founders of the Reformed Episcopal Church understood them. I also examine the “clarifications” and how they differ in their understanding of the Declaration of Principles from that of the Reformed Episcopal Church’s founders.

The First Principle
“The Reformed Episcopal Church, holding "the faith once delivered unto the saints," declares its belief in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the Word of God, as the sole rule of Faith and Practice; in the Creed 'commonly called the Apostles' Creed;' in the Divine institution of the Sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper; and in the doctrines of grace substantially as they are set forth in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.”
In this Principle the Bishop George David Cummins and the REC founders take the Evangelical Protestant view of the Bible. For them the Bible had plenary authority in matters of faith and practice. The Apostles’ Creed and the doctrines of grace set out in the Thirty-Nine Articles were authoritative because they agreed with the Bible. Their authority was derivative; they had no authority of their own separate from that of the Bible.

The REC founders’ Evangelical Protestant view of the Bible is laid out in the Thirty-Five Articles of Religion, which the Reformed Episcopal Church adopted in 1875. Article V states:
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God. Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost: Holy Scripture is therefore the Word of God; not only does it contain the Oracles of God, but it is itself the very Oracles of God. And hence it containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand the canonical books of the Old and New Testament, viz….

The Book commonly called "The Apocrypha" is not a portion of God's Word, and is not therefore to be read in churches, nor to be used in establishing any doctrine.
Article XXIII states:
General Councils (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God), may err, and sometimes have erred, not only in worldly matters, but also in things pertaining to God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation are not binding, as such, on a Christian man's conscience, unless it may be proved that they be taken out of Holy Scripture. No law or authority can override individual responsibility, and therefore the right of private judgment: For the individual Christian, as Christ distinctly affirms, is to be judged by the Word. The only Rule of faith is God's Word written [emphasis added].
The Reformed Episcopal Church’s 1874 Ordinal requires blanket acceptance of the Bible from candidates for ordination to the diaconate:
“Do you unfeignedly believe all the Canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testament?
I do believe them.
The REC founders’ Evangelical Protestant view of the Bible is consistent with that of the English Reformers. They also accepted the plenary authority of the Bible in matters of faith and practice. They tried the truth of all doctrine by the test of the Holy Scriptures. They give consideration to the opinions of the early Church fathers only where the opinions of the Patristic writers were in agreement with the Bible. The REC founders, like the present-day conservative Evangelical wing of the Anglican Church of Australia, the Church of England, and the Church of Ireland, and the Reformed Evangelical Anglican Church of South Africa (REACH-SA) stand in the Reformation heritage of the Anglican Church.

The REC founders in the Declaration of Principles recognize only two sacraments—Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as did the English Reformers and as do Biblically faithful Anglicans who stand in the Anglican Church’s Reformation heritage today. .

The doctrines of grace to which the Declaration of Principles refers are set out in Article 6 through 18 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.

In regard to the First Principle the article on the REC website offers this “clarification.”
“The opening principle clearly recognizes Scripture as a primary authoritative document, but not exclusively so. Holy Scripture was not given in a vacuum apart from the Church, and thus, the ancient creeds as interpreted by their English commentary, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, are also authoritative.”
What is notable about the “clarification” is that it does make the meaning of the First Principle more comprehensible. In fact it ignores the plain language of the Principle itself. The views that it present are certainly not those of the REC founders. Indeed the views that it presents are entirely disconnected from the intent of the drafters of the Declaration of Principles and the historical context in which the Declaration of Principles was written. Their treatment of the REC founders’ understanding of the Declaration of Principles is reminiscent of how John Henry Newman tried to reinterpret the Thirty-Nine Articles in a Rome-ward direction in Tract 90. The statement “Holy Scripture was not given in a vacuum apart from the Church” has a decided Anglo-Catholic tone. The Thirty-Nine Articles are also more than an “English commentary” on the “ancient creeds.” They address issues in three key areas—revelation, salvation, and the sacraments—that the Apostles’ Creed, the Nice Creed, and the Athanasian Creed do not address.

The Second Principle
“This Church recognizes and adheres to Episcopacy, not as of Divine right, but as a very ancient and desirable form of Church polity.”
In this Principle the REC founders take the position of the English Reformers who found no mandate in the Bible for any particular form of church polity. The English Reformers would retain bishops on the basis that they were “ancient and allowable.” As an institution episcopacy could be traced to the early Church. While the Bible did not prescribe episcopacy, the Bible did not prohibit it.

George David Cummins’ own views on episcopacy are found in his sermon, “Primitive Episcopacy: A Return to the ‘Old Paths’ of Scripture and the Early Church,” which Cummins preached at the consecration of Charles Edward Cheney in 1874. Like the English Reformers, Cummins recognizes that no particular form of church polity is mandated in the Bible:
“Our blessed Lord Himself, the Divine Founder of His Church, prescribed no form of Polity under which it should exist, and left no rules for its government or mode of public worship.”
Cummins goes on to note:
“The Apostles of our Lord adopted or promulgated no definite code of ordinances and regulations for the Christian Church. What the Apostles did appoint and sanction in the Church in their own days, we shall presently consider; and when we shall have ascertained from the testimony of the inspired records of the early Church, what was undoubted apostolic practice and custom, we must bow to it as the work of holy men under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But these divinely-guided men upon whose foundation the Church is built, Jesus Christ being the chief corner-stone (Ephesians, ii. 20), have left on record no fixed rules, have handed down to all ages no inflexible order for the government and preservation of the Church.”
Further on in the sermon Cummins makes this important point:
“…there is no evidence from Scripture that the Apostles established the Episcopate as an order in the Ministry distinct from and superior in rank to the Presbyterate. If there is to be found any trace of Episcopacy in the New Testament, it is only as an office exercised by one who was himself a fellow-presbyter, commissioned or set apart for the exercise of such powers as were rendered necessary by the exigencies of the Church, and for the promotion of its well-being by a system of general oversight and superintendence.
Cummins cites J.B. Lightfoot whose dissertation, The Christian Ministry, was published in 1868.
"Therefore, at the close of the New Testament Canon, about A.D. 70, there is no trace of any Episcopate in the Church, except the solitary case of James at Jerusalem, where the character of the man and his relation to our Lord would secure that prominence among his Presbyterial peers, analogous to an Episcopal rank, which was held by him." (Rev. J. B. Lightfoot, D.D., Hulsean Professor of Divinity in Trinity College, Cambridge, England.)
In relation to what he describes as “the true position of the Episcopate, as it is retained in this Reformed Episcopal Church, following Holy Scripture and the practice of the early Church,” Cummins makes the following three statements:
“1. It is not a continuation of the Apostolate. Bishops are not the successors of the Apostles. The Apostles of our Lord could have no successors, as their office was of special appointment by Christ Himself, endowed with miraculous powers by the Holy Ghost, and could be filled only by those who were 'eye-witnesses of the majesty,' and of 'the sufferings of Jesus.' Their office ceased with their lives, and Holy Scripture contains not a suggestion indicating that others could ever perpetuate their office in the Church.

2. The Episcopate is not the depositary of the Faith, the Divinely-constituted body to which are committed all gifts of grace as the sole channel through which they can be dispensed. Holy Scripture warrants us in rejecting such teaching as utterly antagonistic to the very spirit and essence of the Gospel of the Son of God.

3. The Episcopate is not an ordinance of Apostolic institution; but it was adopted by the post-Apostolic Church as the development of the practice or custom first suggested by the Apostles, in delegating to certain of their fellow-laborers among the Presbyters the oversight or superintendence of the Churches in certain districts, temporarily. The authority delegated by St. Paul to Timothy and Titus was doubtless the pattern which was so soon and so universally followed by the primitive Churches in the adoption of Episcopacy after the decease of the Apostles. 'The very name,' says Lightfoot, "suggests the origin of the Episcopate." The term 'Bishop' was first applied to all Presbyters, but afterwards restricted to a higher grade of Ministers. This seems to indicate that the order of Bishops rose upward out of the Presbyterate, and was not developed downward out of the Apostolate; that it came not from localizing Apostles with lessened powers, but from elevating some Presbyters above others, and giving them par excellence, the name of 'Overseers or Bishops.' [Lightfoot,  Commentary on Philippians.] 'The Episcopal office in its original institution was one of simple priority among the other Ministers, rather than a superior order in the Church. Every city had its Bishop, with a body of Presbyters and Deacons under him; the Church often consisting of a single congregation, and the Bishop himself performing all the duties of a Presbyter among them, and having a personal acquaintance with every member of his flock. But as the numbers of Christians increased and were spread abroad more widely, separate congregations were necessarily formed and multiplied, and Bishops appointed Presbyters to take charge of them; until by degrees the Episcopal office was fully occupied with the ordination and general superintendence of the clergy and other special duties.' (JACOB'S Ecclesiastical Polity.)”
It is “this simple primitive Episcopacy of the Second Century of the Christian era” that the Reformed Episcopal Church recognizes and accepts in the Declaration of Principles, not “a Hierarchy, claiming Divine right and the succession to the order and office of the Apostles of our Lord, ‘lords over God's heritage,’ and not fellow-Presbyters with their brethren.”

In order to properly understand what the Second Principle is saying, readers are advised not only to read “Primitive Episcopacy” but also Bishop Cheyene’s “The Reformed Episcopalian and His Bishop” in What Do Reformed Episcopalians Believe? Eight Sermons Preached in Christ Church, Chicago. Between the two sermons they will have a much better understanding of the REC founders’ views on Episcopacy and Apostolic Succession.

As in the case of REC founders’ Evangelical Protestant views of the Bible, the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the Creed, and the doctrines of grace, their view of Episcopacy is consistent with those of the English Reformers and modern-day Anglicans who are faithful to the Bible and stand in the Anglican Church’s Reformation heritage. Reading Mark Burkill’s 2009 Reform article, “Better Bishops” will help readers to see the consistency between the REC founders’ views of Episcopacy and those of modern-day conservative Evangelicals in the Church of England.

In regard to the Second Principle the article on the REC website offers this “clarification.”
Second, the statement on the episcopacy is straight out of Richard Hooker, the late 16th Century Anglican theologian, who wrote the classical defense of Anglicanism, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Hooker endorsed episcopal polity as rooted in Scripture and as historically verified by its universal, uncontested acceptance for the first 1500 years of church history. Nevertheless, this classical Anglican resisted being so exclusive as to unchurch those who did not have bishops (his European Reformed brethren) by denying the validity of their Baptism or Communion. Those who came later in the 19th Century decided to depart from the English Reformation of Hooker and reject the Holy Communion of non-episcopal protestant denominations. As such the second principle embraces the episcopacy for the well-being but not the being of the church.
Here the author of the “clarifications” claims that the Second Principle is derived from the writing of Richard Hooker. However, no evidence is offered from the sermons and writings of the REC founders to support this claim. Cummins’ sermon, “Primitive Episcopacy,” contains one brief reference to Hooker’s views on church order.
It is to this Church the promise is made: "Lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world." (St. Matthew, xxviii. 20.) But for this "blessed company of all faithful people," as they should afterwards be gathered together into particular or national Churches, our Saviour Christ prescribed no Ritual, and defined no order of Church constitution. "All the Church's constitutions," says Hooker, "are of the nature of a human law." (Ecclesiastical Polity, III, 9.)
This brief reference does not support the claim of the author of the “clarifications” nor does it justify his exposition of what is claimed are Hooker’s views on episcopacy that follows. Clearly the author of the “clarifications” is using Hooker’s reputation as a benchmark Anglican divine to give weight to his own views expressed in the second “clarification.”

In the interpretation of the Declaration of Principles primary consideration should always be given to authorial intent and historical context. As we shall see as we further examine the purported “clarifications” of the Declaration of Principles is that their author consistently ignores how the drafters of the Declaration of Principles intended it to be understood and the historical context in which it was written. Rather their author seeks to influence the reader’s interpretation of the Declaration of Principles so that it is understood differently from the way it was originally intended to be understood.

One of the claims that today’s revisionist leaders of the Reformed Episcopal Church are want to make is that when they first took office, they found the REC to insufficiently “Anglican.” Through their efforts the REC has become more “Anglican” in its doctrine and practices. But if one looks at the changes that they have introduced and implemented in the denomination, it is clear that what they mean by “Anglican” is Catholic in the unreformed sense. What they have been promoting in the denomination is a Catholic Revival like the one occurred in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the nineteenth century but on a smaller scale. The Catholic Revival in the Protestant Episcopal Church was major reason why the REC founders seceded from that denomination and formed the Reformed Episcopal Church. Rather than being compatible with the Evangelical Protestant views of the REC founders, the views of these leaders conflicts with the REC founders’ Evangelical Protestantism. They are also at odds with the views of the English Reformers.

In the second-part of this article I will complete my examination of the Reformed Episcopal Church’s Declaration of Principles and the four “clarifications” offered in the introduction to the declaration on the REC website.

Photo credit: St. James Church (REC), Memphis, TN

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