Posted by: Titus Presler | June 11, 2015

Evangelistic mission prominent on agenda of presiding bishop candidates

  • “Inching toward witness” is what liturgical Episcopalians may be doing as a result of interaction with evangelicals, says presiding bishop candidate Tom Breidenthal of Southern Ohio. “What will it look like when evangelical liturgy and liturgical witness come together?”
  • “Chief Evangelism Officer” is the sense in which the presiding bishop should be a CEO, says candidate Michael Curry of North Carolina. He calls on Episcopalians to “live out the meaning of the Great Commission to ‘make disciples of all nations’” and “share in the Jesus movement of our time.”
  • Owning their “baptismal call to be evangelists of the good news of God in Christ as they participate in God’s mission in the world” is what candidate Ian Douglas of Connecticut would urge on all Episcopalians. He stresses the “larger question of how we understand the mission of God in the world today.”
  • “Episcopalians have the capacity to be effective evangelists,” says candidate Dabney Smith of Southwest Florida. “We simply have to know our own stories honestly, to reveal joyfully how we’ve been called, changed, and claimed by Christ.”

Not only are these statements manifestly missional but they are strikingly evangelistic in their import. High on the agenda of all four candidates, it would seem, is the importance of Episcopalians sharing with others the story of their personal faith in the triune God, with particular emphasis on Christ Jesus.

It’s fair to say that such an evangelistic emphasis has not been characteristic of presiding bishops of the Episcopal Church, nor has it been a distinguishing feature of Episcopalians relative to members of other denominations, nor is it high on the agenda of this year’s General Convention, at which the House of Bishops will elect one of these candidates to the ministry of presiding bishop.

The vignettes above appear in the interview summaries published in the June 14 edition of The Living Church in an article entitled “Who will lead Episcopalians? The election of the 27th presiding bishop reflects a church in flux” by Tom Sramek, Jr., co-rector of Good Samaritan in San José, California.

It could be that this emphasis emerged because Sramek specifically focused on the evangelistic and missional challenges of the church in the 21st century. However, several candidates made their evangelistic points specifically in contrast to the institutional reorganization that is high on this year’s convention agenda. Breidenthal is uncomfortable with the chief executive officer role envisioned for the presiding bishop by the Re-envisioning the Episcopal Church report. Curry says the church’s task is not organizational development but community organizing. Douglas is wary of technical fixes for what ails the institutional church.   So it seems more likely that the prominence of witness was the candidates’ own doing.

This is a good thing, for Christian community exists today because millions of forebears were keen to share the good news of what God had done with them in Christ. For any one of us, the historical fact of our own faith derives from the fact that in our own life story or at some time further back in our family history someone shared the faith evangelistically with someone else. This is obvious, but many Episcopalians and mainline Christians choose to ignore or minimize it as they justify verbal reticence about faith as interpersonally polite or politically astute.

This brings us to questions that could and should be asked as the church seeks to discern the depth of the evangelistic and missional concern that the presiding bishop candidates have expressed:

  • Does the evangelistic and missional concern express a genuine passion for sharing the gospel – and equipping the church to share the gospel – or is it a byproduct of anxiety about the manifest shrinking of Episcopal Church membership? The former is a genuinely Christian reflex, whereas the latter is simply another version of the institutional survival instinct. The fact is that a mission-focused church grows, but it grows because it is passionately committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to a vision of the community wholeness that the gospel engenders. If, on the other hand, a church embraces mission in order to grow, both its mission and its growth will be stillborn.
  • Is the evangelistic and missional concern supported by a personal lifestyle of sharing the gospel with others and a history of supporting evangelism and mission in the life of the church? How involved has a candidate been in energizing evangelism among Episcopalians in his diocese and in supporting mission, understood as ministry that reaches over boundaries of difference? How did a candidate respond to the Anglican Communion’s Decade of Evangelism in the 1990s – with participation or, as many Episcopalians did, with an arms-length aloofness that archly saw the initiative as the project of over-enthusiastic Anglicans in the Two-Thirds World?
  • How does the evangelistic and missional concern fare when the importance of inter-religious sensitivity is emphasized? The candidates are silent on this point even though they otherwise are keen to set their reflections in a 21st-century context, and even though inter-religious encounter is a major dimension of the 21st century both in the USA and in the wider world. A person may tout the imperative of witnessing to Christ, but that enthusiasm often wilts when the conversation turns to the standing of Christianity relative to other religions and secularism. The fact is that witness and dialogue are symbiotic and interdependent in inter-religious engagement, not mutually exclusive. A candidate who sees witness as incompatible with listening to, conversing with and learning from other religious viewpoints will not be effective in leading the Episcopal Church in the 21st century.
  • How does the evangelistic and missional concern fare in the face of Episcopal reticence about witness beyond the liturgical event and outside the stained-glass windows? A typical parish conversation about evangelism or mission often will conclude with this satisfied consensus: “Really, our liturgy is our evangelism, and we’re being evangelistic when we open our doors and invite the world in to worship – that’s our mission.” In other words, we’re already doing all that we need to do – even though we’re terrified of telling beyond our liturgy the sacred story to which our liturgy testifies, even though we’re simply inviting people onto our turf where we control the conversation, and even though we’re not reaching out to and learning from communities that are different from our own. Here an effective leader for the Episcopal Church will need to be counter-cultural, countering, that is, an ethos that believes identity suffices for mission. No, we have an activist, outgoing God who calls us to be activist and outgoing, which means to be on mission in the world.

The title of Sramek’s article, “Who will lead Episcopalians?”, seems innocuous at first glance, but it’s actually well articulated. Not “Who will be the next presiding bishop?” or “Who will lead the Episcopal Church?” The office in the institution is simply a vehicle for the leadership that is needed, sought, and prayed for by the faithful – all this on the model of the church’s true leader: Christ Jesus, whose story we witness, whose mission we share.

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