Thursday, October 25, 2018

Preface to Bishop Meade's booklet

Wrote this today; am still editing it:


The Rt. Rev. William Meade, Bishop of Virginia, is one of the outstanding figures in the history of American Christianity.  Born on the Virginia frontier in 1789, he sought the role of a priest in the Episcopal Church in his early years at a time when his peers simply did not do that sort of thing, the country having become so irreligious.  Few attended church.  Few churches existed, and even those were in ill repair.  However, Meade labored in the harvest of the kingdom of Christ in the spirit of the apostle Paul, who labored "more abundantly" (I Cor. 15:10).  Because of his courage in the improvement of the life of the churches and, especially, because of his evangelical preaching, new life came to the churches of Virginia and new churches arose as well.  He also traveled far and wide into other dioceses to aid in the ministry there.  It is no wonder that he was considered worthy of the office of Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Virginia in 1829, and a few years after became the Bishop.
It was during his years as Assistant Bishop that the Oxford Movement began.  Since my reader may not be familiar with this event - otherwise known as the Tractarian Movement - I provide a summary of the movement by Bishop John Johns, Meade's successor and biographer.  Concerning the "Oxford Tracts," he writes:

"These remarkable publications were issued by clergymen of the Church of England, most of them connected with the University of Oxford, who associated, avowedly, for the purpose of strengthening the establishment against the violent assaults of dissenters, by exhibiting its claim to divine right, and its standards in their proper construction.  The real object, however, afterwards admitted, was to unprotestanize the Church, by so explaining away the distinctive doctrines of the Reformation as to assimilate them as nearly as possible, to the teachings of the Council of Trent.  The plot was skilfully arranged, and conducted with great caution, and with no little display of patristical and other learning.  On some points, its authors were, at first, unmeasured in their denunciations of the papacy and a certain class of its corruptions, so providing against the suspicion of any Romish proclivity.  Under the confidence thus conciliated, with proclamation of unbounded deference to episcopal authority, which their subsequent practice did not warrant, and many pretensions of clerical power and prerogative for the other orders of the ministry, something of architecture, and vestments, and posture, to please the exquisite and the pietist, they so operated by their tracts, and other publications on the Articles of the Church, as to leave little, save the supremacy of the Pope, to determine a choice between them and the Tridentine doctrines.  As the nature and design of the movement were perceived, faithful prelates, and other good men and true, sounded the alarm, and came to the rescue of the great truths so insidiously assailed.  In the controversy that ensued, some of the leading Tractarians, unable to sustain themselves in the position they had assumed, apostatized to Rome, and carried with them not a few of the misguided laity.  The agitation in England can scarcely be said to have entirely subsided.  Its lamentable effects will, it is to be feared, be slow in disappearing.
"Such are the relations and intercourse of the churches of England and America, that it is not surprising that the Oxford tracts found sympathizers and abettors in this country.  Their endeavors were promptly and firmly met by some of the ablest bishops and presbyters of the Church, who, from the pulpit, through the press, by their own writings, and by republishing the most approved works of English divines connected with the controversy, exerted themselves diligently to banish and drive away from the Church the erroneous and strange doctrines, contrary to God's Word, which so seriously threatened her peace and purity."1

As it happened, some of the American sympathizers with the Oxford Movement were found among those who published the Sunday School curriculum for the Episcopal Church.  Once their influence on the curriculum came to light, various complaints ensued, measures were taken, and eventually the Protestant Episcopal Society for the Promotion of Evangelical Knowledge was formed at the General Convention of 1847 to counteract this influence.  Bishop Meade was the first President of the Society, which was comprised of almost a hundred laymen and clergy, along with several other bishops.
It was under the auspices of this Society that Bishop Meade published Reasons for Loving the Episcopal Church in 1852.  His immediate concern is to answer the claim by the Tractarians that the Episcopal Church needed to reestablish herself on the teachings of the Church Fathers, as if the Church had departed from these Fathers as a result of the Reformation.  After recounting the fact that the Church of England finds her root in the very first generations of Christians in Europe, Meade then proceeds to demonstrate the honour and attention that the English Reformers gave to the early fathers of the Church.  Thus, he undercuts the complaint of the Tractarians on this point.  
For Meade, the Episcopal Church is a Catholic Church that has been Reformed.  She is catholic in that she has existed since the first centuries A.D., and participated in the early Church councils.  This heritage she maintains.  She is Reformed in that she approves those alterations to the doctrine and practice of the Church in the West which had become necessary by the 16th century.  To consider the Protestant Reformation some kind of mistake - as the Tractarians claim - would be to contradict those particular doctrines of the Holy Scriptures which are expounded in the foundational documents of the Episcopal Church: The Prayer Book, The Ordinal, and the Thirty-Nine Articles.  This cannot and should not be done.
 Meade is also concerned about preserving the use of the Book of Common Prayer in the Episcopal Church.  Those with an affection for Romish liturgy would have Episcopalians using the Roman Missal, or at least excerpts therefrom, so as to remain connected to the ancient worship of the Church.  Meade argues that the Prayer-Book is based on the ancient worship of the Church, and he surveys the various elements of the liturgy contained therein to prove this to be so.  What is more, it does such a good job both of setting forth a Protestant understanding of the gospel and of aiding Christian spirituality, that surely it is too valuable to be dismissed.
Finally, under the title "The Discipline of the Church,," Meade takes the opportunity to comment on what he considered frivolous and dangerous practices that were too common among the members of the Episcopal Church in his day.  This was frequently a complaint of his.  He considered such activities as dancing, attending the theatre, and playing cards to be a waste of time that lead to lascivious behaviour.  The Bishop recognizes that, if the behaviour of the members of the Church is unbecoming, then she is open to the complaints of those who would say that she suffers from a lack of sufficient spiritual oversight, graces, rituals, and so forth.  As is evident from the way Meade so sacrificially served her, he loves the Episcopal Church and longs for her name to be unstained.
Bishop Johns feared that the influence of the Oxford Movement would persist, and indeed it has.  In America, the Episcopal Church, in her liturgy at least, eventually fell "hook, line, and sinker" for high church practices.  Sadly, the evangelicals of the Church faded in their influence as she entered the twentieth century, making room for heresies. 
Thankfully, there is today a renewal of appreciation for Anglicanism as "Reformed Catholicism."  Yet, with this renewal, there seems more of a willingness to consider some of the concerns of the Oxford/Anglo-Catholic Movement than previously.  A "mere Christian" posture, advocated by C. S. Lewis, has become popular with people on both sides of the Protestant-Roman divide.  Yet, our Church's history demonstrates that there is a strength, a vitality, a light that shines from traditional, evangelical Anglicanism that is lovely, and renews that salty savour of the Church, which our Lord declared as so necessary for her calling in this world.  Whatever our flavour of Anglicanism today, let us listen to one of our foremost Bishops, and learn again why and how we should love this Church we call Anglican.

The Rev. David Beckmann
The Feast of Saints Crispin and Crispinian, 2018

1 The Rt. Rev J. Johns, D.D., A Memoir of the Life of the Right Rev. William Meade, D.D. (Baltimore: Innes & Company, 1867), p. 252.

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