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Archive Ecclesiastical Polity Reformed Irenicism Steven Wedgeworth

The Low Church Origins of the Reformed Episcopal Church

Reading Allen Guelzo’s For the Union of Evangelical Christendom: The Irony of the Reformed Episcopalians is an equally enlightening and surprising read. The REC doesn’t seem terribly “Reformed” or “Episcopalian” according to the popular understanding of those terms. It’s really more of a piece with 19th cent. evangelicalism. This is, one supposes, why the REC viewed themselves as an ecumenical Protestant denomination, viewing themselves not as “the church” but rather one branch of evangelical Protestantism. I’ve heard people jokingly refer to the REC as “Presbyterians with a Prayer Book,” but I’m not sure that goes quite far enough. In many places, they come across quite Zwinglian, a far cry from the borderline Anglo-Catholic aesthetic that some of their members accept today.

Annie Darling Price provides a clear example of traditional REC principles in her A History of the Formation and Growth of the Reformed Episcopal Church, 1873-1902, published in 1902. In the chapter titled “The Points of Difference,” she explains how the REC differs from the mainline Episcopal Church of the day:

How many countless times has the question arisen: “What is the difference between the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Protestant Episcopal Church?” “What is the Reformed Episcopal Church?”

To meet these inquiries in a clear, succinct and yet comprehensive way, the General Council convening in May, 1875, authorized a statement in which are set forth those points in which we differ from the fold from whence we came. These we insert here as a document needful to be preserved in our Church history, setting forth, as they do, so strongly the reasons for our existence as a separate organization.

When we read and see and hear of the Ritualistic practices of our Mother Church, more glaring to-day than even a quarter of a century ago, when our founders struggled in vain to obtain relief from the iron bands which bound them to these practices against will and conscience; when we read such notices as: “Confessions are heard on Saturday from 3 to 5.30 P. M., and from 7.30 to 9 P. M.;” when we know of the use of incense, of holy water, candles, acolytes and all that follow in such train, do we wonder that we exist, or can we hesitate to give a clear and truthful statement of the points wherein we differ? If it was long ago admitted that “Roman Catholics might conform to the Church of England with out violating their consciences,” surely those who hold staunchly to the Evangelical principles of Christ’s religion are “violating their consciences” if they do not protest openly against such principles and know within them selves why they should protest.

We give herewith each statement as it is set forth in the little pamphlet above referred to:

First. These Churches differ essentially as to what constitutes the Church of Christ. The Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States, as represented by a large majority of its ministers and members, holds that the Church of Christ exists only in one form or order of church government, a threefold ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, based on the divine right of Bishops, who are the successors of the Apostles in their apostolic office, and derive their authority from them by succession in an unbroken chain. On this theory, only such bodies of Christians as possess this order and succession — corrupt though they may be in doctrine and in living — are parts of Christ’s Church.

“The Reformed Episcopal Church protests against this theory as unchristian, in that it denies the claims of the Protestant Evangelical Churches around us. It holds that the true Church consists of all who are joined to Christ by a living faith, and which, under varying forms of organization, is yet one in Christ Jesus. The claims of the Apostolic Succession, as above cited, this Church repudiates — holding to Episcopacy, not as of divine right, but simply as a very ancient and desirable form of Church polity. Hence, while the Protestant Episcopal Church in its corporate capacity turns away from the Protestant Churches around us to seek’ fellowship with the old corrupt Churches — as, for example, the Russo-Greek Church — the Reformed Episcopal Church, with an equally historic Episcopate, and Bishops who only are presiding Presbyters, not Diocesan Prelates, seeks the fellowship of all Protestant evangelical Churches, ex changes pulpits with their ministers, and sits down with them at the lord’s Table.”

At once we see the vital points upon which we differ from a majority of those in our MotherChurch. Per haps we cannot more clearly define our own position than in the words of our invitation to the Lord’s Table: “Our fellow-Christians of other branches of Christ’s Church, and all who love our Divine Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, in sincerity, are affectionately invited to the Lord’s Table.”

We are not “the Church,” but simply a branch of that band of Evangelical Christians who preach the same Gospel and labor shoulder to shoulder for the salvation of souls and the uplifting of man toward the restoration of the image of his Creator within him.

Our conception of the Episcopate is not that it is derived by Divine right, by successorship from the apostles in unbroken descendance, thus precluding the ministers of all other Evangelical bodies. The Greek word, “Episcopos,” means an “overseer,” “presiding Presbyter,” an office created as the needs of the early Church became apparent.

Second. They differ concerning the nature of the Christian ministry. In the Protestant Episcopal Church, the Presbyter is called a Priest, and the Ordinal contains this formula: ‘Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands.’ The Reformed Episcopal Church abjures this dogma as unscriptural and dangerous, leading to many superstitions; strikes this word Priest, as applied to the minister, from its Ordinal and Prayer Book, and knows but one Priest, Christ Jesus.”

In the Protestant Episcopal Ordination Service it states, “No man shall be accounted or taken to be a lawful Bishop, Presbyter or Deacon in this Church, or suffered to execute any of the said functions, except he hath had Episcopal consecration or ordination.”

This exclusiveness debars those equally called, equally ordained, equally consecrated, in other fields, from entering the Protestant Episcopal Church, without reordination. At the same time, Roman Catholic priests (who have been admitted into the line of the apostles) can enter the Protestant Episcopal Church without reordination.

This error we protest against, believing the ministry of other Evangelical denominations to be equally valid, and welcoming all such ministers into our pulpits. We value our Episcopal ordination as a time-honored custom, but we accept as alike honorable the ordination of other Evangelical Churches. While we believe that Christ set apart men to preach the tidings of the Kingdom, we do not hold to an exclusive priesthood, transmitted only in one Church by the laying on of hands of a Bishop in direct line from the apostles; nor do we use the word “Priest,” save as all believers are a “royal priesthood.” We have but one Priest, “one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” and He alone has power to forgive sins. As has been stated in one of our pamphlets:

“It recognizes the ministry of other Evangelical Churches in theory and practice.”

Article XXIV says: ‘This Church values its historic ministry, but recognizes and honors as equally valid the ministry of other Churches, even as God the Holy Ghost has accompanied their words with demonstration and power.’

“So much for theory; now for the practical. Section 3 of Canon VI, says: ‘Nothing in this Canon shall be understood to preclude pulpit exchanges by ministers of this Church with ministers in good standing of other Evangelical Churches, or as prohibiting the occasional occupance of the pulpits of this Church by such ministers of other Churches.'”

Third. They differ as to the nature and efficacy of the Sacraments. It is claimed, as the teaching of their standards, by a large majority of the ministers and members of the Protestant Episcopal Church, that the Sacraments convey special grace, to be derived through no other channels. ”

(a) Baptism. The Protestant Episcopal Church, as thus represented, holds that the grace of Regeneration (a regeneration of some sort) is inseparably connected with Baptism.

(b) The Lord’s Supper. In the same way, the Protestant Episcopal Church holds that after the priestly consecration of the elements, Christ is present as He was not before, and that the recipient feeds upon Him by virtue of the presence thus induced or communicated.

“The Reformed Episcopal Church regards the Sacraments as institutions Divinely appointed, and as means of grace, because they represent the truth; but repudiate? the theory that they convey a grace peculiar to themselves, and which is not common to other Divinely appointed means.”

(a) Baptism. The Reformed Episcopal Church knows of but one Regeneration — that by the Holy Ghost through the Word, of which Baptism is to be regarded as the outward and visible sign.”

(b) The Lord’s Supper. The Reformed Episcopal Church holds that the Supper of the Lord is a memorial of our Redemption by Christ’s death, and that through faith we derive grace from Him in this Supper, as we do in all other Divinely appointed means.”

The Baptismal Office was one of the stumbling-blocks in the way of those in the old Church who afterward (many of them) became Reformed Episcopalians.

We do not believe in Baptismal Regeneration — in other words, that the water placed upon the head of the child contains any spiritual power to regenerate it. Nothing save a regeneration by the Spirit, through faith, in Jesus Christ, can make a “new creature” in Him, and for this reason, Baptism is simply the outward expression of the work done by the Spirit within. In infant baptism, it is the dedication of the child by the parents to God, in the faith that the child thus dedicated will, when it arrives at years of discretion, desire to make its own peace with God, thereby ratifying and confirming its parents’ prayers and hopes. Bishop Meade declared that he “never used the Baptismal Service without pain, because its plain, literal meaning contradicted his belief.” Can we really believe in our hearts the words of the Prayer Book: “That it hath pleased Thee to regenerate this infant with Thy Holy Spirit, to receive him for Thine own child by adoption, and to incorporate him into Thy Holy Church?”

Our own Bishop Nicholson, in his “Reasons Why I Became a Reformed Episcopalian,” puts this very clearly to any thinking mind. “Just fancy St. Paul as believing in a Sacramentarian Regeneration. He who said, ‘I thank God I baptized none of you!’ What! thank God that he had no agency, as a minister of the Gospel, in securing to immortal souls the forgiveness of sin? He who said, ‘Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the Gospel.’ What! sent forth to preach the Gospel, and yet not sent forth to do what he might toward developing in perishing souls the new birth unto righteousness? If this doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration were true, we could not but stand in consternation at Paul.”

The Reformed Episcopal Church repudiates the thought of the actual presence of Christ in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. We believe it a Divinely appointed sacrament, given us as a means of grace, to be simply used as a memorial of the Lord until His return. We have but one sacrifice, “once offered to bear the sins of many.” “By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Fourth. The Protestant Episcopal Church suffers altars to be erected in its churches, and tolerates auricular confession and prayers for the dead, with other imitations of Rome.

“The Reformed Episcopal Church prohibits the erection of altars in its churches, or introduction into public worship of anything calculated to teach Sacerdotalism.”

Perhaps the above is sufficient of itself. We have no altar, no priest but Christ, no sacrifice but the Lamb offered on Calvary.

Confession and prayers for the dead are all too well known facts in the Protestant Episcopal Church to need explanation. They are established practices and are ever growing witnesses of that spirit of Sacerdotalism against which we set our face as a flint.

Fifth. The Protestant Episcopal Church ‘deposes’ ill clergymen leaving its communion, following them with an attempted badge of disgrace.

“The Reformed Episcopal Church commends any Bishop or Presbyter who desires to leave it for another evangelical Church, with its prayers and love.”

We have only to cite the treatment of many of our founders as evidence of this point of difference — Bishop Cummins, Rev. Mason Gallagher and others, a record of whose deposition and degradation are clearly stated and can be found in the records both of our own and of the Protestant Episcopal Church.

Sixth. The Protestant Episcopal Church, in receiving communicants from Protestant Churches, generally enforces a Rubric which requires them to be confirmed.

“The Reformed Episcopal Church invariably receives to its membership, by letter, or other satisfactory evidence, communicants of other Churches, dispensing with confirmation unless desired.”

The above in its own language shows the difference in this point and needs no explanation, nor does the last point of difference set forth in the statement adopted by the Reformed Episcopal Church.

Seventh. The Protestant Episcopal Church discourages the use of extemporaneous prayer in the stated ser vices of the Church, prohibiting it by Canon.

“The Reformed Episcopal Church allows and encourages the union of extempore prayer with its liturgy, and values meetings for social worship, in which the laity participate, as promoting the spiritual growth of churches.”

We can safely leave these thoughts with any candid mind, and they can but agree as to the tenure of our position on the side of right and truth and loyalty fo the teachings of the great Head of the Church, and through Him of His true followers down to the present hour.

(Annie Darling Price, A History of the Formation and Growth of the Reformed Episcopal Church 1873-1902, James Armstong: Philadelphia, 1902, 131-138)

This statement of principles is actually considerably “lower” church than the Presbyterians of the time. While they likely would have shared the rejection of baptismal regeneration, they would have definitely had a higher view of their own ministerial ordination and even ecclesiastical exclusivity. Certainly this would have been true of the Southern Presbyterians. The Northerners might have been closer to the REC in its openness.

The REC was explicit in its rejection of the Baptismal Form in the BCP. They are alluding to the rubric after the baptism of an infant when the Prayer Book says, “Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this child is regenerate, and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church, let us give thanks unto Almighty God…” It is curious that this had not been a point of contention in earlier undeniably Protestant Anglican contexts (though there may have been specific controversies that I’m missing).  This probably indicates that there was a form of baptismal regeneration held in even Reformed circles (see herehere and here) or that the words were taken in an objective manner, according to the communicatio idiomatum or sacramental speech. Whatever the historical explanation, the REC wanted to make its own position clear, and so it simply deleted the expression outright. This was at the core of its founding, being the primary occasion for Charles E. Cheney’s ousting from the mainline church.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.