Monday morning, I’m off to Tulsa for my diocese’s Clergy Retreat. Such gatherings are integral to the renewal of a healthy Anglicanism in North America. Illustrative of the busy parish lives we all – clergy and committed laity alike – live, I will arrive a half day late because our parish holds its Sunday services in the evenings, renting from our friendly neighbors at a local Methodist church. I mention this not to complain, because worshipping with my parish is where I first want to be, but I also expect a blessing upon joining some seventy others who will be worshipping and meeting together over the ensuing three days with our bishop, our guest speaker, and our retreat chaplain. The Bishop calls us together twice a year, once for a Missions Conference & Synod, which, as you can imagine, involves some business. Still, our Bishop reminds us that “Missions Conference” comes first. The second is for the fall Clergy Retreat, which involves a fair bit more free time for rest, mutual encouragement, and prayer.
While reading about renewal movements in the life of North American Anglicanism, both Evangelical and High Church, I came across an account of the Virginia Associations and Conventions. Dr. E. Clowes Chorley, Historiographer of the Protestant Episcopal Church, quotes Bishop William Meade (1789-1862), saying: “We assembled quarterly in each other’s parishes; preaching for several days and nights; having meetings among ourselves, and at private houses, for special prayer; taking up collections for missionaries to the western part of Virginia.”
Everything in Bishop Meade’s summary stands out as a key priority – from mutual society for prayer and mission work, to promoting solid preaching. When the Associations grew into more formalized Conventions, still the time was primarily filled with sermons, exhortations, prayer, and very little business conducted. Preaching was heard from a variety of men. Modern conferences certainly profit from bringing in prominent guest speakers, but the amount of listening to each other’s preaching that went on in the Virginia Associations is tantalizingly unfamiliar. One thinks of the English prophesyings – moderated sessions of preaching on an assigned text by several different men with analysis and feedback by others present. The prophesyings were promoted by Archbishop Edmund Grindal out of a desire to improve the quality of parish preaching, but ultimately banned by Elizabeth I out of fear that they would become a hot bed for revolutionary sentiment. Were they revived to some extent on the other side of the Atlantic by Bishop Meade and others?
And it was not clergy only that went to the Associations. While we cannot deny the need to encourage our parish priests, our laity also need times of special attention to inspire them on in regular faithfulness to ordinary parish labors. Bishop Meade reported that the Associations “became the popular usage of the diocese, and not a few of the members of the Church in Virginia trace their first decided religious impressions to these meetings, and testify to their instrumentality in forming and advancing their Christian character.” While some of that may sound too revivalistic, especially for High Church sentiment, do we really doubt that camps and conferences could become a vital part of Anglican renewal under proper Episcopal authority and making full use of the Prayer Book services in their meetings?
Listen in on this snippet of an address from Bishop Richard Channing Moore (1762-1841) to his clergy at one Convention:
“I speak to you, my sons, as a father to his children; and it is from experience of forty-five years as a preacher of the gospel, that I call upon you to be faithful. For Jesus Christ’s sake, who died for poor sinners, be attentive to the sacred vows which, at the time of your ordination, you voluntarily made. Labor with diligence in the vineyard of your Master, work while it is called today, and never be weary in well doing. Be faithful unto death, and God will give you a crown of everlasting life. Let not the discouragements arising from the lukewarmness of your people paralyze your efforts. Let not any momentary unkindness stay your hand. In proportion to the sterility of the soil you may be called upon to cultivate, let your diligence be increased.”
What does your diocese do by way of conferences, camps, or retreats? What could you do to support them? If a largescale conference sounds impractical, why not start by meeting for prayer with another clergy person or committed lay person nearby? Why not get a few parishes together in a region for a weekend? Our gatherings could be as simple if not always as picturesque as the Virginia Associations appeared to Dr. Sparrow of the Virginia Seminary, who, after visiting, wrote:
“One of the Associations was held at a church in the woods. There were fifty carriages, and I can’t tell how many horses fastened under the trees all around. After morning service, they all went to their carriages, as to their homes, let down the steps, brought forth their cold dinners, put one dish on one step and another on another, took their food in their fingers, sitting in the carriages or standing about them, and so ate bread, with as much of an accustomed air as if they had been seated at their tables. These were the first people in the land.”
May we be the next.