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The First Promise Statement - 20 Years Later

The First Promise Statement - 20 Years Later

By Jon Shuler
Sept. 12, 2017

My experience of The Episcopal Church (TEC) in session at General Convention 1997 was the final precipitating event. I had a booth there representing NAMS (then the North American Missionary Society, now the New Anglican). This General Convention was the fourth in a series that had increasingly shaken me to the core. First Detroit (1988), then Phoenix (1991), then Indianapolis (1994), and now Philadelphia (1997). I believed that the steps taken in those conventions were moving TEC steadily away from "the faith once delivered to the saints." I believed that what I had solemnly promised to God to uphold when I was ordained, if upheld in my ministry as a priest and missionary, was leading to me being shown the door.

I had worked for the biblical renewal of TEC for thirty years by then, and had been ordained for twenty-five, and after Philadelphia I knew absolutely that I could not go on. My personal resolution had been to follow the leadership of the bishops those of us in the Renewal thought to be "orthodox." But in Philadelphia they all were silent in the great hall when Frank Griswold was elected as the next Presiding Bishop. Not one stood in opposition after the vote to declare what we all knew. A man not believing the "apostles teaching" had just been elected by his fellow bishops to lead TEC, and he could not be followed. The bishop we had most trusted in, disappeared from the floor.

We looked everywhere for him in vain. It was clear to all those who knew what had just happened that the Browning Years were not going to be turned back. What godly men had begged him to stop when he was elected, and he had not, would now be put in overdrive.

My good friend TJ Johnston (now Bishop TJ) was on vacation in New England and came through Philadelphia on the way home to South Carolina. He and his young son had just walked through the Exhibit Hall, and when he came to my booth he said words that make me shudder still: "Shuler, I am not going to raise my son in this church. I am out of here."

When we were both back in Pawleys Island we talked hard and long about what to do.

In a meeting with TJ & Chuck Murphy (now Bishop Chuck) I said: "Chuck if we wait any longer for the bishops to lead us out of this mess we will be ashamed on the day of judgment." He asked, "What can we do?" I suggested we gather fifty of the strongest rectors in TEC, to come to Pawleys to fast and pray.

I suggested that they be men known to be bold for the gospel, and who were in parishes strong enough to support them if we took a bold stand. The three of us there and then agreed. But we could not find fifty who would come, though twenty-eight did on short notice. On September 9th, 1997, twenty-five of us signed "The First Promise Statement." Three demurred. Before the day was over one brother called from a Dallas airport and asked us to remove his name. He saw more clearly than we did.

The document signed that day lit dry tinder ready to burst into flame. Some of the priests who signed were deposed within days. A First Promise Movement began to grow, and that became the most broad based gathering of biblically orthodox North American Anglican leaders that had gathered in my lifetime. They were soon meeting quite regularly as the First Promise Roundtable. Chuck Murphy, very reluctantly it must be said, took the Chairmanship after trying hard not to, and subsequently raised enormous amounts of money to support it. Without his efforts almost nothing most of those leaders did would have been as effective in the subsequent years.

The groups represented at that roundtable were very diverse, but all united in believing that a crisis was upon us that we could not turn away from any longer. The number of groups meeting together grew and grew, and opposition grew as well, but we had not expected it to come from overseas. In Charleston, SC, in January of 1999 the then Archbishop of Canterbury asked for more patience from us (at what was then called a SEAD Conference), though most could see that his understanding of what was happening in North America was faulty. His idea that a place for "classical Anglicanism" in the Anglican Communion was sufficient did not convince most of us.

We thought the very faith was at stake, not a school of opinion. We thought that in a struggle between truth and order, truth had to win. A number of overseas Archbishops agreed, and several meetings were held in SE Asia and Africa in 1998 and 1999, and quietly a Draft Constitution and Canons for a new North American Province was draw up at their request.

Later that latter year the decision of three sitting Anglican Archbishops to consecrate three men as Missionary Bishops for North America, disregarding the Archbishop of Canterbury's intense attempt to dissuade them, led to a global cataclysm in Anglicanism. Historically three bishops were all that was needed to consecrate a fourth, and though only two were in fact made in Singapore, the threat to established Anglican order was manifest.

The communion was being torn. Within a few months the ensuing disruption led (2000) to the formation of the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA).

Those remaining in TEC, and not wishing to join the AMiA, and those leaving in a subsequent wave after the consecration in New Hampshire of a twice divorced and now openly gay bishop, then formed the Anglican Communion Network (2003). This group now began to actively align with overseas bishops who were distressed with events in TEC, but unsure about the AMiA. That the formation of this new group broke a prayerful understanding with the Archbishops who had founded the AMiA was not discussed.

The unity of the movement was frayed, but continued to function outwardly, and in time the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) was constituted (2008). From that first gathering of GAFCON in Jerusalem, a group emerged that soon began the formation of what would become the Anglican Church of North America. It appeared to many that a new missionary Province had begun that would unite us all. There was much hope then for a good and united future for the North American Anglican witness, but it was not to be.

The theological diversity that existed among the various groups had not diminished, even after most participants had eventually separated from TEC. And increasingly different theological and missionary trajectories were hardening. It was becoming more and more clear that a major global realignment was unfolding among Anglicans. Much of the growing tension in those years can - with hindsight - be attributed to fundamental differences of understanding between strong leaders. Poor communication and much misunderstanding was rampant. Unspoken presuppositions were not clarified. Unity in opposing the heretical drift in TEC was not producing unity among the key constituencies, and the season of common witness between them broke down irretrievably in 2011. Though many could see the cracks forming and widening, some years before, their voices were not heeded.

The transition in the leadership of the Province of Rwanda that same year led to an explosion in its relationship with the AMiA. It occurred when, consistent with its own legal and canonical charter (and consistent with the founding documents of ACNA to which it belonged) the AMiA proposed to step away from the official partnership that had existed between it and the Archbishop of the Province of Rwanda to constitute itself fully as a Missionary Society. This step was clearly not understood in Rwanda (or generally even in the AMiA) even though provision for just such a step was written into the charter between the two that was sealed years before. Old disagreements reared their head, in Africa and in North America. Old relational breakdowns, unhealed, broke to the surface.

Charges and counter charges were launched, both in Africa and North America. As the dispute broke out the media were not always helpful in clarifying the real situation. Men made rash and hurtful statements that cut others to the quick. Reacting to what each thought to be untruths many leaders took steps that made the situation worse. The following months saw a terrible formal schism among brothers that has never yet been truly healed. The full story of those days has not been told. Many untruths, and half-truths, have become part of the common "memory" of that season, however.

May God grant the full truth to come to the surface in his good time.

As the principle drafter of the First Promise Statement I confess to a continuing sadness when I think of these things. The document was edited by all who eventually signed it, and therefore it belongs to all twenty-four men, however, not to me. Some of them are still in TEC, some have gone to Rome or Orthodoxy, some are in the AMiA, some in the ACNA.

I became a priest of the Province of South East Asia in 1998, and remain there canonically still. The apparent fracturing of the Anglican Communion continues to be an outcome at least partially triggered by the document we signed in 1997, and of the movement that many more joined soon thereafter. The Diocese of South Carolina, where many of the signers lived and served, continues under the most wicked onslaught of legal attack from TEC. Attempts have been made at the highest levels in the communion to heal the divisions, but the chasm is growing. Now even the Primates of the Communion can not all agree to meet for prayer and conversation. Canterbury is widely mistrusted, and the so-called Instruments of Communion are in tatters. GAFCON is evolving from a movement to a continuing global jurisdiction rivaling the Anglican Communion.

I never foresaw it. I do not think any of us did. The disunion grieves me deeply. I believe that a movement for renewed biblical mission to North America, called forth by the Holy Spirit, has been seriously impeded, if not stalled, by the divisions among men who had said they were committed to the same things. But by faith I yet believe that what God intends will not be stopped. Righteousness will triumph over injustice. Error will be recognized by the faithful ones. Truth will defeat the lies. Jesus Christ crucified will be preached, taught, and lived to the last. The kingdom of God will come on earth as it is in heaven. And perhaps in my lifetime - by the grace of God - a new dawn of gospel faithfulness will characterize our family of the church, as we do God's will and not our own.

What do I believe God intends at this time? As many who know me will bear witness, I have believed for my entire ministry that God has called for a new reformation in the church that claims to be faithful to Jesus Christ. Every church. I do not think now, nor did I when I signed the First Promise Statement that this meant simply separating from ungodly and unrepentant men in the hierarchy of TEC. I believed then, and believe now, that it meant a new dawn of radical submission to the revealed Word of God in Christ Jesus, and renewed global mission in the USA and to the ends of the earth. It applies to us all. It meant to me that we would cease fighting over the traditions of men, and submit again to the apostolic Faith and Order that was given to our forebears -- the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ. We would submit to the Word of God. We would allow the Holy Spirit to reform us where necessary. We would obey the Lord Jesus above all else. I believed that the classic documents of the English Reformation were more faithful to that heritage than some of the current ones being fashioned in

many Anglican circles in those days, and those Classic Formularies should be appealed to, but I never believed that Sixteenth Century documents were sufficient to see us through to a new dawn of faithful mission in the Twenty-first Century.

A new reformation must be embraced.

+ + + + + + +

In 1990 a few young priests in the Diocese of East Tennessee asked several questions of the church that they served. "Why has TEC gotten smaller and smaller as a percentage of the country for the last seventy-five years (since 1915)? Why has the number of baptized faithful diminished every year since 1965? Why has the number of missionaries gotten smaller and smaller?" By asking those questions a national conversation was born in TEC that led to a great gathering (the Shaping Our Future Symposium) in the Summer of 1993. Three questions were posed in the invitation to that gathering: "Are we structured so as to be effective for the spread of the kingdom of God? And if not why not? And if not, what can we do about it?"

The questions resonate still. And the questions are not just reasonable ones for the North American church, they need to be asked of the entire Anglican Family. Are our global structures truly working effectively for the kingdom of God to advance? Is the mission the Risen Lord Jesus gave to the church, to take the gospel to all who have not heard it, at the center of our common life? Are we living so that the love of God is persuading unbelievers around us to say "yes" to Him? Are we faithfully going and making disciples of all nations, who will observe all that Jesus commanded?

Most of the fighting going on in Anglican circles seems to many (and to me) to be about power, position, and prestige, not the effective spread of the kingdom of God, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. People are disciplined (or shunned) for "not being truly Anglican" (by someone's private definition) while rank disobedience to the ipsum verbum of Jesus and his Apostles is tolerated. Christian behavior is attacked as not "Anglican." Meanwhile in most of the West, and the areas where the West has had the
most historic influence, the impact for the gospel of Jesus Christ through the Anglican Witness diminishes day by day. Flourishing parishes do exist, and even a few flourishing diocese, but the culture around them is moving further and further from the revealed truth made known to Israel, and supremely in Jesus of Nazareth. Millions and millions of dollars are being spent on buildings and ecclesiastical structures that do not produce the fruit that alone proves the gospel has been heard.

Meanwhile the darkness of unbelief is growing almost everywhere that Westernized Anglicans gather to worship.

In England, in Europe, in Canada, in the USA, in Australia, in South Africa, in New Zealand, in South America. The numerical decline of the Anglican churches in these areas is continuing and increasing. And much of the ordained leadership seems entirely too preoccupied with preserving an Anglican culture that is dying, instead of leading boldly - with all true Christians - toward a new reformed unity in mission that obeys the clear Final Command of Jesus.

Nevertheless, the church that submits to Christ will never die. I affirm that with all my heart, soul, and strength. The Lord Jesus is building that church, and the gates of hell cannot prevail against it. It is constituted of every true disciple of Jesus. But it is not called Anglican. It is called the body of Christ. Those who will gather around the Lamb upon the Throne are its members.

The First Promise Statement was a cry of the heart for that church to rise up. The church that wants nothing but the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ, as it was brought to our faithful ancestors nearly two thousand years ago. Jon Shuler

Jon Shuler
(c) Crossgate Resources

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