The Episcopal Church is rooted in a history of preparing individuals for proclaiming the Gospel locally and internationally since it was established in 1789. The creation of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS) in 1835 led to the establishment of a board of missions and then, later in the century, the General Board of Religious Education and Joint Commission on Social Service.
In 1919, the General Convention directed the presiding bishop and national council (predecessor of today’s Executive Council) to administer and carry on the missionary, education, and social work of the church, building on the corporate model of business that much of America was following at the time.
At the turn of the 20th century, a new generation of leaders rose to advocate for education in Episcopal congregations. John Westerhoff comments in his seminal book, Will Our Children Have Faith? (1976, 2000, 2012), that they were “embarrassed by the Sunday school and impressed by the emerging public school system with new understandings of child development and pedagogy.” They called for the birth of a new “church school.”
In 1903, the Religious Education Association was founded with the purpose of “inspiring the religious forces of our country with an educational ideal and the educational forces with a religious one.” As time went on, the theological foundations of the religious education movement were identified with church schooling and the instruction of children, youth, and adults according to the methods of modern pedagogy. This did not last long.
By the late 1940s and 1950s, religious education changed its name to Christian education, with the instruction methods remaining the same but losing the sense of proclamation and missionary zeal of the individual. The Episcopal Church (and other denominations) ventured into offering materials for organized education programs that became known as the Sunday school in the U.S., occurring on Sunday mornings for children, youth, and adults.
From 1949 to 1958, Seabury Press created curricular resources to teach Episcopalians about the Bible, church history, and sacraments in a “new program” called The Seabury Series. With a teacher’s manual of questions and answers, adults were trained to teach students with a pedagogical methodology, believing that facts and information were important to know in order to be a disciple (and Episcopalian). Church classrooms were bursting at the seams as baby boom children sat at tables in rows to learn from a teacher, while their parents attended worship that was typically a service of Morning Prayer.
During the 1960s, a variety of voices began to surface in the Christian education field. They proclaimed that effective Christian education needed to be planned in the light of the total mission and ministry of the church – not just in a classroom with explicit instruction. They called attention to how the church, at its best, teaches through its worship and witness in a community of faith. However, boomers and their parents still attended worship in their “Sunday best” and going to church was what Americans did on Sunday.
After 1967, financial resources began a continual decline in The Episcopal Church’s national structure, including the area of Christian education. As funding and staff positions were withdrawn increasingly, a 1985 task force of General Convention was appointed to “study the history and present state of Christian education and recommend actions to strengthen the Church’s educational ministry.”
The task force concluded that the church was “teaching” but it wasn’t “forming” lifelong disciples of Christ who remain active in the life of a congregation. And then there was this “new” Book of Common Prayer that had appeared in 1979 that placed the Eucharist at the center and emphasized that baptism meant full participation in the Body of Christ.
During this same time period, Maria Harris, a writer, speaker, and advocate of religious education, wrote a book that changed the world for many involved in Christian education. She saw that the educational practices in our churches weren’t necessarily creating lifelong disciples of Christ. Fashion Me a People: Curriculum in the Church (1989) spoke about the context and vocation of what a Christian community (“the church”) should be all about.
Harris recalled the Acts of the Apostles and how the early church formed disciples (Acts 2:42), suggesting the curriculum (currere = “course to be run”) of the Church should focus on the: (1) Kerygma: proclaiming the Gospel by learning the biblical story and its application to our lives; (2) Koinoia: building community and fostering a discipline of care and empathy toward others; (3) Diakonia: asking how do we serve others beyond our community? (4) Didache: learning as a process of change or transformation of one’s understanding of what it means to be a disciple (based on the teachings of the apostles); and (5) Leiturgia: the curriculum of prayer in which we worship together as a faith community of all ages to be fed in Word and sacrament and deepen our spiritual life.
For Episcopalians, this mirrors the language of our Baptismal Covenant. A task force formed by General Convention in 1985 produced a seminal document that urged the church to move beyond the imparting of knowledge of particular, discrete subjects to look holistically at how all ages are equipped to be followers of Christ.
Called to Teach and Learn: A Catechetical Guide for the Episcopal Church (1994) articulates the understanding that Christian education as primarily Sunday school and Bible study should be changed to Christian formation (catechesis). The change reflects the ancient model of formation in which the church seeks to equip the whole person for their life in Christ. Within this perspective, education remains a major and critical piece of formation, but not its sole component.
With a continued decrease in staff and funding at all levels in The Episcopal Church, Christian education and formation has continued to flourish best at the grassroots level, with locally created programs bubbling up to church-wide popularity and usage.
In 1997, The Children’s Charter for the Church was developed by a grassroots movement of educators who wanted to highlight the recognition of children as full members of the church. It reflected a deep commitment to include children (ages 0-12) and youth (ages 13-18) in the life of the church, recognizing the ministry of, by, and for children. Its aim was to help churches to affirm the practice of integrating the lives of children into the church and to integrate the church into the lives of children. This reflected a commitment to Christian formation as a cradle-to-grave enterprise involving both lifelong and daylong learning which continues today.
At the 76th General Convention (2009), the Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation was adopted as a model of education for all. The charter defined formation as growth in the knowledge, service, and love of God as followers of Christ that is informed by scripture, tradition, and reason.
The charter calls for a prayerful life of worship, continuous learning, intentional outreach, advocacy, and service. Among many charges, it calls the church to develop new learning experiences and equip disciples for life in a world of secular challenges while carefully listening for the words of modern sages who embody the teachings of Christ.
Today, Christian education is seen as part of a holistic view of Christian formation, centered in baptism and shaped by the Holy Eucharist. The Baptismal Covenant is a model for learning and living out one’s faith in daily life. Episcopalians are still trying to send that message to the grassroots level where formation happens and is lived out.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Winter 2018, Vol. 30, No. 2, Special Issue – Christian Formation in the Church Today, page 6-8