On the Difference Between the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church

One of my college students asked me the following question:

I went to a reformed Episcopal church on Sunday. The church was beautiful but the service was so different. I noticed that the BCP 1928 seemed to be a lot different than what I was used to. whats up with that? Just wondering.

My answer is as follows:

The short answer is that the Reformed Episcopal Church is a split-off group that formed as a reaction to: (a) Growing liberalism in the Church, especially in denying chief doctrines of the Protestant Reformation (such as the total corruption of human sinners, and Christ's sacrifice as a substitutionary payment for our sins); (b) Growing Catholicism in the Church, especially vestments, ornate ceremonies, and the recovery of "catholic" liturgies that emphasize the Incarnation and the Church, rather that the Cross and the sinner.

A longer answer requires a short refresher on "Reformed" theology (i.e. that theology that flows out of John Calvin and Zwingli in Europe, and out of Thomas Cranmer in England). Reformed theology is usually summed up in the acronym "TULIP":

T=Total Depravity. Humans are completely useless and worthless due to sin, unable to offer God anything of value, nor even respond to God due to the damage of sin in them. All are bound for hell.

U=Unconditional Election. Because of His mercy, God elects some out of this mass of perdition and misery to be saved. Because we cannot do anything to save ourselves, it is infinitely merciful for God to elect even one person to be saved and re-born. (One might ask: "If God can elect one or some, why not All, if He loves them?" But don't let logic or Scripture get in the way of a good theological system).

L=Limited Atonement. Christ's death on the cross was a "substitutionary propitiation" for our sins. It is substitution, because in it, He takes the punishment we deserve. It is a propitiation because a "propitiation" (also called "expiation") is an offering that turns away wrath. It is "limited" because it is only applied to the elect. Everyone else is S.O.L. Christ's death on the cross is thus kind of like a "deflector shield". God the Father wants to utterly destroy us because we have rebelled against Him, but Jesus stands in our place and takes the wrath for us. Another picture is that of the court-room: God is the judge who declares us guilty and gives us the death sentence, and then takes off His robes and dies for us. But this is only if you are elect. Everyone else is screwed.

I=Irresistible Grace. Those who God elects, and who Christ atones for, will inevitably be drawn to receive Christ. The Holy Spirit will get inside them and "regenerate" them, so that they can hear the Gospel, understand it, and respond in faith (and be saved). Without this regeneration, everyone else is doomed to die and go to hell. One may ask: "How are they condemned if they cannot understand how to be saved?" But, don't ask questions. They only screw up a good theological system.

P=Perseverance of the Elect. Those who are elected, atoned, and called, will be brought through life to receive heaven. "Once saved, always saved". God's power will keep them from loosing faith. And, the flipside is also true: Those not elect will inevitably, despite anything else, inherit damnation.

OK, so this TULIP is what makes the "Reformed" Episcopal Church reformed. Thus, in their liturgy and preaching, you will notice the following:

1. Usually minimal vestments. A few robes. No really ornate stuff (some are different, but this is a general rule). The idea is that they want as few distractions as possible from hearing the Gospel of the Cross.

2. Many of the prayers are very sin-centered. They are centered on making us ponder what miserable sinners we are, who do not deserve even the least attention from God. In the new 1979 Prayer Book, there is much more emphasis on how we are loved by God just the way we are. In the 1928, there is much more emphasis on our need to humbly repent.

3. Much of the service is cross centered. The liturgy (and usually the preaching) centers on the "great transaction" where Jesus took our sin for us, and has given us His righteousness and forgiveness. In the 1979, we tend to focus more on the Incarnation of Christ, rather than on His death. We tend to focus on how God became one of us in every way- including death- by becoming incarnate. In the Reformed EC, the emphasis is on the cross as God's primary saving act, whereas in our Church (and the Catholic Church) the emphasis is on the total incarnation- from birth, to death, to resurrection, to coming again- as the primary saving act.

4. Because the newer liturgies in the 1979 BCP have taken on a more "catholic" flavor, and an older ordering, the R.E.C. rejects the 1979 BCP and sticks with the 1928, which reflects a more "Reformed" theology, and a more "Reformed" way of ordering the service.

The basic difference in the Liturgy could be summed up this way:

1928 BCP: Confession of sin and unworthiness --> Focus on the Cross as our salvation --> Sacrament reminds us of cross.

1979 BCP: God made us to love and share Himself with --> Focus on the Incarnation as the ultimate embodiment of God's Love --> Sacrament shares the Incarnation with us here and now.

Many of my critiques of the R.E.C. are apparent in this essay. But I would like to add the following:

A. I think that the REC is partially right in stressing our sin and need to repent. This is something we often overlook, and we ARE sick with sin, and we DO need to repent and return to the Lord to be healed.

B. I do think that there is a substitutionary aspect of the cross and Incarnation that we need to emphasize that we do not sometimes because of our horror over "deflector shield" or "courtroom" images of substitution. But, the real nature of the substitution is that Jesus is a physician that has infected Himself with our disease (and death) so that He can find a way to cure us. And that cure is in the resurrection. His substitution is that God so loved us that He took upon Himself the natural consequence of our sins, so that we may be healed.

C. I do think that the normal preaching and liturgy of the REC would dispose one to think of their relationship with God as a legal transaction, instead of as a love affair with God. And, due to the weaknesses of Reformed theology (the TULIP), I think it would be very hard to change that "legalistic" assumption that is present in nearly all they do.

There… Probably more than you wanted to know… But that's what I think.

May Christ fill your life,
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.