Posted by: mattcolvin | October 15, 2013

Careful Reading of the Muhlenberg Memorial

Steven Wedgeworth, a presbyterian, has been examining the Muhlenberg Memorial, a document that is important in the history of episcopalianism and Protestant ecumenism, and significant also for its influence on the foundation of the Reformed Episcopal Church. My REC ordination exam asked about it, and Bishop Sutton, in a recent interview, cited Bp. Cummins’ admiration for Muhlenberg as evidence that the REC at its founding intended to encompass a broad range of churchmanship.

Wedgeworth disagrees, claiming that the Muhlenberg Memorial shows that Muhlenberg was not really high church at all. While I don’t care to quarrel over the definition of “high”, some of my Anglican and REC friends have objected to Wedgeworth’s interpretation of that document: to wit, they point out that, though Muhlenberg was not a transsubstantiationist or Anglo-Catholic, he was a high churchman who believed in apostolic succession and did not recognize Presbyterian orders. Wedgeworth tries hard to make it out otherwise:

Now, the memorial does go on to say that these non-episcopalian ministers, “need only such a bond to be drawn together in closer and more primitive fellowship, is here believed to be the peculiar province and high privilege of your venerable body as a College of CATHOLIC AND APOSTOLIC BISHOPS as such.” Thus Pr. Muhlenberg could be read as saying that the Episcopal church enjoyed this “more primitive fellowship” in a unique way, however, he set memorial in direct opposition to “the consolidated forces of Romanism” and he also granted that the non-episcopalian ministers truly possessed “the gifts of preachers and pastors,” that they would indeed be “able ministers of the New Testament,” and even that they are God’s answer to prayers for ministers. Additionally, he states that the matters in which these ministers are not in conformity are “unessentials.”
An even simpler consideration is that the Muhlenberg memorial was viewed as a piece of solidarity with the larger evangelical party of the day and was strongly opposed by both the High Church and Anglo-Catholic parties in the Episcopal Church. So it does seem that the original reading of Muhlenberg, that of a liturgical “catholic” Evangelical, is the correct one.

Thus, Wedgeworth: he believes that Muhlenberg thought that Presbyterian or other non-episcopal ministers were fine and dandy. But Wedgeworth misses Muhlenberg’s use of the subjunctive: Muhlenberg does not say that they actually are “able ministers of the New Testament”, but that they “would be“. That is, Muhlenberg believes that they are doctrinally and spiritually qualified, but that they lack the proper authority from the Church. They are not currently ministers of the New Testament in Muhlenberg’s view, because they have not received ordination; and this is something that they can only receive at the hands of bishops. Thus, the memorial urges “the extension of orders to the class of men contemplated”, but not the recognition of Presbyterian orders as already valid or sufficient.

For Muhlenberg and the presbyters who signed his memorial were writing to the Bishops of the PEC. Accordingly, they say that “[Protestant Christians] need only such a bond to be drawn together in closer and more primitive fellowship, is here believed to be the peculiar province and high privilege of your venerable body as a College of CATHOLIC AND APOSTOLIC BISHOPS as such.” The memorialists are saying that acting as “the bond of primitive fellowship” is “the peculiar province and high privilege” of “Catholic and Apostolic Bishops”. There is no idea here of a bond of fellowship outside of episcopal polity. Note that the Muhlenberg Memorial does not concede to Presbyterian churches the dignity of the name “Church.” It calls them merely “bodies of Christians”.

Muhlenberg’s proposal was that the Church should make it easier for such men to be ordained:
“a wider door must be opened for admission to the Gospel ministry than that through which her candidates for holy orders are now obliged to enter. Besides such candidates among her own members, it is believed that men can be found among the other bodies of Christians around us, who would gladly receive ordination at your [scil. the bishops’] hands, could they obtain it, without that entire surrender which would now be required of them, of all the liberty in public worship to which they have been accustomed…” Note that Muhlenberg speaks of “admission to the Gospel ministry” (sc. from outside it), not of the PEC recognising the existing ministry of men who have not been ordained by bishops.

Muhlenberg wanted the Episcopal Church to ordain pastors from non-Episcopal churches who had scruples at certain ceremonies or prayers in the Book of Common Prayer. These are the matters that are “non-essentials” according to Muhlenberg. Episcopal ordination, on the other hand, was in his view necessary and non-negotiable. He did not have in mind Wedgeworth’s vision of “a liturgical ‘catholic’ Evangelical” movement inclusive of both Episcopal and non-Episcopal orders.

So it is ironic to find Wedgeworth citing Muhlenberg as support for his own views. Like many liturgical Presbyterians, Wedgeworth would probably be happy to use the liturgy contained in the BCP, so long as he didn’t need to be ordained by a bishop; but Muhlenberg wanted to let ministers deviate from the BCP’s liturgy, so long as they submitted to ordination by a bishop.

Now, it happens that, despite Mr. Wedgeworth’s misreading of Muhlenberg, I actually agree with the doctrine of Mr. Wedgeworth against Muhlenberg himself on this point. It is advantageous to me to be able to respect non-episcopal orders here on the mission field. If I were an episcopalian chauvinist, looking down my nose at every minister who isn’t ordained by a bishop, my ability to labor in the word by teaching other Evangelicals and their children here in the Philippines would be greatly impaired. But it will not do to imagine that Muhlenberg was as welcoming as, say, Bp. Cummins to the orders of non-Episcopalian ministers.


  1. […] Colvin, a missionary in the Reformed Episcopal Church, has written a thoughtful criticism of my reading of the Muhlenberg Memorial, arguing that I have failed to read its grammar closely. Pastor Colvin believes that Pr. Muhlenberg […]

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