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The Forward Movement in the Episcopal Church: Twenty-Fourth Annual Hale Memorial Sermon, Delivered March 9, 1938.

By Henry Wise Hobson

Evanston: Seabury Western Theological Seminary, 1938.


Exodus xiv. 15. "Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward."

Out of slavery into the wilderness the Israelites, led by Moses, had taken their way. Fear began to possess them as they faced the prospect of capture by the pursuing Pharaoh. Their fate would be destruction for some, and reenslavement for others. They were lost knowing not where to turn or whither to go. In that moment of concern and confusion, "The Lord said unto Moses. ... Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward. ... And the children of Israel went. ... And the Egyptians pursued. ... And the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. ... But the children of Israel walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea. ... Thus the Lord saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians; ... and the people feared the Lord, and believed the Lord." And all this happened because they dared to go forward.

This old story of the passage of the Red Sea together with all that we read of that half century of wandering in the wilderness which followed, has a lot more to teach than most of us will ever discover, but there is one lesson we need desperately to learn: That God's way is always forward, and that He gives, to those who trust Him, strength to follow His way.

Those forty years are full of vivid examples of how God led His people forward when they trusted Him, and how they so often wandered, lost, when they failed to heed His call. The tragedy of that whole experience following the [5/6] Exodus resulted from the backward looking attitude of the majority of the Israelites. Instead of pushing on into the Promised Land, they were fearful of the future, and all too prone to bewail their fate as they reproached Moses, “It had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness," or, “Were it not better for us to return into Egypt." The reward for their timidity was that their "carcases were wasted in the wilderness." Probably only two of those who came out of Egypt lived to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land—Joshua and Caleb. These alone, in the early days of the Exodus, urged an immediate forward movement. "Let us go up at once, and possess it—the Lord is with us." God spoke of these men as having "another spirit." It was the spirit which has always controlled those who have joined in God's eternal onward march.

The Forward Movement is therefore nothing new. From the time when "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters," the chief characteristic of those who have sought to share fully in God's plan has been that they have heard and heeded such a command as was given Moses, “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward." In Jesus, God reveals Himself as one who ever marches forward; and through the centuries of Christian 'history the loyal followers of the Master have been eager to join in this march. Few have described this spirit as well as Bossuet, the great French preacher and able bishop, who wrote, almost three hundred years ago, “The life of the Christian is one long, continuous journey, during the course of which, whatever pleasures may solace us, whatever society may amuse us, whatever weariness of spirit may overtake us, whatever bodily fatigue may overwhelm us, as soon as we begin to take a little rest a Divine Voice speaks to us from [6/7] above, saying without pause or cessation, ‘Go forward;’ thus commanding us to proceed on our journey. Such is the Christian life." The Christian is one who is determined to follow in the Master's way, and is ready, as David Livingstone said, to "go anywhere—provided it be forward."

In accepting the opportunity which this Hale Sermon offers, and speaking on the subject which was suggested by your committee, ‘The Forward Movement,' I therefore want to make it clear that I present no new program, no man-made machinery for carrying on the Church's work, no plan devised by a commission for the advancement of its ideas. Rather we consider together what God expects of us, and of the Church, in order that we may share in His forward movement which has been going on since the day of creation. Since I speak primarily to those of you who are preparing to take your place as clergy, and therefore leaders, in the Church, the real question before us could be stated thus: What does God require of me, an ordained minister of the Church in this day, as I seek to obey His command, “Speak unto your people, that they go forward?”

If in answering this question I present in some detail the suggestions and work of the Forward Movement Commission, which has been active in the Church during the past three years, it is not because this group has called us to engage in a program which it has created. Rather because this Commission has continually insisted that its function is to make Church members aware of the fact that God expects us to go forward in this age as in every age; and that a special Commission is needed only because so many of us have lost sight of certain of the essential steps which God has [7/8] always required of those who would make progress along His way. The Commission has sought to focus attention on God's eternal plan, and not to create a new plan of its own. Because it has had a measure of success in this endeavor, we can, by studying its work, gain a clearer vision of what we must do in order to share in the forward movement of our day.

Without drawing a comparison in too great detail, it is obvious that there are many conditions in this century similar to those which faced the Israelites of the Exodus: The slavery of materialism which has held us bound. The realization which has come to certain of our leaders of the desperate state in which we have lived. The conviction which has come to these leaders that spiritual values are supreme, and that a discovery of God's purpose alone can free us from bondage. Yet the pathetic fearfulness of the majority—the lostness—the wanderings—the extreme conservatism which prefers the known servitude of the past to the risk involved in winning a future freedom! And in the midst of it all God's message, which the leaders have been taking up, is as of old, “Speak to the children of Israel, that they go forward."

We hear these leaders speaking not only from the ranks of the Church, and those engaged in religious vocations, but also from other walks of life. The educator, the scientist, the business man, the social worker, see with new clarity that "a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth." No more striking evidence of this new voice can be cited than the words of the new president of Yale University in his inaugural address. What ridicule—even scorn—would have been expressed by most of those counted among the leaders of thought, twenty-five years ago, had they heard the head of a great university [8/9] speak in such terms! Yet today President Seymour's emphasis upon the essential nature of spiritual values is the expression of what men of first rank in the field of education are saying again and again.

It is worth quoting at some length from this address because it shows clearly how leaders today are pointing toward the power of the Christian religion to lead men out of slavery into the Promised Land.

“Never in the history of the world," says Mr. Seymour, “has the menace of materialism been more appalling, nor the disastrous consequences of its triumph so obvious. In the political, economic, and social fields of endeavor it has produced and it will perpetuate suicidal strife. ... If our historical studies have taught us anything it is that selfish materialism leads straight to the City of Destruction. To fight it we have need of clear intelligence. ... Yale was dedicated to the upraising of spiritual leaders. We betray our trust if we fail to explore the various ways in which the youth who come to us may learn to appreciate spiritual values, whether by the example of our own lives or through the cogency of our philosophical arguments. The simple and direct way is through the maintenance and upbuilding of the Christian religion as a vital part of university life. I call on all members of the faculty, as members of a thinking body, freely to recognize the tremendous validity and power of the teaching of Christ in our life-and-death struggle against the forces of selfish materialism. ... We do well to observe the example of our Yale forefathers who were not ashamed to confess the power of the Christian God. ‘Look at the generations of old,' we are warned by the ancient prophet, ‘and see: did ever any trust in the Lord, and was confounded? or did any abide in His fear and was [9/10] forsaken? or whom did He ever despise, that called upon Him?'"

Thus does the leader of one of our great universities, a man who have given most of his life to the study and teaching of history, and has had the further opportunity of close association with diplomatic circles, express his conviction that for the salvation of mankind we must have spiritual leaders who can "speak to the children of Israel, that they go forward."

The appointment of the Forward Movement Commission at the General Convention of 1934 was an answer to the deep concern and longing felt by many members of the Church as they, like President Seymour, faced the confusion of our day and saw no hope except in the power of the Christian religion to "turn the world upside down." It was the inevitable result of a conviction, rediscovered by many who had been living in a mixture of Victorian optimism and humanistic self-sufficiency, that God has a purpose for the world, and for each one of us His children; and that our only hope of victory in life comes from our ability to discover and share in His purpose. In the hour of crisis a call was sounded—a command was given—to the whole Church: "Forward March!"

Those appointed as members of the Forward Movement Commission have been fully conscious of the magnitude of the task, and of their own inadequacy to meet it. When we gathered in Chicago in December, 1934, to organize and consider our program, we spent a considerable part of the two days in prayer because we knew that nothing we of ourselves might do could be of the slightest help in meeting the situation which confronted us. Out of the communion with God, and in God's presence with each other, came the [10/11] conviction of His purpose that in our day the Episcopal Church, together with the other Communions of Christendom, shall exert a new power in the life of the world. We reminded ourselves of the truth that "difficulty is the very atmosphere of miracle, and if the miracle is to be a great one the atmosphere is not difficulty but impossibility." We went forth from that meeting with new faith and courage. Not because we felt ourselves fitted for the task ahead, but because we knew that God's strength would be sufficient for us, and that He would use us, and many throughout the Church, to perform the miracle which the world requires.

Since that day, a little over three years ago, the Forward Movement has developed. In some places notable progress has been made, while in others a static condition still prevails. No history of what has been accomplished can ever be given because much of the greatest value will be forever unrecorded. The Forward Movement can not be judged by a balance sheet. We can not say, “This came because of the Forward Movement." It is not something added to the Church, but the real Movement has been made by the Body of the Church working through her loyal and devoted members everywhere. Their numbers can not be tabulated. Their names are known of God.

The Commission during these years has sought, first, to present a vision of our common purpose which would bring encouragement and new hope to many who have been fearfully standing still; and second, to bring together the suggestions and ideas which are born in the minds and hearts of many of the clergy and lay people, and make these available to the whole Church.

In the fulfillment of the first of these objectives it has become more and more obvious that if there is to be any permanent progress it must be a united progress. The [11/12] Church must rise above all prejudice and pettiness, and realize more fully, that there is a common purpose drawing us together which is far stronger than any differences which separate us. Among the members of the Commission a joyful fellowship sprang up to unite a group representing many shades of opinion. As we have gone about the Church talking to all sorts and conditions of men—of every level of Churchmanship and economic existence—we have found that this same fellowship is leading the Church into closer unity, which will lift us all above personal preferences and narrow sectarianism, and give us a new sense of our oneness in Christ.

When the Israelites were united, progress always ensued. When selfishness, pride, prejudice, or jealousy turned them against each other, defeat was sure to follow. Then, now, always, there can be no forward movement unless those who claim to be followers of God's way are united in their endeavors. This fact not only demands that there shall be a closer bond between the members of the Episcopal Church, but also that we in our Communion shall recognize that we are one with all Christians everywhere, and that we must do our full part in the powerful movements of our day looking toward a more united Christendom. The forces of destruction and hatred are marching rampant through the world. They can be subdued only as those who would see God's purpose prevail go forth as "one Body" and in "one Spirit."

In the months before the world conferences in Oxford and Edinburgh there were many who came to a better understanding of how these gatherings might help toward the reunion of Christian people. They saw a vision of the possibilities involved as they read about what was happening, in Forward Movement literature, or joined in study classes [12/13] or prayer groups with attention focused oil the Life and Work and, the Faith and Order programs.

Now that these Conferences have given us such a glorious lead, it is ever more evident that the advance toward the goal of unity must be continued as an essential part of the Forward Movement. We who are already in the ministry, and you who are to be priests in the Church in the days ahead, have a responsibility in this realm which we dare not neglect. We must give hard thought, and encourage our people to do likewise, as we study these subjects upon which any true unity must be built. We must seize every worthy opportunity to draw closer to those who are members of other communions. The last issue of Forward Today, a communication which goes from the Forward Movement Commission to the clergy, has many suggestions as to how the spirit of Oxford and Edinburgh may be encouraged to live on in our parishes. Surely God, confronted by a broken Christendom, is conscious of how far we are from realizing the prayer of His Son, "that they may be one," and He must say to us today again, “Speak unto your people, that they go forward."

The second objective of the Forward Movement Commission, as stated, has been to bring together suggestions and ideas from all over the Church and make them available to all. We have resisted every temptation to manufacture a program because we know that a true Forward Movement must spring from the members of the Church, stirred by God's Spirit, and not be superimposed by a few individuals. We have had no desire to manage a movement, but rather to make it possible, through the sharing of ideas, for all to take their part in the fulfillment of God's will for His Church in this day. Out of our many conferences and conversations we have gathered hopes, suggestions, longings, [13/14] criticisms and plans from bishops and other clergy; from men and women, young people and children; from office holders in positions of importance, and from unknown men with an humble devotion to the Church in their hearts. What has been gathered the Commission has used to present the needs of the Church, and to fire its members with a new determination to do their part in meeting these needs. Thus the program has grown.

Following this course, progress has at times been slow; some suggestions have seemed vague; needs have not always been met. As a result some of our Church members have been disappointed. Those who pin their hopes upon dictatorship have looked to the Commission in vain. Those who enjoy seeing well-oiled wheels go round and round have found little pleasure. Those who, through lack of initiative or sloth, want to be told what to do have not been comforted. Those who like to travel in the rut worn deep by the heavy feet of inflexible authority, rather than trusting the wings of a free spirit, have at times faulted the Commission for failing to travel more constantly along the traditional way.

It is obvious that the Forward Movement Commission has failed to accomplish much that it should have done, but its members are more and more convinced that the course it has chosen of working out its program in consultation with as many different people as possible is the only one which, in a Church founded upon a faith in democracy, can result in permanent Forward Movement. God's plan for the advancement of His purpose does not include dictatorship, compulsion, the suppression of individuality by turning out one-track minds, the ordering of conduct by rigid rules or by fear of consequences. In spite of all our unworthiness He still trusts us to choose the way, and He has faith in our [14/15] ultimate free choice of His way. So He wants us to treat each other. And only thus can we go forward together.

It is out of the continued relationship that has been maintained between the Commission and the Church itself that the literature of the Forward Movement has been produced. The list has been confined to those items which have been insistently demanded. Consequently what has been published has met an actual and present need. From the time that men first expressed ideas in writing, forward movement has depended more and more upon a literature which is able to feed men in their hunger. The eighteen issues of the seasonal Bible-reading booklet now known as Forward, Day by Day, and the thirty other pieces of literature have gone forth to the ends of the earth. Some has been for general use, others for special groups—clergy, adults, children, young people, and families. Certain material has been adapted and translated into the tongues of the younger churches in Japan, China, and Latin America. Each issue of Forward, Day by Day goes to the blind in Braille. In all, very nearly eleven million copies of the various publications have been ordered and distributed during the past three years.

It is essential that a literature be available when people are to be united in a forward movement. An astounding number can best be reached in this way. Through this means many learn to use the Bible and prayer as an effective approach to God. Minds are nourished, hearts are comforted, souls are strengthened by the written word. The Bible reading in which hundreds of thousands, scattered all over the world, speaking different languages, reading through their finger tips, join daily as they use Forward, Day by Day, in their homes, in hospitals, in schools, in [15/16] prisons, on land and at sea, gives to the Church a unity which could be achieved in no other way.

The continued use of such a literature depends upon the efforts of the clergy to make it readily available for all who need it. There are many who will look to us for the help which a book may give them to find God's way for their lives. A woman in the country, to whom a minister has sent a copy of Forward, Day by Day, writes: "I have been helped so much by the little book you sent. With no fuel, taxes to be met, and many other minor troubles, it seemed as if the whole world were black. With the little my husband makes nights working in the mill, and his mother an invalid, I just figured I couldn't go on. Then last Friday the lesson inspired me so much I am willing to stand the fight. ` Joy is the banner we fly from the staff of our lives when the king is in residence.' I thought that over and over and that lesson has worked wonders with me." Just a woman whose life was meaningless until someone spoke the word she needed through a book. This is one way we can speak to our people, that they may go forward.

As the Commission has conferred with clergy and people we have often met the question, “What is wrong with the Church?" We can never make progress unless we are willing honestly to face the situation we are in, and this question is therefore of prime importance. Even a very long sermon could not discuss the various conditions which we find about us in the Church which need to be changed, but if we are to be leaders in any forward movement we must consider these conditions again and again. An ostrich, with its head hidden in the sand, unwilling to face unpleasant reality, makes a very poor leader. It may help to list here in brief form the twelve answers which we have [16/17] most often met when the question has been asked, “What is wrong with the Church?"

1. A lack of fellowship in essential experiences between the rector and his' people. In other words, clergy too often fail in helping people to strengthen their spiritual lives. The failure comes not in their sermons but in their personal relations.

2. The large number of lost communicants.

3. An ineffective Church School program.

4. A haphazard young people's program.

5. Confirmation preparation which fails to give candidates sufficient instruction, and does not present the essential demands of the Christian life.

6. Lack of religion in the home, and of personal religion in the lives of individual Church members.

7. The almost total lack of adult education.

8. A small Church attendance.

9. A blindness to community responsibility, and to the social task of the Christian Church in every area of life.

10. A neglect of Holy Communion through lack of preparation and irregularity of attendance.

11. An ineffectual men's program.

12. A vagueness about one true function of the Church (to preach the Gospel to all the world) which has resulted from an inadequate program of missionary education.

Those who want to see their churches go forward may well take the list and see how many of these twelve most frequent deficiencies apply to their own programs and people. The first step toward health is to diagnose the disease which may be present.

Following the diagnosis, however, there must be positive treatment helping the patient to find health. No forward movement program can stop with a consideration of what is [17/18] wrong. It is well to remember that many of the old time-proven remedies are all the better because of their age, and that it is wise to be suspicious of new cure-alls until their value is assured. Very few new suggestions have been made by the Forward Movement Commission because we have become more and more convinced that such practices as: a daily reading of the Bible; using prayer regularly as a means of communion with God; gathering the family for daily prayer together; setting aside, as belonging to God, for the support of His Church, a worthy part of what He has given us; being present at Church to share in corporate worship every Sunday; and regular attendance at Holy Communion, following preparation;—these are just as essential for our well being, and for the health of the Church today, as in any past age.

The Commission has again and again, in conferences, through special services, and by means of literature, focused attention upon the need for a faithful observance of these practices which have been the source of such power through all the Church's history. The current issue of Forward Today, as in the case of former issues of this publication, is largely given over to suggestions which may help us to do better some of the things which we have always been responsible for doing. You will find, for instance, that one of the important phases of the program which is presented is that which we call by the old-fashioned, and often misunderstood, word-Evangelism. Regardless of what we call it, we must face the fact that this is the activity in which, above all others, Christ calls us to share. Clergy and laymen alike can not claim to be His followers unless they are ready to obey His command. We must accept our responsibility to go forth and preach the Evangel as an essential for all men of all nations. This means reclaiming [18/19] those members of the Church in whom religion is dormant. It means winning those in cities and country who are unchurched. It means an intelligent passion for carrying the Gospel to every corner of the world. Like much in our program there is nothing new in this—it is as old as the Gospel itself. But we can help to make things new by more active use of this old principle.

Another old method which has been constantly used, in the development of the Forward Movement program, is the gathering of groups of clergy, and lay people also, for retreat or conference seeking God's guidance and strength, and lending help one to another. Its origin as an essential factor in the forward movement of the Christian Church goes back to the day when Jesus of Nazareth gathered the first group of disciples about Himself. We are convinced such closer spiritual fellowship is greatly needed in the Church of our day.

Any attempt to list in detail either what the Forward Movement Commission has done, or hopes to do in the future, would be a denial of the principle which has guided us through these past years. We have done but little. It is God's Spirit which has touched many, and no record can be made of the result. "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit."

The Commission's all important endeavor has been to call the clergy, the men, the women, the young people and children of the Church to choose the Disciples' Way. For soon after we were called to be members of the Commission we realized that no program for an advance in the Church's life can possibly succeed unless a majority of the members of the [19/20] Church are living as loyal disciples of Christ. To be a disciple requires that a person follow in the way which the Master has taken, and there must be definite steps in such a way if it is to lead anywhere. These steps are those which the Master took, and called His disciples to take. They have been designated in the Forward Movement program by the words, Turn, Follow, Learn, Pray, Serve, Worship, Share. Words are merely symbols, but the experience which these words describe is a reality. We must be ready to go through these experiences, and face their reality. The Commission, from the beginning, has been calling members of the Church to take these steps—the first four bearing primarily upon the individual's relation to God, and the last three standing for our relation with our fellows, and our corporate relation with God.

There can be no forward movement in the Christian Church without a deepened loyalty to, our leader on the part of all of us. If this is to come for our people it must first come to us in the Christian ministry. In the seven steps, as a definite rule, is a way to the disciplined life for clergy and laity alike without which there cannot be a release of spiritual power and influence. Those who have seriously tried to follow this rule have found it simple enough for a child and immediately applicable, yet capable of even deeper interpretation. It is based on our Lord's own experience, and is an organic principle of life which can bear the pressure of any demands made upon it. Each word in turn makes its great demands upon him who travels the way.

Our responsibility—our opportunity—as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to help people to find this Way. It leads out of the land of bondage, through the deep waters of adversity, out of the darkness of sorrow, away from the hunger and thirst of the desert, through the temptations of [20/21] the wilderness, on to the Promised Land. The Way stretches out before us: God’s Way along which He calls us to travel. It presents hardship, suffering, great risks. On it are difficulties, barriers, strong enemies. It calls for daring, sacrifice, unwavering faith. God’s promise comes to us as it once came to Joshua, “Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed; for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.” And He still commands us whom He has chosen to be leaders,  even as He commanded Moses of old, “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.”

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