How a Weary and Divided Episcopal Church Gets Reinvigorated

A sense of weariness and resignation prevailed as the 51st General Convention of the Episcopal Church convened on October 10, 1934, in Atlantic City. Loyal church people were anxious and fearful. Distrust of church leaders was pervasive. Revenues for the previous three years had fallen far short of projections, resulting in the curtailing of ministries and large-scale borrowing.

Prospects for 1935 were bleak. Many saw a looming decline facing their church. Even with an increase in diocesan giving of 25 percent (by no means a certainty) and adding money from the United Thank Offering and investment income, revenues of only $2,313,115 were expected, against anticipated expenditures of $2,700,000, a nearly 17 percent shortfall. The Joint Committee on Program and Budget had been meeting all summer to attempt the apparently impossible—the gap seemed unbridgeable and the decline in giving seemed to signal a spiritual exhaustion throughout the church.

In its report to the Convention, the committee called its job “onerous” and speculated about the causes of the malaise. Many dioceses had recently invested in new buildings, incurring large debts. Bad economic times taxed resources. And then there was the question of trust. Faced with the decreased giving and the need to pay the salaries of missionaries and maintain essential ministries, the National Council (predecessor of today’s Executive Council) had borrowed heavily—contrary to the expressed will of the 1931 General Convention. This angered many people. The church’s national leadership was accused of having betrayed the church by poor management and incurring the debt. “An atmosphere of hopelessness prevailed,” Bishop Henry Wise Hobson of Southern Ohio later recalled. In what was surely an understatement and news to no one, the Committee on Program and Budget reported that “in some matters misunderstanding may have arisen.”

If all else failed, the Committee on Program and Budget recommended that the 1934 Convention require the National Council to stop borrowing money and begin operating on a pay-as-you-go basis, slashing expenses—including salaries and ministries as necessary. And it suggested where cuts should be made. But the committee hoped it would not come to that and challenged the church to “meet the difference between those two figures.”

How could this be done? The effort had actually begun a few months earlier, in the spring of 1934, when a group of devoted churchmen, led by Harvey Firestone and Charles Taft, both wealthy laymen from Ohio, proposed a special offering to erase the debt, using the slogan "Hold the Line." They acted without authority or authorization, independently of the National Council and other official church bodies, because church officials were so widely distrusted. An intensive campaign of visiting and letter-writing ensued. The laymen did not ask whether the National Council had acted responsibly in going into debt, but focused on a positive effort to unite the church, halt the retreat, and reverse the decline. Although the campaign was carried on during the summer, when many Episcopalians’ consciousness of their church was at its lowest ebb, by the time the Everyman’s Offering (as the effort was called) was presented at the opening service of the Atlantic City Convention, enough had been raised to erase most of the debt incurred during the previous three years.

But the Everyman's Offering did more than pay off loans. Bishop Hobson later wrote that "something had happened which changed the whole attitude and spirit of the Convention. The delegates realized that in spite of difficulties the church need not retreat" and that people throughout the church were ready to shake off their lethargy. A deputy from Tennessee is reputed to have said, "This church needs more than a campaign to 'hold the line.' We need to move forward!"

Responding to the new spirit, the Committee on Program and Budget called for the creation of a “Forward Movement” charged to “reinvigorate the life of the church and to rehabilitate its general, diocesan, and parochial work.” It said the discouragement of the previous three years “must be transfigured into a confident attitude toward the future.”

The Convention unanimously adopted the committee’s resolution and appointed the Forward Movement Commission, chaired by the “handsome, strapping” (in the words of Time magazine) young Bishop Hobson of Southern Ohio. The Commission, consisting of five bishops, five priests, and ten laymen, was charged to plan and launch this new effort. Thus was born Forward Movement.

PART 2: First Forward Movement Publication Sets the Standard

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