With only twenty people, no budget, and no clear direction, the newly formed Forward Movement Commission set out to “reinvigorate the life of the Episcopal Church.”
Bishop Hobson commented that the Commission faced “probably the vaguest and most inclusive task imaginable.” Commission members returned from General Convention and for several weeks wrote and telephoned one another and asked acquaintances back home how they would reinvigorate the life of the church. Hobson also asked Commission members to “pray hard for a month.”
The Forward Movement Commission met for the first time on December 5, 1934, at St. James Church (now St. James Cathedral) in Chicago. All day and late into the night commission members talkedand talked and talked, seemingly unable to move beyond bemoaning the problems facing the church. Bishop Hobson asked whether anyone had a plan to propose. No one did. Finally, Hobson mentioned a little essay written by Gilbert P. Symons, a clergyman on Hobson’s staff in Southern Ohio. Hobson asked Symons to read his essay aloud to the commission. It said that reinvigorating the life of the church would become possible only when church members began to take their discipleship seriouslynot generally or vaguely, but in specific ways. Symons discussed discipleship under seven steps: Turn, Follow, Learn, Pray, Serve, Worship, Share. A long silence followed the reading. Bishop Hobson then told the commission members to return to their rooms, pray during the night, and come back in the morning.
After an early communion service and breakfast the next day, the atmosphere had changed. The commission seemed drawn together and quickly hammered out a four-fold plan to reinvigorate the life of the church:
First, appeal to the whole church to renew their discipleship along definite lines. Meetings and conferences on discipleship were to be held throughout the nation, led when possible by members of the Forward Movement Commission.
Second, publish a devotional manual on discipleship for Lent of 1935 to unite the church in Bible reading and prayer.
Third, use every possible means to restore confidence and loyalty to the church’s national leadership.
Fourth, appoint associate members of the Forward Movement Commission to carry out its work throughout the church (during the next six years, over seventy men, women, and young people served as associate members).
The most immediate task was the production of the Lenten manual. Gilbert Symons headed a group that included scholars Francis J. Moore, James Thayer Addison, Angus Dun, and Charles L. Taylor. They worked in the Bennett Room of Lawrence Hall at the Episcopal Theological School (now Episcopal Divinity School) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was there that the first Forward Movement publication was written.
The booklet was called simply “Discipleship.” It was not a hit with Bishop Henry Knox Sherrill of Massachusetts, its first reader. “Gilbert, this thing smells of the lamp,” Sherrill said. “It’s all very well if addressed only to parsons, but this won’t do for the generality of the church. You’ve got to talk to people in a language they will know.” Sherrill told Symons to return to his room at the seminary and rewrite “Discipleship” in words people other than theological scholars could understand. Symons did not reconvene his academic colleagues for the rewrite.
Two days later Symons presented Sherrill with a fresh manuscript in “pretty pointed language, almost at times descending to the vernacular, not to say the vulgar,” he later said. Sherrill loved it. The revised “Discipleship” became the first piece published under the Forward Movement name. Clear, concise, and accessible language has been one of the hallmarks of Forward Movement ever since.
Part 3: The Beginnings of Forward Day by Day