2/15/2012 sermon: Thomas Bray on empowering ministry

Location: St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Burke, VA
Thomas Bray

Empowering ministry

Today we remember a man named Thomas Brady, an Englishman who lived in the late 17th and well into the 18th century. Bray had a huge impact on the direction that Anglicanism took toward mission, and also on the shape of Anglicanism in America. Here’s how that came to be:

Bray grew up very poor. A patron recognized his intellect and organizational talents and got him into Oxford University. There Bray worked his way through school—a very difficult feat in those days—although he didn’t graduate because he couldn’t afford the graduation fees. Bray was ordained after finishing schoool and he became a parish priest.

Bray was a great believer in Christian education. He assembled a library for himself, and what struck me in reading the titles in his collection is how many of them are by his contemporaries yet are ones we still hold in high regard today. So Bray was very, very good at spotting and using talent. Bray’s application of the thinking of these great theologians’ works was always practical, finding ways to apply Christian concepts to everyday life.

As things turned out, the Bishop of London also was very, very good at spotting and using talent. The bishop heard about Bray’s abilities and decided to use Bray to solve a problem that had recently come to his attention. The bishop had gotten a letter from Maryland that included a complaint about the lack of Anglican preachers in the colonies, particularly learned preachers. So the bishop sent Bray to America to see what was needed and to organize a response.

Bray took three years to leave for America. What he did in those three years was to get ready for the trip. This reminds me of something Abraham Lincoln once said. Abe said, “If I had only six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.” Bray must have heard and heeded this saying, because before he left for America he founded the Society for Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK), the oldest Anglican mission agency in the world,  And when he got to America he only spent ten weeks, all in Maryland, surveying what was required there. When he returned home and discovered that most priests were not willing to give up their privileged place in England to come to America, he also founded the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) to tell indigenous people and the colonists among them about Jesus using the biblical model of missions we heard in today’s gospel lesson.

Bray convinced poor-but-able priests to come by promising to provide them with the books they needed to do their ministry, which is how the SPCK provided books for the first 50 libraries in America, all theological books that the priests used in their ministries. And (if that weren’t enough) very late in life Bray convinced his good friend General Oglethorpe to found a colony in America for indigent people who were in debtors’ prison, a colony we now know as Georgia. So in a very real sense, Bray shaped the direction of Anglicanism in America and Anglicanism’s missionary efforts around the world.

So how does Thomas Bray’s life apply to our own? I wonder if, in this week where we expect our bishop to approve St. Andrew’s parish profile, you might be interested in hearing the criteria HE used for selecting Anglican priests to serve in America:

In the First place, [they should be] of such nice Morals, as to abstain from all Appearance of Evil; there being not such a calumniating people in the World, as the Quakers are every where found to be. And it is the worst Fault of the Plantations, that they give their Tongues too much liberty that way, especially if they can find the least Flaw.

Secondly, They must be Men of good Prudence, and an exact Conduct, or otherwise, they will unavoidably fall into Contempt, with a people so well vers’d in Business, as every the meanest Planter seems to be.

Thirdly, They ought to be well experienced in the Pastoral Care, having a greater Variety, both of Sects and Humours, to deal with in those Parts, than are at home; and therefore it would be well, if we could be provided with such as have been Curates here for some time.

Fourthly, More especially they ought to be of a true Missionary Spirit, having an ardent Zeal for God’s Glory, and the Salvation of Mens Souls.

Fifthly, Of a very active Spirit, and consequently, not so grown into Years, as to be uncapable of Labour and Fatigue, no more than very Young, upon which account they will be more liable to be despised.

And, Lastly, They ought to be good substantial, well studied Divines, very ready in the Holy Scriptures, able with sound Judgment to explicate and prove the great Doctrines of Christianity, to state the Nature and Extent of the Christian Duties, and with the most moving Considerations to enforce their Practice, and to defend the Truth against all its Adversaries: To which purpose, it will be therefore absolutely requisite to provide each of them with a Library of necessary Books, to be fix’d in those places to which they shall be sent, for the Use of them, and their Successors for ever:

As we remember Thomas Bray today, I pray that we would be as zealous in our efforts to share the gospel with all whom we meet.

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