On 14 Nov. 1784, Samuel Seabury, an American, was consecrated as a bishop in Aberdeen, Scotland by three other bishops, making him the first American consecrated a (Anglican) bishop in the apostolic succession and historic episcopate and all that important stuff. It’s a big day for the Episcopal Church, as it was back then, and we mark it on our church calendars and celebrate it, maybe some of us with specially-baked purple cakes.
All component pieces of American culture, obviously, had problems once the continental leadership declared revolution on the Mother Country. For the American priests and lay persons who worshipped in what was once called the Church of England – or most likely what they called, simply, ‘the church’ – there was not only an identity crisis but a real debate about the meaning and substance of church. Not all Americans supported the idea of revolution; most ardent supporters of the Crown left for Canada or across the pond, and many who remained began to reconsider their understanding of human civilization and the call of Jesus, alongside those who spoke with more political impact of the concepts of liberty and justice for all. But not all Americans were willing to re-consider the whole enterprise, nor were they willing to leave their home country and go elsewhere: Seabury, himself, served as a chaplain to British troops during the conflict, drew maps for His Majesty’s troops of the hill country of New York, and even collected a pension from Great Britain.
Yes, it was marvelous that Seabury was made a bishop and, yes, it’s an important mark of our episcopal heritage that we not only maintain the historic three orders of ministry (bishops, priests, deacons) but we do so according to apostolic tradition and freely take on the weight of catholic Christianity. But I’m not so sure that bishops make a church.
In the 1780s, as the Episcopal Church was reorganizing itself and, in fact, determining that it would use the name ‘Episcopal’ (coupled with ‘Protestant’) – the former, a term favored by the party in seventeenth-century England which affirmed the role of bishops – everyone thought that bishops were essential. Those who didn’t were already something else, and by the end of that decade Wesley and Asbury and the Methodists had broken ties with their own mother church.
Everyone in the Episcopal Church was working to get American bishops consecrated. The only question, then, was what kind of ‘Anglican’ church would be imagined and planted on American soil: one which featured old world organizational theory (bishops at the top, clergy deployed from them, and lay people as recipients, hardly participants), or a more representative church which featured republican ideals and was democratically organized – a church which dared to uphold catholic practice and act like Americans, with that messy concept of democracy and collective discernment through representative gatherings. The latter had never before been developed and Seabury opposed it and worked very hard against it. Even though he and others from New England participated in early organizational conversations, they were inherently skeptical of the 1782 pamphlet produced by William White, a priest in Philadelphia, which seemed to argue, Seabury contended, for nothing more than congregational polity and gave too much power – most of which was reserved to bishops in the Church of England – to the laity. Once consecrated, Seabury refused to participate in the General Conventions organized by White and others. Further, he signed his early letters as ‘Bishop of All America’ and even reached into other dioceses’ territory and ordained priests from there.
The organization of the Episcopal Church around something like a representative form of governance has much more to do with William White than Samuel Seabury. White pleaded with England for the consecration of bishops but – in the clear absence of a man in purple – he and others began to organize the church, anyway. They imagined a General Convention (initially proposed in 1784 as a unicameral body of clergy and lay) and dioceses that would adhere to state boundaries. They spoke openly of lay participation, and I think the Prayer Book’s 1979 addition of one more order of ministry – namely, the laity – is in perfect keeping with this early vision of an American Anglicanism. White and others proposed one bishop for each diocese and dreamed of an Episcopal Church that would be interdependent – one diocese to another, as well as one new American church to its Mother Church in England.
Seabury, meanwhile, organized a clergy-led, bishop-centered, non-representative governance in his diocese. The bishop taught the clergy, the clergy taught the people, and the people did as they were told. Obviously, I’m biased and I’m sure that shows, so I’ll note, at least, that Seabury was affirming an age-old tradition of episcopal leadership and church organization, albeit (for me) an age-old tradition that had no relevance in the new world, neither the 18th century version nor, let me add, this 21st century edition.
Things were getting heated, and the 1786 General Convention (which Seabury didn’t attend, anyway) passed resolutions denying the authority of Seabury’s consecration and, by implication, any clergy he ordained. By the middle-half of the 1780’s there were three competing Anglicanisms: one, the churches led by Seabury in New England; another, Wesley’s Methodist Episcopalians (who went their own way when he appointed Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke as superintendents in 1784); a third, led by White (PA), Samuel Provoost (NY), James Madison (VA), and Thomas Claggett (MD) in the southern and central states.
Even though he had his own opinions about things it was, again, William White who paved the way for reunification and opened the compromise which led to the Episcopal Church we have today. In 1789, White – who was, in 1787, consecrated in the English line – led that year’s General Convention to reach out to Seabury: they affirmed the validity of Seabury’s orders, created a bi-cameral General Convention with a separate House of Bishops, and amended the 1786 Constitution to make lay Deputy participation optional. These things met most of Seabury’s objections. The olive branch being offered, Seabury began to conference, then, with the other bishops and the division between the northern and southern versions of the Episcopal Church began to be healed. Before his death in 1796, Seabury participated in one consecration – Claggett’s (MD) in 1792, the first consecration of an American bishop on American soil.
I find myself hoping and praying, today, for someone like William White. I do this for at least two reasons. First, I’m drawn to those, like White, who are so comfortable with their traditions and heritage that they see no conflict, no irony in exploring new ways to be who they know themselves to be, already, in Christ. That’s courageous, to me, and I think the world is desperate to hear not pre-canned voices and opinions but people who love Jesus and follow him through the ministry of His Body, the church, of their own free volition and at the same time are entreprenuerial, adventurous, open to new possibilities, and talk openly of being disciples in new and, perhaps, different ways.
And, second, I’m drawn to William White because he also set aside his own thinking and brought in Seabury, intentionally reaching out to a man who, according to many of White’s own friends and colleagues, was making too much noise, acting like a jerk, and was as arrogant as the day is long. White reached out to Seabury and encouraged others to do so, as well, and they even modified and amended their own belief system, established earlier, so as to make room for the one who was previously a contender, now a partner and brother in Christ. We have competing Anglicanisms today – just look at what’s going on in the Diocese of South Carolina – and yet I cannot, at the end of the day, establish with certainty that one is necessarily better or more righteous than another.
No, I said that wrong: For those Anglicanisms who express themselves in generous conversations, commitment to a common life, mutual support of the whole through prayer and giving, and are unafraid to affirm their views, even if they may differ from the more vocal majority, I see no reason to part ways, and only great sadness if this should end up in divorce. But for those who say it’s ‘my way or the highway’ or those who think of democracy and shared discernment as weak or ineffectual, and those who think a church needs to have baseline agreement on issues of discipline and order, I am sad to say this but there isn’t communion there, already, and it would only make sense for us to go our separate way.
Because at the end of the day I am proud to serve in a church that is not perfect – by no means – but one whose imperfections I can clearly love, and seek to live with. For the imperfections of the Episcopal Church are also our greatest blessing – a commitment to apostolic truth and order; catholic worship and substance; one another and those net yet amongst us; justice and the dignity of all persons; and the ways in which we work this out, in fear and trembling, by being the church, together. Bishops, then, were never the core of the issue, not historically, not today. Bishops convene and call forth and lead, through relationships of love and support, this disparate and wildly divergent group of people who follow Jesus in the Episcopal Way – forward in the work of ministry, which requires the participation of all the orders of ministry: bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people.