This morning in St. George, South Carolina, a very unfortunate trial begins, pitting the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina against The Episcopal Church (calling themselves in this case The Episcopal Church in South Carolina). Those who’ve been even mildly following this tale will recall that in November 2012 a majority of the parishes of South Carolina, under the leadership of their bishop, the Rt. Rev’d Mark Lawrence, voted to leave The Episcopal Church. Under the oversight of judge Diane Goodstein, the trial to determine, pretty much, who is the rightful overseer of The Episcopal Church in the Palmetto State is slated to last through next Friday, July 18.
It’s hard to know what to pray for today. Peace? Justice? I suppose praying, as Jesus taught us, for “thy will” is a pretty good start.
As it is, the whole affair seems unfortunate. There is, on the one side of this fight, that egoistic vitriol and vaulted self-righteousness of those who cannot abide in participatory, representative movements of the Body of Christ; the very definition of what it means — or at least what it has meant since the 18th century — to be a practicing Anglican in this country. And, on the other side, just think of all those (probably) millions of dollars being spent by The Episcopal Church on drawn-out legal affairs. We should also admit that there has been such an emerging liberal orthodoxy in The Episcopal Church — the fundamental basis of which should shock no one — but which, unfortunately, nowadays, seems more aligned with secular progressive politics and less with sustainable, theological diversity in the Body of Christ.
It’s hard to know what to pray for today.
In the meantime, then, while we’re being honest and holding at bay the agendas of both sides, don’t quote to me Paul’s injunction against taking a fellow Christian to court (1 Corinthians 6). Neither, for that matter, do I want to hear how this process clearly goes against Jesus’ conflict resolution plan, as given in Matthew 18 (vv.15-20). Jesus and Paul are right. We are wrong. Yet while those injunctions in the New Testament are clearly the stated goal of those who practice life in the kingdom of heaven — and for a while at least Jesus’ followers were more akin to bringing the kingdom of heaven a bit closer to earth — we, the followers’ followers, have created an institution of this world with power and prestige and, yes, property. That’s why it’s in the secular courts; that’s why a secular judge is dealing with this matter, starting today, in St. George, South Carolina. If you want to cast stones, throw them both ways.
Instead, though, I’d suggest prayer. But it really is hard to know what to pray today.
MARK LAWRENCE Bishop of South Carolina
I’ll suggest, for starters, that Bishop Lawrence, himself, should re-learn how to compose a Collect. Writing a Pastoral Letter to the Diocese of South Carolina yesterday, July 7, Lawrence offered “a prayer crafted earlier by the Very Rev. John Barr, soon to be retired rector of Holy Comforter, Sumter, which I have slightly adapted for this present trial:
Gracious and Sovereign Lord, we pray that your will be done during July 7—18th. May we want what you desire. Guide and be mightily present with Alan Runyan and the other attorneys who represent us and with those who testify on our behalf. May the courtroom be filled with the pleasant aroma of Christ, and at the end of the day, protect this diocese and its parishes that we might bring the redemptive power of the biblical gospel to the South Carolina Low Country, the Pee Dee and beyond. Let not our fear of outcomes tarnish our joy or deter us from the mission you have given us. Enable us to bless and not to curse those on the other side of this conflict. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And in the power of the Holy Spirit make us victorious over-comers wherever this road leads us. For we ask all in the name above all names, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
It starts well: praying for “your will,” and that we may “want what you desire.” That the courtroom be filled with the “pleasant aroma of Christ” is a nice touch, although I don’t know what that would smell like, but then to pray that God “protect this diocese and its parishes,” those parties who, apparently, are preaching the “biblical gospel” is a bit heavy-handed. That presumes your opponents really are something stinky! I also have no problem with praying for your attorneys, but I’d also suggest that you may then want to pray for the attorneys who represent the other opinion. “Enable us to bless and not to curse” is also a nice offering but, as you’ve stated, it’s for those “on the other side” and it’s hard to balance fighting language and peacefulness in the same line in the same prayer.
The gift of the Anglican tradition is that we’ve learned and, with the exception of Bishop Lawrence’s prayer, above, taught others how to write prayers that do not serve as a political rallying cries, issuing forth their own heavy-handed agendas. Rather, we’ve developed the patient craft of praying Collects that enable God’s people to say, time and again, “thy will be done.” This principle goes both ways: resisting those who are conservative just as much as those who preach liberal messages. This principle is not only important but holy and good. This principle which creates, in effect, a church constituted solely as a praying body, gathered under one Lord, Jesus Christ, is perhaps the only thing that will, in the end, save North American Anglicanism — positioning our Christian movement to be represented as the one, trustworthy place in our communities that’s authentically working on building true diversity and real community, grounded not in our moment but for eternity.
I’d say the Collect from last Sunday (Proper 9) is the perfect one to pray:
O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
“Every wise man therefore will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question. ‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?'”
– John Wesley, “Catholic Spirit,” a sermon first preached in 1750
In the life of the church, March 3 is set aside as a day to celebrate the ministry of John and Charles Wesley, most famously known — if known at all — with some historical inaccuracy as the founders of Methodism, a misunderstanding the Episcopal Church calendar of saints is quick to correct with the title: “John and Charles Wesley, priests.” They were raised in a Church of England home, after all — their father, Samuel, was rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire — and the brothers were thoroughly Anglican. Being caught by the zeal of missionary activity in the world was perfectly in keeping with the English churchmanship of their native 18th century.
Not only because it’s their day but also because we presently find ourselves in a church obsessed with talking about mission, though seemingly leery of making that into a verb, it might be wise to spend a bit of time learning from our history. Let me go ahead and say it: a potential consequence of investing carefully in this will be the creation of a broad and truly united coalition of Anglican churches in North America, if not one Anglican/Episcopal church which knows how to live out Anglican comprehensiveness in the 21st century. Quite specifically, I believe the mission challenge of the Episcopal Church in the next several decades will be to find and forge a way in which conservative Episcopalians and those Anglican groups who have already left will find a place in a wider structure to return and form a much more comprehensive Anglicanism in North America, side by side with those of us who are already their brothers and sisters in Christ. As an Episcopalian, I don’t want to (continue to) make the same mistake that our forebears did when the Methodist controversy started to boil over.
Not unlike our own, the 18th century was a period in which the institutions of yesteryear had become so consuming that concepts such as freedom and independence were high on the list for anyone interested in charting a more vibrant future. Over the course of that century, such values obviously spurred creative re-thinking in the political sphere and equally creative missionary attempts in the ecclesiastical world.
It was certainly possible to do this work within the established institutions of their day; just look how long the British system tolerated the men whom Americans vault today as heroes: Washington and Adams among others. Likewise, the Church of England found a way to balance missionary zeal with their commission as a national church. Every Sunday and Wednesday, for instance, I pray the Mass in a chancel in St. Mary’s County, Maryland in which there sits embedded into the floor a large stone dedicated to a former rector of the parish, the Rev’d Mr. Leigh Massey. Massey, we’ve learned, was of Irish descent, educated at Brasenose College, Oxford, and at the tender age of nineteen and in the year 1723 — when John Wesley was twenty years old and a full twelve years before John would set sail for the colony of Georgia — Leigh became a truly missionary priest and rector of William & Mary Parish in the new world colony of Maryland. The stone in St. George’s chancel reads: “Near this place lies inter’d the Reverend Leigh Massey. He was educated at Oxford, the rector of this Parish, the darling of his flock and beloved by all who knew him. He died Jan. 10, 1732/33 aged 29 years.” (What appears to be confusion regarding the year of Massey’s death is attributable to the fact that Britain and the eastern portion of what would become the United States had, by that time, not yet accepted the Gregorian Calendar, a move that would become official by Act of Parliament as late as 1752.)
One very real danger, looking backward, is to be romanced into the deception that the church as missionary and church as institution are somehow opposing entities or concepts. They are not, nor have they ever been.
The fact is the divorce of Methodism from Anglicanism is a sad chapter, and was itself a prolonged and painful transition. There’s fault on both sides. For one, the Church of England didn’t help itself, failing to recognize that it was in some ways the very mission field the Wesley’s — and countless others, no less the Rev’d Leigh Massey — engaged which led naturally to the renewal or, at least, the desire to renew which they in time helped bring about. The equally and, maybe, more inflammatory evangelistic efforts of George Whitefield didn’t help the Wesley’s gain a wide audience in the seats of power of the church of their day. And yet they, John and Charles, were offering a much more thoroughgoing ‘Anglican Methodism’ than was the more stridently Calvinist Whitefield; the former brothers’ more Arminian emphasis on the necessary balance between justification by faith and works of mercy running clearly in line with the Caroline Divines, especially Jeremy Taylor whose most notable work is his profound devotional contribution, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living.
For another, the Wesley’s didn’t really help themselves. There was, it seems, a bit of the rogue in the Wesley DNA: at one point, Samuel took such a strident stand on an issue in his parish that the villagers burned down his house, nearly killing his young son, John. (Those biographers who make a big deal of this psychological trauma in the development of John’s theology have probably read too much Freud, although today’s United Methodist symbol — a flame and cross — is an ironic choice.) Likewise, John was equally staunch, the one noteworthy instance being the time he refused to offer communion to the daughter of a well-connected colonist — either because she refused to marry him or he, not wanting to marry her, nevertheless didn’t want her marrying the man she did, the facts depending on the particular biographer — an act which led to his being shipped back to England. Add to that that John, eventually, had enough with the foot-dragging of the church of his day and uncanonically commissioned elders, among whom Francis Asbury would become the most significant, to spearhead the organization of the church in America. Charles bitterly opposed his brother’s decision and even John, himself, feared for the direction of the new Methodist Episcopal churches in America, especially when in 1787 Francis, nicknamed by some “the American Pope,” changed the title ‘superintendent’ to ‘bishop’.
We, too, have become eerily skilled at making minor differences, mostly differences in emphasis, the cause and consequence of our divorce. Do you need an institution in order to do mission? Or do you need a mission to have an institution? Or, to God, do those distinctions make any bit of difference? From what I can tell, there’s no basis in these contentions for anything like a substantial argument, so let’s move on. But moving on, in practice, means that we would need to place obvious limitations on what we can and what we cannot institutionalize — meaning, specifically, what we can and what we cannot legislate or wrangle over at gatherings such as General Convention. If the devil’s in the details, that’s a big one.
Another very real danger is the tendency to calcify the Anglican theological tradition. Ever since the Church of England recognized that it had given birth to a worldwide family of churches, interestingly, on account of the American Revolution and around the time ‘Anglican’ began to become a term, itself, we knew we had a problem or, at least, an issue with authority. Looking back, removing the primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the 16th century was still a safe thing to do, provided the king could exercise sufficient power. Once that power dynamic shifted, everything else did, too.
Ever since, there is and has become a contested core of Anglican thought and practice. Within, there is indeed a core; a way of being and thinking in a uniquely Anglican fashion. And it’s contested, sometimes with great vitriol, and it will continue to be so. That’s actually part of the charm of our theological tradition.
As I hinted earlier, the Wesley’s themselves were in many ways giving a contemporary voice to that contested core, aligning their evangelical and missionary efforts with the thinking of Lancelot Andrews and Jeremy Taylor and those Caroline Divines who preceded them by at least a century. So named for their support of King Charles (hence ‘Caroline’) and similar emphases to the reforms of Archbishop Wm. Laud (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633 to 1640, executed in 1645), whose 17th century reforms stressed a sacramental and liturgical piety, the restoration of episcopal authority, and the downplaying of Calvinist themes and preaching, these heavily influential theologians (a.k.a., ‘Divines’) were not in many ways united in their conclusions or arguments but, strictly speaking, in their methodology. They drew heavily on biblical and liturgical sources, most notably the Book of Common Prayer, and sought to demonstrate the continuity of Anglicanism within the great, albeit broad Christian tradition. They placed a strong emphasis on patristic studies and brought back many of the Eastern (Greek-writing) Christian theologians that had long been dismissed from the largely Latin (Western) Catholicism of recent centuries.
Into this context, then, it’s very easy to place the emerging theology of John and Charles Wesley: they, too, emphasized a liturgical and bible-based method of working out one’s salvation; they, too, taught that regular attendance to one’s spiritual, sacramental life was important, and they steered away, as I’ve already mentioned, from a more dominant Calvinist stress on predestination and toward a the thinking of the 16th century Dutch Reformer, Jacobus Arminius, who affirmed that our works to some degree, while not justifying, have something to do with God’s plan of salvation.
Equally so, we have much to learn from our past. A friend lent me what I can only call a book-length rant, Anglican Difficulties: A New Syllabus of Errors (2004). Author Edward Norman’s contribution (?) was an insightful and somewhat fun read, if only for its caustic dogmatism and bold self assertions. The author, Norman, contends that contemporary Anglicanism is a theological mess. I’d say he’s right. Not wanting to legitimize this sloppiness or our church’s generally slipshod course, I can’t go so far as Norman does in tracing the root of the problem. Here, below, Norman establishes the thesis; note that he traces the issue back to the Wesley’s (whom he clearly likes) and those who came after them (whom he doesn’t):
“The genesis of Evangelical revivalism at the end of the eighteenth century suggested no threat to the Church of England’s unity, for it occurred within a general consensus about the inherent Protestantism of Anglicanism. It was possible for Methodism, for example, to continue to worship at parish churches for fifty years before they separated into a distinct denomination. But when the new High Church movement appeared, in the 1830s, the appeal to Catholic antiquity, and to the past unity of Christianity, divided the Church of England in a manner which was instantly recognized. … It is also true, as some others noticed, that the ritual observances complained of were not, anyway, authentic revivals of early Catholic uses, but Tridentine splendor re-defined in the sharp light of nineteenth-century Ultramontane extravagances. The outcome was the beginning of disintegration. At the very time that the word ‘Anglican’ was coming into familiar parlance, in the middle years of the nineteenth century, the Church of England was in fact losing the semblance of unity which the name was supposed to express. Since then there has been an uninterrupted internal crisis of identity. … The Anglican way — almost the hallmark of Anglicanism — is to compose vacuous forms of words within which hugely divergent viewpoints can be accommodated. It is the promotion of expediency over principle, and is the manner in which Anglicanism is held together. … Not much force would be needed to flatten the Church of England as a coherent religious institution. It is a house of cards.” (Norman, Anglican Difficulties, pp. xi – xii)
Apart from his witty command of the English language and regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Norman’s overall point, he seems to commit the other problem we should’ve learned from the Wesley years — a dangerous seizing up of one or several parts of the Anglican theological tradition. To Norman, what does the “general consensus about the inherent Protestantism of Anglicanism” mean, anyway? And who’s in the “general”? Likewise, even though I’ve stepped back with some critical distance from the Anglo-Catholicism in which I was formed, I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that such churchmanship and its related customs in any way voids the merits of that rich tradition within Anglicanism.
The Christian and, specifically, Anglican theological enterprise is much broader than we’ve made it. And if we want to talk seriously about mission we’d be wise to start by acknowledging the single-minded theological dominance in the Episcopal Church of a 20th-century Protestant liberalism, as well as get much more serious about reprising Anglican comprehensiveness and bringing back that truly contested core. Regardless of whatever theological tradition in which you find yourself at home and, as such, better able to articulate what God in Christ is doing in your life, it does not seem — nor should it be — an exclusive concept to welcome the more robust participation of those who work from a different, even completely different methodology.
And so I’ll close with a more personal reflection.
The Episcopal Church was really my saving grace while I was enrolled in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. I was starting to feel that academic theology, which I really do love, was beginning to work on my soul like paint-thinner does on old finishes. I looked and looked for a church community that could strike a balance between prayer and, yes, honest-to-God prayer to Jesus Christ as well as not forsake the intellectual and secular world in which we found ourselves. The campus ministry, Brent House, was led by a gifted chaplain, the Rev’d Sam Portaro, and I was initially brought there by a fellow housemate with whom I lived in intentional Christian community, a Ph.D. student named Randall Foster. Sam and Randall were certainly at opposite ends of the theological spectrum, but both men could speak in profound and powerful ways about Jesus and about their Christian life as well as the ways they carry out reconciling ministry in the world. Sam is a priest in the Diocese of Chicago and I am proud that he was one of the presenters at my priestly ordination. Randall is now a priest in the Diocese of Forth Worth (the Anglican Church in North America) and today, on the Feast of John and Charles Wesley, he celebrates the anniversary of his diaconal ordination. I, too, celebrate Randall’s ordination and I celebrate, very much, that Randall is a minister of Christ’s redeeming Gospel. I know without a doubt that Randall is a light to those who come into his path. It saddens me, however, that he and I can only claim our continuing brotherhood in the larger, less visible Anglican Christian communion.
When will that time come, I wonder, when we really will come into the one-ness for which our Lord prayed? Probably around the time when we learn from our mistakes, one of which occurred during the ministry of John and Charles Wesley, lights of the world in their generation.
The new Archbishop of Canterbury is giving a lesson in ethics. What he’s actually talking about is changing the way the church functions.
Yesterday, the Archbishop didn’t zero in on the political mess the Church of England’s gotten itself into. The pundits on the sidelines are striving to get him to say something about women bishops or gay marriage. Welby mentioned several times his own “fear and trembling,” but I think he showed remarkable strength in not talking about those things – in not chattering on about the church in self-reflexive ways, focusing with profound insularity on theological method (as his predecessor did); in not taking a prophetic stance toward the issues of the world while ignoring the clutter of his own spiritual house (as our Episcopal Church, I’m afraid, too quickly does). Archbishop Welby showed great steel in turning our textbooks back to Aristotle and Jesus, in focusing our attention on a simple message: the church must be in the business of human flourishing.
In his inaugural sermon, Welby argued that the goal of the Body of Christ should be to enable human persons to flourish: in his words, to “make space for our own courage to be liberated, for God to act among us and for human beings to flourish.” The church has taken prophetic stances over the years, Welby acknowledged, positions which became manifest in social campaigns – freeing slaves and ensuring the safety of factory workers, among others.
Similar issues confront human society in the 21st century, he noted, but his analysis, interestingly, didn’t go from cause to cause. Rather, he quickly moved the conversation back to traditional Christian social thought.
Dissapointing media pundits and stumping secular critics, Welby’s message appeared, at first, to be about our work, our message, our cause and then, just as quickly, became a message of God. “Fear imprisons us and stops us being fully human,” he preached. “Uniquely in all of human history Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the one who as living love liberates holy courage. …Courage is released in a society that is under the authority of God, so that we may become the fully human community of which we all dream.”
Early Christians adopted from Plato and Aristotle the concept that there is an end to which all human striving should be directed, a goal which is good for its own sake. The Greek word is eudaimonia, often translated as happiness or flourishing. In the Aristotelian worldview, eudaimonia is entirely egoistic: an individual’s self interest is to flourish, so a particular individual’s good is to flourish for the sake of her own good. That obviously wouldn’t do for the early Christian community whose Lord commanded them to love one another, so the Christianized concept of eudaimonia also had to do with mercy, justice, forgiveness, and community. Human flourishing from a Christian point of view is to strive towards the only goal which is good unto itself. That we call the Kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God involves people, but what’s good for people is not necessarily a good unto itself. That’s not an ultimate good. The kingdom of God has a church but what’s good for the church isn’t necessarily a good in and of itself. Better not chatter on about the church with incessant insularity. The kingdom of God is expressed, from time to time, in our social campaigns to make this world a more just and equitable and liveable place, but those causes are not necessarily the same as the reign of God. Best not confuse our social politics and theology. If we want to understand what it means to flourish, we’ve got to understand what it is to be of God, firstly, and to have our actions and words speak Him.
Although this is deep within our tradition, it’s also a new teaching for the church. It’s hard for many to understand, let alone embrace it. We, the church, allowed secular society to put us in the center of their world – first it was Constantine, then Charlemagne, then in America our own interpretation of the Bill of Rights. For centuries, we thought Christendom spoke for itself. Even when it’s been waning these past several decades we tried to bolster the buttresses, talking on and on about ourselves and our self-proclaimed mission and our business.
That’s all falling apart. Not the Way of Jesus, mind you. Not Christianity. Just the force of the predominately institutionalized shell.
And that’s why Justin Welby is the right man for the job, the right man, that is, at this moment. While bishop of Durham, he seemed uniquely able to speak the truth plainly. In an address in April 2012 to the Anglican Alliance for Development, Bishop Welby pointedly said, “The question that faces the church is that of what is human flourishing, good news, amidst the deep poverty…and utter spiritual bankruptcy and increasing material poverty?”
In that address, Welby named a profound truth: “Our good news,” he argued, “must be unique, because the radicality of the gospel call[s] us to a sense of what we are doing and saying utterly different from all other groups.” This can be unsettling. For those who have grown accustomed to Christendom this is a difficult teaching to bear. Yet almost automatically, Welby’s mind readily goes beyond insular theological methodology – a threat to those hiding inside the church – and criticizes the way of the world from nothing more, nothing less than the Gospel of Christ. To his credit, he already knows that world. When he mentioned “suspicion of the NGO industry, its thousands of employees and the tendency to be as donor dependant as the recipients of aid, with whom one is drawn in a grim dance,” Welby quickly added: “I know, I ran one.”
Authenticity is the litmus test these days, which is both an opportunity and challenge. We live in a time in which our message is heard only so long as the audience knows, already, the depth and quality of its source. It’s no longer sufficient to make grand speeches without mobilizing the People of God. Nor can we shirk from the obligation to speak a word of life in the public square; now, however, it requires the harder work of turning the hearts and minds and lives of those already among the body to influence those not yet. The new Archbishop put it as a question: “As Christians,” he asked, “are we simply a spiritual bit of the same tribe or, as self-proclaimed disciples of Christ, how is what we bring good news?” Reading Micah 6:8 (“do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God…”) and Romans 12:1-2 (“…do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”), Welby reminded:
“the language of our good news is not GDP, output and so forth, though they are part of the means. It is human flourishing in a context of love. The tools of our good news [are] the unique ones of reconciliation and peace, with its fellow travellers of generosity, community and self-giving love. All aid outside the context of the grace of God leads to the abuse of power and the creation of dependency. So we are called not merely to do, but to be. The inner motivation matters as much as the outer.”
These days anyone and everyone can see directly inside, beyond the stuff we’ve projected in order to protect us – our beautiful churches and stately liturgy, our pomp and circumstance, our cathedrals and order, our tradition and customs. Real human flourishing is an inside job, and that matters a great deal.
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.