A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By The Rev. John-Julian, OJN
We have been told that the consecration of a partnered gay man as a bishop, and the occasional blessing of same sex unions in the Episcopal Church are drastic (and intolerable) departures from Anglican tradition. And yet, the Episcopal Church itself was founded ONLY because of a series of many "drastic changes in Anglican Tradition"! These changes arose then (as they do now) from the independent nature of the new national Episcopal Church and the national culture in which it found itself. Indeed, it can be truly maintained that the "secular culture" of the new United States actually shaped the entire character and polity of the Episcopal Church from the very beginning.
Back in the late 18th century, the Church of England in the American colonies by necessity underwent a cataclysmic transformation. It was a transformation that many could not, would not, and did not accept.
During the Revolutionary War, a great many Anglican clergy in America simply closed the doors of their churches, rather than break their ordination vows by altering the Book of Common Prayer to remove the prayers for the King. Some Anglican clergy simply packed up and fled to Canada or returned to England. Some clergy fled to the colonial wilderness and actually lived in caves in the forests. Some clergy were tarred and feathered and ridden out of their towns on a rail. Some were arrested by the patriots and imprisoned. Some were tortured and murdered. Some few abandoned their ordination vows, crossed out the offensive bits of the Book of Common Prayer, and became rebellious patriots. [A DRASTIC CHANGE IN ANGLICAN TRADITION!]
Then when the gentlemanly and well-intentioned William White suggested the possibility of presbyteral ordination for American Anglicans (given the absence of an Anglican bishop), a tiny and secret rump conclave of Anglican clergy in Connecticut reacted in dread, and with no other external authorization than their own consciences, meeting secretly after their diocesan convention, they did what had never been done in the history of the Church of England: they elected a bishop. [A DRASTIC CHANGE IN ANGLICAN TRADITION!]
Their first choice, Jeremiah Leaming, pleaded ill health and opted out, but Samuel Seabury, Tory to the core, active loyalist during the War, chaplain to the King's regiments, once imprisoned by the patriots, accepted the election and braved the long sea voyage to England to seek consecration. . [A DRASTIC CHANGE IN ANGLICAN TRADITION!]
Both English Archbishops gave Seabury very much the cold shoulder. A bishop elected by mere clergy? There was no such thing! A bishop without temporalities or endowment? No such thing existed! An Anglican bishop who had not pledged allegiance to the Crown? A canonical impossibility! A bishop for a cluster of colonies who for over a hundred years had purposely been refused a bishop by both Church and Crown? Ridiculous! A bishop not answerable to a secular parliament? Laughable! What was proposed by Seabury and his electors was an utterly impossible departure from Anglican tradition and polity! And both Archbishops rejected it out of hand. [A DRASTIC CHANGE IN ANGLICAN TRADITION!]
The British generally thought so little of Seabury and his project that the Prime Minister, Lord North, even lost (sic!) Seabury's credentials and the bishop-elect had to write (and wait) for replacement documents. Ambassador John Adams (who had been an outspoken foe of even the idea of a colonial Anglican bishop) actually negotiated an offer from the Danish Lutheran Church to consecrate Seabury but Seabury was cautioned against the Danish offer by the Rev. Dr. Martin Routh (soon to be President of Magdalen College, Oxford) and Robert Lowth, Bishop of London. William Cartwright, a non-juring bishop in England offered to consecrate Seabury, but by then the second-generation non-juring orders were mildly suspect and Seabury chose not to accept the offer.
Finally, with further permission from his constituents, Seabury headed off to the tiny Episcopal Church of Scotland (which was only barely legal by Scottish law and was not allowed even to have church buildings in Presbyterian Scotland), and there he received consecration by three Scottish bishops in an upstairs room of one of the bishops' home. [A DRASTIC CHANGE IN ANGLICAN TRADITION!]
Seabury brought the episcopacy home to America (stopping in Newfoundland on the way to visit his Tory and Loyalist relations). Canterbury, York, the Crown, and Parliament THEN finally surrendered -- after Seabury had by-passed them -- and agreed to provide consecration for White and Provoost. (The latter was so opposed to Seabury's "irregular" consecration that he refused for five years even to be in the same room as Seabury!) [A DRASTIC CHANGE IN ANGLICAN TRADITION!]
In 1790, the first official General Convention of the Episcopal Church was held. (Provoost fortuitously being ill, Seabury and White alone comprised the House of Bishops.) The Constitution and the Book of Common Prayer were approved, and the "Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America" came into being -- an ex-colonial church! [A DRASTIC CHANGE IN ANGLICAN TRADITION!]
And ALSO, since the Church of England was "in communion" with this first province of the Church outside the British Isles, the "Anglican Communion" can be said to have come into being in 1790. And it came into being in an extremely revolutionary way which shocked any true Anglican of the day: governed by a democratic synod (including even laity!), with bishops freely elected by not only the clergy but also the laity, with financial support by voluntary offerings (or pew rent), and with mutual recognition and affection (but legitimate independence) from Canterbury and the Crown. [A DRASTIC CHANGE IN ANGLICAN TRADITION!]
That was -- and that is -- the Episcopal Church. It was (and had to be) its own authority and it had (and had to have) its own independence from the Church of England. The American Prayer Book was similar but with a few important differences. The Athanasian Creed had been omitted, and the Scottish Episcopal Church (through Seabury) had influenced the inclusion of an epiclesis in the American Communion service (there being no epiclesis in the British Book of Common Prayer at the time). [A DRASTIC CHANGE IN ANGLICAN TRADITION!]
The Episcopal Church itself has been, since its very inception, A DRASTIC CHANGE IN ANGLICAN TRADITION! Then that Church began (finally) to ordain Black clergy; then that Church began to ordain women; then that Church began to ordain partnered homosexuals as priests; then that Church began to ordain partnered homosexuals as bishops. That Church never ceases to lead the rest of her brother and sister Anglican Churches as she did from the moment of her conception!
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