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Welcome to the Epíscopal Church
An Introduction to Its History, Faith, and Worship
By CHRISTOPHER L. WEBBER
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 1999Christopher L. Webber
All rights reserved.
When a baby is born, the grandparents and cousins and friends will come to admire the new member of the family and someone will say, "Isn't she the very image of Great-aunt Abigail!" or, "Doesn't he look just like Uncle Fred?" For better or worse, we inherit many of our characteristics from our ancestors. Churches, like people, are shaped by their past.
But how far back must we go to understand the Episcopal Church? As members of an American church, we need to know what happened in the colonial period and Revolution, but as inheritors of a European tradition, we can't avoid dealing with the church's English heritage also. Finally we will need to go still further back and understand something about the Reformation and the Middle Ages and the early church. If we had time, perhaps we should talk about Adam and Abraham! But this book is an introduction to the American Episcopal Church, so we will need to concentrate on the last few centuries of our history and take time here for only a few comments about the early church, Middle Ages, and Reformation. What we need to look for in a quick summary of our church ancestry is the common characteristics that have always been part of the church's life and still are today. Let's begin with the Bible.
The Bible tells us that the first Christians "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). If that is a thumbnail description of the early church, then, in a church descended from the apostles, we should expect to find that the breaking of bread and prayer are still at the center of the church's life, that a relationship with the apostles is still evident, and that our faith today is still rooted in their teaching.
Episcopalians claim that the very name of the church indicates our continuation of apostolic tradition. The apostles were overseers of the church, and the name "Episcopal" (from the Greek episcopos or overseer) indicates that we are a church that believes bishops, as successors to the apostles, are a vital aspect of our common life. The Prayer Book (p. 510) tells us that the church has had "three distinct orders of ordained ministers," bishops, priests, and deacons, since the time of the apostles. That the Episcopal Church maintains this tradition links us strongly with the church in all ages. It also provides a common bond with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches of today.
Why is it, then, that there are so many churches around us that do not share this pattern? What is it that separates us from our fellow Christians in other Christian churches, both those with bishops and those without? To understand these divisions, we need to look briefly at the Middle Ages and especially at the Reformation of the church that took place in the sixteenth century.
The church that grew up in the Roman Empire survived the empire's collapse and became the primary civilizing force in western Europe for almost a thousand years. The monasteries, cathedrals, and parish churches were centers of light and learning, teaching faithfulness and compassion in a chaotic and generally savage world. But to hold on to the faith in such a world and avoid destruction, the church had to resist change and to exalt its own authority in every aspect of life—a policy that became increasingly difficult to maintain. As the nation-states of modern Europe began to emerge, increasing conflict between the old order and the new led to an explosion, which we know as the Reformation. Many of the factors that contributed to that divisive explosion were the very ones that had united the church of the Middle Ages, matters of church government, language, and culture. Others were deeper matters of faith that might have been dealt with peacefully if political and economic considerations had not complicated the picture.
At the heart of the matter were concerns for unity and power. The church had maintained its unity in the Middle Ages by the use of Latin as a common language, but the people of Europe in the sixteenth century spoke French, English, Spanish, German, and other languages as well. The church had maintained its unity by training the clergy as an educated elite, but growing commercial opportunities required an educated laity. The church had maintained its unity by educating clergy to teach the faith, but the invention of the printing press and a better-educated laity made it possible for others to read the Scriptures and to raise questions about the differences they saw between the church of the apostles and the church around them. The church had maintained its unity by appointing bishops who were, in effect, the local agents of the Bishop of Rome; through them money flowed to Rome to enable it to maintain the structure that had been so crucial to the survival of western civilization, but now there were national rulers who wanted that money for their own purposes. The Reformation was not only about changes in the church, it was also about a new economic order, the role of educated lay people, and the authority of secular rulers in conflict with the authority of the pope.
In the turmoil of reformation, the role of bishops as guardians of the faith was hard to distinguish from their role as representatives of papal government. In northern Europe, where independence from papal government was as much an issue as was a reformed faith, the bishops were seen as nonessential aspects of the church's life and even as obstacles to the creation of a renewed and purified church. In England, however, geo-graphy and personalities shaped a different outcome. As an island in a distant corner of Europe, England was somewhat insulated from the full force of the Reformation. As a unified territory under the strong rule of Henry VIII, the English church was held back from following the teachings of Luther and Calvin, the leaders of the Reformation on the continent. Had it not been for a personal quarrel between Henry and the pope, the English church might have remained under Roman rule; indeed, Henry had written a criticism of Luther's teaching that so pleased the pope that he had conferred on Henry the title "Defender of the Faith." The separation between Rome and England took place afterwards for political reasons, not theological, and was designed to give Henry, rather than the pope, final authority in England. The reformation that took place in England afterwards was far more moderate and gradual than that on the continent. The Church of England, once separated from papal government, became a reformed church, but it was not as radically changed in its structures, practices, and teaching as the reformed churches of continental Europe. Bishops still served as overseers of the church, but now they served by appointment of the crown rather than the pope. The Church of England also became a church that worshiped in English, the language of the people, and in which people were permitted to receive the wine as well as the bread in Holy Communion. The same bishops and priests still ministered the same sacraments in the same cathedrals and parish churches, but the vital importance of the individual's faith and the intelligent participation of the people in worship as in the early days of the church were affirmed. Most important of all, the English church, like the reformed churches of Europe, made it clear that salvation comes through God's grace and the faith of the believer, not through human merit or achievement. The church in England was also defined more by a common Prayer Book and pattern of worship than by a pope or a statement of doctrine. This reformed catholic church was then carried out from England by colonists and missionaries to the New World, which was just beginning to be explored and colonized.
The Church in the Colonies
The first tentative English contact with the New World began with a round-the- world cruise by Sir Francis Drake. Putting ashore in San Francisco Bay in 1579, Drake's chaplain conducted the first Prayer Book service in the present territory of the United States on its western coast. The spot is marked today by what is known as "the Prayer Book Cross." But, of course, it was on the east coast that the first European efforts were made to settle the newly discovered land. An ill-fated colony planted at Roanoke, Virginia, disappeared mysteriously, but before it disappeared, Virginia Dare became the first child baptized in this country. The service was conducted on August 18, 1587, out of the Book of Common Prayer.
The first permanent settlement was made at Jamestown in 1607, and the colonists brought a chaplain named Robert Hunt to lead them in worship. With a sail for an awning and a plank nailed between two trees for a pulpit, they made themselves a church and planted the seed from which the Episcopal Church grew. But Anglicanism in the New World would become something very different from what it had been in England. Here the governor and House of Burgesses filled some of the roles played by the crown, the bishops, and the parliament in England, but the church had to develop new ways of life since the governor could not exactly be a bishop. What happened in Virginia was that each community organized itself as a parish with a vestry to administer it, voted taxes to pay for a church, and then imported a priest from England. As a result, without any plan for it to do so, church life in Virginia developed a democratic, congregational style of government. Church members called themselves Anglicans, but the nearest bishop was in England—and the colonists rather liked it that way. It was, of course, a nuisance to send young men to England to be ordained or to import older men already ordained, but bishops were still thought of as an arm of the government, and the colonists didn't mind keeping the various arms of English government at a distance. They were learning that democracy was enjoyable.
Meanwhile, to the north, New England began to be settled by dissenters from the Church of England. There had always been some who were not satisfied with a moderate reformation and who yearned for the more radical reforms of Calvin's followers. Failing to attain their goals in England, they migrated to the New World and, with a charter from the king that made them still part of England, they established a church-state in Massachusetts without either Prayer Books or bishops to impede them. Yet New England was royal territory and not all those who came were inspired by Calvinist teaching. Many merchants and traders and farmers came simply to find new opportunity, and the Church of England felt it important to provide clergy for them. Societies were formeo to raise funds and support the missionaries who came out, and slowly the Church of England established a minority presence in the northern colonies.
The Anglican Church in New England, however, had a very different style from that in Virginia. In New England, the support of the government went to the Congregational Church, not the Church of England. Support for Anglican clergy, therefore, came from the societies in England, and the Anglicans in New England, quite unlike those in the south, valued their ties with England and their distinctive identity as Anglicans in a Calvinist society. In an odd reversal, the Anglicans in Virginia, though established by act of the House of Burgesses, developed a congregational style of life, while the Puritans, who had fled the established church in England, created an established, though congregational, church in the New World.
The American Revolution tested the identity of these New World Anglicans and created something new out of the fire of conflict. For members of the church in the southern colonies, the new situation created the possibility of a different type of church entirely separated from the state and freed of all the old traditions that seemed out of place in an enlightened age. Thomas Jefferson even rewrote the Bible, leaving out passages that he thought were no longer relevant or credible. Many of these southern leaders imagined an American church controlled entirely by the laity, without bishops or prayer books or complicated creeds, with clergy who would exhort people to behave themselves and to maintain a proper, if distant, relationship with their Benevolent Creator. Under their influence, the first proposed American Prayer Book left out the Nicene Creed, shortened the Apostles' Creed, and dropped references to being born again from the baptismal liturgy.
New England Anglicans had a different view of things. Many of them had fled to Canada at the onset of revolution; others found their churches closed by mobs and themselves tarred and feathered for daring to continue using their prayer books with the prayers for the king and royal family. When the war was over, those who remained saw that they would have to take radical steps if their pattern of life and worship was to survive in any recognizable form. First of all, they believed, they needed bishops. The clergy of Connecticut met and chose one of their number, Samuel Seabury, to go to England to seek consecration as a bishop. What Seabury found on arriving in London in 1784 was that the English bishops could not take that step. In the first place, the existing laws of England required an oath of loyalty to the king, which Seabury obviously could not take. And, in the second place, the English bishops were very doubtful that it was right to send a bishop out to a territory where the government would not impose taxes to support him. They could not imagine that people would support bishops of their own free will.
Seabury did, however, have an alternative. Although England had followed its own path at the Reformation, the majority of the Scottish people had become followers of Calvin and established a Presbyterian Church. But some in Scotland had resisted the Calvinist majority and created a small, unestablished church with its own Prayer Book and bishops. They knew that it was possible to maintain an Anglican identity with bishops and without taxes, and they were willing to consecrate Samuel Seabury. The Scottish bishops did, nonetheless, exact certain promises of Seabury. He must, they insisted, do all in his power to shape the American Prayer Book to be like theirs. And, in particular, they commended to him an invocation of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharistic prayer. They had borrowed the practice from the Eastern Orthodox liturgy and believed it was truer to the ancient pattern of Christian worship. The Prayer Book of the new American church would have links not only to Scotland but also to the Eastern Orthodox Church.
When Seabury returned, the next question to face was whether the former members and clergy of the Church of England in the colonies could be united to form one new national church. It wasn't easy. Virginia was accustomed to doing without bishops altogether and being governed by the laity, while the New Englanders had been governed by the clergy and the missionary societies in England without much involvement of laity. The first proposal for a General Convention of the church included no separate house of bishops. Connecticut church leaders said they would not join under those conditions. For a while it seemed as if New England Anglicans would not come into a church that gave laity any significant role and Virginia Anglicans would not come in if bishops were to govern. Fortunately there were representatives of the "Middle Colonies," New York, Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, led by William White of Pennsylvania, who provided a moderating influence and worked out, in sometimes heated negotiations, a constitution that provided a separate house of bishops with the right to review and veto but not to initiate, and a lower house in which all the dioceses would be represented by equal numbers of clergy and laity.
Then the problem facing the church was what bishops would do between conventions. Americans had had a church without bishops for almost two centuries. Now that they had bishops, they would have to work out what they were for. At first, the new bishops served as rectors of larger parishes and visited the other parishes occasionally to confirm candidates. Gradually various administrative duties were added and bishops were freed from parish responsibilities. Over time, Episcopal bishops have won a place for themselves as leaders and chief pastors, but their administrative powers are still carefully balanced by elected clergy and lay representatives. Episcopal bishops may wear vestments that make them look authoritative, but they function in a much more collegial manner than do bishops in other traditions. And that is a result of the church's colonial heritage.
A New Beginning
Having built the structure, it remained to be seen whether anyone would come. Some were quite certain they would not. Sadly diminished in numbers, cut off from English assistance and prohibited from using taxes any more for their support, it seemed to some that this remnant of the Church of England would fade away in a generation. That it did not was due to a new generation of leaders who were convinced, in spite of appearances, that the church could not only survive but grow.
They were right. By 1835, the Episcopal Church was ready not only to maintain itself but to launch out in mission. The General Convention of that year proclaimed that the entire church was a missionary society and sent out missionaries to the new territories in the Midwest (another first—bishops for areas where there were still no churches) and even, following St. Paul's example, to Greece.
Four men might be selected to illustrate the spirit of this new and lively American church: John Henry Hobart, Jackson Kemper, Absalom Jones, and William Augustus Muhlenberg.
Hobart, elected as Bishop of New York in 1816, was a man of enormous energy and enthusiasm. If you read the story of his life and ministry, you find yourself worn out by his activity and not surprised to find that he died at the age of 56. He was a prolific writer and constant organizer. In 1817, he founded the General Theological Seminary, the oldest seminary in the Anglican Communion, as a school to teach his views to a new generation of clergy. He also founded a Prayer Book society and a mission society, and he traveled constantly to build up the church. On one visitation in western New York State, he covered fifteen hundred miles in thirty days over roads so bad he frequently had to get out of his carriage and walk. But he believed in episcopacy and did what he could to propagate it. He wrote, "Without [episcopacy] there can be no visible ministry, no visible sacraments, no visible church." His motto, "evangelical faith and apostolic order," summed up all that was best and most hopeful in the resurgent life of the church in the first part of the nineteenth century.
Excerpted from Welcome to the EpÃ-scopal Church by CHRISTOPHER L. WEBBER. Copyright © 1999 by Christopher L. Webber. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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