Recently voices have been raised challenging the House of Bishop’s role and that of individual bishops chatting with the Archbishop of Canterbury. And so some history:

When it became evident that Anglicanism in America’s survival required its independence, the Founders decided to name the emerging church, The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Today the title seems rather schizophrenic. How could a church be both Protestant and Episcopal?

Embarrassed apologists of a High Church bent opined that the word protestant didn’t mean what it has evolved to mean but rather suggested an affirmation of certain points distinguishing ourselves from the Roman Catholic Church. That would have been news to the Founders, even the most High Church of the Founders, all of whom subscribed to the Articles of Religion. It’s good to remember that from 1801 until fairly recently the Constitution of the Episcopal Church required that the Articles “be in use” in all dioceses and missionary dioceses of the church. Certainly from 1801 and for a long time thereafter the oath taken by clergy to obey the “doctrine” of the church was thought to be a subscription to the Articles and they were taught diligently in the seminaries.

I am not advocating their return! I make the point merely to suggest that our Founders thought of themselves as Protestants in much the same way as we use the term today. However, they were Protestants with the difference. The Founders used the word “Episcopal” with reference to the Scottish Episcopal Church, which in the 18th Century formed with the Church of Ireland and the Church of England the “Anglican Communion.” Of course neither the word “Anglican” nor the word “Communion” had then entered our vocabulary. The Scottish Episcopal Church in the late 18th Century was emerging from years of persecution. It was not recognized by the Church of England which had and continued to plant rival congregations in the Scottish dioceses. Scottish Anglicans were truly “Episcopalian”. They left the Established Church of Scotland when that church abolished the episcopacy in 1689. They existed almost solely because they believed in episcopacy and the High Church Tradition. In worship they used a version of the very Prayer Book Charles I attempted to impose on the Scottish Church, rebellion against which contributed to the English Civil War.

It was this tiny, illegal church which consented to ordain and consecrate our first bishop, Samuel Seabury of Connecticut. Seabury’s father, formerly a Congregationalist minister, was one of the Yale ministers who, after studying the church fathers, embraced episcopacy and a High view of the church and became Anglican priests. Thus Seabury’s views were in tune with those of his Scottish friends. Seabury entered a concordat with the Scottish Episcopal Church, promising among other things to incorporate in an American Liturgy the Prayer of Consecration in use in Scotland. That Eucharistic Prayer originated in the first English Prayer Book and was considered by some to be “Catholic” in intent and flavor.

For a good while the existence of the Episcopal Church hung on whether there could be comprehension between those who thought that episcopacy might be optional and the emerging church democratic and Protestant and those who stressed a very high doctrine of the church, the sacraments and the ministry and particularly episcopacy. It is interesting to note that only those who surrounded Samuel Seabury, the Scottish Episcopalians and a minority of English High Church people and Non-Jurors held such an exalted view of these matters. The Anglo-Catholics were yet to come.

In the end a compromise was forged. Seabury was able to keep his bargain with Scotland. Those interfering archbishops of Canterbury and York demanded the restoration of the Nicene Creed and other segments include in the “new” American Prayer Book and the Broad Church majority was given its General Convention of two houses, made up of bishops, other clergy and the laity. Both houses of Convention were given veto power over the other and left to fight things out presumably in holy charity. The American Church professed that it would not depart from the Church of England’s order and belief “or further than local circumstances require.”[1]

Over the years Episcopalians became more and more uncomfortable with the word “Protestant” as a descriptive adjective. Finally the term was erased and as the American church is an international body, the words “in the United States of America” also disappeared. Unwittingly the Episcopal Church lost that part of its title which referred to its more democratic leanings. There’s an irony!. One of the present trends in our church is to consider the ordained ministry as a function inherent in baptism and thus in a sense shared by all, although individually ‘practiced’ by those set aside by ordination and consecration. The implications of this challenge the nature of the episcopate which one finds described in the Ordinal and its preface and in the catechism. These trends in “mutual ministry”, perhaps evidence of a resurgent Protestantism, suggest that bishops should not represent our church alone, but should always or nearly always consult with and function with other clergy and the laity. While this ideal is neither something new nor something locally “Episcopalian”; it also represents claims by those who believe in synodical majoritarianism and wish to clip the wings of bishops and primates.

Although reformers feel free to challenge older notions of priesthood and its ontological charism, but curiously not its indelibility, there is still some hesitance in challenging the apostolic role of bishops. This role is clearly identified in the liturgy for the ordination and consecration of bishops. A reluctance to challenge older theologies of the episcopacy by proponents of “mutual ministry” in fact elevates the unique status of bishops and drives a deeper wedge between the episcopate and other Orders. But that is a story for another day.

What is clear is that right from the beginning our church has stressed episcopacy and its function much more vividly, at least at first, than other Anglican bodies and that emphasis remains part of its official teaching to be found in the Ordinal and the Catechism of the Prayer Book. That bishops are democratically elected makes no difference. The office originates in popular democracy but it is not a democratic office. Certainly no one suggests that bishops be re-elected by those they “represent” before each meeting of General Convention or that they should cease to be part of that House when they resign or retire.

It would seem to me quite evident that a church which professes to be an “Episcopal” church, describes the role of the episcopate fully in its Ordinal requires ecumenical partners to adopt episcopacy as a necessary step to intercommunion should entrust its bishops with the tasks inherent in their office.I would urge that we all read carefully the Examination of a bishop-elect on page 517 in the Prayer Book, and particularly the words:”You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of theChurch.” and “With your fellow bishops you will share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world.” I would suggest that as the Ordinal is not merely a group of efficient services, but an expression of Anglican doctrine, it makes total sense for bishops to engage and be engaged in guarding our unity and in leading us in the Church “throughout the world.” The result of such work is rarely enshrined in legislative acts in a specific Province. The collegial acts of bishops, whether at home as a House, or in the widerCommunion, whether in ad hoc meetings with the Archbishop of Canterbury or at Lambeth Conferences are unique
or distinct. In that sense they in some way differ from the actions of the House of Deputies or pan-Anglican meetingsinvolving all Orders. Such acts are not “superior” or of greater authenticity than those undertaken in the shared government in “synod” or by other clergy and the laity. But they are distinct insofar as bishops are bishops and have a distinct charism and function within the “dispersed authority” of theChurch.

At a time when the nature of ordination is under discussion, I think it important that we develop ways of recognizing inherent function and grace within the Orders of Ministry without burdening our debate with notions which owe more to secular political theory than to scripture, tradition and reason as Anglicans have received the same. For while many “democratic” aspects of our church originate in its 18th Century form of Protestantism, their present interpretation owes much to contemporary secular egalitarian theory, opportunistic attempts to shift power to the House of Laity in General Convention and a general distrust of a cult of authority, however venerable and holy.

Not all trends in society are inimical. On the other hand, the task of the church is to consider that which society proposes always from the standpoint of core belief and that whether a secular cause or trend is of the Right, of the Left or of the Center. In losing sight of this, we become the more susceptible to becoming a church defined by its reference to one or other of the prevailing cultures. We were once the conservative party at prayer. Now we divide between the liberal party in action and the conservative party in reaction. This is particularly the case in the growing trend to treat General Convention in almost exclusively secular political terms, as an exclusive and omni-competent legislative body. I champion the bishops!

[1] BCP page 11 in the penultimate paragraph.

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