Samuel Seabury, first bishop
of the Episcopal Church in
the New Republic
First of all why do I call his religious affiliation “Anglican/Episcopalian?” Until the American Revolution the Anglican Church in the American colonies retained its traditional name—as it still does in most of the world—“Anglican.” It was also called “The Church of England” in the colonies even as it was in the “Mother Country.” “Anglican” means “English”—coming from the “Angles”—one of the Germanic tribes that in the fifth and sixth centuries had settled in what is today England. In fact, England means “the land of the Angles.” Even before Henry VIII’s break with Rome in 1536 the English Church had a distinct identity and was known, even by Rome and in papal documents as the Ecclesia Anglicana—the English Church, the Anglican Church. When the American colonies declared their independence from England many Anglicans, especially in New York and the northern colonies, were Tories and supported the British cause. In Virginia, however, it was different. Most of the Virginia aristocracy was Anglican but for various reasons, including economic advantage, supported the break with England and were in favor of independence. They did not want their Church to be known as “The Church of England” or as Anglican. They were no longer English. They were Americans. They needed another name.
At the time of the Reformation the Church of England had kept the traditional hierarchical order of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons though there is dispute over whether or not they maintained the apostolic succession or whether they understood the offices of Bishop and Priest in a sense compatible with Catholic dogma (see entry for December 7 2011 on “Valid Orders” for an introductory essay on this question. We will have to deal with it in depth in some future entries—especially when we get to the subject of the English Reformation.) In the colonial period American Anglicans were subject to the diocesan supervision of the Bishop of London as no Bishops had been appointed for the American colonies. With independence that link with the Bishop of London was severed because the Bishop himself, Robert Lowth, refused oversight to the now independent former colonies. After the Revolution, in 1783, The Anglican clergy of Connecticut elected one of their own, Samuel Seabury, and sent him to England to be consecrated as a bishop. The English bishops, however, could not by English law consecrate him because he would not, as an American citizen, swear allegiance to the King. English law required Anglican Bishops to take an oath of loyalty to the Crown as part of the Consecration Rite, even as Catholic Bishops were required to give obedience to the Pope. Consequently, Samuel Seabury travelled to Scotland where several Scottish bishops who did not recognize the legitimacy of George III (their loyalty was to the Stuart claimant, Charles Edward, the “Young Pretender)” consecrated him to the episcopacy. Several years later Maryland Anglicans elected William White and New Yorkers elected Samuel Provoost both of whom in 1787 were consecrated in England where the law by then had been changed to permit the consecration of bishops for lands not subject to the English Crown without requiring the oath of loyalty. (By the way, this dispute about consecrating Bishops for America played an important role in the separation of Methodists from the Church of England, but that is for a future posting.) Virginia Anglicans elected James Madison (no, not the future President but another James Madison) who was consecrated bishop in England in 1790. With an established hierarchy, American Anglicans chose the name “Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.” That name is both significant and misleading. The Church is Episcopal in as that it has an Episcopal system of government which is to say that it is led by bishops. The confusion is in the name “Protestant.” That was primarily meant to make it clear that, while it retained bishops, it was not “Catholic” in the sense of being in communion with the Pope. (“Bishops” were widely considered to be a Catholic innovation by most Protestants who followed a Presbyterian system of government.) But what does Protestant mean and does it mean the same thing today as it did in the eighteenth century? Did the organizers of the Episcopal Church choose “Protestant” as a negative identity, only to distinguish it from Catholics, or was it meant to convey a positive meaning, in terms of embracing the evangelical principles of the Reformation?
Today we see Episcopalians as “almost Catholic,” or, as one of my friends says “Catholic light: all the ritual, half the guilt.” But what we see today in the Episcopal Church is not what George Washington would have seen in his day when Episcopal priests usually wore at the altar simply a black gown and preaching tabs and not even surplice much less Eucharistic vestments. In Washington’s day, the pulpit was the focus of the church. There was no altar, but a simple wooden communion table which held neither cross nor candles. Behind “The Holy Table” was mounted on the wall, tablets containing the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles Creed. The Service of Holy Communion (equivalent to the Catholic Mass) still had much of the structure of the Mass about it, but it was a far more Calvinistic Service than the 1928 Prayerbook or the1979 Book of Common Prayer. For example, the reception of Holy Communion came directly after the Words of Institution “Take and eat, for this is my body…take and drink, for this is the cup of my blood….” The Lord’s Prayer was only recited after Communion, the idea being the very Protestant idea that Christ gave us the Eucharist only for the eating and drinking in his memory. It was only with the Oxford Movement which began in 1833 that “Catholic” practices were revived in the Anglican and Episcopal churches—and revived slowly and with much opposition from the evangelical or “Low Church” wing, some of which still refuse the use of vestments, candles, altar cross, and hold to the Calvinistic liturgy and theology. Far more significant to the Oxford Movement than the revival of pre-reformation ritual, however, was the insistence of doctrinal orthodoxy on the part of the Tractarian leadership of the Oxford Movement who realized that Anglicanism had been on a two-hundred year slippery slope into agnosticism and no longer held unswervingly to the Apostolic faith. Many Anglicans embraced the rationalism of the period which had drifted from orthodox Christology and Trinitarian faith to Unitarianism and even Deism. Thus we will see that George Washington’s being an Episcopalian is not guarantee of his being, by modern standards, a Christian. Washington would recognize shreds and tatters of the Episcopal Church of his day in some of the language of the Prayer Book but he would be shocked to see both the liturgy and doctrine held by most modern Episcopalians who, as liberal as they are, were not nearly as scrubbed clean of Christian Orthodoxy as were Washington and his contemporaries.