Last night while I was reviewing the history of Bishop William White and the beginnings of the Protestant Episcopal Church, I came across two quotes that I found fascinating in light of the current situation in TEC – particularly after what has emerged simultaneously out of Anaheim and Newport Beach, CA.
Bishop White was the motivating force behind the establishment of a national Church in the newly formed United States and he was also chaplain to the Congress. Though he studied and was ordained in England, he was passionate about establishing the Church in America corresponding to the ideals and structures of the new Federation. Powel Mills Dawley wrote the following in “Chapters in Church History”:
“dioceses agreed to sacrifice some of their jealously-guarded independence in order to create a national organization. Actually, the Episcopal Church was a federal union of independent diocesan units, and each diocese a federation of independent parishes, rather than a single, closely-knit ecclesiastical institution.” [page 222]
Why did Dawley make this distinction? He did so noting the fact that the American clergy were very much concerned about not establishing a hierarchical Church like the one in Britain. Such was the concern for maintaining this independence that some of the clergy were opposed even to having bishops. Though the need for bishops – constrained under this new structure - was finally accepted by the majority. This is why they decided on a presiding bishop, as one who simply presided over the meetings and conventions, rather than an archbishop.
The framers of the Episcopal Church were interested in fellowship and unity but not at the cost of orthodoxy. Robert Prichard writing about the first conventions and prayer book revisions of the 1780s in “A History of the Episcopal Church” observed:
“Charles Miller, the rector of King’s Chapel, Boston, wanted, for example, to remove all references to the Trinity. When the conventions did not agree to do so, the congregation . . . distanced itself from other Anglicans, and became the first explicitly unitarian church in America (1786).” [page 86]
There are two sad ironies that come out of this as we look back: First, that The Episcopal Church has lost that sense of the American ideal of communities of equals (federalism) and has willing exchanged it for an oligarchy like that which they rejected over two-hundred years ago. And second, that much of The Episcopal Church now looks like the Unitarian Church with vestments and liturgy.
“The schismatic is the one who causes the separation, not the one who separates.” - J. C. Ryle, Charges and Addresses (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1978) p. 69.