Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Bishop William White and the Episcopal Church

Reflections for July 17 by the Rev. Canon Van McCalister

Bishop William White, the first bishop of Pennsylvania, was consecrated in 1787. Two years later he organized and presided over the first general convention in 1789 and became “the chief architect of the Constitution of the American Episcopal Church” [Lesser Feasts and Fasts – July 17].    Bishop White was not only the motivating force behind the establishment of a national Church in the newly formed United States, 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” offered this example:

“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]

Correspondingly, the Rt. Rev. William Stephens, marked the centennial of the consecrations of Bishops White and Provoost with this sobering warning:

Let not our minds rest alone on the study of the framework, eminently worthy as that framework is of careful study, but let us remember that, behind all these human plans and organizations, there has been present the Divine Architect of all, the Holy Ghost, and the unseen but ever spiritual presence of Him who "walks in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks."

We may have the most perfect church organization which earth can furnish; we may have a well attested apostolic lineage for our ministry; we may have as grand a liturgy as the human mind can construct; we may have as gorgeous a ceremonial of worship as the loftiest aesthetic art can devise; we may have as magnificent cathedrals and churches as human architects can build;--but if our diocesan organization does not rest on Christ as its corner-stone; if that apostolic succession is merely the articulation of dry bones, and is devoid of the life-blood and nerve-force of apostolic fellowship and doctrine; if that lofty worship degenerate into mere lip-service and ceases to be the true worship of God in spirit and in truth; if that gorgeous ceremonial tends to fasten the mind on the accessories of divine service, and obscures, rather than unfolds Christ, and if our noble church edifices only echo through their aisles a teaching not warranted by Scripture, not supported by the Book of Common Prayer, not meeting the soul's true and eternal needs--teaching for doctrine the commandments and traditions of men, at once "strange and erroneous,"--then is our church indeed without Christ--a fair temple without the schekinah; like the Church of Ephesus, having "left its first love"; like Sardis, "having a name that thou livest but art dead," and like Laodicea, "lukewarm, neither hot nor cold."

Only as the Holy Ghost, the living Spirit of truth, teaches in our churches; only as the living Christ is heralded there in his perfect fulness as the sinner's only Saviour; and only, as the one living and true God, is worshipped there "in the beauty of holiness" and "in spirit and in truth," can we fulfil the true conditions of our existence as an organized Christian Church,--then only can Christ speak to us as he did to the angel of the Church of Philadelphia, one of the seven Churches of Asia, and emblemized by a golden candlestick, saying "I know thy works. Behold I have set before thee an open door and no man can shut it, for thou hast a little strength and has kept my word and hast not denied my name." God grant to the Church in this Philadelphia of the western world, a large increase of strength, a more faithful keeping of His Word, a deeper reverence for the "name which is above every name," and "in which name every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." God grant that "the open door" set before us may be entered in, that we may more sedulously improve the opportunities for possession and expansion, until "the open door" shall become the triumphal arch of the Church's progress, through which, the sacramental Host, under the leadership of the Great Captain of our Salvation, shall march on its way to the gate of pearl and to the door that was "opened in Heaven."

[Excerpt from “A Commemorative Discourse” By Wm Bacon Stevens, Bishop of Pennsylvania (1887).  via]

After only one hundred years, Bishop Stevens reflections are ominously prophetic as he identified both the threat to the Church, and the great responsibility to guard the her apostolic treasure.  After more than 200 years, what has become of Bishop White's legacy?  The current leadership of The Episcopal Church more resembles King Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries, than it does Bishop William White.

“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.

1 comment:

Dale Matson said...

Father Van previously posted a related article on Bishop William White in 2009.