Religion, Sex, Politics and the Episcopal Church

Religion, Sex, Politics and the Episcopal Church

By Gary Hunt

May, 2009 Tidings Article

The true life stories from the history of The Episcopal Church would rival any script the writers of Desperate Housewives could imagine.  The church today is, in many ways, just as raucous as it was at its founding as the Church of England in the time of King Henry VIII.  Our modern day debate over the ordination of women and gay priests is only the most recent chapter in the evolution of the same drama and conflict that arose at the formation of the Church.

And you thought church history was dull and boring!!!

While we say that the Episcopal Church has its roots in the Church of England, it is actually a more ancient tradition that begins with the first followers of Jesus. The very name of the Episcopal Church indicates its participation in the Apostolic Succession or the historic episcopate, the passing of teaching and authority across the generations through bishops, beginning with the apostles—an unbroken chain of faith.

What separates the Episcopal Church from other Christian denominations is its history as part of the Church of England.  The Church of England was born out of King Henry VIII’s breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534.  That break was prompted by politics, among other things, by the Pope’s refusal to invalidate Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.  So Parliament made the king “the supreme head of the Church of England.”  Although the church was separated from the authority of the Pope, its structures, practices and teaching remained similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church and the bishops remained as overseers of the church.

Under Henry’s son, Edward VI, Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, published the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549.  In a country whose religious traditions ranged from Puritan to Roman Catholic, this Prayer Book, rather than a statement of doctrine or allegiance to the Pope, was able to unite the kingdom in common worship while allowing great latitude for varying opinions.  Any moderate form of Protestantism was acceptable as long as it participated in the common worship of the Church of England.  The roots of Anglicanism’s wide tolerance of opinion and expression were, in large part, laid during this time and are still being tested today.

English settlers to the American Colonies brought their faith with them.  But because Anglican (English) clergy had sworn allegiance to the Crown, the American Revolution presented great difficulty for the Church of England in the newly-formed United States of America.  The church remained the Church of England, with the sovereign as its head.  To make matters more difficult, there were no bishops in the United States.  Without them, no new clergy could be ordained.

Two men emerged during these post-Revolutionary War years to help reorganize the Anglican Church into an American denomination.  William White led the effort to form a legislative body (the General Convention, which first met in 1785) and gain recognition from the Church of England.  The other, Samuel Seabury, was consecrated bishop by Anglican bishops in Scotland so that the newly formed Episcopal Church could ordain clergy and take root in America while maintaining the apostolic succession that was so critical to its identity.  The Episcopal Church in the US authorized its own Book of Common Prayer in 1789.

In the same way, English colonists brought the Church of England to other parts of the world.  Churches in these colonies used the basic framework of Anglican worship, prayer and tradition, while allowing for local and cultural adaptation and expression.  The American Revolution goes global, so to speak. As those colonies became independent from England, so did their churches.  But they remained connected to (“in communion with”) the Church of England and each another.  This group of churches is now known as the Anglican Communion, consisting of 38 self-governing member churches or provinces in over 160 countries.  Each church in the Communion is governed independently.  The Episcopal Church in the United States of America is one member of the Anglican Communion.

In its recent history, the Church has confronted controversies not unlike those at its founding such as the ordination of women and then gay/lesbian priests and Bishops.  The current debate over breakaway parishes, recognition by far distant bishops and challenges to Church practice, teaching and politics come right out of Henry VIII’s 1534 playbook.

So be revolutionary and pick up that Book of Common Prayer in the pew rack.  Cranmer’s early attempt to bridge the gaps in church politics without losing his head in the process still enables those of us sitting in the pews today to focus on following Jesus and the teaching of the Apostles as the underlying principles of worship—and in so doing we become a link in that unbroken chain of faith ourselves.

Our Vestry said it best for us without losing their heads in the process:  At St. Timothy’s, anyone and everyone seeking to experience God’s love, mercy and power to heal is welcome, and all who love God and seek Christ are invited to share at the Lord’s Table where we celebrate our unity and find sustenance, consolation, and hope.


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