What would Bishop Seabury Do?

Samuel Seabury, (1729-11-30 - 1796-02-25), Bis...
Bishop Samuel Seabury Image via Wikipedia

“The crisis in the Communion is still unfolding. In an attempt to keep the conservatives from walking away, Rowan Williams is urging all the provinces to sign a Covenant – essentially a promise not to innovate in ways that are unacceptable to the majority. Provinces that prize their autonomy too highly to sign will be reduced to ‘associate’ members of the club. Would such a change in status matter to the Episcopal Church? Or might it be a badge of pride, like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter? The bishop [Mark Sisk, Episcopal Bishop of New York] is reluctant to be drawn on this; he offers some rhetoric about the aim of the Covenant being to keep as many people as possible talking, and that being a good thing, and it being too early to say what the American response will be.”—Theo Hobson, The Spectator, February 9, 2011.

The Anglican Covenant was first proposed in “The Windsor Report” as a response to conflict among Anglicans following the Consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. Some Anglicans refused to attend Holy Communion with others as a result.  The Archbishop of Canterbury told the General Synod of the Church of England that without the Covenant we could expect the dismantling of the Communion ‘piece by piece’.

The Long History of Church Politics and Controversy

The Episcopal Church of the United States is one of the independent churches that make up the Anglican Communion.  It has its roots in the Church of England from which it broke away during the American Revolution just as our country did.  But the roots of the church are 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 of the US from other Christian denominations is its history as part of the Church of England.  If you study our church history you will quickly find that controversy is nothing new to the church.  It was born in controversy and has thrived despite it. 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 by the demands for the Anglican Covenant.

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.

Today‘s Challenge to the Communion

In its current history unfolding, the Church confronts controversies not unlike those at its founding including the ordination of women and then gay/lesbian priests and then there came Bishop Gene Robinson.  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. It did not work then and it will not work today.

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.

What would Bishop Seabury do about the proposed Anglican Covenant?

Like many of you, I read the proposed Anglican Covenant and the communiqué from the Primates, and the letter of Marc in response. I have come to believe that this is an altogether healthy conflict to have in the life of the Church despite its discomfort.  We know what Bishop Seabury would do—he would pray for the primates—and join Bishop Robinson at the table.

This is the kind of conflict Jesus would wish for us.

I came to realize from my own experience that I did not sacrifice nor diminish my faith in marriage or the family by accepting the reality that there are different ways to define the commitment of two people of any gender to each other or the forming of family configurations different than my own.  Look around you, you will see both success and failure in unions and families in both traditional and “non-traditional” experiences.

I also believe that if we love each other as Jesus taught we already know the answer to the rest of these questions.  Our faith is our salvation and our way.

This is not a zero-sum game.  My values are neither strengthened nor validated; my faith is not dependent upon or renewed by denying others the right to live their lives differently than my own. Jesus, after all, expressed some fairly untraditional views in his own time, and he even had the temerity to associate with “tax collectors and sinners” after all.

Jesus told us to follow Him.  And while I hear the angst in the words of the Primates, I believe that together at the communion table these differences are healed by God’s unconditional love for us if we are only willing to come to Jesus.

And so we know our answer to the Anglican Covenant question in our hearts.

The answer is we are called by Jesus to be one by faith.  And if we are to love one another as He loved us we must accept one another as we are.  And so we accept the Primates and love them even when their views are different from our own.  But we belong to Jesus not the Primates—and so does the Anglican Communion.

To agree to the Anglican Covenant is to abandon both our faith and our independence because Jesus is alive in each of us—of every race, every age, every nationality, every orientation, every family of every kind—and where because of His unconditional love for all of us, every day around our communion table is Easter!


2 thoughts on “What would Bishop Seabury Do?

  1. Thanks, Gary, for this missive. I enjoy them all, but this one tickles my old newspaper genes because it’s a topic that will be endlessly reported on and nuanced, ad nauseum.

    Just like in politics, cat fights are cat fights. The background stories, the verbal pushing around and the opinion pieces by real people that need to be done by the denominational press will be inadequate. The stories by the secular press will be more to the point and, as I know firsthand, will cause more anger (no matter what side you’re on).

    We need a MLK Jr. to point out that Episcopalians who are still trying to sit on a head of a pin are just….Episcopalians trying to sit on the head of a pin. Justice needs to reign. Historic context in the church has no sway any longer as a reason for being hesitant to strive for justice. Onward!

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