Skip to comments.The Episcopal Church - An Historical Reflection
Posted on 06/03/2006 6:01:26 PM PDT by sionnsar
At one time the Episcopal Church was a leading and reliable denomination in the United States. It came into separate existence from the Church of England following the success of the American Revolutionary War. Like the new nation the organization of the national denomination paralleled structures like those set up in the United States government.
Like the Congress with two houses, one the Senate, the other the House of Representatives, the Episcopal Church's governing body, the General Convention, would be comprised of two houses, one the House of Bishops, the other the House of Deputies, comprised of clergy and laity representatives. The Episcopal Church also set up an executive, the Presiding Bishop, a kind of President rather than an Archbishop and with limited powers, and the church has its equivalent to the Supreme Court, the Ecclesiastical Court.
The American Revolutionary War saw the loss of a significant number of members of the colonial Church of England as those with sympathies to the British Crown, Tories, left the colonies for Canada or to return to the British Isles. The Anglicans who remained were very sympathetic to the American experiment and the democratic institutions the new nation would inaugurate.
Until the establishing of the Episcopal Church after the Revolution, bishops had not been appointed by the English hierarchy and so there were no bishops in America, which posed some significant challenges during the colonial period and just after the Revolutionary for a church that relies on bishops in important ways. Persons desiring to be confirmed or to be ordained as clergy had to travel across the Atlantic to England in order to be confirmed or ordained by a bishop of the Church of England. The oversight of the Church of England in the colonies fell under the auspices of the Bishop of London.
After the Revolution, the new church would need bishops in order to be a complete church in line with Anglican understanding and in order to function appropriately and efficiently. Given that an Episcopal style church had not stood on its own apart from attachment to a monarchy or to the Papacy of the Roman Catholic Church, the situation the American Anglicans posed for the Church of England was a novel one.
The bishops in England were quite uncertain how to respond. To be ordained in the Church of England, whether as a deacon, a priest, or a bishop, meant one seeking ordination had to subscribe to an oath of allegiance to the British king. This was hardly something an American Anglican would or could do having just thrown off the king's claim on them politically in the War. To establish a hierarchy of bishops for the new Episcopal Church another way had to be found and was. The man chosen to be the first of at least the needed three for the new church, Samuel Seabury, from Connecticut, was able to arrange for bishops of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, an Anglican Church constitutionally separate from the Church of England, to ordain him.
Once this ordination had taken place and it was clear the intent was for the Church of England to continue in America now as the separate Episcopal Church, the English bishops found a way to ordain the next several bishops the new church needed in order to establish its episcopal hierarchy.
Thus, what would in time be called the Anglican Communion was born. The American Episcopal Church being the first province to exist entirely separate the British Isles, from the Church of England, its hierarchy, and the British monarch who was and is the head of the Church of England.
Yet, though separate constitutionally and nationally, the new Episcopal Church was a genuine Anglican Church by means of its desire to be linked to the Archbishop of Canterbury through a tie of respect and affection to which the Archbishop reciprocated by recognition of the Episcopal Church as a sister church of the Church of England, through holding to a pattern of worship provided by the Book of Common Prayer, through the maintenance of the threefold office of bishop, priest, and deacon, and through adoption of the Articles of Religion. The Book of Common Prayer and the Articles of Religion were of necessity modified to fit the circumstances of being an American Church and not an English Church. So, for example, the prayers for the King of England were dropped and a prayer added for the President of the United States. Other similar modifications were made to fit the new circumstances. In time the Articles of Religion were not required to be subscribed to even in their American version and became historical documents only showing where the understanding of the church had been at one time on certain issues.
The faith and spiritual life of the members of the new American Episcopal Church were essentially classical Anglican orthodoxy as it had come to be defined from the English Reformation period forward. It was a creedal and biblical and Protestant faith. Its shape had been influenced by the sixteenth century Reformation and in particular the influence of John Calvin and Martin Bucer were notable but the Church of England did not become Calvinistic or Reformed Protestant, as this was known on the European continent or in Scotland [in the Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian Church]. Queen Elizabeth the first and her ministers [political and ecclesiastical] worked to insure that the Church of England maintained a carefully orchestrated and somewhat precarious balance between Protestant elements and those Catholic elements believed to be able to be maintained in keeping with general Protestant principles. The Church of England was meant, as the established Church, the Church of the English People and their monarch, to be the church of all the English.
To be such it had to be created to embrace as many of the Queen's subjects as possible, from the Puritan left and the Roman Catholic right. The Church of England was not able to reach out to the furthest extremes left or right, so could not actually embrace committed radical Puritans or committed Roman Catholics but it could endeavor to embrace a wide and comprehensive group of English men and women in between those extemes.
The arrangement was hoped to bring religious peace and stability to the nation and thus not be a further distraction for the monarchy and the Parliamentary government. The defense of this arrangement was articulated by a minister of the Church of England, Richard Hooker, in a dense work known as the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. The effort was only partially successful as Protestant extremists and Roman Catholics continued to pose difficulty and a certain amount of unrest in society until the Reformed Acts of the mid-nineteenth century which gave full recognition to Protestants outside the church meeting in chapels and to the Roman Catholics who continued to exist despite sometimes fierce opposition by monarch, state, and established church.
Essentially the faith and spiritual life of English Christians in the established church was formed on the basis of scripture teaching and moral instruction. Preaching, as typical to a Protestant ecclesiastical organization, was given a significant place of importance. Sermons tended to be lengthy discourses on Scripture or moral themes, the former being emphasized by those Anglicans who followed more closely the reformed evangelical theology of the English Reformation period under the leadership of persons like Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer and then Matthew Parker in the time of Elizabeth I. The moralizing sermons tended to come from those established Anglicans that emerged in greater numbers after the Restoration and who followed and developed the trends begun by William Laud and others.
The theology of both tended to be scholastic, creedal, and biblical, with some foundation in the theology of the early church and the early church fathers. It was as orthodox as it could be without being either Roman Catholic or being in the manner of the Orthodox Churches of the East, yet whether high or low church in its liturgical sympathies, it was none the less a Protestant Church, where the authority resided locally and had to accord in its actions, practices and beliefs with the Bible understood as containing the word of God written. This life and orientation to Christianity was carried over into the new world and into the Episcopal Church by its first members and founders.
Given the somewhat devastating effects the Revolutionary War had had on the colonial Anglican Church, the first several decades of the existence of the Episcopal Church was faced with the need to get well established and organized in the new and emerging nation. Some areas of the new nation had a strong Anglican presence, such as parts of New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, and especially so in places like Virginia and South Carolina.
Yet the regions of Anglican strength posed differences for the new church to reckon with. In the south the Anglicans tended to be more low church, evangelical in their approach and understanding and a highly lay oriented church rather mistrusting of giving too much power to any of the clergy, and especially bishops. In the north the Anglicans had tendencies more to the high church orientation with less emphasis on evangelism and more on social witness and outreach, and were willing to trust clergy a bit more than what was the case in the south.
Yet for both northern and southern Episcopalians, as the Anglicans would come to be called in America, the experience of a church overseen by monarchs and bishops and clergy generally had not been a positive one. The result was, in an emerging and democratic nation, representative in its arrangements, the new Episcopal Church would have to have and know a strong lay presence in its government and so accordingly the structures established gave considerable power to lay Episcopalians.
As we have seen they comprised half of the House of Deputies in the church's General Convention and they were given votes to assist diocesan clergy in electing the diocesan bishop. In Virginia the diocese was set up with its budget beyond the control and reach of the Bishop of Virginia, a reality that continues to this day. It would be an Episcopal Church, a church with Bishops, but one very much intent on limiting the authority and reach of any ecclesiastical prelate.
American expansion became the occasion of the growth of the Episcopal Church alongside the growth of the nation. The Episcopal Church responded in various ways to the challenge. And despite its having been a church that had come from aristocratic roots as the established church in England and was still something of an aristocratic institution, particularly in the south, and was undoubtedly a very cultured church, the most cultured of the American churches and denominations of its day, the early Episcopal Church did display a rather remarkable missionary and evangelical spirit.
A once common remark said regarding the evangelization of the American frontier that the Baptists arrived on foot, the Methodists came on horseback, and the Episcopalians waited until the invention of the Pullman train car. While that remark may have some limited truth, at least at regards the social perception of the different American denominations of the time, it is not actually very accurate of the Episcopalians response to the growing nation and the need to grow the church and to insure America would be a Christian nation, the latter meaning all the churches in America would have to play a role in evangelizing the American people including the Episcopal Church.
Episcopalians began to rise to the challenge. In the late eighteenth century and through most of the nineteenth century American Episcopalians were engaged in considerable efforts of evangelism, church growth, church expansion, and at one point in the mid nineteenth century was one of the fastest growing churches in the United States.
Both Anglican evangelicals and high church Anglicans, whether old style high church or the new Anglo-Catholic version, were all involved in efforts to evangelize and grow and expand the church. Persons exemplifying this evangelical and missionary spirit from different "wings" of the church were Philander Chase, one time bishop of Ohio and then Illinois, and James Lloyd Breck. They evangelized people, conducted preaching missions which were evangelistic in their character, founded churches, founded educational institutions [such as Kenyon College and Nashotah House respectively], and called and trained persons as clergy and missionaries to assist in the expansionist efforts.
Concurrent to these efforts other perspectives were beginning to take hold in parts of the Episcopal Church and in American Christianity. A new theological orientation or perspective was gradually being introduced that was labeled as liberal and often aimed at social reforms and less focused on personal salvation of individuals. Slowly certain aspects of the Church's traditional teaching came to be questioned and doubted and by some abandoned.
In the late nineteenth century these developments were to pose real distress for Anglican evangelicals in the Episcopal Church. Some ceased to be Christians let alone Episcopalians, others embraced various forms of "liberal" evangelicalism, some moved from evangelicalism to Anglo-Catholicism, and even a few to the Roman Catholic Church, but many left the Episcopal Church and formed the Reformed Episcopal Church.
And the problems for the Anglican evangelicals were not merely so-called liberal theology but also the introduction of liturgical changes that accompanied the rise of Anglo-Catholicism [the movement that grows up out of the Oxford or Tractarian Movement in the Church of England]. Ritualism was a hot issue for Anglican evangelicals and for many Episcopalians no matter what their orientation in the late nineteenth century into the early twentieth century.
At times the response of official Episcopalianism, i.e. bishops in particular, and sometimes conventions, could be very harsh and legalistic. Clergy could be charged for too zealously preaching the gospel in the evangelical style or for placing of candles or flowers on the holy table, increasing called the altar. The Great Awakening and the rise of Methodism in the mid to late eighteenth century had already drained off of the colonial Anglican Church and subsequent Episcopal Church a significant number of persons that were more evangelically oriented in their theology, worship, and church life. The Anglican evangelicals often saw themselves - rightly or wrongly - as an embattled and persecuted minority. The result was that by the early twentieth century most of the evangelical and missionary spirit of the Anglican evangelicals had been lost in the Episcopal Church.
Then in the twentieth century Anglo-Catholicism gradually grew in its acceptance and over the course of the century became more and more fused together with ever increasing liberal perspectives in theology. Concurrently the Episcopal Church which had grown to a quite satisfactory size was overtaken by a sense of comfort and place which meant that the evangelical and missionary spirit of previous decades was not deemed as important or definitive of Episcopal life in America.
Increasingly, missionary spirit and energy gave way to social outreach with less and less religious or spiritual components to it and the commitment grew to be one of realizing the application of a social gospel that would focus on making society more egalitarian, more democratic, more just, more fair, more prosperous for everyone. In the period before the 1960s the Episcopal Church could often be caricatured as the Republican Party at prayer, at least in the northern United States [the conservative Democratic Party at prayer in the south].
With the arrival of the 1960s and the social turmoil that came with the period, a significant portion of the Episcopal Church became radicalized and in the north much of it came to be caricatured as the Democratic Party at prayer in that many northern Episcopalians had adopted the liberal social agenda of the period and the Democrats.
Yet, the Episcopal Church paid a price, following a special convention in South Bend, Indiana, at which the church decided to pay reparations for American discrimination against blacks, the Episcopal Church experienced its first modern [twentieth century] fall in membership.
This would be followed by a gradual drifting away of members until the church in the 1970s undertook two other radical changes: the revision of the Book of Common Prayer and the ordination of women. Another significant loss of members ensued over a considerable period of time when these changes became institutionalized.
Increasingly the Episcopal Church saw itself as a prophetic voice in America and in Christianity. Concurrent to the revision of the prayer book and the implementation of women's ordination, quietly in the Episcopal Church bishops began to ordain relatively open homosexual persons to the ministries of deacon and priests and seminaries and seminary professors began to teach and then endorse homosexuality as a legitimate Christian lifestyle.
The 1970s also saw the start of a reemergence of Anglican evangelicalism in the Episcopal Church, signified most notably by the establishment of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry at Sewickley, then Ambridge, Pennsylvania. Thus the stage was set for the current crisis in the American province of the Anglican Communion.
Today the Episcopal Church appears to be a church looking for an identity, looking to find and have a place within the culture, and looking to decide its real mission and raison d'etre. Statistically it has shrunk to where it is almost of an inconsequential size in the larger scheme of things, except for the fact that a significant number of the culture's social leaders are still affiliated with the Episcopal Church.
The church continues at present at least to still have far more influence and effect that what its actual size would warrant were it a different denomination in America. Persons who advocate the changes in the Episcopal Church, from prayer book revision, to women's ordination, to the embracing of homosexuality, have said these are all great evangelistic opportunities for the church.
To date, however, the potential of these to contribute to the church's growth - if they are of any real consequence or importance in that regard - have not been realized. The church continues to decline in size and continues to be an aging denomination with most of its membership fifty years old or older, and few young adults, youth or children are coming into the church. Either the leadership and membership of the Episcopal Church have not taken real advantage of this supposed evangelistic opportunity or they have been very mistaken about its potential in this regard.
Meanwhile Americans who do respond to the message of Christianity seem to be responding to the way it is being presented elsewhere, whether its in the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches [which are beginning to come alive and effective in America in terms of outreach and evangelism], or any number of more evangelically-oriented Protestant type churches. Even in the Episcopal Church the only churches to have grown significantly with but a few exceptions across the church have been those of an Anglican evangelical orientation. At the same time due to the current crisis the Episcopal Church appears to be starting to hemorrhage these and once again the presence of Anglican evangelicals in the Episcopal Church could become negligible.
What was once an American Church that had a rough start and yet overcame the considerable obstacles it faced, grew dramatically, came to a place of prominence and important and real effect in the culture, now seems to be facing the worst crisis of its history; it is a crisis unlike anything it has known previously. It shows at present remarkable signs of being a highly dysfunctional institution, not good at managing conflict, and not good at passing on whatever is its spiritual inspiration and good news. Is the Episcopal Church a dying church? Will the Episcopal Church eventually emerge healthy and vigorous with a solid identity from its current crisis? What will the Episcopal Church look like in the next few years? Who will be members of it? What will be its relationship to the rest of the Anglican Communion which is said at present to be in question? Where does the Episcopal Church go from where it finds itself at present?
In June, in Columbus, Ohio, the Episcopal Church holds again its triennial General Convention. Facing the church's leadership at this convention are issues of momentous importance, issues that will decide the direction if not the fate of the Episcopal Church for a long time. Those interested in Christianity in particular and in religion in general in America will be watching and waiting to see what the Episcopalians decide.
Copyright 2006, Bruce A. Flickinger
"So, for example, the prayers for the King of England were dropped and a prayer added for the President of the United States. Other similar modifications were made to fit the new circumstances."
I can still remember when we prayed for the Most Gracious and God-fearing King of the Hellenes!
"the Orthodox Churches [which are beginning to come alive and effective in America in terms of outreach and evangelism]"
I think that has been thrust upon us by the culture around us. People are showing up at our door and we've finally learned to welcome them. It has been my experience that the more multi-ethnic a parish becomes, the more welcoming it becomes and the more welcoming it becomes, the likely it is to engage in some form of outreach. Our parish, by the way, just got its second Ethiopian Orthodox family, which is pretty neat, frankly. As parishes like ours develop throughout America, the more Western practice of evangelization and mission activity seems to be increasing dramatically, especially among our young people. Frankly, the future looks pretty good.
This is a Good Thing indeed!
"People are showing up at our door and we've finally learned to welcome them.
This is a Good Thing indeed!"
Well, we still feel bad for them that they're not Greek, but we don't tell them that! :)
Guess we're a step ahead of you then, because whatever "ethnicity" (is this a code word for "race"?) they are, they can always become Anglican. And we actually have quite a mix in our church, far more than any of the Episcopal churches I grew up in: not mentioning the (born) Brits, Americans and Canadians in our midst, we also count a number of Asians and Indians (both kinds, native and otherwise) amongst our midst.
But then again, "ethnicity" in Anglicanism disappeared a long time ago. I remember being told as a boy in Confirmation Class that the "average Anglican" (I quote exactly; as an engineer I might dispute the adjective) was a poor black African woman.
But if the New World Orthodox can "lose" the "ethnicity," I see a big future for you all -- having observed converts who've gone over despite the negatives.
S, I didn't express myself well. Virtually all of our Lebanese, Syrian, Ethiopian, Eritrean/Greek, Russian, Serbian, Albanian, Ukranian, Bulgarian, Roumanian, Egyptian and Turkish/Greek parishioners are really from those countries. My point is that when a single ethnicity Orthodox parish, like mine was, gets a real big influx of other, non Greek (or Arab or Russian, etc) ethnics, what ends up predominating is an American ethnicity with a distinctly Orthodox phronema (Its really astonishing how that Orthodoxy transcends ethnicity; We're a close group). This makes the parish welcoming to ethnically American converts since the old ethnic club mentality dies a relatively quick death.
I assume that this welcome has some sort of "liturgical dance", "social justice", "gnosticism" and "Rite III" filter?
I assume that this welcome has some sort of "liturgical dance", "social justice", "gnosticism" and "Rite III" filter?
I visited Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Dallas during their annual Greek festival fundraiser. The food was great, and I enjoyed baklava for the first time. The Greek tour guide of the church could have done much better if he had known anything about the regional ethnic culture he was living in.
He was showing about 40 of us (Texans) around the church explaining things and all was fine until he came to the baptismal font. He said that the Greek Orthodox Church would accept most Protestant baptisims except baptisims of Baptists, because they didn't believe in the Trinity!
His cultural ignorance couldn't have been worse. The largest Baptist churches in the U.S. are in Dallas, and it became obvious immediately that several in the group were Baptists. Before I could speak, a young man told him very politely that Baptists most certainly believed in the Trinity - a fact could have qualified as the understatement of the year. The guide said he'd been told that years before by a friend and thought it was true.
Everyone showed good manners in church and let it go, but hardly anyone paid attention to the bozo after that. Let's hope that "old ethnic club mentality" does die a relatively quick death
"I visited Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Dallas during their annual Greek festival fundraiser....He said that the Greek Orthodox Church would accept most Protestant baptisims except baptisims of Baptists, because they didn't believe in the Trinity!"
We have a parishioner, the parish treasurer as a matter of fact and a convert, who was a member of that parish. I can't wait to rub his face in that one later this morning! Frankly, your story speaks volumes about the job the priest was doing at that parish. In any event the priest should have been doing the tours but he was probably, sigh, just SO exhausted from all the work he had done for the festival that week. Probably he actually worked 20 hours that week! :)
"Everyone showed good manners in church and let it go, but hardly anyone paid attention to the bozo after that."
You all probably should have been less than nice after that remark. The tour guide might have remembered his lesson that way. This really is a disgrace.
"I assume that this welcome has some sort of "liturgical dance", "social justice", "gnosticism" and "Rite III" filter?"
The only liturgical dance we do is at the parish festival, our idea of social justice is making the workers at the festival pay for their food, we can't spell gnosticism, but we know it when we see it and "Right on 3" is part of the directions to the church!
I assume that this welcome has some sort of "liturgical dance", "social justice", "gnosticism" and "Rite III" filter?
Sorry about the deja vu posts! Sometimes with the handheld, it just seems to happen...
Had I been a Baptist on that tour I might just have had to leave the party.
The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States,1789-2006.
The PCUSA had become increasingly ill in the last 40 years, and contracted a common form of cancer afflicting churches of its generation. In 2003, the cancer was determined to be terminal, although many of those close to the church refused to believe it.
No services will be held.
Donations may be sent in PCUSA's name to the following hospices for terminal churches: the World Council of Churches, or the National Council of Churches. Donations may also be made to the Sufi Rumi Foundation or the Gladwyn Fund for Pagan/Wiccan Studies.
You may find this essay interesting. I usually don't like her stuff, especially the early stuff, but this is pretty good.
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