November 12, 2018 | Saint of the Month by Father Frank
Saint of the Month
Samuel Seabury, Our first american bishop-Nov, 14
“Apostolic succession.” I haven’t heard the phrase for years, but it’s important. It means we’re run by bishops–“episcopi,” bishops–who are the successors of the apostles, and have been consecrated, since the earliest times, by the laying on of other bishops’ hands. In other words, we have what are called “valid orders.” I’ve long since stopped comparing our orders with those of other churches, but they’re an important witness to our continuity with the church of the apostles, and one that we must not lose.
During the colonial period there were no bishops in America, Confirmation didn’t exist, and prospective priests had to make the long, dangerous voyage across the Atlantic to be ordained. The Bishop of London was sort of in charge of the American colonies, and did what he could but it wasn’t much. Why no bishops? Mostly because Americans didn’t want them. Wealthy landowners in particular were afraid bishops would be competition, and I’m bound to say they had lots of popular support--in this, anyway.
The Revolution was tough on Anglican clergy, who had had to swear allegiance to the king at their Ordination, and were required to pray for him at every service (the Methodists, who were Anglicans at this time, had the same problem.) Seabury was a loyalist. His parish was in New York, and when the First Continental Congress was called, he wrote against it. He was clear and persuasive, and got into a pamphlet war with Alexander Hamilton. When the war began he was arrested and jailed, but released after six months and sent to New York, where he spent the Revolution as the chaplain of a British regiment.
When we won he accepted the new government, moved to Connecticut, and was elected bishop–we had to have them now. He and a group of friends arrived in England in 1784–the Peace of Paris wasn’t signed yet but everyone knew it was coming–applied for Consecration, and were turned down. English law said you had to swear allegiance to the king, and they couldn’t do that. They scratched their heads and wondered whether Seabury might be consecrated in Denmark. Dr. Routth, the famous principal of Magdalen College in Oxford, “made bold to tell them that they would not find there precisely what they were looking for,” and suggested trying Scotland.
This was difficult. The Scots had supported the Stuart family–Charles II and James II– as king, and their clergy would not swear allegiance to the present dynasty. So the Anglican Church was banned in Scotland, although it was the official church of England. Seabury was consecrated in a private home, by three Scots bishops–but it was a valid consecration.
Seabury went home and made an excellent bishop of Connecticut, and later of Rhode Island also. He had been asked to introduce the Scots Prayer Book into the States, which he did. It contained the Prayer of Consecration of our Rite 1, which was far better than the English of the time and, in my view, beats anything in Rite 2 hollow, though you may not agree with me. Moreover, he sparked the movement for more frequent Communion, which eventually resulted in the satisfying Sunday services we have now.
Seabury’s consecration woke the English church up. Were they going to have a pro- Stuart church in America, they wondered. Parliament changed the law about requiring an oath of allegiance to the king, and when the next candidates for consecration arrived, in 1784, they were consecrated in Canterbury Cathedral, by the Archbishop himself. These were William Provoost of New York, and William White of Philadelphia. White’s background was the opposite of Seabury’s. He had been chaplain to the Continental Congress and later was made chaplain of the Senate. He was quite a guy, and one day we must write about him. He joined Seabury and Provoost in consecrating the next bishop, Clagett of Maryland and, together with one James Madison who had been consecrated in England the five made the first House of Bishops, which put the American Episcopal Church together in 1789.
We’ve had a hard, rocky passage over the years but we’re still at the task of preaching the Gospel and trying to assist souls on their way to heaven. You folks do a terrific job of helping us–pray for us as well.