The Foundation of the Episcopal Church in the United States
To fully develop the understanding that the parish, not the diocese, is the basic unit of the American Episcopal Church it is necessary to look at the actual circumstances surrounding the founding of the Episcopal Church. The American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence of 1776 severed the bonds of the American churches with the Church of England. It is quite important to stress the plural, churches, and not Church. The churches in America had no synod or convention and were tied together only by a common Prayer Book and common discipline under the authority of the Bishop of London. King’s Chapel, the largest parish in Boston had no tie to Christ Church in Philadelphia or Trinity Parish in New York let alone with the churches of South Carolina or Virginia.
The ties that bound the churches were personal friendships among the clergy. As Edgar Pennington has noted, “The few clergy-conventions that were held were almost all intra-colony. ? The Conventions were more or less informal. This was to be expected since the conventions lacked authority and remained voluntary to the end. No one was empowered to enforce their decisions.” Edgar Pennington, “Colonial Clergy Conventions” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 8 (1939) 217.
Only one organization in the pre-PECUSA era crossed colonial boundaries, i.e., the Corporation for the Relief of Widows and Children of Deceased Clergy of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The Widows’ Corporation was a mutual insurance company chartered by the colonial legislatures of the three states and remains in existence to this day.
The stockholders meeting of 1784 in New Brunswick, New Jersey was the first multi-state meeting of clergy in the wake of the Revolution. According to William White, this meeting”was the first step towards the forming of a collective body of the Episcopal Church in the United States.” The clergy met “not only for the purpose of reviving the said charitable institution, but to confer and agree on some general principles of a union of the Episcopal Church throughout the states.” William White, Memoirs of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1880 3rd ed.) 19.
The differences among the churches in the New World were by no means confined to geography. In Virginia, the House of Burgesses established the Church of England under law. The clergy held the same privileges in Virginia society as they did in English society. The only lawful marriages, for example, were those performed by Episcopal clergy. The Commonwealth, patrons, vestries, or Mission Societies, held title to the buildings and glebe lands and the stipends of parish clergy were paid by the State. In Maryland and South Carolina the Church was also established but property was vested directly with the proprietors or patrons of the parish, or if the parish were independent or chartered by the state legislature, in the vestry. In Maryland, the Governor, acting on behalf of the proprietor, Lord Calvert, reserved the right to appoint the clergy.
In the Mid-Atlantic states of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, the church was not established, but was one of many competing in a pluralistic Christian environment. Title to parish property lay either in the hands of the London-based missionary societies who paid the stipends of the clergy, as was the case in N orth Carolina or in Pennsylvania outside of the City of Philadelphia or with the vestry as in the case of William White’s parish, Christ Church in Philadelphia, or in the case of Trinity Church in New York.
In New England, the Episcopal churches were a tolerated but were in effect a discouraged minority. Congregationalism was the established church of Connecticut and Massachusetts. Parish vestries or proprietors or mission societies owned the property of the congregation. In Boston, ownership of King’s Chapel, the largest of Boston’s Episcopal Churches lay in the hands of those who owned the pews.
In no instances in Colonial America did the Bishop of London hold title to congregational property. This comports with the understanding that the parish, not the diocese, is the basic unit of the Anglican, now called the Episcopal Church on American shores.
Spiritual authority was clearly recognized as separate from temporal authority. The clergy owed their political allegiance to the Crown, their spiritual obedience to the Bishop of London, and their financial loyalty to their vestries or to their sponsoring missionary society.
Governed by the Prayer Book, Formularies and Articles of Religion, the colonial church system was Episcopal in doctrinal and spiritual matters. Its clergy ordained by Bishops in England.
However, the colonial churches were congregational in temporal matters. Property was held by the congregation or the sponsoring mission society. The day-to-day affairs, not touching upon matters of the Faith, lay in the hands of the local vestry.
At the outbreak of the American Revolution, Anglicans in America (the term is a precursor in this case since it was not coined until the 1840’s but is used here merely in a descriptive sense) found themselves on both sides of the political dispute. Some like Samuel Seabury were ardent advocates of the “Tory” or loyalist position. Seabury served as a chaplain to a Loyalist regiment in New York. Bruce Steiner, Samuel Seabury, 1729-1796: A Study in the High Church Tradition (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1972) 159-67. Against these loyalists were the “Patriots” such as William White who served as Chaplain to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
The Tory clergy who did not emigrate or who found themselves in “hostile” territory either withdrew from the active ministry or braved the wrath of patriots. The point of dissension was often the obligatory prayers read for the monarch found in the Morning Prayer Service.
The Patriot clergy omitted the prayers for the monarch or substituted prayers for the new “lawful” political authority, the Continental Congress, or the state government. In Maryland, the Patriot legislature ordered the Episcopal clergy to substitute prayers for the new “monarch” by referencing “the Legislature” instead of the King.
When the Revolutionary War ended, the church with its English origins was devastated. Many of its churches were destroyed in the fighting or were abandoned by fleeing Tories. Though many of the Founding Fathers of the new nation were Episcopalians, the clergy were viewed with suspicion for holding a residual loyalty to the English Crown.
William White and the Pennsylvania Plan for Church Union
Into the void left by the War stepped the Rector of Christ Church in Philadelphia, William White. Generally considered to be the founding father of the American Episcopal Church, White offered a confederated plan of organization for the remnant of the Church of England residing in America. White’s first priority was to organize the churches in the midst of hostile circumstances. And when it could be so arranged, procure a bishop. Loveland, 63.
The theoretical basis of White’s plan, according to Loveland, was that “the authority to govern the Episcopal Church in America had to be derived from elected representatives from all the Churches throughout the United Stated, united by the voluntary acceptance of a Federal Constitution.” Loveland, 62.
White outlined his proposals in The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered. Written during the summer of 1782 before the end of hostilities at a time when White believed England would not recognize the independence of the American States, White’s Case was concerned with delineating a practical form of union for the churches in the United States.
White assumed that it would be impossible to secure consecration of an American Bishop from the English line. Given this political reality, White suggested that a continuing witness to the Christian faith dictated the reorganization of the former Church of England in America be conducted, by such necessity, in the absence of a Bishop. White, Case, 29f.
Political events moved rapidly at the close of the Revolutionary War and by August 1782, Parliament was willing to recognize American Independence. White, Case, 9. Emboldened by the prospects of peace, White distributed the Case across the American Church.
In the third chapter of White’s Case outlines a “Sketch of a Frame of Government,” it is declared that,
“As the churches in question extend over an immense space of country, it can never be expected, that representatives from each church should assemble in one place; it will be more convenient for them to associate in small districts, form which representatives may be sent to three different bodies, the continent being supposed divided into that number of larger districts. From these may be elected a body representing the whole.
In each smaller district, there should be elected a general vestry or convention, consisting of a convenient number (the minister to be one) from the vestry or congregation of each church, or of every two or more churches, according to their respective ability of supporting a minister. They should elect a clergyman their permanent president; who, in conjunction with other clergymen to be also appointed by the body, may exercise such powers as are purely spiritual, particularly that of admitting to the ministry; the presiding clergyman and others to be liable to be deprived for just causes, by a fair process, and under reasonable laws; meetings to be held as often as occasion may require.
The assemblies in the three larger districts may consist of a convenient number of members, sent from each of the smaller districts severally within their bounds, equally composed of clergy and laity, and voted for by those orders promiscuously; the presiding clergyman to be always one, and these bodies to meet once in every year.
The continental representative body may consist of a convenient number from each of the larger districts, formed equally of clergy and laity, and among the clergy, formed equally of presiding ministers and others; to meet statedly once in three years. The use of this and preceding representative bodies is to make such regulations, and receive appeals in such matters only, as shall be judged necessary for their continuing religious communion.” White, Case, 25
White’s plan for church union is considered in the scholarly literature to be substantially identical with the final form of the Episcopal Church’s polity. “The Constitution of the American Church to this day bears the imprint of his hand, more so than of any one man.” Walter H. Stowe, “William White: Ecclesiastical Statesman” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 22 (1953) 374. The preface of the 1954 reprint of White’s Case states, “It contains the first draft of the organization of the Church as it is today.” White, Case, 1.
One of the underlying principles of White’s Case was to limit the powers of church bodies external to the congregation. “The use of this and proceeding representative bodies is to make such regulations, and receive appeals in such matters only, as shall be judged necessary for their continuity one religious communion.” White, Case, 26.
Governing authority rested with the parish. Other authority was delegated by the parish to other bodies, e.g., a diocese or the national church. It was deemed necessary “to retain in each Church every power that need not be delegated for the good of the whole.” White, Case, 25. Thus, it was not the United States Constitution that served as a model for the Episcopal Church’s Constitution, but rather it was the Articles of Confederation which are embodied in the governing documents of ECUSA.
In the annotated 1954 edition of White’s Case the editor, Richard Solomon, cites the Articles of Confederation as the influence upon White’s thinking in this matter. Solomon cites Article 2 thereof that states, “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction and right which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” The polity of the Episcopal Church in America emulated this model of delegated powers, and not the more centralized Constitution.
White also quoted with affirmation the words of the Bishop of St Asaph, “The great art of
governing consists in not governing too much.” White, Case, 29; this is the source of Booty’s quote above. White’s concern was to protect the individual churchman from “too much” ecclesiastical legislation by setting up an elaborate system of representatives. This system was built from the local parishioner, through a series of representative bodies, to a final group continental in composition and scope.
White’s theory of Church government was based upon the governmental theories of John Locke. White was a “Lockian” as noted by Loveland. “His firm support of a contract theory of government was derived from his belief in the importance of natural as well as revealed religion.” Loveland, 9.
Sydney Temple writes, “The American Episcopal Church took its form from an outline laid down in White’s Case, which likewise found its basis in Locke’s Theory of Government.” Sydney Temple, The Common Sense Theology of Bishop White (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1946) 23. What this meant was that religious government was founded on the principle of the consent of the governed and by voluntary association rather than by autocratic rule. Spiritual order and church order were separate issues.
An Early and Practical Example of Parish Property Ownership under White’s Polity
Parenthetically, White’s views of congregational rights were not open-ended however. In 1785, White began a correspondence with the minister of King’s Chapel-Boston over that congregation’s adoption of theological innovations. During the Revolution, the rector and many of the members of King’s Chapel fled to Nova Scotia. A new congregation with a Unitarian caste of mind called James Freeman, a Harvard student, to be its lay pastor. Freeman applied to White for assistance in ordination. In support of this action, the vestry forwarded to White a copy of the congregation’s revised Book of Common Prayer.
White voiced two objections to the revisions which he found in the proposed King’s Chapel Prayer Book. One was doctrinal, and one was a matter of polity. The revised liturgy left out “every invocation of the Redeemer,” and it had made “the alterations of the liturgy a congregational act.”
White wrote, “The invoking of the Redeemer has been too conspicuous a part of our services to be set aside by some of us, consistently with any reasonable expectation of continuing of the same communion with the rest.”
The second action “was inconsistent with the whole tenor of the ecclesiastical government of the Church of England.” To leave each church to its own congregational government “would be foreign to every idea of Episcopal government, which supposes, let the authority of bishops be more or less, that the flock is under a diocesan, and not under congregational discipline. But that this can be the case, and yet each congregation be left to model its liturgy, I cannot conceive possible.”
Any such diversity was not a source of strength for White. King’s Chapel could not claim the Episcopal mantle if it adopted non-Episcopal doctrines. It must reform or leave.
If it chose to leave, White asked the congregation to vacate the King’s Chapel as it had been
established as an Episcopal congregation. To leave with the property would be a betrayal of the original intent of the founders of the parish. He acknowledged, however, that he was powerless to prevent the departure of King’s Chapel from the possession of Episcopal Church however, since legal control of the property resided with the vestry and pew-owners. White never disputed ownership of King’s Chapel (no locksmiths were sent round); yet he vigorously disputed the spiritual and doctrinal path taken by the congregation. Loveland, 162-3; See also F.W.P. Greenwood, A History of King’s Chapel (Boston: Carter, Hendee & Co., 1833).
This incident illustrates the boundaries of White’s notion of church polity and church government. Matters of doctrine and discipline were not proper matters for a congregational polity while control and disposition of physical assets, such as land and buildings, were.