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Elected Bishops in the Episcopal Church More Than 200 Years of History

Elected Bishops in the Episcopal Church More Than 200 Years of History

By Eric Davis

The process that will culminate in the election of the 11th Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Vermont is now underway. We will be following a set of practices for electing bishops that can be traced back to the very beginnings of the Episcopal Church in the United States, in the years immediately after American independence.

When the Revolutionary War came to an end, and Great Britain recognized the independence of its former North American colonies, the Anglican parishes in the new American states were in a “state of nature,” so to speak, in terms of their polity. These parishes had been outposts of the Church of England on the Atlantic seaboard and received their episcopal oversight, such as it was, from the Bishop of London. After independence, the British Crown, which held the authority of Supreme Governor of the Church of England, had no sovereign power in the new states.

The oaths of allegiance to the monarch as Supreme Governor, that were part of the ceremonies of ordaining clergy and consecrating bishops, were incompatible with the 13 new states’ status as independent republics. (Those oaths were also incompatible with Vermont’s status, from 1777 to 1791, as an independent republic. Vermont was admitted to the Union as the fourteenth state in 1791.) Thus, American Episcopalians needed to develop new models of governance that would be consistent with republican principles, while at the same time allowing them to maintain an episcopal polity, the apostolic succession, and communion with the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

These issues were very much on the minds of American Episcopalians during the 1780s, a time when new governance structures were developed both for the Church and for the nation. At the same time as the new Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States was being organized, the Articles of Confederation were being replaced by the new Constitution of the United States. Indeed, some of the laymen who were active in the organization of the new Church were also active in the political debates that culminated in ratification of the Constitution.

The Rev. William White, who was rector of both St. Peter’s and Christ Church in Philadelphia, was one of the leaders in developing new governance structures for the Episcopal Church in the United States. White served as Chaplain of the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1789, and as Chaplain of the Senate after the Constitution was ratified, so he knew most of the American political leaders of the revolutionary and early national period. White set forth his views in the 1782 pamphlet, “The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered.” In this pamphlet, White proposed that the structure of the American Episcopal Church should be organized around conventions of elected lay representatives and clergy, which would both exercise the primary legislative responsibility of the church and elect the bishops. White’s ideas provided the framework around which discussions of the organization and governance of the Episcopal Church were held for much of the 1780s.

The first constitution of the Episcopal Church was written in 1789 and incorporated many of White’s ideas. Episcopal parishes in each state would elect delegates to a state convention, which would also include all the clergy resident in the state. These state conventions would then elect both clerical and lay delegates to the General Convention. The conventions, both state and General, would be the primary authority in the Episcopal Church, approving budgets and writing and amending the constitutions and canons. Diocesan bishops would be elected by the conventions of the states making up the diocese (there were only three American dioceses in the late 18th century).

The very first Episcopal Bishop in the United States, Samuel Seabury, was consecrated in 1784 in Aberdeen by three “non-juring” bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church. This enabled Seabury to be consecrated without having to take the oath of allegiance to the Crown required as part of consecration liturgies in England. In 1786, Parliament, perhaps worried that Jacobite ideas would spread in the American church if more bishops were consecrated in Scotland (Bonnie Prince Charlie had met his final defeat at Culloden only 40 years earlier), decided to allow the Archbishop of Canterbury and other English bishops to consecrate foreign bishops without requiring the Crown oath.

Once three American bishops had been consecrated in Britain, a sufficient number of bishops were available in the United States that they could continue the apostolic succession by laying hands on newly-elected bishops, without those newly-elected to the episcopacy having to travel across the Atlantic for their consecration ceremonies.

Frederick V. Mills, a historian whose book, Bishops by Ballot, covers the material described in this article in considerable detail, notes in his conclusion that “the transference of authority in ecclesiastical affairs from king, parliament, and hierarchy” to “delegates, clerical and lay, who were designated by their fellow parishioners to represent them, was not only a return to primitive church practice but also an ecclesiastical revolution.” For the first time since early medieval Europe, the Episcopal Church in the United States became a church in the Western Christian tradition organized along episcopal lines where the choice of bishops was by election, separated from either the authority of the state or a central church hierarchy.

The process of episcopal election that will be followed in Vermont, and is used by Episcopalians in more than 100 dioceses, had its origins in, and is still not all that different from, the process set forth in the first decades of American independence. As has been the case in the Episcopal Church for 230 years, bishops are elected at conventions made up of delegates who are themselves elected by parishes and of clergy canonically resident in the diocese.

Eric Davis is a parishioner at St Stephen’s, Middlebury, and a member of the Bishop Discernment and Nominating Committee.

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