Rev. Dr. Christopher I. Wilkins
Dear People of Christ Church:
It isn’t easy, becoming a bishop. I mean, in one way it is: three bishops lay hands upon you, utter or mutter prescribed phrases and, according to at least one old Puritan, remove your spine. Promises are made, vows taken, oaths subscribed, and all manner of new kit appears: mitre, stole, crozier, ring, cope, other cope, rochet—just as Jesus would’ve wanted. There is, now and then, great rejoicing.
Getting here took some time. The Church, as it was known in colonial times, was not only loyal to the British crown; it was a function and feature of it. Most of Britain’s North American colonies had the Church of England as the established church; only Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Rhode Island had none. North Carolina’s constitution still mandates that any public office holder or seeker not “deny the being of Almighty God,” though that clause doesn’t fly with the US Constitution, which explicitly forbids any religious test for public office.
After the colonies became these United States, established churches went the way of the blunderbuss. The Church took a nose dive, particularly where it had grown fat on compulsory tithes. One of the most significant achievements of the revolution was to disestablish religion entirely. Our fathers set as a foundational principle that no person should have to pay to support a religious creed, institution, ministry or person against his or her will. Freedom of conscience requires freedom from supporting what one does not believe in. (One notes that this applies in secular matters only to a certain extent.) Many colonial preachers understood what many of us tend to forget: both freedom and Christian duty require resistance to tyranny wherever found & whomever it threatens.
Samuel Seabury, priest and loyalist before becoming bishop (above), was not so sure about that. He was one of the most prominent voices against the colonies’ separating from Britain in what was mostly an economic dispute. Unlike most churchmen, he wrote plainly, clearly, simply and well; thus the danger. His anonymous “Farmer’s Letters” put the British case clearly before North American readers. War, discord and violence ruin farms, and whole countries; who can mend what once is so broken? Plus, trusting rebels to be loyal and rights-respecting once victorious in rebellion is an act of faith but most unwise, he reasoned. It took Alexander Hamilton, no less, to wear Seabury’s arguments down.
Disestablishment changes things. An established church is responsible to and for everyone in range. Each person within the geographic bounds of an English parish has claim on its rector or vicar for attention. Disestablish it, however, and the claim quits. The Church stops being a public utility—paid for by all, if grudgingly, and used by all, if reluctantly. We are responsible only to those who choose to make their spiritual home among us. Yet, when others ask or need…
Bishop Seabury was the first to function as a bishop under these conditions. First quite Tory but then American, and easily elected in Connecticut, he had all kind of trouble being consecrated. Anything resembling a bishop had long since abandoned these lands, and no bishop in England would consecrate or ordain anything that wouldn’t take—or had violated, as Seabury had—the oath of loyalty to the king. So Seabury went for relief, as one does when England annoys, to Scotland. The bishops there couldn’t wait, and the only deal was that the new US church use the Scottish form of the Eucharist. Sure. Non-juring bishops in Scotland—those who’d foresworn loyalty to the English crown once it ceased being worn by Gallicized Scotsmen—ordained Seabury bishop. He came back, mitre and all, and helped create The Episcopal Church.
What does a church do when it was originally set up to be something for everyone but no longer is? How do we minister to those who freely choose us when not everyone does? The short answer is by being what people need, appearing also to be what they want, and helping them choose to accept us on their own terms and on our own. One creates the conditions in which free and independent people can accept their need for and dependence on God, and not resent us if we remind them of it. We meet them where they are but encourage them—but not force them, never force them—to move forward. It takes patience and fortitude, faith and courage, and much hope. It takes something of the spirit of The Rt. Rev. Dr. Samuel Seabury, who was willing to risk life and fortune crossing a wide ocean to promise to be and do all that God would have him be and do. I’m glad he did. So is the Church of England, which, like The Episcopal Church, honors him on this day. —