Early in the performance, the Rev’d Samuel Seabury makes an appearance on stage and sings: “Heed not the rabble who scream revolution. They’re playing a dangerous game.” Seabury was a loyalist. Seabury’s opposition to the war of Independence may partly have been in his own interest because Anglican priests were paid by the crown. Seabury happened to be the rector of St. Peter’s (then an Anglican, now an Episcopal Church) in West Chester, New York. Like Seabury, Anglican clergy serving in the colonies had to decide whether to remain loyal to the King, as they had sworn to do in their ordination vows, or support the rebels. Fifty percent of Anglican priests in the colonies left the ministry. Of the remaining fifty percent, some worked as spies for the British, and some were among our first patriots.
After the Revolutionary War, it was not surprising to find that there was a shortage of priests, and the Anglican Church in the United States was in peril. In addition, there were no American Bishops to ordain new priests. Remember, to be ordained, one had to swear allegiance to the King. Enter, stage right, Samuel Seabury, who winds up becoming the first American Bishop. Obviously, he had a change of heart after the revolution and went on to become the first Bishop of Connecticut. Seabury goes to Scotland to be consecrated because, at the time, there was a dispute between England and Scotland, and Scotland did not require Seabury to sign an oath of allegiance to the King. However, they made him promise that he would introduce, and use, the Communion Liturgy of the Church of Scotland, not of England. The Communion service we use today is highly influenced by the Church of England, but it is actually taken from the Church of Scotland. It is a bit more complicated than that, but you get the gist.
In 1789, the same year that the American Constitution was ratified, the Constitution of the Episcopal Church in the United States was ratified. It was set up in a bicameral fashion—the House of Bishops, which functions like the Senate, and the House of Deputies, made up of elected lay delegated and priests, which functions like the Congress—on its good days. There is also an executive branch in Episcopal polity. The Presiding Bishop is the rough equivalent to the President. Until the 1940, the Presiding Bishop was the most senior bishop in the House of Bishops. After 1940, the Presiding Bishop is elected by the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies.
In 1789, the church also adopted its first Book of Common Prayer which is very similar to the one we use today. It has only been revised four times in 230 years. In that first prayer book, the prayers for the king were omitted and prayers for the president and congress were added. They also added a Collect for July 4 and made it a holy day. The Episcopal Church is woven tightly to our nation’s birth and growth. More presidents have been Episcopalians than any other denomination—George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Franklin Roosevelt, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Chester Author, Gerard Ford, and George Herbert Walker Bush.
Born out the revolution, we became an establishment church for good and for bad. We are a small, but influential denomination. Our call is to continue to be a force, not just for the powerful, but for all people. We are to be a force against the racism that we ourselves have sometimes participated in. We are to be an advocate for justice, for the sick, for the poor, for the homeless, for the addicted, for the lonely, and for all those who are anxious in these uncertain times.
The apostle Paul tells us that we are to “bear one another’s burdens. To not grow weary in doing what is right.” As a nation, and as a Christian denomination, we have been given much. The evangelist Luke tells us that “to whom much is given, much is required.” So as you grill your burgers this July 4, wearing a mask and maintaining physical distance, acknowledge our failures and our need and ability to improve our justice system and foster racial healing. Be thankful to God, to Samuel Seabury, to those whose blood, sweat, and tears won and continue to sustain our freedom. Be thankful for these United States, and for the beauty and wonder of the Episcopal Church.
Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have the grace to main our liberties in righteous and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(Collect for Independence Day, BCP p. 242)
Many thanks to Adam, our volunteers, and all those who gave so generously to the Nourish NC food drive that St. Paul’s hosted (with he help of other Episcopal Churches in the area) last Wednesday-Sunday. The total weight of food collected was 3300 pounds! Click here to learn more about Nourish NC and its ministry.