November 12, 2017
When did the Episcopal Church, or the Church of England in America, get its first bishop and who was that person?
This week, on Tuesday, November 13, the Episcopal Church celebrates the Consecration of William Seabury as Bishop of Connecticut. He was elected to the chair on March 25, 1783. He was a compromise candidate and an interesting choice because he was a known loyalist, an opponent of Alexander Hamilton, and even served as a Chaplain to the "Kings Regiment" in New York City during the American revolution. He moved to Connecticut after hostilities ceased and his election occurred before the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the American Revolutionary War, was signed in September of that year.
Seabury's consecration took place in Aberdeen, Scotland. He could not be consecrated in the United States of America (at that time operating under the Articles of Confederation) because there were no English Bishops on the continent at that time. His first stop in the British Isles was London. All English bishops were required to take a loyalty oath to the King, George III in this case, so it was deemed impossible to administer the office of consecration. Until this point, Priests in the colonies were assigned and ordained by the Bishop of London, they were, in what had until this point been the colonies, under the care and guidance of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG). Many churches in the colonies, like St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Bristol, Rhode Island and St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Bedford, New York (both of which the writer has served) were founded by SPG.
Seabury was, however, able to find a set of three Bishops (the traditional minimum requirement for consecration) who were "regularly" consecrated and officially recognized, but who did not require the oath to the King. These Scottish Bishops were known as non-juring Bishops because they too would not sign the oath of allegiance to the King. They were supporters of the Stuart line of Kings who had been displaced in the early Eighteenth Century by the Hanoverians, George III's line. The non-juror clergy and Bishops of Scotland were denied their "livings" (a term associated with the income off endowments that paid the clergy and bishops from land rents) and oppressed in other ways as well.
For his consecration the Scottish Bishops, Robert Kilgour, Bishop of Aberdeen and Primus of Scotland; Arthur Petrie, Bishop of Ross and Moray; and John Skinner, coadjutor bishop of Aberdeen, Required Seabury to study and adhere to the Scottish Eucharistic liturgy which contained an Epiclesis (the moment of the Holy Spirit's call to be present in the bread and wine) which not present in the English Book of Common Prayer, 1662 ed., still the official prayer book of the English Church. The Epiclesis has been a characteristic of Episcopal Eucharists since the first BCP in 1789. Our current BCP Rite 1, Prayer 1 is closest to this original BCP prayer. On November 14, 1783 Samuel Seabury became the first Bishop for the American Church. Soon after, the English Bishops, to head of the Jacobean influence of the American Church changed their requirement of signing the oath by non-English Bishops.
The Rev. David Lucey