Elbridge Gerry, Rufus King, William Samuel Johnson, David Brearly, Robert Morris, James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris, George Clymer, John Dickinson, George Read, Luther Martin, John Francis Mercer, Daniel of St Thomas Jennifer, George Mason, Edmund Jennings, George Wythe, William Blount, Richard Dobbs, John Rutledge, Pierce Butler, Charles Pinckney III, William Leigh Pierce, William Houstoun, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, George Washington.
Each one of those persons had something in common with us. All of them were Anglicans, at the time members of the Church of England, and later on after its institution in 1789, members of The Episcopal Church. Like us, each of those American patriots worshipped with the Book of Common Prayer, cared for their church–and they, like us, loved liberty.
A total of 26 of the 55 Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia were Anglicans. But even better, 18 out of 39 who signed the Declaration of Independence were like us, Anglicans. Each one of them risked his life by putting his signature on that document.
Yes, I know that there were also nine Presbyterians, seven Congregationalists,
two Roman Catholics, two Dutch Reformed, two Methodists, a couple of Quakers, and a couple of Deists. It’s funny that there were no Baptists, who now claim to be the most patriotic.
I am sure that you know that for those 26 Anglicans, members of the Church of England, it was not an easy thing to be an American patriot and to favor independence. But it was especially hard for the Anglican clergy, who at their ordination had been required to swear allegiance to the King.
Our Book of Common Prayer today offers prayers for our Presiden,t but in those days it offered prayers for the King.
Not only that, but it actually beseeched God “to be his defender and keeper, giving him victory over all his enemies.”
At the time of the Declaration of Independence the Anglican Church was the established church in six British colonies of America: Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and several counties in New York, and during the late colonial era, there were also Anglican congregations in other colonies.
But at the time there was not a single bishop in America. If you wanted to be ordained you had to make the dangerous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, and if you survived then you had to find yourself a bishop to ordain you in the Mother Country.
One of the reasons why the Episcopal laity have so much influence in our church today is a direct inheritance from our past. The laity contracted the priests and kept the churches open when there were no priests to be found, and many times finding a clergy person willing to work in America was very hard.
It was not until 1749 that the College of Philadelphia was founded; now we call it the University of Philadelphia. Then in 1754 King’s College was founded, and we call it today Columbia University. These provided within their higher education curriculum an opportunity for clergy to be trained in America. But in any case, after you finished your studies you still had to cross the Atlantic Ocean to be ordained.
But the reality was that due to the lack of bishops and training places the American colonists depended mainly on clergy who were born and educated in Great Britain.
You can understand how this influenced our church during the Revolutionary War. In many ways the Anglican Church in America was at war within its ranks. You could say that we were in a deep crisis.
In the area of New England and the middle colonies, where we were a minority and where our church had strong connections to England, the priests were mostly loyalist. But that was not the case in other colonies; in Virginia, for example, many of our clergy were ardent supporters of independence. The records show that between 1775 and 1783 of the Anglican clergy residing in what became the United States of America, 123 were loyalist, 88 supported the American Revolution–and in typical Anglican style 107 worked very hard to appear to be neutral. Actually, many of those neutral priests had no chance to show their sympathy for independence, because they were in areas controlled by the British; but they managed either to close their churches or fudge with the liturgy, eliminating the prayers for the King to destroy its enemies.
With the passing of time ,as our independence became apparent, Anglican ministers who had remained in the colonies began to envision an independent American church.
Some changes were made to the Book of Common Prayer to adapt and be compatible with our rising democratic nation that was to be called the United States of America.
You can see today in our General Convention the influence of the people who drafted the form of our secular government, because they were the same people who drafted the form of our ecclesiastical government. Checks and balances were instituted, the notion of archbishops was eliminated, and the power of the laity in the life of the church was preserved.
Many years have passed since those days when the architects of this great country, who were also the architects of our church, strove to plant a new nation and a new American church. They knew that they were not forming a perfect system, but they left the space for that system to be perfected along the way. Freedom was their legacy and they tinkered to give us a form of ecclesiastical government where all–laity, bishops, priests and deacons–were to have full participation in its government.
That is why I am so concerned with the proposed scheme that foreign prelates are proposing in the Anglican Covenant that will surely limit our freedom as an American church.
Since 1789 the Episcopal Church has governed itself without the need of foreign intervention.
I have already participated in three Lambeth Conferences—1988, 1998 and 2008–where Anglican bishops from all around the world meet in England for a month with the Archbishop of Canterbury; and in each of those conferences I have witnessed how foreign prelates put down our unique American form of government, in which bishops and archbishops are not omnipotent, but have to share their decision making with the clergy and laity.
In recent years those same prelates have been attempting to find ways to adapt and to conform our democratic system of government to their hierarchical, top-heavy ways.
It’s difficult for some of them to understand that in our American church bishops are not almighty and that clergy don’t have the last word in their churches, even if they try.
I pray that we will always strive very hard to preserve the freedom of our country and our church that so many Episcopalians in the past sacrificed to give to us.
Our America today is indeed quite different from the America of the 18th Century, but this wonderful union that we call the United States of America needs to continue trusting in God in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us.
For 235 years the torch of freedom has been lit and the world has seen it as a source of hope and liberty. Many like me have come out of darkness to imbibe for ourselves the sweet potion of freedom. I pray that we as Americans, as Christians and Episcopalians, will always have the grace and the courage to maintain and preserve the gift of liberty in our country and in our church.