Bishops! Remember William White while at Lambeth

July 10, 2008

As always, July 17 is the feast day for William White, first Presiding Bishop and primary architect of the Episcopal Church's unique form of governance. This year, July 17 finds the bishops of the Episcopal Church who are attending the Lambeth Conference beginning a retreat with other Anglican bishops. As Lambeth commences, I pray our bishops remember the "wisdom, patience and a reconciling temper" of Bishop White, and call again White's vision for a church both democratic and catholic to lead Christ's church "from turmoil and confusion" into "ways of stability and peace."


There is as much turmoil and confusion today in the Episcopal Church as 220-plus years ago. For in 1782, William White proposed a form of church government as revolutionary as the new nation itself. Bishops would be chosen by ballot, and votes of the laity would be included. Further, our church would administer itself through democratic legislative conventions, both local and national. In White's vision, the new Episcopal Church would not be imposed from on high by bishops. Rather, the apostolic authority required to build a new church and provide its sacraments would rise up from the baptized through their mutual consent to have a bishop lead them.

While the crisis in the Anglican Communion is often characterized as being a dispute over homosexuality and the authority of Holy Scripture, I see it as a centuries-old debate between a monarchial administration of apostolic authority versus a democratic sharing of that authority.

William White faced many obstacles in building a national church on the democratic model. There were no bishops in the United States and no easy way to ordain one after the Revolutionary War; many Episcopalians, especially in the southern states, feared bishops as a possible return to the monarchism recently put off; and, for Samuel Seabury and the Episcopal churches in New England, for whom a democratically organized church was contrary to the apostolic nature of the Church itself, White's plan was untenable.

Seabury's response was to seek ordination as a bishop by traveling hastily to London, but the Archbishop of Canterbury refused. Bishops in Scotland accommodated and ordained Seabury, and, upon his return, he presented himself as bishop for all the United States. However, Episcopalians in the middle and southern states challenged the legitimacy of his Scottish consecration; opponents of Seabury argued that the Scottish bishops were not truly in the line of apostolic succession, and a unified Episcopal Church seemed unlikely at the dawn of 1785. In our infancy, there was schism before any hope of unity.

In 1786, White succeeded, through the rather slow mail, at negotiations with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and legislation to ordain bishops for the Episcopal Church passed Parliament. Having been duly elected by state conventions comprised of clergy and lay delegates, William White and Samuel Provost were ordained bishops in 1787 in London, making two bishops for the United States in the undisputed English line of apostolic succession. Of course, it takes three bishops to make a fourth, so what was the plan for expanding the American episcopacy? The General Convention now had to recognize and acknowledge Samuel Seabury as a legitimate bishop, or risk losing the episcopacy entirely. But, then, White had to assuage Seabury's concern that the apostolic order of bishop would not operate independently from the laity, priests and deacons in General Convention. The House of Bishops -- a distinct legislative body -- was written into the canons during the General Convention of 1789, clearing the last hurdle to Seabury's and New England's joining the new Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States.

Miraculously, by 1789, White had not only aligned the emergent Episcopal Church with the emergent democratic structure of the new United States, he also had instituted what scholars aptly describe as "democratic catholicity," which continues as part of our unique charism and offering to the global church. He brilliantly navigated the church between the Scylla of monarchical apostolic authority and the Charybdis of pluralistic democratic catholicity.

White had a developed skill way too scarce today: the ability to hold opposable ideas, like "democracy," "catholicity," and "apostolicity" in creative tension. White refused the "either-or" thinking which hinders the church in our current conflicts, and used his "wisdom, patience and reconciling temper," to show that the Episcopal Church could be "both-and." I hope our bishops will still fly this banner at Lambeth.

Critics will ask, "But Bishop White would never consent to Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as bishop, would he?" That misses my point. My guess is that White would not consent to Katharine Jefferts Schori being a bishop, much less Presiding Bishop. In his lifetime, White would not acknowledge Absalom Jones as a full and equal member of the clergy in his diocese, so I suspect that the episcopacy of Barbara Harris might confound him even more. But, the revolutionary nature incumbent in both Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori and Bishop Harris reveals the fruits of the democratic revolution that White helped midwife into the Episcopal Church more than 200 years ago. William White trusted democratic catholicity, and so should we.

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