The Episcopal Church played an important part in laying the groundwork for global Anglicanism when it sent Samuel Seabury to the British Isles in 1784 to be consecrated. Bishops in the Church of England, however, thwarted Seabury's mission when he reached London.
The English church, standing firm in its post-Reformation ideals, insisted he swear an oath of allegiance to the king. Such an oath would have contravened America's Declaration of Independence, perhaps not the best way for Seabury to begin his tenure as the first Episcopal bishop of Connecticut and the Episcopal Church.
Instead, he took to the road, traveling 400 miles north to Scotland. There the Episcopal Church in Aberdeen and Orkney gladly assisted his consecration, and with a more workable condition -- that he promote the Scottish Prayer Book back on American soil.
This milestone is often heralded by scholars as the main catalyst, if not the onset, of what eventually would become known as the Anglican Communion. Today, the communion encompasses 38 autonomous provinces with 77 million Anglicans in 164 countries worldwide.
As the communion grew geographically and numerically, largely through the missionary movement, many more-complex cultural and contextual issues came into play. Other than in its prayer book, the Anglican Communion staved off making any foundational declaration until the 1888 Lambeth Conference endorsed the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, originally adopted by the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops in 1886.
The Quadrilateral named four principles of Anglicanism: the Holy Scriptures, as containing all things necessary to salvation; the creeds -- specifically, the Apostles' and Nicene creeds -- as the sufficient statement of Christian faith; the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion; and the historic episcopate, locally adapted. (A U.S. Episcopal priest, William Reed Huntington, is credited with proposing the four elements in an 1870 essay.)
Changing through time
The global communion has undergone growth, decline, revolution and reevaluation, but for many Anglicans the bonds of affection, partnerships and commitment to global mission have formed its bedrock.
The Lambeth Conference, the decennial gathering of Anglican bishops, was never empowered with any real legislative function, but it soon became the closest thing to an authoritative body that the communion ever experienced. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, in his letter of invitation to the 2008 Lambeth Conference, reminded bishops that the conference "has no 'constitution' or formal powers; it is not a formal synod or council of the bishops of the communion."
During the 20th century, several landmark events gave rise to the need for collegiality throughout the worldwide body of Anglican churches and underscored the Episcopal Church's commitment to the Anglican Communion, as it now was commonly known.
In Minneapolis in 1954, the second Anglican Congress -- the first was held in London in 1909 -- saw the adoption of the communion's official symbol, the Compass Rose, designed by Canon Ed West from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.
In 1957, at an Anglican Assembly in Canada, Olympia Bishop Stephen Bayne was named the first executive officer of the Anglican Communion, a position that later became known as secretary general.
Bayne attempted to promote equal partnership of all Anglican provinces and move away from the colonial past. He insisted that the church's mission in the world should not be associated exclusively with any one province.
Through the mid-20th century, the earlier "missionary districts" of the Episcopal Church in countries such as Brazil, Liberia, Mexico and the Philippines began to assume self-governance. A parallel "radical reorientation," as it is described by scholars, was happening with churches in African and Asian countries that had been colonized by the Church of England. This period redefined the nature of autonomy and interdependence throughout the communion.
Although the Episcopal Church had established some churches and played an integral part in their mission and growth, these provinces had taken on personalities of their own. This led to greater cultural relevance and certitude in their local contexts and mapped the way for a more culturally and theologically diverse communion.
But the Episcopal Church continues its commitment to the mission of those provinces today, as well as in many other regions throughout the world, through covenants, companion diocese relationships, missionary placement, and development programs run by Episcopal Relief and Development.