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About the photograph: Stained glass window in the nave of St. Matthew’s. Photo by James Neal and one that will be included in our upcoming publication, Beauty Beyond Words: Encountering Christ through Art at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church.
The year is 1776 and you are an Anglican priest serving in the American
colonies. During the service, you come to the prayers and read the following prayer: “Almighty God, the foundation of all goodness, we humbly beseech thee to bless our gracious King George and all the royal family….” The next thing you know, a rotten egg has hit you square between the eyes.
As you would imagine, the Anglican Church was not very popular around the time of the American Revolutionary War. Many Anglican priest fled the communities where they were threatened and some were killed by the patriots for their refusal to renounce the king. However, following the war, the Anglicans looked for a way to move forward in America—the problem was bishops. It takes a bishop to ordain clergy and three bishops to consecrate a new bishop. America didn’t even have one, so the church in Connecticut began looking for ways to resolve the problem.
The first idea came from William White. He suggested we have priest ordain priest, but that idea was quickly rebuked. The next idea was to send a priest to England and have him consecrated. This was approved and Samuel Seabury set sail. He was a loyalist, so they believed that he would have a better chance of being consecrated, but when he arrived, no one would consecrate him because in order to do so for America, the consecration required that the vow of allegiance to the king be omitted, something that required an act of parliament to accomplish.
As an alternative, John Adams, the ambassador of the US to England made arrangements with the Lutheran Church of Denmark to consecrate Seabury. Thanks be to God that didn’t happen. Can you imagine me a Lutheran?! (That’s a joke.) After thirteen months of trying, Seabury petitioned the council in Connecticut for permission to try for the consecration in Scotland. The Scottish Episcopal Church had broken from the Church of England in 1725. Connecticut and the Scottish both agreed, and on November 14, 1785, Samuel Seabury was consecrated the first bishop of the Episcopal Church in America.
Later, we would have two more bishops, William White and Samuel Provost, who were consecrated in England, and in 1792, these three came together and consecrated Thomas John Clagget, the first bishop of Maryland and the first fully American bishop, and in the process united the Scottish and English lines of episcopal succession.
For Seabury, the first time he appeared in church he was fully vested in rochet, chimere, academic hood, and miter. Someone commented: “He appears in a black satin gown; white satin sleeves, white belly band, with a scarlet knapsack on his back, and something resembling a pyramid on his head.” A congregational minister noted: “His appearance is singular… It is said, he must either be greater than other men, or else he is crazy.”
The American church asked for laborers of the harvest in the form of a bishop and they received Samuel Seabury. From him, we are here. The first Bishop of Oklahoma was Francis Key Brooke, the 165th American Bishop. Our Bishop Ed is the 1,020th Bishop of the American Church.
There are many ways of understanding the roll of bishops, but for me, St. Cyprian of Carthage put it best, “‘The Church is in the bishop and the bishop in the Church.’ Put another way, there is no Church where there is no bishop.’” (Michael Azkoul) As part of my ordination to the priesthood, under oath, I was asked: “Will you respect and be guided by the pastoral direction and leadership of your bishop?” My response, “I will.” Obedience to my bishop is something I take very seriously. That said, and please don’t tell Bishop Ed I said this: the bishops are not perfect. They make mistakes like the rest of us. Some are weak and others strong. However, the bishops are a connection to the past and to Christ through the laying on of hands and the handing down of the traditions and legacy of our church; therefore, we celebrate Samuel Seabury for bringing the episcopacy to America and to us that we might worship the Lord in fullness and unity.