Guardians of the faith

Daily Reading for July 17 • William White, Bishop of Pennsylvania, 1836

This [1985] Convention has special significance, for this is the month in which we celebrate the bicentenary of the first General Convention. That small gathering in Philadelphia in September 1785 met when the very survival of Anglicanism was in doubt. Amid the turmoil of revolution, the old Church of England in the American colonies had been shattered, and many of its clergy had fled. The Philadelphia Convention was composed of clergy and laity who had supported the revolutionary cause. They set to work to fashion an independent church in an independent nation. Led by the brilliant young William White of Pennsylvania, they sought to re-form the Church with the democratic ideas of their new republic. So, in the ‘Philadelphia plan’ the Episcopal Church was to be independent of any outside authority and responsible for its own doctrine, canons and liturgy. The dioceses were to be federated under the triennial general convention. Bishops were to be elected officers working under a constitution, and the laity were to have equal voice with the clergy.

It was a scheme which accorded well with the aspirations of the independent United States, and its basic wisdom has been shown by the way it has become a model for other independent Anglican churches. But it was right for Samuel Seabury of Connecticut, then the only American bishop, to sound a word of warning. He refused to attend the Convention until the authority of bishops as guardians of the faith of the whole Catholic Church had been safeguarded. He feared that Enlightenment philosophy might separate the Convention from the body of Catholic Christianity.

When the Convention began to revise the wording of the creeds his worst fears were fulfilled, and there was danger of two Episcopal Churches. You will not mind my reminding you that the tension was eased by the counsel of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The changes in the creeds were withdrawn and in 1786 William White and Samuel Prevoost were consecrated bishops in the chapel of Lambeth Palace. A sound Anglican compromise was reached by the creation of a separate House of Bishops in the General Convention of 1789.

From “A New Presiding Bishop” in One Light for One World by Robert Runcie (SPCK, 1988).

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