Our first Presiding Bishop

The 17th is William White’s feast day. He was our first Presiding Bishop. Joseph Packard tells this story about Bishops White and Meade:

White was of a timid, gentle disposition. He did not always call things by their simple names, but used circumlocutions, speaking of Satan as that personage. Bishop Meade once preached in his church, and by his strong, plain language made the people tremble, and Bishop White told him in the vestry-room they were not used to that sort of preaching.

Packard, Reflection of a Long Life 1812-1902, Byron S. Adams, Publisher, Washington, D.C., 1902.

.The Rev. Timothy B. Safford’s homage to William White shows us that when times required, White could be something other than timid or gentle:

In his revolutionary and incendiary pamphlet, The Case of the Episcopal Church in the United States Considered, White proposed that each new state (we would say diocese) choose its own bishop by ballot, and that the ballots be cast by both clergy and laity. Further, each state would send clergy and lay delegates to a convention where a constitution would be ratified that would bind all the separate states/dioceses into one Episcopal Church.

Born and educated in the democratic cauldron of Philadelphia, White did not object to the role of bishops elsewhere, but believed the new American church had an opportunity to return to its primitive roots when, before Constantine, the laity participated in the selection of their bishop, and before 1066, when the power of a bishop was not an extension of the power of the state. For the New England states, White’s new democratic Catholicism went too far.

In time, William White’s “patience, wisdom and reconciling temper” helped effect every compromise needed to satisfy Connecticut while keeping the other states content. Finally, in July 1789, with William White presiding at General Convention without Bishop Seabury or Connecticut present, the compromise was brokered, allowing a separate House of Bishops that could veto the actions of the House of Deputies. The convention adjourned until Bishop Seabury could join a month later, at which time Seabury became the second Presiding Bishop.

One other very significant compromise was offered: Connecticut was allowed to keep its own rules on bishops’ elections without lay votes, and that diocese was permitted to not have lay members in its delegation to General Convention.

Read it all in The Living Church.

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