Polity and prayer

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

When we extend our views beyond the bounds of Protestantism, the early fathers afford to us abundant proof of the claim of our Church to be independent on the dictation or the control of an external jurisdiction. However enormous the power, gradually acquired, of a See dominant over the whole of Christendom, there is not the shadow of a claim to it during the first three centuries. In every diocese, its interests were watched over by its own independent authorities; and although Christian communion was maintained of the churches with one another, yet it was on the ground of a common faith, departure from which was a severance from the body, independently on the control of a prelatical jurisdiction, held to be obligatory on all.

As for general councils, no such bodies were assembled until toward the end of the ages comprehended within this review, when there was held the Council of Nicea, under a perfect equality of its members, and with no distinction of any one member in preference to all the others for the sanctioning of its decrees.

To instance another point, on which there may be derived to our Church similar advantage from the same source. It is the being in possession of a prescribed form of prayer; and the not subjecting of a congregation to the discretion of every officiating minister. For this, besides our Lord’s enjoining on his disciples of the form of prayer called by his name, we think we have a warrant in his attendance, and in that of his Apostles, on the devotions of the Temple and of the synagogues. Yet it being contended, that a more spiritual worship was designed to be instituted under the Gospel, and that this is inconsistent with ritual requirements, suited to the imperfect dispensation of the Law, it sustains our cause, that we are able to produce expressions from the three earliest of the centuries, evincing that there were known in the Church what were called “common prayers,” and “constituted prayers”; and that there are remains of liturgies, although imperfect and adulterated, of the origin of which no history can be given; a ground of presumption, that the principle which gave occasion to them was in operation from the beginning. We do not allege that there was the same form of sound words obligatory in all Churches. On the contrary, we declare, in the language of our 34th Article—“It is not necessary that traditions and ceremonies be in all places one or utterly like; for at all times they have been diverse, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners; so that nothing be ordained against God’s word.” There was not effected identity of practice in this matter, until, in times far distant from the primitive, it became expedient, for the subjecting of all the Churches of Christendom to one dominant See.

From “A Pastoral Letter to the Clergy and Members of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, From the Bishops of the Same, Assembled in General Convention in the City of Philadelphia, August, 1835” (New York: The Protestant Episcopal Press, 1835); found at http://anglicanhistory.org/usa/wwhite/pastoral1835.html.

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