Useful clergy

Daily Reading for November 13 • Samuel Seabury, First American Bishop, 1796 (transferred)

Seabury was a hard-working bishop, in marked contrast to some others of his day in England and America. He was also a straightforward man, who could observe with regard to confirmation that “it is unreasonable to expect that people should comply with a rite before they are convinced of their obligation to do so.” Accordingly, his view of the compleat clergyman was highly pragmatic; his most commonly employed adjective with regard to them is “useful.” In his first charge to the clergy, when discussing qualifications for candidates, he makes his point unforgettably: “By qualifications, I mean not so much literary accomplishments, though these are not to be neglected, as aptitude for the work of the ministry. You must be sensible that a man may have, and deservedly have, an irreproachable moral character, and be endued with pious and devout affections, and a competent share of human learning, and yet, from want of prudence, or from deficiency in temper, or some singularity in disposition, may not be calculated to make a good Clergyman; for to be a good Clergyman implies, among other things, that a man be a useful one. A clergyman who does no good, always does hurt: There is no medium.”

Seabury has an idea of which personal characteristics promise usefulness: “good temper, prudence, diligence, capacity and aptitude to teach,” and confesses himself countercultural in emphasizing these gifts. Other pragmatic concerns were “their personal appearance, voice, manner, clearness of expression, and facility of communicating their sentiments,” again implying that this is a higher standard than was usually applied. He has no interest in perpetuating the English custom of sending the less promising sons of wealthy families into the church. He is determined to do as careful a job of discernment at the beginning of the journey towards ordination as he can, for “it is always easier to keep such persons out of the ministry, than to get rid of them when once admitted.”

There was a point to this concern for practicality; it was not an abstract passion for good order or an obsessive task-orientation. When Seabury wrote that the clergy exist for the sake of the laity, he meant just that. For Seabury, “hierarchy” was totally a pragmatic concept. Thus clergy were to be useful so that the whole church would grow in holiness.

From One, Catholic, and Apostolic: Samuel Seabury and the Early Episcopal Church by Paul Victor Marshall. Copyright © 2004. Used by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY.

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