14 November 2001

Today the calender of the Episcopal Church USA commemorates the consecration of Samuel Seabury as the first American bishop in 1784.

The early American Anglican parishes were founded as missions by the Church of England and, as such, they did not have the regular forms of episcopal oversight that were typical in England. William White who served as bishop in colonial Philadelphia provided oversight throughout the colonies, well apart from strict diocesan boundaries. By the time of the American bid for independence, it became clear that a new church structure for an American episcopal church would need to be formed.

Thus, in 1783 the clergy of Connecticut chose Samuel Seabury as another bishop for the emerging American church and sent him to London to be consecrated by the Anglican bishops. But there were two problems: the candidate was required to pledge his loyalty to the king and the law forbade the Archbishop of Canterbury to consecrate a "foreigner." Given the success of the recent American Revolution, Seabury couldn't be made a bishop.

So what did Seabury do? He went to Scotland, to the Episcopal church there, which was independent of the Crown and the state. He was consecrated as a bishop in Aberdeen in 1784 by three Scots bishops (which also resulted in the American church following the Scottish order for eucharist rather than the English).

Of course the irony is that it is the ECUSA today that refuses to comply with Lambeth and provide alternative episcopal oversight for those parishes that cannot, in good conscience, work with their own bishop--even though it was just such cross-diocesan oversight that Bishop White had provided at the origins of the American church.

Moroever, when bishops from Rwanda and South-East Asia consecrate bishops outside their own provinces in a most irregular fashion, the ECUSA complains about it as a matter of principle--even though its own first truly American bishop was consecrated in just such an irregular move.

History, of course, is full of ironies.