Thursday, July 17, 2008

Saint of the Week -- Bishop William White

We have William White to thank for so much. For the survival of the Anglican faith in the United States following the Revolutionary War. For the democratic structure of The Episcopal Church. For the insistence on democratic election of bishops by clergy and lay people combined. I suppose we might even thank him for Gene Robinson. Or the existence of the Anglican Communion.

Rev. William White, an Anglican clergyman, was one of the very few clerics in the Church of England to support the Revolutionary War. He was chaplain to the Continental Congress from 1777 to 1789, and then served as chaplain to the U.S. Senate. Anglicanism in America almost died out after the Revolution -- after all, if England was no longer in charge, what place was there for the Church of England? The number of Anglicans in the U.S. dwindled after the war to only about 10,000 members as clergy and Loyalists fled to Canada or England. Churches sat empty across the colonies. It looked like Anglicanism would perish in the new nation.

There had been no Anglican bishops in the colonies because church leaders did not want to give the colonial church that much independence and power. So the first order of business to preserve Anglicanism was to get some bishops. Samuel Seabury was the first U.S. bishop, and he was ordained in Scotland, where he would not have to take an oath swearing allegiance to the King. In 1787, William White of Pennsylvania and Samuel Provoost of New York traveled to England and were consecrated there under a new British law providing for Anglian churches in countries not ruled by England.

It then remained to create an American Anglican church. The church was named The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (to get anything even sounding like British authority out of the title). Episcopal comes from the Greek word for bishop, which showed that this would be a hierarchical church under the authority of diocesan bishops. This was the first church outside the United Kingdom to be in relationship and communion with the Church of England. It was, you might say, the beginning of the Anglican Communion.

William White established the governance of our church ... including election of bishops by clergy and lay people in a diocese. "The power of electing a superior order of ministers ought to be in the clergy and laity together, they being both interested in the choice," White wrote. (In most of the Communion, bishops are not elected, but appointed. This causes much confusion as the U.S. church tries to explain how it is that New Hampshire ended up with a gay bishop. Because the church in New Hampshire -- clergy and lay delegates -- VOTED for him!) He made sure the voices and opinions of lay people would be heard on vestries, in diocesan conventions and at the triennial General Convention of the church.

In this month when we celebrate our nation's independence from Great Britain, and when bishops from all over the Anglican Communion are gathering in England for the Lambeth Conference, it is appropriate for us to honor and celebrate dear Bishop William White, who made it possible for us to have a church that is representative of all its people, while still maintaining the ancient orders and authority of bishops, priests and deacons.

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