Our Unity in Christ
In Support of the Anglican Covenant
An Apologetic Series

By Robert W. Prichard

The response of many Episcopalians to the proposed Anglican Covenant is based in part upon a historical reconstruction about the relationship of the Episcopal Church to the Church of England. According to this reconstruction Episcopalians sought and gained their independence from the Church of England during the American Revolution. The Church of England, however, adopted a strategy to undermine this hard-won independence: it created the Anglican Communion as a means of control.

Jack Miles, a columnist and author of popular religious works such as God: A Biography, is a leading advocate of this reconstruction. In a widely-read op-ed article in the New York Times, he explained that “after the newborn United States broke with the crown in the political realm, the Church of England in the United States did so in the religious realm as well, establishing a democratic form of self-governance under a ‘presiding bishop,’ whose title echoed that of the chief executive of the new nation” (“A Divorce the Church Should Smile Upon,” March 22, 2007).


According to Miles the Anglican Communion was “a religious multinational,” created by a “quasi-colonial, quasi-papal figurehead” (the Archbishop of Canterbury) who sought to exercise “a global spiritual jurisdiction” over former colonies. Given this reconstruction, it is not a big step to characterize the Anglican Covenant as one among many attempts by the Church of England to exercise control over the Episcopal Church. Resistance to such control can be seen in this light as yet another attempt to preserve American independence from English aggression.

There are problems with this historical reconstruction, however. It misstates both the attitudes of the Church of England and the Episcopal Church after the American Revolution, and the impetus for the formation of the Anglican Communion. To state the case in blank terms: the Episcopal Church did find itself with an independent status as a result of the American Revolution, but the Americans were far more anxious to maintain connections with the English than were the English in preserving ties with the former colonial church. Further, the origin of an Anglican Communion lies not at the revolution or its immediate aftermath but in the decades in the middle of the 19th century, and if any single national church is to be blamed (or credited) for the creation of the Communion, it is certainly not the Church of England. On the contrary, it was the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America that had played that role.

Former colonial Anglicans of the 1780s understood — and the supporters of the historical reconstruction under examination here do have this point exactly right — that the English claim that the Church of England was a national church over which the monarch served as supreme governor gave ecclesiastical consequences to American Independence: Americans who had been members of the Colonial Anglican Church were no longer under the jurisdiction of the Church of England. Former members of the Church of England were acutely aware, however, of the disadvantages that flowed from independence: they lost connection to bishops in apostolic succession, a reliable source of missionary clergy, salaries and other financial aid from three British missionary organizations, the leadership and direction that came from England, and the considerable prestige that came from attachment to the Anglican church in the British Isles.

The former colonial Anglicans in America of the 1780s, the decade in which the Episcopal Church was organized, occupied themselves with various strategies to maintain at least some connections with the Church of England. On a popular level they continued to use the sobriquet “churchman” (i.e., a member of the Church of England) — a designation that would remain common until concerns about inclusive language finally brought an end to its use 200 years later. They wrote to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York expressing their continuing affection. In at least the case of first bishop Samuel Seabury, an American got around the limitation of English missionary salaries to those serving in British colonial territory by applying for and receiving a pension for service to the British military during the revolution. In the hope that the revolution would not permanently end the flow of clergy from England to the United States, they also adopted a provision in their constitution acknowledging that clergy ordained by “foreign bishops,” that is, bishops of the Church of England, were validly ordained and could serve in the United States (Constitution of 1789, article 7).

Even after the War of 1812 pitted the Americans and English against one another once again, the General Convention continued to pour out statements about the close relationship of the two church bodies. The Convention of 1814 — in a resolution that long time Presiding Bishop William White thought significant enough to call attention to in his Memoirs of the Protestant Episcopal Church (1880) — wrote that “‘the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America’ is the same body heretofore known in these states by the name of ‘the Church of England’; the change of name, though not of religious principle, in doctrine, or in worship, or in discipline, being induced by a characteristic of the Church of England, supposing the independence of Christian Churches, under the different sovereignties, to which, respectively, their allegiances in civil concerns belongs. But that when the severance alluded to took place, and ever since, this Church conceives of herself, as professing and acting on the principles of the Church of England, is evident from the organization of our conventions, and from their subsequent proceedings, as recorded on the journals; to which, accordingly, this convention refers for satisfaction in the premises.” The convoluted syntax of the resolution suggests that the usually verbose Bishop White was the author of the resolution.

One can look in vain at the Church of England during this period for similar declarations of continuing affinity to the Episcopal Church in the United States. The Archbishop of Canterbury during the revolution was Frederick Corwallis, and he had reasons not to embrace ties with the Americans. His nephew commanded the British troops that surrendered in Yorktown in 1781. The act by which the British Parliament belatedly allowed for the consecration of three bishops for the American Church included a specific provision that made it clear that the American acceptance of clergy with British ordination would not be reversed. The act included the following provision:

Be it hereby declared, that no person or persons consecrated to the office of a Bishop in the manner aforesaid, nor any person or persons deriving their consecration from or under any Bishop so consecrated, nor any person or persons admitted to the Order of Deacon or Priest by any Bishop or Bishops so consecrated, shall be thereby enabled to exercise his or their respective office or offices within his majesty’s Dominions (see William Stevens Perry, Bishops of the American Church Past and Present [1897], p. xxxix).

Whatever their historic connection, the British saw no need to affirm the American claim to continue in the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church of England.

To find the beginnings of the Anglican Communion, one has to fast forward to 1838 and the efforts of two bishops who were desirous of a closer relationship between the Church of England and the Episcopal Church. The two bishops were Americans John Henry Hopkins of Vermont and Charles Pettit McIlvaine of Ohio. They represented different church parties. McIlvaine was a leading evangelical clergyman, and Hopkins was a leader of the old (i.e., pre-Oxford Movement) high church party. They shared, however, an appreciation for the practical and polemical value of asserting connections to the church in the British Isles.

McIlvaine, like many American bishops, recognized the potential for raising funds in the U.K. for American Church projects. In addition to serving as Bishop of Ohio, he was also president of the seminary at Kenyon College (Bexley Hall). He had spent the nine months from November 1834 to July 1835 on a fund raising tour for the school in the British Isles (see Richard M. Spielmann, Bexley Hall: 150 Years, a Brief History [1974], p. 21). He knew the value of English connections from a monetary point of view.

Hopkins’s interest was polemical more than monetary. By 1838 he was locked in a pamphlet war with senior Roman Catholic prelate Francis Patrick Kenrick (Bishop coadjutor of Philadelphia, 1830-42; Bishop of Philadelphia, 1842-51; Archbishop of Baltimore, 1851-63). Hopkins had written a book in 1835 entitled The Primitive Church in which he argued that the Episcopal Church more closely resembled the early Church than did the Roman Catholic Church or any Protestant body. Part of Hopkins’s claim was that the primitive Church was divided into patriarchies and governed by general councils in which bishops met as equals. The Roman Catholic Church, Hopkins suggested, undermined this “Scriptural order” by assuming “the form of iron supremacy,” but “through the good Providence of God” the Church of England was able to retain the earlier form of organization (pp. 192-93). Kenrick criticized Hopkins’s volume and the two began a literary debate (Kenrick declined Hopkins’s invitation to a public debate) that would occupy both men for the remainder of their lives (see further Robert W. Prichard, A History of the Episcopal Church, rev. edn. [1999], pp. 139-40).

There was a flaw in Hopkins’s argument about primitive Church order and the Church of England. The claim that the Church of England had preserved the order of the 4th-century Church rested on very weak ground. The bishops of the Church of England of the 1830s neither met in council with bishops of other patriarchies nor met among themselves; indeed, the convocations of Canterbury and York had not met since 1717, when they were suspended by King George I. Bishop Hopkins must have been aware of the weakness of his argument.

When the General Convention met in 1838, it was McIlvaine who suggested a concrete way to clarify the relationships among churches related to the Church of England. He asked to investigate contacting “the foreign Protestant Episcopal churches.” A committee, composed of McIlvaine, Hopkins, and Nathaniel Bowen of South Carolina was appointed to consider this possibility. The committee decided to ask the then Presiding Bishop Alexander Griswold (1836-43) to communicate with the Archbishops of Canterbury and Armagh, and the Primus of Scotland. The resolution was adopted (see Journal of the General Convention [1838], pp. 93-95).

The church in the British Isles was in no position in 1838 to make any concrete response to the American inquiries, coping as it was with the Earl Grey’s Reformed Act of 1832 by which Parliament reduced the number of dioceses and limited the privileges of the Anglican church. The Americans were not deterred by lack of action, however. At the next meeting of the General Convention in 1841 American Episcopalians took a simple but significant action. They changed the references in the constitution to ordination by foreign bishops to read “Bishops in communion.” Even without any action on the British part, the Americans pushed ahead with the idea that a communion existed among bishops in the various churches that could trace their lineage to the Church of England.

In the 1840s one finds the first known reference to the “Anglican Church” as a descriptor of the worldwide body of churches related to the Church of England. Contemporary historian Colin Podmore has called attention to a letter from Horatio Southgate, the Episcopal Church’s “Missionary Bishop in the Dominions and Dependencies of the Sultan of Turkey.” Writing in November of 1847, Southgate shared his plans for a book about the “Anglican Church” (Podmore, Aspects of Anglican Identity [2005], p. 36). The book of which he spoke in the letter appeared two years later as A Treatise on the Antiquity, Doctrine, Ministry, and Worship of the Anglican Church. (Podmore notes that the term “Anglican Church” had been used earlier in the 19th century but only as a synonym for English Church.)

The 1849 Episcopal Church Almanac began to carry a listing of bishops in the various British and Colonial Anglican churches, with American bishops as a subsection of that longer listing. The initial title to this listing was “Bishops of the Reformed Branch of the Church.” In 1870 that title was changed to read “Bishops in the Anglican Communion.”

The members of the American House of Bishops continued their call for some kind of meeting among the bishops of the Communion. Hopkins, an increasingly senior bishop who would ultimately serve as presiding bishop (1865-68), took the lead, writing an open letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1851 asking for “communion in the primitive style, by meeting in the good old fashion of synodical action.” In 1853 Bishop of Montreal Francis Fulford added his own support to the American request while preaching at the consecration of Horatio Potter of New York.

When Americans considered the matter again at the 1854 General Convention they had yet another reason for concern: the danger of overlapping jurisdictions in the mission field. By that point the Episcopal Church and the Church of England were both appointing missionary bishops for China, and the members of the General Convention feared that a lack of coordination among the various Anglican bishops would lead to competition and unnecessary duplication of efforts (see Journal of the General Convention [1854], pp. 335-56).

Still lacking a response in 1859, the House of Bishops repeated its request for a gathering of some kind. In this case, the Americans were quite frank about one of the major problems (in their view) with the status quo, namely, the lack of interchangeability of clergy. While Americans recognized the ordination of those from elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, the favor had not yet been returned; the British continued to deny recognition of clergy ordained by American bishops. The American bishops complained: “Every Clergyman desiring to leave the jurisdiction of one Bishop for that of another, is bound to obtain a Letter Dimissory, in regular form. Such we presumed would be the invariable practice of [every church] … in accordance with the fixed rule of the Catholic Church, in all ages. The Bishops of [the Anglican Church in its several provinces], however, have not yet extended this whole rule to their Brethren [in the United States]” (Journal of the General Convention [1859], p. 200).

The Canadian General Synod, meeting in the fall of 1861, seconded the call for a gathering of some kind, and communicated that desire to the American church in a letter read at the General Convention of 1862 (see Journal of the General Convention [1862], p. 345). Americans were by that point distracted from their efforts for Anglican cooperation by the American Civil War. The English, however, were finally in a position to take action. During the 1850s the Church of England took the step that was a precondition to any gathering of the bishops of churches to which they had some connection: the Convocation of Canterbury resumed its meetings in 1854, and that of York followed suit in 1859.

A fight in the colonial church in South Africa in 1863 between Archbishop Robert Gray of Cape Town and Bishop John Colenso of Natal over Colenso’s liberal biblical interpretation and innovative missionary strategy reached a standstill when the English Privy Council ruled that Gray had no authority over Colenso. The outrage and frustration expressed by bishops in the Communion at large — bishops who were overwhelming opposed to Colenso’s innovations — finally led Archbishop Charles Thomas Longley to summon the Lambeth Conference of 1867, the first official gathering of one of what are currently called the instruments of communion of the Anglican Communion.

The gathering adopted a series of resolutions that gave the Americans the assurance that they had finally been heard. Resolution 2 provided for letters of transfer for clergy and laity seeking to move among the various Anglican provinces. Resolution 4 adopted the principle of government that Hopkins had declared to be basic to Anglicanism: “the subordination of the synods … to the higher authority of a synod or synods above them.” Resolution 6, which expressed the widely held feeling of injury by the “present condition of the Church in Natal,” identified the persons gathered at Lambeth as the bishops of the “Anglican Communion.” Resolution 9 called for the creation of “a voluntary spiritual tribunal, to which questions of doctrine may be carried by appeal from the tribunals … in each province of the colonial Church.”

There may be good reasons for opposing the adoption of the proposed Anglican Covenant but an appeal to the perpetual independence of the Episcopal Church and a characterization of the Anglican Communion as an incursion of ambitious archbishops of Canterbury seeking to snare unsuspecting Americans certainly is not one of them. On the contrary, American Episcopalians should look with pride on the role that they have played in the creation of the Anglican Communion. The repeated American initiatives over the middle decades of the 19th century have much to do with the existence of the Anglican Communion. And the idea that Anglican Communion bodies might be appropriate fora in which to discuss matters of common theological concern is hardly a new concept created in order to combat American views on sexuality; it was an idea already present in the thinking of some American Episcopalians well before the first gathering of the Lambeth Conference in 1867.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Prichard is a professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary, and currently serves as president of the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church. The featured image was taken by Scott Gunn of ACNS at the 2008 Lambeth Conference, and is licensed under Creative Commons. 

The Living Church launched Our Unity in Christ, a series of essays supporting the proposed Anglican Covenant, in February 2011. An introduction and complete index to the series are available here.

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