By Hannah Matis

It is sometimes said of the Episcopal Church that its darkest hour was its first. The eldest province in the Anglican Communion beyond the British Isles, the church in the American colonies represented the first time that the Church of England had attempted to transport and replicate itself abroad. Shorn of the traditional buildings, ancient parish boundaries, and complex social structures of ordinary village life, the Church of England in America was from the first closely allied with the governing bodies of the colonies, such as they were, and with plantation society, where the church was periodically not welcome. At the same time, the management of the church of the colonies was placed under the distant oversight of the bishop of London, followed by a series of commissaries. From the beginning, finding qualified clergy who were willing to serve in the malarial Tidewater region of Virginia, for example, was a challenge. Without real access to books, trying to curb an often-unruly society of indentured labor and younger sons on the make, negotiating the often explosive and quickly evolving religious and legal landmines posed by the baptizing and evangelizing of African slaves, all the while being paid in tobacco: doing ministry in early America was not a prospect that genuinely appealed to many. Its potential, however, was clear to some, such as John Wesley, even in the midst of his own personal failure at mission in Georgia.

Into this clerical vacuum stepped the laity, at least in certain places. One legacy of this early and chaotic phase of the church’s development, as my students note with wry amusement, is the establishment of the wide-ranging authority of the Virginia vestry, often over and against the evanescent clergy who came and went. Another, more subtle and insidious inheritance is the puzzling and slightly contradictory mixture still potent in many Episcopal congregations — it is puzzling, at least, to those who grew up either Catholic or in lower-church denominations — of a downright hierarchical sense of social class mingled with determinedly “low” theological and liturgical instincts. Infamously, everywhere in the Episcopal Church has a slightly different regional culture, of course, but for those, as on this blog, fretting about how to rebuild parishes in a post-COVID world and to foster healthier cultures of friendship and relationship in politically divided nations, this inculcated and inherited standoffishness, perhaps more than anything else in our complicated history, may represent the Episcopal Church’s greatest challenge today.

Even in the 18th century, however, the church was a complex and regional place. At the height of the Great Awakening, it would be George Whitefield’s inclusive attitude to race and evangelization, far more than his emotionalism, which alienated many in the South; more dangerous to many in established Virginia was the daunting prospect of more itinerant preaching, i.e., sans buildings, parish boundaries, and the rest of it. With historian’s hindsight, perhaps the greatest flaw in the church of the 18th century was its inherited unwillingness to allow for institutional and ministerial flexibility in the face of, say, the American frontier: Kentucky was never, ever going to look like Surrey. The church would foster many movements that would swiftly outgrow and outstrip the existing culture, as much as the structures, of their parent institution: in time the Anglicans lost both the Methodists and the African Methodist Episcopalians, and in neither case was the issue one of real and substantive theological difference.

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On this more or less rigid structure the Revolution fell like a judgment of God. For a church whose head was the monarch, and which continued to require an oath of loyalty from its clergy, the very fact of revolution itself posed highly uncomfortable questions to its clergy. Either Loyalist, or suspected of being so, many clergy and leading parishioners gave up and returned home to England. A skeleton crew remained, chiefly evangelical clergy in southern states, and the mild but redoubtable William White, bishop of Pennsylvania and chaplain to the Continental Congress, who in his time would ordain both Absalom Jones and John Henry Hobart. And of course, famously, there is Samuel Seabury, whose consecration the Episcopal Church commemorates on November 14th. But there is also the strange entente proposed to the Danish church by the Congregationalist John Adams, and never followed through. It is difficult to overstate the extent to which, in 1789, virtually anything was possible for the Episcopal Church, in terms of doctrine, polity, and liturgy. The church as yet barely had a name, and its clergy were already self-selected by the Revolution to be cut from a particular stripe — and the existence of bishops notwithstanding, they were arguably more comfortable with Locke and Thomas Paine than with Scripture and the creeds. That the church had survived the Revolution at all was largely due to the continued observance of prayer book worship in private homes, when churches were shut, empty, or abandoned.

It is an anxious time. I cannot be the only person who is reading contradicting headlines on alternate days, not least about the progress of the pandemic in the face of the onset of winter. We simply do not know what will happen next: if the pandemic is actually ending, entering a state of managed continuance, is about to flare again with the cold, or drastically mutate, in such a way that we will have to begin all over again. We do not know, entirely, what our parishioners will do next. Priests under punishing pressure to show “leadership” in uncertain times are suffering from the scale of the responsibilities they have shouldered for so long. One friend in the Church of England, where the church has been enjoined to follow rapidly changing government guidance, estimates that at the height of the pandemic he was revising his parish risk-assessment every four days. Other churches have simply not reopened at all, and if COVID remains an abiding presence for the foreseeable future, as most are predicting, it is difficult to envision circumstances in which they would. One recent editorial from an Episcopal priest described the roots of her present burnout in the nature of this very in-between space itself: too many small and divisive decisions piled one on top of another. If top-down models of leadership are faltering, there are bottom-up dilemmas as well. Volunteer burnout is no less real, and the prolonged nature of coronavirus has gone through slow-growing parish cultures of communication and cooperation like solar radiation through a coral reef. A church that relies entirely on intermittent volunteer support and on non-stipendiary help will falter when everyone, at different times, in different ways, decides to shut their doors and hibernate.

I am never certain how familiar Episcopalians are with the early story of their church, and I am as hesitant about what lessons we should learn from it, or what lessons we are tempted to learn. It is certainly possible to offer reassurance to a frightened church, at least of a certain kind: we have survived disaster before, and it is likely that we will continue to do so. But we must use our past history to hold to a kind of realism, both about our denomination and the nature of the changes which are likely ahead of us.

The Episcopal Church has always been institutionally something of a fish out of water. Neither the Congregationalist mainstream of the Northeast, nor the evangelical of the South, it was formed and shaped in one historical and cultural context and transported to another, where it was nearly destroyed forever. The Episcopal Church has rarely, if ever, been the obvious religious choice in any part of America, even Virginia once Jefferson disestablished the church there. Its membership has always been mixed, from the chaos of the 18th century through to the present day. It has in the past tended to make up for its numerical disadvantage by allying itself with established social elites, and it has historically been highly inflexible institutionally when it comes to mission. Its early growth was hindered by a lack of clergy, and its resurgence in the 19th century was marked, for better or for worse, depending on who you ask, by a triumphalist but politically quietist episcopate. At the same time, it has drawn crucial support from its lay leadership and from the structures of prayer and devotion contained in the Book of Common Prayer, and at its core liturgical revival was, no less than the evangelicals, about bringing people to Christ, and bringing Christ to the people. Cranmer’s prayer was that we should hold on only to those things which are good in the past, trusting in the power of God to bring about a new future. This historian’s prayer is for discernment in the coming days, weeks, and months, that we come to understand which are the things we should carry forward with us, treasures new and old.

About The Author

Hannah W. Matis is an associate professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary. She is a graduate of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of The Song of Songs in the Early Middle Ages. She is an avid amateur singer, particularly of early music, and can be relied upon to promote the causes of good Latin, good literature, good food, and good company.

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Andrew Mead
1 month ago

Dear Professor Matis: Thank you for this excellent article. I remember reading from George DeMille’s classic “The Catholic Movement in the American Episcopal Church” the chapter entitled, “A Church in Ruins” concerning the immediate post-Revolutionary years. One other delight I discovered over fifty years ago while doing my Oxford thesis on Newman and the Tractarians in re the Development of Doctrine: I came upon an essay by the then-Anglican JHN entitled “The Anglo-American Church.” It was inspired by his meeting the young Bishop Hobart during Hobart’s trip to the UK to meet the Tractarian leaders. It was very hopeful about… Read more »

Paul Zahl
1 month ago

There is an undertone of reverse “class-ism” in this post, well and heuristically written as it is. There is also an explicit linkage of “low-church” Episcopalianism with a sort of religious indifference that supposedly characterized the Church during its inception. Individuals like Martha Washington, together with many others of her generation, are evidence for another view. Moreover, and incidentally, the number of low-church/Morning Prayer Episcopal parishes on the ground today is quite minuscule.

James Horn
1 month ago

How in the world can you keep up with all of this. You could read on and on forever and still not complete it all. History of Episcopal Church is incredible.