More on Seitz’s argument regarding historical precedence

General Convention

I posted a question about a few final points that Prof. Chris Seitz makes at the end of his essay about the ACI‘s response to the House of Bishop’s communication.

A friend and former parishioner of mine (Gavin Ferriby) has written an answer to my question (and a response to Prof. Seitz):

I deeply respect Christopher Seitz, but I think that he has trimmed the historical record too much so that it would fit into his argument.

As I have read both the sources and relevant scholarship, the Church of England in the 1780s found itself in as nearly an awkward position as the fledgling organization being set up in places like Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, at the very time when the character and polity of the United States itself was in play. It is as hazardous to justify or condemn any “mind of the house” of the House of Bishops now on the basis of decisions and negotiations in the 1780s as it is to condemn the “mind of the House” of either the chamber of U.S. Congress (regarding, say, the scope of Presidential power) on the basis of negotiations and compromises made at the constitutional convention and subsequent negotiations over the Bill of Rights.

Seitz just presses his evidence of negotiations for a “carefully redefined” polity too far: in the end, the Archbishop of Canterbury would NOT consecrate Seabury and so Seabury went to the Scots. In the 1780s the new-national Americans were trying to envisage a polity with Bishops which would differ from the English model of Bishops with temporal political responsibilities in the House of Lords –and this at a time when ecclesiastical disestablishment was by no means a done deal in the newly independent states. (Examples: the Congregational churches were obviously well established and financed in New England; the Dutch Reformed church continued to be publicly funded outside the five downstate counties of New York, and maybe within them; public financing of former Church of England parishes in other former-colonies-now-states was in play and although funds were not then currently provided, claims to funding were by no means lightly dismissed or lightly surrendered.)

In the 18th century I suspect it would have been difficult for any Archbishops of Canterbury or York to envision a proper Church of England outside the dominions of His Britannic Majesty because HRH the King was of course the Supreme Governor of the Church. James VI & I’s memorable phrase, “no bishop, no King” worked both ways. What Seabury and the American convention wanted was simply unprecedented and the legal establishment (or Establishment) in England regarded it dubiously. The spectre of “weak” constitutionally-bound Bishops would have raised for them uncomfortable memories of Civil War and various Scottish compromises under the early Stuarts, none of which endured. In the end the Archbishops in England were to say the least unenthusiastic. It is remarkable that John Henry Hobart (as skillfully delineated in Bruce Mullin’s excellent work) appealed very little to English precedent and law when he promulgated his early “high” vision of the Episcopal polity: he depended far more on the Bible and the early Fathers and a few of the “high” Caroline divines who of course could have no opinion about an American Church-of-England-like organization.

As a historian, I am deeply aware that a lot of water has flowed down the river since the founding moments of the 1780s. The Anglican Communion, whatever character is has or may have in the future, cannot be historically justified on the basis of 17th-18th century developments in polity either here or abroad. It has to have its own raison d’etre formulated in our times –expression of which will include, one hopes indeed, appeals to the example of Christian origins as well as the Protestant and Catholic reformations of the 16th and 17th centuries.

It is far more pertinent to the argument which Christopher Seitz joins that no Anglican bishops anywhere have expressly granted any primatial colloquy authority to over-rule any provincial primate even in matters of faith, morals, or order. I am sure that if, for example, the province of Australia (whatever it is called) proceeds with a robust version of lay presidency at the Holy Eucharist, other provinces may well express their vocal displeasure and discomfort. Will the Australians allow a primatial colloquy to provide alternative oversight by bishops for those Australians who might oppose such lay presidency? Has the Anglican Communion in fact shifted de facto to this primatial-conciliar vision, but not de jure? The “de jure” is a crucial move, one as yet hypothetical.


Gavin Ferriby

Gavin Ferriby, Ph.D.
Associate University Librarian and Director of the Library
Ryan-Matura Library
Sacred Heart University
5151 Park Ave.,
Fairfield, CT 06825

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. William Paul says

    The analogy at the end–the possibility of lay presidency in Australia–is, of course, disanalogous since the presenting issue is not church order alone, or sacramental theology alone, but (in the view of the conservatives) willful moral disobedience and denial of key elements of orthopraxy (to leave the issues of christology, atonement, etc.,) aside.

  2. I take your point William – but I do think it’s germane in regards that the Australian situation in terms of the polity questions of provincial relationships to each other.

  3. Obadiahslope says

    The diocese of Sydney has not proceded with lay presidency, in deference to the other members of the Anglican Communion. This decision was made at the 2004 Synod.

  4. what the ACI is saying

    Members of the Anglican Communion Institute have published several essays recently. Ephraim Radner, who also made a presentation to the House of Bishops on the Proposed Anglican Covenant published What Way Ahead? and What Way Ahead ‚Äì Part Two. Christop…

  5. Obadiah, that just means that Sydney has avoided the polity questions. If they found themselves in a position in which they had to say that the Primates either do or do not have legislative authority over the members of the Anglican Communion, how do you think they would answer? Is it appropriate to hold that the Primates can impose their plans on their churches regardless of how their people feel about the primatial plans?

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