White’s Proposed Episcopate

the Most Reverend William White

My earlier post explored the implications of “circumstance clause” as found in the 1789 American Prayer Book’s preface. The Reverends White and Smith articulated a majority opinion where ‘circumstance’ meant adopting a classically low church position, favoring the “1689 proposed version” over the 1662 as America’s gold standard after rebellion from Britain. New Englanders held the minority (conservative) view, represented by the Rt. Rev. Seabury, who believed no change necessary other than the minimal omission of state prayers. How far the American Revolution would change Anglicanism was elaborated upon by William White in 1782. White’s Case of Episcopal Churches circulated as a tract asking Anglicans to consider a church organized by Whig rather than Prelatic principles– an American peculiarism if you will. Of particular interest was White’s suggestion that under certain circumstances laymen might ordain clergy if not form an irregular episcopate.

Natural Right Principles
White’s argument begins with certain principles foundational to the Revolution. It is telling these principles are taken from natural law which was especially vogue amongst Enlightenment thinkers. First, according to White, natural law requires men to live in peace with their neighbor. Therefore, state favoritism and legal advantages received either by Crown or state should end. Any continuance of such, says White, invites public anger and the ‘danger of a foreign jurisdiction’ against American sovereignty. By the same vein of thought church membership cannot be compulsory. White believes men must be free to make moral choices, adding another argument for disestablishment or what White calls a “leveled church”.   White’s next question is how Anglicans might form an independent church given the ‘chain of establishement’ is broken,

“All former jurisdiction over the churches being thus withdrawn, and the chain which held them together broken, it would seem, that their future continuance can be provided for only by voluntary associations for union and good government. It is therefore of the utmost consequence to discover and ascertain the principles, on which such associations should be framed.”

What follows is a flushing out of how ‘voluntary association’ (contractual rights) of parishes might form an ecclesiastical polity.  The assumption is (considering the long absence of discipline in America) such voluntary associations are diverse, and therefore their union would require a lower context for faith and order. White’s first proposal is the Liturgy be revamped to incorporate a wide range of protestant churchmanship. White also asks for weaker subscription standards, recommending the Thirty-nine articles require an acknowledgment of their historical veracity rather than their intrinsic truth. Meanwhile, White hoped to reduce prelacy by containing bishops to small districts if not single cures. White’s polity is more presbyterian in nature reasoned by previous absence of  bishops in the colonies and the habit that grew thereof,

“In England, dioceses having been formed before parishes, a church supposes one common flock, subject to a bishop and sundry collegiate presbyters; without the idea of its being necessarily divided into smaller communities connected with their respective parochial clergy; the latter having been introduced some considerable time after the conversion of the nation to the christian faith. One natural consequence of this distinction, will be to retain in each church every power that need not be delegated for the good of the whole. Another, will be an equality of the churches; and not, as in England, the subjection of all parish churches to their respective cathedrals.”

In a somewhat Republican fashion, White substitutes the ‘church-at-large’ for Crown, the lay voice being no longer royal but now vestrymen and doctors, namely the nation (what later would become the house of deputies). The 39 Articles also would be broadened to their “leading sense; which is here proposed rather as a chain of union, than for exacting entire uniformity of sentiment.” And while the 1689 liturgy would later be proposed for worship, White warns of excessive changes, “But it ought to be used with great moderation; otherwise the communion will become divided into an infinite number of smaller ones, all differing from one another and from that in England”.

England is still the touchstone. And the peculiar reasons why White and other freemen would preserve this aspect of Anglicanism is one part habit the other conviction, “IT may be presumed, that the members of the episcopal churches, some from conviction, and others from the influence of ancient habits, entertain a preference for their own communion; and that accordingly they are not a little anxious, to see some speedy and decisive measures adopted for its continuance.” Even for a low churchman like White, the episcopacy was an indispensable connection to the mother church. White called it, “a leading characteristic of the communion”. At this point White describes a church that is latitudinarian in doctrine and liturgy with a titular episcopate otherwise run along presbyterian lines.

Irregular Episcopacy:

White abandons thoughts of London consecrating an American bishop. However, this would not stop laity from ordering priests and thus bishops in extremis.  White quotes Cranmer’s disputation,

“In the reign of Henry VIII. according to Bishop Burnet, there were proposed by the King, to this great man, in conjunction with other learned divines, certain questions, among which are the two following, with the Arch-bishop’s answers annexed: Question. Whether if it fortuned a Prince christian, to conquer certain dominions of infidels, having none but the temporal learned men with him, it be defended by God’s law, that he and they should preach the word of God there or no, and also make and constitute priests there or no? Answer. It is not against God’s law; but contrariwise they ought indeed so to do; and there be histories that witness, that some christian princes and other laymen have done the same. Question. Whether it be defended by God’s law, that if it so fortuned that all the bishops and priests of a region were dead; and that the word of God should remain there unpreached; and the sacrament of baptism and others unministered; that the King of that region should make bishops and priests to supply the same or no? Answer. It is not forbidden by God’s law. [History of the Reformation, anno 1540. Stillingfleet, with less appearance of authenticity, says it was in the reign of Edward VI.]…Now every circumstance in the cases supposed makes the principle apply, with the greater force, to that now under consideration. If a Christian king may on an emergency constitute a bishop, much more may the whole body of the churches interested; especially when they interfere not thereby with the civil magistrate. If a prince would be justifiable in taking such a step, rather than have recourse to the spiritual authority of some neighbouring and allied kingdom, much more would we, who labour under peculiar political difficulties. If it were commendable on the mere hope of [32/33] converting infidels to the christian faith, it would be more so, for the purpose of maintaining the principles of christian knowledge and practice, among those who are already of the number of its professors. If a prince ought to do this from concern for the spiritual welfare of his subjects, much rather ought we, for that of ourselves and our children.”

If the whole can act in place of the prince, then a conditional ordination could be had for a time for the sake of common good:

” if such as have been above recommended should be adopted, and the episcopal succession afterwards obtained, any supposed imperfections of the intermediate ordinations might, if it were judged proper, be [19/20] supplied without acknowledging their nullity, by aconditional ordination resembling that of conditional baptism in the liturgy; the above was an expedient proposed by Archbishop Tillotson, Bishops Patrick, Stillingfleet, and others, at the revolution, and had been actually practised in Ireland by Archbishop Bramhall. [Nichols’s Defence of the church of England, Introduction.]”

While White admits the apostolic and very ancient foundations of episcopacy, he sees no divine command compelling it other than the weight of tradition. But this is enough. Surprisingly, White takes a middle course neither denying nor approving episcopacy as a essential office. Quoting Bishop Hoading: 

“Again, it cannot be denied, that some writers of the church of England apply very strong expressions to episcopacy, calling it a divine appointment, the ordinance of Christ, and the law of God, and pronounce it to be of divine right. Yet, in reason they ought to be understood only as asserting it to be binding, wherever it can conveniently be had: not that law and gospel are to cease rather than episcopacy… In another place he [Hoading] says, “for my own part I cannot argue that episcopacy isessential to a christian church, because it is of apostolical institution; and on the other hand, I do argue, that we are obliged to the utmost of our knowledge, to conform ourselves to the Apostolical model, unless in such where the imitation is impracticable or would manifestly do more hurt than good to the church of Christ; neither of which can possibly be affirmed in the ordinary state of the church. .”

Some thoughts:
A ‘generally necessary’ episcopate is surprisingly high for White given his frequent willingness to water down standards.  In the end higher views prevailed. White and Provoost would cross the Atlantic to receive the office of Bishop. White later proved a mediator between Seabury and Smith, keeping that “happy mean between too much stiffness in refusing and too much easiness in admitting variations in things once advisedly established”. The movement away from English “confessionalism” (ex animo subscription) was partly practical survival amidst a “presbyterian rebellion” (as the American Revolution was sometimes characterized), but due to an emerging “republican-revivalist” ethos. Yet some English habits remained, and a form of liturgy, doctrine, and order continued from London w/ episcopacy being a prime marker of that communion. White would later secure senatorial powers of bishops for the sake of New England in the PEC federal constitution.

More ironic than a relatively ‘high’ episcopate was how American proposals for an independent, free church anticipated Anglo-catholic calls for separatism.  John Keble echoes White’s in extremis rationale when recommending lay communion after the seating of dissenters in parliament by emancipation acts,

“It is very possible that I may overlook something which materially affects this question, and which may be plain enough to other persons; but it does seem to me that in the case supposed (of a public censure, and dispensation, refused), loyalty to the Church, her Creed or her Order both, could only be maintained by one of the two following courses: either we should continue in our ministry, respect, fully stating our case, and making appeal to the Metropolitan, or as Archbishop Cranmer did, to the Synod, and that publicly–which course one should be slow to adopt except in a matter which concerned the very principles of Faith and of Church Communion;–or else we should tender to our superiors our relinquishment of the post which we held under them in the Church, and retire either into some other diocese, or, if all our Bishops were agreed into lay communion. The objections in point of scandal to these two courses would be, that the former might sound under present circumstances more as a way of talking than anything else: the latter, unless the case were very amply and openly explained, would appear as if one conceded the notion of the Articles being incapable of a Catholic sense. But explanations might be given. And it seems on the whole that with the exception of such extreme cases as just now put, of positive heresy in one of the Most Sacred Order, this resource of lay communion, painful and trying as it must be in most cases, both in a temporal and spiritual sense, would be the only one properly open to us. Farther than it we could not even appear to separate from that which we believe to be the manifestation of the Holy Catholic Church in our country. We might be excommunicated, but we could neither join ourselves to any of the uncatholic communities around us, nor form a new communion for ourselves. We could not be driven into schism against our will. We could only wait patiently at the Church door, wishing and praying that our bonds might be taken off, and pleading our cause as we best might from reason and Scripture and Church precedents.”

Later I hope to explore Samuel Seabury’s minority opinion on the circumstance clause and how his Scottish consecration shifted conformity in the SEC direction if not stricter adherence to English standards.

4 responses to “White’s Proposed Episcopate

  1. The problem with the American parishes and priests like White was that they had lived a very comfortable life under very loose discipline, their bishop being in London, and had begun to think of themselves and the Church in terms utterly foreign to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. With all that the prayer book had directed them to do and say, they had not put the whole together in any reasonable way. Their connection with the Church of England and the state had given them privilege, but they seem not to have considered the reason.

    The parishes in New England had largely suffered the persecution of the Puritans and Congregationalist and had a much better, much more complete idea of just who and what they were supposed to be. They also more completely understood what the Church was teaching them to believe. Seabury was a churchman and an Anglican in comparison to whom White and the others were mere timeservers.


    • Hello Bp. Lee,

      I think that’s an accurate rendition. The southron parishes were vestry-driven, and this might have been part of the problem. New England received an impetus from the Yale Conversions. Ironically, these were puritan-congregationalists who actually studied church history, were drawn toward an ordered and apostolic ministry, and thus departed for Episcopalianism against the greater influence of new-light calvinism, or what was definitive of ‘american pietism’ at the time. A similar bout of converts from seminarian presbyterianism would happen during the second great awakening of the 1830’s of which John Nevin’s Mercerberg school likewise sprung. I imagine Seabury and company were reacting against both kinds of calvinism– the old disciplinarian kind (which had a strong strain of unitarianism by the mid-18th century) as well as the newer revivalist one.


  2. Pico Ultraorientalis

    Again thank you for further lifing the veil on “Christianity Brand X” in your thoughful discussions of the origins of independent American Anglicanism. I would venture to say that most “Epsicopalians” know more about the roots of virtually anything else…jazz, rock, or root beer, than that of their church. Actually, if the Andrew’s cross in that brand were fully explicated it might teach more doctrine than what prevailed for most of the 2oth and now 21st centuries. Christ and him crucified! Unfortunately this x stands for ignorance when it comes to the kind of theologies which were in vogue for most of that period. Existentialism? Without getting into the depths of what is or is not “fideism” (the heresy) would any existentialist have enough motivation to study history and ferret out the data of “the faith”…I think not!


  3. And, yet, Bishop White was known to have had a high admiration of Hobart’s style of churchmanship and thought.
    This reminds me that Fr Nalls, over to TheContinuum, enjoyed a recent re-acquaintance with Hobart’s writing earlier this year, I believe..
    It is most encouraging in these days that we are seeing a revival of interest in the old ‘uns; they have much to teach us—things we’ve forgotten or ignored for too long.



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