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Glebe House swallowtailHallo again to all.

We repaired on this long summer weekend to the Glebe House, the almost 300-year-old building in which the first episcopal election in the New World took place. It is a quiet house in a quiet town, enveloped since 1926 in a garden designed by the prolific English horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll. Our walk through the garden was calm and happy, the only sounds on the breeze the quiet work of bees and the inaudible wing-workings of a host of lepidoptera. One can walk to a farm-stand for corn on the cob, stop for frozen custard along the way, and take a trip just a few miles up the road to a locally-famous Roman Catholic convent where there is chant and cheese.

This was the place where in March of 1783 a group of ten local clergymen gathered in the shadow of a Masonic temple to elect two of their colleagues as first bishop for the continent. The Treaty of Paris was yet to take place, and there was concern in any case about the reception a bishop might receive in the former colonies. Dr Seabury was not their first choice; that honor was accorded the Reverend Jeremiah Leaming (1717-1804) who demurred out of concern that he was not fit physically for the transatlantic voyage then necessary for the assembly of three bishops in one place at one time for a consecration. Leaming reflected later that if he had known how hated Seabury would be in the course of his ministry, he would have scorned his infirmity and offered himself in spite of it to spare the church its own vitriol.

Bees in Queen Anne's laceFrom 3 September 1578—the first recorded celebration of the Holy Communion in North America, by Martin Frobisher’s chaplain on Baffin Island—until the beginning of Seabury’s episcopal activities in Rhode Island and Connecticut during the second half of 1785, all of the sacramental ministry reserved to a bishop (ordinations and confirmations, consecrations of churches and the creating of new bishops) required the dangerous return trip to England. For more than two centuries, then, the rounds of communion, burial, marriage, churching, and baptism only took place in North America thanks to a direct tactile connection with the mother country. Our church life was essentially disordered: dependent on knavish tricks and politicks; unable to replicate itself in adequate, sustainable, and responsible ways; more rooted perhaps in Acts of Parliament than in the Acts of the Apostles. It is only within the lifetime of AO’s editors that we have finally shifted to a moment in which there has been episcopal ministry for longer than there was a settled parish life in its absence.

The 1783 Glebe House meeting was thus a deliberate local effort to put Christian life in North America into a better order than it had heretofore known. Even after Seabury’s election, though, there were to be years of difficulty ahead. As late as 1854, the centenarian Martin Joseph Routh of Magdalen College remembered them: an impoverished Seabury was unable to take the Oath of Allegiance required for consecration in the Church of England, but he had already made the journey to London. He did not have the funds necessary for an indefinite sojourn in England that in any case would last more than a year. The Church of Denmark might be willing to provide episcopal succession, but that required a further and expensive sea journey, and would have placed the new bishop in an ill-fitting Lutheran connection. The solution was Scottish; after a year and a half of efforts to receive consecration, Seabury was charged properly on 14 November 1784 in Aberdeen to do the work of the apostles by Scots Episcopal bishops who had not themselves taken the Oath of Allegiance and would not require him so to do. The daily Christian life of Anglican Americans today flows from the determination of a small group of churchfolk in rural Connecticut to bring about their shared vision against the odds of war and money, institutions and oceans.

The bees and butterflies of the Glebe House are insensible to the acts of sacramental moment that took place behind the windows past which they fly to collect their pollen and drink their nectar. We didn’t read aloud to them from the learned writings of E.E. Beardsley and P.V. Marshall to enlighten them about the greatness next to which they hover. Most of us who knelt in worship this morning are likewise insensible to the human toil that brought about the ecclesiastical and physical edifices in which our lives are brought in humility to the throne of grace. But insects and persons, each in their order, still work in the paths God has given us to ensure that flowers will bloom in due season and hearts will quicken with the love of Jesus. The work often looks impossible, beset on every side with winds of doctrine, with obstacles of money or permission, with the seeming institutional failure taking place in slow motion around us. But we were put in mind again in that garden that we have a good God and a good hope, and that the song that accompanies us is a lovely one:

Come, labor on!
Claim the high calling angels cannot share:
To young and old the gospel gladness bear.
Redeem the time; its hours so swiftly fly—
The night draws nigh.

Come, labor on!
No time for rest, till glows the western sky,
Till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie
And a glad sound comes with the setting sun:
'Servants, well done.'

See you next week.

Our Signatures

Richard Mammana


All of us at Anglicans Online

1 September 2019

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