The bestowal of episcopal orders — the case of the Anglican Catholic Church

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Today, the 28th of January, the Ordo calendar of the Anglican Catholic Church celebrates the Bestowal of the Anglican Catholic Episcopate (1978). This feast closely resembles another feast on Anglican calendar, the Bestowal of the American Episcopate (1784), on November 14.

The structure of the ACC is episcopal, holding to Holy Orders being a sacrament and the necessity of apostolic succession which forms an unbroken bond between the present bishops and the Apostles. These two feasts liturgically commemorate those ecclesiastical principles.

When America was a British colony, there were no Anglican bishops in the colonies. Prospective clergy needed to travel to London for ordination and then return to their parishes. In 1783, Samuel Seabury was elected to the episcopacy and traveled to England for his consecration. Unfortunately, the American Revolutionary War was still winding down. The Treaty of Paris was not signed until September, and it was still necessary to swear an oath of loyalty to the King as part of the consecration rite, something which Seabury as a citizen of the freshly minted United States could not do. He turned to the Non-Jurors, who still held to the legitimacy of the Stuart dynasty and also did not swear an oath to the present king. In Aberdeen in 1784, despite the displeasure of the English Archbishops, Seabury was finally consecrated by the Primus of Scotland, Robert Kilgour, and two other Scottish bishops, and finally returned home to Connecticut and began ordaining priests and deacons.

While this was purely an ecclesiastical act, it caused alarm in a greater part of English politics. When Seabury was consecrated, he also agreed with the Scottish bishops that he would take as his model for an American prayer book the 1764 Scottish Liturgy. England feared that, just as they had finally concluded a nearly decade-long war with their former colony, the new country would become a hotbed for Jacobism and a new revolt. The required Oath of Allegiance was therefore removed by an Act of Parliament in 1787, allowing William White and Samuel Provoost to be consecrated in London by English bishops the same year. When the newly created Episcopal Church performed the first consecration of a bishop in America in 1792, White thought it best to have an additional fourth consecrator, James Madison, who in 1790 had also been consecrated in London.

This history, as messy and political as it is, indicates some fundamental principles in how episcopacy and apostolic succession are conceived in classical Christian thought. Episcopal power is usually considered in terms of power of governance. In a juridical sense, a bishop can create laws and make binding decisions. This is limited by jurisdiction. A person in a church is only subject to one bishop. This is why, when a person has a question about whether they can do something, the proper response is usually, “Ask your bishop.” Another person, or another bishop, may have opinions, but what the person may do normally depends on what their own bishop says.

Bishops also have sacral powers, also called the power of orders, which is related to the power of governance and jurisdiction, but also distinct from it. This is the power to perform the sacramental and liturgical tasks of a bishop, such as ordination. These sacral powers are fundamental to the episcopal office and once gained can never be lost. When a bishop retires, he loses the power of governance, but not the power of orders. It is possible for a bishop to be willingly or unwillingly stripped of the ability to exercise that power of orders by others having power of governance. But the power of orders remains, and when the church has need, can be exercised.

When Seabury was consecrated, it was done by those who had the power of orders to consecrate. While the newly created country of the United States was not under the jurisdiction of the Primus of Scotland, and Kilgour never became a bishop of the new Episcopal Church, this did not make the consecration invalid. Likewise, when White, Provoost, and Madison were later consecrated in London, England had no jurisdiction over the United States, politically or ecclesiastically. While both Scotland and England wanted particular ends to be achieved by the bishops they consecrated, their power of governance in the Episcopal Church was nonexistent. Indeed, when Madison was consecrated the Episcopal Church was already a separate juridic entity.

The hesitation of Bishop White over the consecration of Bishop Seabury concerned the political status of the Non-Jurors. The fact that the ordinations performed by Seabury were accepted, and that Seabury went on to become the second Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, indicates that the sacramental validity of his consecration was not in question. In the end, White’s concerns fell to the wayside. Seabury fulfilled his promise to the Scottish bishops in the 1789 Book of Common Prayer, and his place as the first American bishop has been accepted and celebrated widely.

The 1978 Denver consecrations, presided over by the retired bishop Albert Chambers, also show how the powers of governance and orders diverge. As Chambers was retired, he no longer had power of governance in a diocese, however he still retained full power of orders. Related to the power of governance is the geographical area in which a bishop normally performs that governance, usually a diocese. Chambers had been the bishop of Springfield, and had no governing power of the Diocese of Denver. However, the Affirmation of St. Louis, signed in 1977, stated that since the Protestant Episcopal Church had departed from Apostolic faith, “all former ecclesiastical governments, being fundamentally impaired by the schismatic acts of lawless Councils, are of no effect among us, and that we must now reorder such godly discipline.” Therefore, the episcopal see of Denver was, under this Affirmation, empty of jurisdictional authority. This could be said to be especially true in this diocese, as its bishop, Frey, heavily supported the changes which the Fellowship of Concerned Churchmen opposed. Precedent, perhaps, could be found in St. Athanasius consecrating Orthodox bishops in areas under the control of Arian bishops.

That Chambers was only the Acting Metropolitan of the then-named Anglican Church in North America for a short time is unsurprising; he was nearly 72 years old when the Denver consecrations took place, and already retired. The Affirmation of St. Louis also affirmed continued communion with Canterbury and the Anglican Communion, and this continued to be the hope even after the consecrations. Chambers legitimately continued in that communion. Of course, the PECUSA had a very different understanding of these events. To PECUSA, Chambers had committed a schismatic act, and Presiding Bishop Allin said exactly that to Chambers, and asked him to withdraw entirely from PECUSA. PECUSA, however, never opened a disciplinary proceeding against Chambers.

The same principle of powers of orders and governance are at work in the presence of the co-consecrator Francisco de Jesus Pagtakhan of the Philippine Independent Catholic Church, a church that had had episcopal succession extra-jurisdictionally supplied by PECUSA. Bishop de Jesus had power of orders, and later with the Anglican Rite Jurisdiction of the Americas he also exercised a power of governance in the Continuum. The consent from Mark Pae and Charles Boynton were also within their authority from their power of orders. Boynton later joined the ACC himself. And Pae later consecrated additional ACC bishops.

That neither Pae nor Boynton were physically present at the Denver consecrations meant that there were only two consecrators for the first bishop consecrated, Charles Doren. While at least three consecrators is expected, Apostolic Canons 1, which dates to the 4th century, states that two consecrators also suffices. When the See of Utrecht became independent of Rome, the bishop of Utrecht consecrated the first independent Dutch bishops all by himself. This fact has been accepted by both Rome and the Anglican Communion as valid. Nonetheless, at least three consecrators is an excellent principle, and to uphold it, Doren then acted as the third consecrator of Mote, Morse, and Watterson.

In the current ecclesiology of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope has universal jurisdiction. This means that everywhere he may act as the ordinary bishop of any lay person, and all ordinations happen under his authority. The Anglican Communion has never adopted this ecclesiology, meaning that it can happen that consecrations can be valid, while also being external to the jurisdictional parameters of the church of the consecrating bishops. This does not mean that the episcopacy exists only as personal property. Just as a priest must be ordained for a church, and be incardinated in a diocese, a bishop is also consecrated for a church, which is a portion of the whole People of God.

Sarah Wagner-Wassen is a member of the Anglican Catholic Church and has a M.Th. from
St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. She is currently studying canon law (Juris
Canonici Licentiata) at KU Leuven.