Apostolic Succession in Anglicanism: Preservation of the American Episcopate

In 1783 the Anglican parishes in the infant United States were in severe disarray. There were no bishops on the continent, and some were even beginning to consider abandoning the very concept of Apostolic Succession.  The priests William White and Samuel Seabury, a former Royal Army chaplain, exchanged a series of letters about the future direction of the Church of England parishes in America, with White suggesting a bishop-less, or presbyterian style of government.  Seabury responded with his famous statement: “we have the power, if we choose, to New Model the Church in any way we wish, but then it shall become not Christ’s Church, but ours.”  In March of that year, Seabury accepted the request of the Connecticut clergy to seek consecration as a bishop and set sail for England.  In England he found bishops willing to consecrate him, but only if he were to vow allegiance to the king, a course not possible for a newly independent American.  After much delay, the non-juror Scottish Episcopal bishops, although members of an illegal and underground church, offered to consecrate him, and on November 14, 1784, in Dundee, Samuel Seabury was consecrated to the episcopate as the first Anglican bishop for North America.  This event is commemorated in the Church under the names “the Consecration of Samuel Seabury,” or more appropriately as “the Bestowal of the American Episcopate.”

In the 1890s, as a result of a number of Anglican approaches to Rome and under pressure from the very anti-Anglican British Roman Catholic community, Pope Leo XIII issued the papal bull Apostolicae Curae, including the famous statement that Anglican orders are “absolutely null and utterly void.”  This bull was ably refuted by Anglican archbishops of Canterbury and York in Saepius Officio.  Nevertheless, a movement arose amongst Anglicans that rather than argue the deficiencies of logic and history in Leo XIII’s bull, that orders unquestioned by Rome could be infused into Anglicanism.  This concept, popularly referred to as “the Dutch touch” because of its reliance on the Old Catholic Churches centered on Utrecht, was pursued, to the extent that by the middle of the twentieth century a large number of sitting Anglican bishops possessed their heritage not only from Anglican but also from Old Catholic sources.  In the United States, this “Dutch touch” came via the Polish National Catholic Church, with several PNCC bishops participating in Episcopal consecrations, even to the extent of using their own church’s formula of ordination, the historic Catholic formula.  Regardless of the accuracy or inaccuracy of Apostolicae Curae, whether it was true or not in 1890, by the 1960s it was itself largely null and void.

Then, however, in the 1970s came another attack on Apostolic Succession with the illegal attempts to ordain women in 1974 and 1975 in the USA.  In 1976 both the Anglican Church of Canada (AC of C) and the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (PECUSA) voted to permit the ordination of women. In so doing, each of these bodies declared their intention to abandon Apostolic Succession.  As five of seven sacraments require valid ordination, the abandonment of Apostolic Succession by the AC of C and PECUSA meant that ordination, eucharist, unction, absolution and confirmation administered in those bodies were questionable and probably invalid.  When it became clear that the AC of C and PECUSA had no intention of repenting of their departure from Apostolic Succession and consequent invention of a new, non-Apostolic order of ministry in their ecclesial bodies, thousands of clergy and laity met in St. Louis in the autumn of 1977 in a Congress organized by the Fellowship of Concerned Churchmen.  This Congress ratified the Affirmation of St. Louis, separating from the AC of C and PECUSA because of their apostasy, and beginning the process for drafting a constitution for the new Anglican Church in North America (a name which it was to drop when the constitution was ratified the following autumn).  This Congress also resulted in the selection of four men to be consecrated to the episcopate: Fathers Charles Doren, Peter Watterson, Robert Morse, and James Mote.  Their consecration was approved and agreed to by four Anglican bishops, and the chief consecrator was named: Bishop Albert Chambers of
Springfield, Illinois.  Bishop Chambers had been consecrated by both PECUSA bishops and a bishop from the PNCC, who used his own church’s formula of ordination when he laid hands on Chambers.  Thus, on January 28th, 1978, undoubted valid Apostolic Succession was secured for Anglicans in North America, succession that is both Anglican and Catholic, in indisputed and unbroken descent from the Apostles.

These aforementioned events are what is celebrated today, January 28th, the Feast of the Preservation of the American Episcopate.

The clear ramifications of this day and the unpleasantness that made it necessary are that the orders of ministry of the AC of C and PECUSA, and all who remain in communion with those bodies, are some order of ministry other than the apostolic order, and therefore cannot be safely relied upon by the laity as valid and efficacious.  The result is that Leo XIII’s infamous decision, although almost certainly not true in 1896, was made true four score years later, and all sacramental actions purportedly performed within the Canterbury Communion since then can have their validity seriously called into question as “absolutely null and utterly void.”  One might wish to meditate on 2 Corinthians 6, especially the 17th verse.

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