For Episcopalians, history repeats itself in Baltimore

Charles P. Thobae

September 08, 1992|By Charles P. Thobae

MEETING in Baltimore this week, the Episcopal House of Bishops is called upon to heal a divided Episcopal Church for the second time in two centuries. The first division had to do with theological nuance; the second has to do with human sexuality.

The first was in 1792. A unanimous vote of the clergy and laity had just named Thomas John Claggett bishop of the Diocese of Maryland. At that time there were just four other Episcopal bishops in the United States. With the exception of Samuel Seabury of Connecticut, all the American prelates had been consecrated in England at the hands of the English bishops. Seabury was consecrated in Scotland by Scottish bishops. Another American bishop, Samuel Provost of New York, challenged the validity of Seabury's orders. Calvinism had taken firm root in Scotland at the time of the Reformantion, and Anglo-Catholic traditionalists believed the Scottish Episcopal Church was tainted by Presbyterianism.

The Maryland church recognized an opportunity in Claggett's ordination to help heal the division that had carried over into this country. Consequently, the diocese invited all four bishops to lay hands on Claggett even though only three were required in the ordination liturgy. Claggett became the first Episcopal bishop to be consecrated on United States soil. His elevation to the episcopacy played a pivotal role in affirming the validity of American Episcopal orders through a line of Scottish as well as English bishops.

Now, almost exactly 200 years later, the Episcopal Church finds itself divided again, and the Diocese of Maryland again is in a pivotal position.

As a matter of background, the church policies are established by a convention that meets every three years. Two legislative bodies operate within the convention: the house of deputies, comprising elected delegates (clergy who aren't bishops and lay people), and the house of bishops. The two function separately but concurrently, much like the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

At the 70th general convention last year in Phoenix, debate among the bishops prompted a crisis over the ordination of homosexuals. Bishop John S. Spong of Newark, noted author and theologian, traded sharp words with conservative Bishop John MacNaughton of West Texas over a resolution calling for the inclusion of lesbians and gays on a church commission. Bishop Spong has publicly advocated the ordination of gays and lesbians. Bishop MacNaughton and a group of like-minded conservative bishops have asked for the censure of fellow bishops who ordain non-celibate homosexuals.

Presiding Bishop Edmund L. Browning tried to clear up some of the anger, confusion and frustration of the last few years by convening the bishops in a retreat in North Carolina last March. Most bishops who attended said the retreat was a success, and Bishop MacNaughton commented, "We have been so busy as bishops trying to do legislation that we have lost our sense of community."

So the Baltimore meeting is expected to be more reflective than confrontational, and a serious effort will be made to rebuild trust among the heads of the Episcopal Church.

As if to bless the effort, the Most Rev. George L. Carey, archbishop of Canterbury, will attend the final day of the meeting Thursday.

Thus, history repeats itself this week in Baltimore. Episcopalians hope the combined effect of the 103rd archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Baltimore's fair city will inspire constructive, reconciling deliberations among their church's bishops.

Charles P. Thobae, who lives in Houston, was editor of the Texas Churchman for 25 years.

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