Three Episcopal Centuries

September 09, 1992

In 1692 -- 300 years ago -- the Maryland Assembly established the Church of England as the colony's official religion. The colonial legislators divided counties into parishes and made provisions for taxing inhabitants for "the building of churches and support of the clergy." Their actions ensured that for much of its first century in Maryland, Anglicanism would enjoy a privileged status.

Things changed dramatically in 1776 for all religious groups when Maryland adopted a Declaration of Rights. The act took away the Episcopal Church's special status and tax support but left its property intact. By 1792, the Episcopal Church in Maryland had recovered sufficiently to establish the Diocese of Maryland -- another anniversary being commemorated this week.

It is fitting that the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church has brought its annual meeting to Baltimore this year to help the Diocese of Maryland celebrate three centuries of history and usher in a fourth. As the Diocese of Maryland stands at a significant juncture in its history, so does the Episcopal Church itself. In recent years, tensions among bishops over the direction of the church as well as social issues such as the ordination of openly gay clergy have risen to the boiling point.

This week's meeting, which ends tomorrow, comes after a year of remarkably frank discussions about conflicts in the church and among the bishops themselves. This past March, 165 bishops gathered at a retreat center in the North Carolina mountains to explore these tensions and to seek more cooperative ways of working together to fulfill their leadership role in the church.

In Maryland and elsewhere in the United States, the Episcopal Church has enjoyed far more influence than its relatively small membership would suggest. Even so, like other mainline Protestant churches, Episcopalians have experienced a significant loss of membership, shrinking by a million in the past two decades to its present size of 2.5 million members. That kind of loss cannot be sustained, and if the church is to recover and flourish, the bishops must lead the way.

The new spirit of cooperation evident at this week's meeting is one cause for hope. Another is the rich history and tradition being celebrated this week, a source of inspiration and proof that the church has endured hard times before, only to thrive again.

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