History lesson

Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh recently compared the prospect of some Episcopal dioceses leaving the Episcopal Church for a new jurisdiction with what occurred during the American Civil War and in the response of the dioceses who found themselves in the Confederate States of America. He may want to re-think that analogy.

During a recent interview given to the PBS/WNET program "Religion & Ethics Newsweekely" the following exchange took place:

Q: How complicated will it be for you to separate a diocese from the Episcopal Church, as you've announced -- the diocese of Pittsburgh?

A: The last time that Episcopal dioceses separated from the Episcopal Church was in the American Civil War. Nine dioceses actually separated for a period of years. When the war was over the Episcopal Church came back together. There was an important social issue, I mean the whole issue of slavery divided the nation. The North and the South were divided. When the issue was settled the church came back together. Where we are right now is seeing the church moving in two distinctly different directions on issues of Christian morality quite different than the slavery issue. What our diocese and a number of other dioceses are going to have to do is try to figure out, okay, we joined, we federated. Can we break that federation? Again, the whole purpose of it is not because we've changed, but the Episcopal Church is so radically changed we as a diocese in order not to embrace that change or be forced into that change are saying the best course forward for us is to let them go their way and the way in which we will operate is in alignment with another province in another part of the world that still upholds what the worldwide Christian church, what worldwide Anglicans believe and teach and want to share.

Fr. Tobias Haller, BSG, on his blog "In a Godward Direction" offers this history lesson:

Bishop Duncan’s account is telling both for what he omits and what he includes. First of all, from The Episcopal Church’s perspective, those southern dioceses were not “separated” — their bishops were “absent” but the roll was still called down yonder wherever the General Convention met.

More importantly, the rationale given for the separation by the separationists was the importance of defending the integrity of the national church. Since the Confederacy was a new nation, it was necessary for a new national church to be constituted for this new nation — just exactly as it had been “necessary” for the The Episcopal Church to separate from the Church of England at the creation of the United States, as the preface to our first BCP notes. Civil War veteran chaplain, and historian of The Episcopal Church, Archdeacon Charles C. Tiffany recorded the actions of the first Confederate Conclave:

It was unanimously resolved that the secession of the Southern States from the United States, and the formation of the government of the Confederate States, rendered necessary an independent organization of the dioceses within the seceded States. (496*)

So the reason for the “division” in the church was not disagreement over slavery, but the concept of the integrity of a national church — the very thing Duncan’s movement contradicts.

While in the North, the General Convention and the House of Bishops simply called the roll of all the dioceses including the absent ones, there was no move to punish or disband the dioceses that were in the Confederated States, even though there was some minority feeling towards this, it was never acted upon. On the other hand, the dioceses of the Confederate States understood themselves to be in a new nation and acted accordingly.

Reading the history of the actual separation and reunion of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Confederate States reveal questions that had to be settled at that time in that time of separation and re-unification, which clearly contradict the assumptions of the recent Common Cause gathering.

A quick Google search will direct one to a reprint by Project Canterbury of a History of the Church the Confederate States, written by Bishop Joseph Blount of South Carolina in 1912. While there were at first several views about the status of the several dioceses, the prevailing view was that the church of the new nation should have a new governing body and its own polity.

Bishop Leonidas Polk of Louisiana wrote in 1861

We are still one in Faith, in purpose and in Hope; but political changes, forced upon us by a stern necessity, have occurred, which have placed our Dioceses in a position requiring consultation as to our future ecclesiastical relations. It is better that these relations should be arranged by the common consent of all the Dioceses within the Confederate States than by the independent action of each Diocese. The one will probably lead to harmonious action, the other might produce inconvenient diversity.

He later wrote:

Our separation from our brethren of The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States has been effected because we must follow our nationality. Not because there has been any difference of opinion as to Christian Doctrine or Catholic usage. Upon these points we are still one. With us it is a separation, not division, certainly not alienation. And there is no reason why, if we should find the union of our Dioceses under one National Church impracticable, we should cease to feel for each other the respect and regard with which purity of manners, high principle, and manly devotion to truth, never fail to inspire generous minds."

The New York Times published the words of the words of Bishop Thomas David of South Carolina who said to his diocesan convention in 1862 that the administrative union with the PECUSA was broken, that was all:

The whole subject is simply a case of jurisdiction.It involves no article of faith, no spiritual condition or office.The Creeds all preexisted our present condition.

Polk, who became a Confederate General, put forward the idea that each diocese was of right an independent entity but this was an idea that the other Southern Bishops firmly rejected. Ironically, it was Polk himself who was the first to call for common action among the several southern dioceses. Every bishop in the South, each in his own way, argued that "church follows nationality."

More than one Bishop wrote that should the political situation change, they hoped that they could reunite their dioceses with the PECUSA.

About slavery, Haller writes,

To our shame, slavery was not the issue that “divided” the church — the church had, on the contrary, refused to take a national position on slavery in the interests of keeping the peace.... Thus, by allowing for local option on the question of slavery, The Episcopal Church was enabled to remain united, until the matter boiled over in the secular arena.

Finally, it is fascinating to me to see that Bishop Duncan appears to think that our present divisions over sexuality are of quite a different moral significance — and obviously far more important — than the question of slavery. It seems to me that this sad past chapter of our national history offers little to support his present pressure for division.

The short history of the PEC-CSA, with its General Council and the consecration of a Bishop for Alabama, the formation of the Diocese of Arkansas and their oversight of the manner of worship, shows that even in the independently minded South under the dire circumstances of civil war, the Church was more than a mere federation of dioceses.

Comments (1)

This is an important review, and I hope this and the articles it cites get a wider and careful reading.

Marshall Scott

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