Commemoration of Samuel Seabury, Bishop (1729-1796)
Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified. — Acts 20:28-32
The commemoration of Samuel Seabury, often celebrated with Sunday services which include extra goodies like the Kirking o’ the Tartan and bagpipes. On November 14, 1784, just three years after the end of the Revolutionary War, Samuel Seabury was consecrated in Scotland as the first bishop in the new Protestant Episcopal Church in the new country. While he had been sent by the people of Connecticut to England to seek consecration in the mother church, the Church of England, the CofE refused the consecration since Seabury could not and would not swear allegiance as required to the King, the same King against whom the colonists had fought a long and bloody war to gain their independence. So Seabury moved north to Scotland where the Anglican church was not connected to the crown as the Established Church, where there were bishops willing to do the deed and who had the credentials to do it so that Seabury would be part of the apostolic succession. Somehow I think Jesus would have approved of the Scottish non-Jurors who actually laid hands on Seabury at his consecration since, after all, Jesus was against swearing allegiance to any king other than God.
The epistle reading for the day sort of sums up what Seabury’s charge was: to protect the church as a shepherd would protect his flock, not in the sense that David had to protect his father’s flocks from predators but rather from those who would splinter the young church with false teaching either through ignorance or arrogance. Seabury had to answer a few questions, things very similar to the same questions asked today of a bishop-elect at their consecration and straight out of the 1979 BCP. Included was the bishop-elect’s belief that all things necessary for salvation was contained in the scriptures and that nothing not essential to salvation would be taught as essential by the bishop-elect, that there would be adherence to the governance and laws of the church, fellowship and working together with fellow bishops, etc. They are important parts of the promises a bishop-elect makes, just as it was for Seabury.
Over the past few years, there have been several times when a bishop-elect has not been given approval by the majority of Standing Committees and bishops of the Episcopal Church and new elections have had to be undertaken. There have also been several times when there has been discomfort with the choice a diocese has made as to their new shepherd, but they have been approved despite the discomfort because, after all, the people of the diocese surely chose the person they felt most closely reflected their belief and understanding of scripture, mission, and place in the diocese and the greater church. Several times, despite promises to the contrary, bishops have decided that they really didn’t like what they’d promised so they and their diocesan committees and officials have declared that they as a diocese were withdrawing from The Episcopal Church. The result has been to divide people in the diocese between those wanting out and those wanting to stay in TEC, hurt and confusion among people outside the diocese who don’t really understand what the problem is and why it requires such drastic means, and sorrow but resolve on the part of the national church to maintain the properties and ability to minister to those who wished to remain with TEC . I wonder what Seabury would have made of it.
Just like marriages, sometimes diocesan relationships break down. Sometimes spouses — or shepherds — want to head for what seem to be greener pastures. Accusations of unfaithfulness get thrown back and forth like hand grenades in a game of hot potato, and the word heresy gets lobbed more often than a tennis ball at Wimbledon. Shepherds charged with guarding the flock now build walls around them with strong drawbridges that could be raised at the first sign of change. The rallying cry became “the faith once delivered” as if over the course of 2000+ years the church had never changed and the faith had remained exactly the same in teaching and understanding. Oddly enough, what seems like a modern problem undoubtedly happened in Paul’s day and at other times in all the centuries between then and now. We don’t seem to have learned much, whether we are laity or the most exalted bishop. The via media sometimes seems to be a very narrow track between very large rocky crags.
Samuel Seabury remained faithful to the promises made at his consecration, and set the example for those who have followed him. There have been a number of exceptional shepherds (and a few to whom many wouldn’t give a passing grade) in the years since, reminding us that bishops, like the humblest lay person in the pews, are human beings. None of us is perfect, and neither is any church. It’s a natural thing for both humans and churches to grow and change as time goes by. Still, on this one day we celebrate the life and ministry of a man who stood his ground as to what he honestly felt he could affirm and what he couldn’t. He said no to acknowledging the authority of the crown and the Archbishop, and yes to the authority of God, scripture, pastoral duty, teaching and passing on the succession.
The epistle lesson is a common thread between Seabury’s consecration and that of the newest bishop in TEC. Just as Seabury heard it, so his successors also hear the same exhortation. Most of all, it is there for us to read and digest as we learn what it is we believe and why as we grow as Christians. They are words of warning as well as blessing, and they are for all of us, lay and episcopal, individual and church-wide.
Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.