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Some Historical Background to the PBS Conference



History records that the Episcopal Church in America was very nearly Lutheran.  This is because in 1783, when American Anglicans came to Britain to resolve how they might establish their own indigenous episcopate, their chosen bishop-elect had a distressingly difficult time.

The Archbishop of Canterbury ‘received him “politely,” but was “cool and restrained.” The Bishop of London gave him personally a “cordial reception,” but “was not disposed to take the lead in the matter.”,’ while, ‘The Archbishop of York would express no opinion’ at all.  (See, Samuel Seabury, the First American Bishop, by the Revd. S.C. Hughson)

Having fruitlessly waited in the ante-chambers of the House of Lords for sixteen months and more, it was therefore a happy development when some sage advice was received from that striking Oxford figure,  the Revd. Martin Routh, President of Magdalen College for sixty three years; someone who was  thus well placed to give advice from the perspective of the longue durée, not to mention a certain Jacobite sensibility. His counsel was to go north and, more specifically, to Scotland. Thus was it that, on 14thNovember 1784 Samuel Seabury of Connecticut, in circumvention of the Church of England,  was at last consecrated a bishop in that hardy Scottish extremity that is the Ancient University City of Aberdeen.  (By Robert Kilgour, the then Bishop of Aberdeen and Primus of Scotland, Arthur Petrie, the Bishop of Ross and Moray, and the coadjutor-bishop of Aberdeen, John Skinner.)

The happy outcome, at the last, of these many adventures has unfortunately tended to obscure the fact that there had also been developed an alternative and equally cunning plan. This was for Dr. Seabury to venture once more upon the high seas and cross the Chanel to obtain consecration at the evidently willing hands of the Lutheran Bishops of Denmark.

The felicitously looming occasion of the anniversary year of Luther’s ninety-five theses makes it, therefore, particularly appropriate to recall just how close the American Episcopal Church came, thus, to being an apostolic fruit of Lutheranism. Had this occurred,  it would have anticipated by some centuries, the ecumenical blessings and substantial fullness of mutual recognition, brought to us only recently by the Porvoo Declaration, signed at Trondheim in Norway, on 1st September 1996. This was described at the time, by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George now Lord Carey,  as “the most important ecumenical agreement of the century”, comprising as it did, a definitive “bridge across the Reformation gap” to quote the memorable words of the host Bishop of Trondheim, the Rt. Revd. Dr. Finn Wagle.


But, amidst all these happy historical ruminations,  the reference to Dr. Martin Routh (shown here upon the occasion of his ninety-ninth birthday in a rare early Daguerrotype held by the College) may also serve to remind us of two comments that are very apposite to the coming conference,  dedicated to exploring the nature of Anglicanism in the light of the Reformation. The first is that, as an Anglican, Dr Routh was theologically:

“…of the right stamp, orthodox but not intolerant, profound, not obscure, wary, not sceptical, very, very, very learned, (but) not pedantic at all”.

(To quote the comment of the Revd. Samuel Parr, DCL., upon reading the fifth volume if Routh’s  Sacrae reliquiae, and those familiar with Routh’s life will note the particular importance of verifying the reference….)

While John Henry Newman observed that, Routh was fated, in particular, with the weighty charge:

“…to report to a forgetful generation what was the theology of their fathers”.

(In dedicating his Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church of 1837 to him, and on this, see Ian Ker, John Henry Newman. A Biography, Oxford, 2010)

Addressing just this need in such a manner is very much the project of the coming PBS conference in Savannah. This will explore the unique theological heritage and identity that was bequeathed to the Church of England as it passed through and emerged from the tumults of the Reformation,  and which it was then able to transmit to succeeding generations worldwide,  through what we now know as the Anglican Communion.

Alistair  Macdonald-Radcliff

(Photo Image of Bishop Samuel Seabury (1729-1796) above from Project Canterbury, http://anglicanhistory.org/usa/seabury/)

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