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Proper 9C 2004 (Independence Day)
On the Day of Pentecost when I talked about the Holy Spirit moving, stirring, shaking, guiding, and leading in the church,
I stopped at the very first General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States at Philadelphia in
October 1789. I also mentioned the preface to the first American Prayer Book, parts of which I would like to review with
you. As an aside, let me add that this preface has appeared in every American Prayer Book since – a total of four:
1789, 1892, 1928, and 1979. Counting the English books of 1604 and 1662, six prayer books have been used in Virginia since
the landing at Jamestown.
“It is a most invaluable part of that blessed “liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free,” that in his
worship different forms and usages may without offence be allowed, provided the substance of the Faith be kept entire; and
that, in every Church, what cannot be clearly determined to
belong to Doctrine must be referred to Discipline; and therefore, by common consent and authority, may be altered, abridged,
enlarged, amended, or otherwise disposed of, as may seem most convenient for the edification of the people,” according
to the various exigency of times and
The Church of England, to which the Protestant Episcopal Church in these States is indebted, under God, for her first foundation
and a long continuance of nursing care and protection, hath, in the Preface of her Book of Common Prayer, laid it down as
a rule, that “The particular Forms of Divine Worship, and the Rites and Ceremonies appointed to be used therein, being
things in their own nature indifferent, and alterable, and so acknowledged; it is but reasonable that upon weighty and important
considerations, according to the various exigency of times and occasions, such changes and alterations should be made therein,
as to those that are in place of Authority should, from time to time, seem either
necessary or expedient.”…
But when in the course of Divine Providence, these American States became independent with respect to civil government, their
ecclesiastical independence was necessarily included; and the different religious
denominations of Christians in these States were left at full and equal liberty to model and organize their respective Churches,
and forms of worship, and discipline, in such manner as they might judge most convenient for their future prosperity; consistently
with the constitution and laws of their country.
The attention of this Church was in the first place drawn to those alterations in the Liturgy which became necessary in the
prayers for our Civil Rulers, in consequence of the Revolution. And the principal care herein was to make them conformable
to what ought to be the proper end of all such prayers, namely, that “Rulers may have grace, wisdom,
and understanding to execute justice, and to maintain truth;” and that the people “may lead quiet and peaceable
lives, in all godliness and honesty.”
But while these alterations were in review before the Convention, they could not but, with gratitude to God, embrace the happy
occasion which was offered to them (uninfluenced and unrestrained by any worldly authority whatsoever) to take a further review
of the Public Service, and to establish such other alterations and amendments therein as might be deemed expedient.
And now, this important work being brought to a conclusion, it is hoped the whole will be received and examined by every true
member of our Church, and every sincere Christian, with a meek, candid, and charitable
frame of mind; without prejudice or prepossessions; seriously considering what Christianity is, and what the truths of the
Gospel are; and earnestly beseeching Almighty God to accompany with his blessing every endeavour
for promulgating them to mankind in the clearest, plainest, most affecting and majestic manner, for the sake of Jesus Christ,
our blessed Lord and Saviour.
Philadelphia, October, 1789. Ratified 16 October. (1)
The delegates to the Convention included in this preface “that this Church is far from intending to depart from the
Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship; or further than local circumstances require.”
(2) I think we have become rather more independent of the Church of England since that time.
It has seemed to me for the thirty five years I have been an Episcopalian and for the eleven years in which I have been a
priest that when the Holy Spirit moves, shakes, guides, and leads the Church, the Prayer Book and its liturgy are ultimately
involved, directly or indirectly, as the current controversy suggests.
Following the American Revolution, by the end of the 18th Century and on into the early 19th Century, American Christianity
in general, including the infant Episcopal Church, fell into danger and decline, a fate shared by Wicomico Parish Church,
whose church building was torn down and the bricks sold. (3) The Holy Spirit had to be at work because the Silver Communion
chalice and flagon we use today was sent to Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria for safekeeping and were restored
to the parish when the current church building was completed. (4) Moreover, the funds from the sale of the bricks were sent
to the Seminary, which used them to build its first Chapel, named after Francis Scott Key, one of the founders of the seminary
in 1823 along with several bishops and a host of others. (5)
By the grace of God and the protection of the Holy Spirit, Key chapel is still standing and still used. It was the scene
of my first sermon in homiletics class, and my favorite retreat place during seminary quiet days. I was completely unaware
at the time of its connection to this parish.
Wicomico Parish Church, the Episcopal Church, and Christianity in General began its halting and stumbling resurgence in the
new United States in the years before the Civil War. As one historian of the Episcopal Church wrote in 1907, “Out of
this deep depression the Church, with its neighbor churches, returned to life by the grace of God. The Christian religion
has passed through many crises. Sometimes by reason of its foes, sometimes by reason of its friends, it has seemed at the
point to die. But it possesses a victorious vitality.” (6)
It was in this first half of the 19th Century that the Episcopal Church as we know it and love it was formed by two major
developments. That these two movements shaped how we are the Church over a century later is a result of the creative tension
between the two allowed, perhaps encouraged, by the Holy Spirit. These were the Evangelical and Oxford movements, and their
influences are still with us today.
The Evangelical movement was born in the 18th Century and was shaped by the Spirit moving in such people as the two brothers,
John and Charles Wesley who died priests of the Church of England but both of whom came to America and strongly influenced
the colonial church. The Evangelical movement emphasized the protestant and reformation roots of the church and the relationship
of the individual soul to God. It was the spiritual impulse of the Low Church Tradition of the English Reformation and used
its energy to advance domestic and foreign missions. (7) Did you know that the official name of the Episcopal Church is
“The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society”?
The creative tension was provided by the High Church, Anglo-Catholic movement, given its spiritual impulse by the Oxford movement,
also known as the Tractarian movement from the many tracts or pamphlets they published. It began in 1827 at Oxford University
in England and was quickly taken up in America by the High Church.
This Anglo Catholic revival insisted humans are not just individuals only but that they are also members of a society with
social needs and responsibilities, that humans are not only mind and soul but that they have bodies also. The Church was
not just a mere voluntary society associated in defense of a common faith and assembled for the purposes of individual edification
and inspiration. Rather the Church “is the most venerable of institutions, descending out of the days of the apostles,
with ancient and significant traditions, having a continuous life, with ancient and significant traditions, with noble customs,
dispensing grace and truth.” The Oxford movement and Anglo-Catholic Revival “awakened again the primitive and
ineradicable instinct of worship, and exalted the services and the sacraments as its occasions and opportunities and privileges.”
The High Church summoned people “to restore and beautify the neglected sanctuaries, to repair the altars of God that
were broken down, and to keep again the old festivals of faith and devotion. They proclaimed the doctrine of the Incarnation,
God in Christ, and Christ in the Church continually ministering to the world.“ (8)
This same creative tension is with us today, as the Holy Spirit drives us into and toward the Church we are meant to be.
Here at Wicomico Parish Church we are the amalgam of the two generally known as the broad Church. We do not have incense
and sanctus bells but we have beautified the sanctuary and enjoy the rich sounds of our organ. We are concerned about our
individual souls but we recognize, accept, and act upon or responsibilities to society and those less fortunate in that society.
Some of us are more evangelical in outlook and some are more Anglo-Catholic in ritual. We love God. And we love our neighbor.
Today the Church is facing the basic question raised by the English Reformation: Who is included and who is not? We have
concluded that people of all races can be included. And we have opened all doors in the Church to women. Now we are struggling
with the question of sexual orientation. Until the human biologists and theologians can provide a definitive answer one way
or the other, we must leave room for God to work, for the Holy Spirit to lead us into the light. Jesus never promised that
it would be easy. Jesus did promise that the would be with us in our struggle,
And that is a great comfort and a great strength.
1, “Preface”, The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, pp 9-11.
2. Ibid., p11.
3. George Hodges, A Short History of the Episcopal Church, Forward Movement Publications, 1967, pp. 62-64.
4. John L Overholt and Arthur C. Johnson, The History of Wicomico Parish, Wicomico Parish Church, 1998, p. 255.
5. Robert Pritchard, A History of the Episcopal Church, Morehouse Publishing, 1991, p. 123.
6. Hodges, p. 64.
7. Powell Mills Dawley, Chapters in Church History, Seabury Press, 1963, pp. 225-230; Hodges, pp. 68-70.
8. Hodges, pp. 70-71.