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Religion Library: Anglican/Episcopalian

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Russell P. Dawn

The spread of Anglicanism began in the British Isles.  The first Anglican Church that was distinct from the English Church was the Church of Ireland, established in 1560.  In Reformation-era Scotland the established Church was first Presbyterian, but an episcopal polity was instituted at various points through the 16th and 17th centuries, until the Glorious Revolution made it possible for the established Scottish Church permanently to become Presbyterian.  It was then, after 1690, that the Scottish Episcopal Church was formed as a dissenting, and therefore nonjuring, body in Scotland.

The first Anglican Church in America was formed in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia, but 167 years would pass before America's first bishop would be consecrated.  During the intervening years, efforts to provide bishops in the American colonies failed, and clergy in the colonies were subject to the Bishop of London.  Two Anglican missionary organizations, the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK, 1698) and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG, 1701), were particularly active in the Atlantic colonies.  The founding focus of the SPCK was in large part on providing schools for the poor at home, and on dispersing Christian printed materials both at home and abroad.  The SPG provided ministers for English colonists, and also sought to evangelize non-Christian peoples, including slaves, within the colonies.

After the Revolution, American clergy faced the quandary that their Oath of Allegiance to the British crown had become a treasonous state of affairs.  The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (American Episcopal Church) was formed swiftly, but faced a problem of episcopacy.  Samuel Seabury was elected bishop in 1783, but could not be consecrated by English bishops because the Oath of Allegiance to the crown would have been legally required.  Bishops of the nonjuring Scottish Episcopal Church consecrated Seabury the next year, and provided guidance for a non-established Anglican Church.  English laws were soon changed, permitting consecrations by English bishops without the oath.  The American Episcopal Church became the first province in communion with the see of Canterbury outside the British Isles.

The American Church differs importantly from its English forebear.  Bishops are elected by clergy and laity rather than appointed, there is a presiding bishop rather than an archbishop, and the highest governing body is the triennial General Convention.  The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) was revised for the American Church in 1789, and has developed independently ever since.  Although Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical divisions grew in the American Church, liturgically the divide between them became more amorphous than in England.  Some English observers are surprised at what may be characterized as "High Church Evangelicalism" in some American parishes--churches that are liturgically similar to Anglo-Catholicism but are theologically Evangelical.

 

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