Samuel Seabury Day – God Bless America

When I walked into Grace Cathedral in San Francisco last year to begin a three week visit as part of my sabbatical, I was hugely struck by this scene that was one of the large murals on the right hand wall of the nave. It is a scene that takes place in Scotland – the very scene that ties the Scottish Episcopal Church to the US-based Episcopal Church.

What’s going on in this picture is the consecration of Samuel Seabury as the first bishop for the American church and today – 14 November is the anniversary of that event which took place in Aberdeen in 1784.

When I first became a Scottish Episcopalian, the consecration of Seabury perhaps had less significance than it does today. It is one of those events which one used to think of merely as a historical anomaly – the Church of England refusing for political reasons to consecrate a bishop of an independent American church and the Scottish Bishops willingly doing it instead. However the great upheavals in the Anglican Communion have taken place since then and Seabury’s consecration seems now to be much more significant.

One of the things that bewilders American Episcopalians is why the Church of England seemed to abandon them during these upheavals. It is all the more painful for ordinary Episcopalians over there because they have looked with a fondness on so many aspects of what they believe English Anglican life to be. Indeed, one might suggest that this fondness might almost border on religious idolatry if religious idolatry wasn’t really very un-English in itself. I lost track of the number of people who sidled up to me in the states (even in uber-inclusive San Francisco) and enquired about my men and boys choir (which, of course doesn’t exist) or talked in devotedly hushed tones about that Christmas Service from King’s (which I actually think is a dreadful pickled mess of a liturgy). All things English have given many Episcopalians in the US a sense of rootedness which meant that they simple couldn’t comprehend the behaviour of the Church of England in general and Rowan Williams in particular over Gene Robinson’s consecration. (“He didn’t even come and see us….”)

Of course, US people look over the Atlantic through rose-tinted glasses in the same way that if I’m not careful I look back with rainbow tinted lenses. If Americans realised that there is an uncomfortable presumption that Britain still Rules the Waves over here long after British dominance of the world then it all might make a bit more sense. More than that, I found that Americans generally believe American foreign policy to be a source of good in the world that others fail to see. The presumptions of a right to rule, a right to dominate, a right to use military might to establish economic superiority have some of their roots in a British colonial sensibility. America inherited from us more than a devotion to dull carol services.

I was incredibly moved to see Samuel Seabury’s Scottish consecration represented so faithfully in SF. Those bishops gently resting their hands on his head and invoking the Holy Spirit represent a church that the C of E was literally not prepared to touch.

Here’s to the links between the Episcopal churches of the US and Scotland. We love you now, even if the Church of England doesn’t. We loved you back then when the Church of Englandshire certainly didn’t.

God bless America and God bless the church founded by Samuel Seabury with a helpful nudge from Scotland.

And by way of marking the day, here’s an interview I did with Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori,  Presiding Bishop of the US-based church in 2010 when she visited our synod.

Here’s to you, Bishop Robinson

Gene small

The Church of England is in full brouhaha mode today over gay bishops once again. Before saying anything about that, I think it is important to give a shout out to the Rt Rev Gene Robinson who is retiring today as Bishop of New Hampshire. It was obvious when he was elected and consecrated that the issues which excited people so much about him were going to be coming to churches all around the world. So it has proved.

I caught up with Bishop Gene in September in San Francisco. He was the preacher in Grace Cathedral whilst I was there on my sabbatical trip. I could see him trying to work out who I was from across the sanctuary. When I reminded him that I was the person who invited him to celebrate the eucharist in Glasgow during the Lambeth conference, a time when he was said to be banned from every altar in England, his face lit up. Indeed, he described the visit to Glasgow as a “lifesaver” at a very low time.

I’m grateful to him for his ministry here, one of the most electric Sunday mornings since I came here. I’m also grateful to him for keeping the faith, preaching the gospel and standing up to injustice. And yes, I’m proud of having known the first out gay man in a partnership (marriage now…) who became a bishop.  So, here’s to you, Bishop Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you can know. And I’m thankful for what you shared about that love whilst Bishop of New Hampshire.

Bishop Gene seemed full of beans and pleased to be alive. He has good cause. When I stood next to him in 2008 in St Mary’s there were serious threats being made to his life and he couldn’t even distribute the communion elements because there was a fear that someone would stab him. Thank God things were more relaxed when I saw him recently. It was the Feast of St Francis in San Francisco itself and he and I got involved in blessing dogs, cats and a rather lively macaw.

It is abundantly clear today that it is not all about Gene Robinson any more. The compromise that has been announced in England in the last 24 hours only turns the clock back by about 18 months and I’m genuinely surprised by all the excitement in the media about it. Nothing has changed since yesterday. The key facts remain the same:

  • The Church of England behaves badly to gay people in leadership
  • The public discourse of the Church of England at major festivals is dominated by a prurient interest in Jeffrey John’s private life.
  • The media don’t understand it but like the fuss and use any excuse to put nutters on the television

I see only two ways in which this could end. Either one side or the other will win or alternatively there will be an agreement within the church that different views about human sexuality may be held with integrity. I rather favour the latter. It would need some common understandings about sexual ethics that focused on fidelity, passion and love rather than this uninspiring display of public disagreement but I think that could be achieved.

I see no other options.

Here in Scotland, I think that it is quite likely that a majority of people in the church would agree with me though it has not been tested. Meanwhile, our College of Bishops and our Faith and Order Board continue to behave as though a winner takes all approach to these issues (whereby we are all supposed to have our actions limited by the opinions of some) is the answer to what is wrong.

The truth is, that attitude is not the answer, it is the problem. And somehow or another we need to move towards something more sensible, for our good and the good of all God’s holy church.