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.