“The Hand of providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.” –George Washington
George Washington was a devoted Episcopalian. While he was not an outspoken evangelical like fellow Founders Benjamin Rush, Roger Sherman and Thomas McKean, he was a devout Christian.
During the Revolutionary Era, General Washington served as a vestryman and had a designated pew at Pohick Church in Mount Vernon, Virginia, which he was instrumental in founding. Weather permitting, he frequently attended Christ Church in Alexandria, ten miles north of Mount Vernon (a two-hour trip by carriage).
According to his family, Washington’s days began and ended with private devotions in his library, and he reserved most Sundays for family only, accepting very few visitors.
George Washington’s adopted daughter, Eleanor Custis Lewis, wrote of his faith, “I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray, ‘that they may be seen of men.’ He communed with his God in secret.” (Matthew 6:5-6)
The Episcopal Church, the American branch of the World Anglican Communion, has deep roots in American history. In the Colonial period, it was the official church of Virginia (1609), Massachusetts (1620), New York (1693), Maryland (1702), South Carolina (1706), North Carolina (1730) and Georgia (1758).
The longest continually inhabited church in America is Bruton Parish, established in 1715 adjacent to William and Mary College in Williamsburg. Revolutionary leaders including Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry attended Bruton when they were convened as members of the Virginia House of Burgesses. The earliest record of an Anglican Book of Common Prayer service on American soil occurred almost 200 years prior to the Revolution (19 June 1579), and was conducted by Sir Frances Drake’s crew.
So, you ask, why the lesson regarding the heritage of the Episcopal Church?
Because it is a regrettable case study of how liberalism has eroded the foundations of our great American heritage. As a fifth-generation Episcopalian, I have joined with many fellow Episcopalians protesting this erosion with vigor – alas, maybe too little too late.
George Washington wrote that, should we want our liberty secure and freedom to endure, we must “acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, obey his will, be grateful for his benefits, and humbly implore his protection and favors.”
Unfortunately, some 200 years after the American Revolution, many Episcopal Church leaders have abandoned the church’s venerable legacy and forsaken the Almighty’s providence. Liberals in the church endeavor to interpret the Bible eisegetically versus exegetically in order that it comport with their contemporary social agenda rather than its “original intent” – much as Leftists interpret the so-called “living Constitution”.
In other words, they reject the authority of the Bible (as outlined in the Episcopal Articles of Faith), much as they reject the authority of our Constitution.
So significant is this rejection that many Bishops in the World Anglican Communion now view the U.S. as a “mission field,” and are establishing their own Anglican Church plants within U.S. Episcopal diocese.
Case in point: In 1998, the decennial Lambeth Conference, a gathering of World Anglican Communion leaders representing 70 million Anglicans (the third largest communion in the world after the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches) decreed clearly that homosexuality is “incompatible with Scripture” and rejected “ordaining those involved in same gender unions.”
Then, in 2003, the “enlightened” U.S. bishops rebuffed the World Anglican Communion and codified their rejection of Scriptural authority by ordaining Vicky Gene Robinson, a divorced father of two who now resides with his homosexual partner, as Bishop of New Hampshire. (For a comprehensive exposition on this issue, read “Gender Identity, the Homosexual Agenda and the Christian Response.”)
In turn, a year later, the World Anglican Communion called on the Episcopal Church to “repent.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, head of the Church of England and primus inter pares or “first among equals” in World Communion standing, then issued a covenant affirming that national churches agree to maintain “biblical standards” of Anglican doctrine – in other words, abide by Scripture – but Williams’s actions have more to do with appeasement than conviction.
Responding to Williams, Vicky Gene Robinson insists, “I think integrity is so important. … I would feel better about the Church of England’s stance, its reluctance to support the Episcopal Church in what it has done, if it would at least admit that this is not just an American challenge. If all the gay people stayed away from church on a given Sunday, the Church of England would be close to shut down, between its organists, its clergy, its wardens….”
Earlier this year, World Communion leaders set a 30 September deadline for Episcopalians to atone, or potentially suffer excommunication from the world churches.
The week prior to that deadline, the Episcopal House of Bishops conference attempted to reach a compromise, agreeing to “exercise restraint” (whatever that means) in regard to the ordination of homosexual bishops and to disapprove of “any public rites of blessing of same-sex unions,” explaining they did so “with the hope of mending the tear in the fabric” of the communion.
Of course, the “tear” is not in the “fabric” of the communion but in the understanding of God’s Word.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, head of the Episcopal Church, offered this bit of accession: “We all hope that our sacrificial actions and our united actions at this meeting once again demonstrate to the wider communion that we treasure our membership and we treasure the other members of the Anglican community.” She added, “I have no doubt that the General Convention [in 2009] will revisit these issues.”
Nonetheless, the decennial Lambeth Conference next July may pre-empt any highbrow pontifications by Episcopalians in 2009. As David Phillips of the Church Society notes, “The problem is that, at heart, [Schori’s statement] changes nothing. Most of these bishops are still committed to teach things that are contrary to Scripture.”
As it stands now, the Episcopal Church may have bought itself some time, but it is no small irony that this Church, which prides itself as being a protagonist of the “social gospel movement” (particularly in regards to racial equality), is now at odds with mostly black bishops and archbishops from African nations. The prevailing, albeit unspoken, position of many American bishops is that these poor black souls are just not sufficiently educated or sophisticated enough to discern “the truth” in such matters.
George Washington wrote, “The blessed Religion revealed in the word of God will remain an eternal and awful monument to prove that the best Institution may be abused by human depravity; and that they may even, in some instances be made subservient to the vilest purposes.”
Such is the degeneracy within the once august institution of the Episcopal Church. Membership has declined to about 2.3 million nationally (official roles not actuall attendance, which is far less) – much smaller than other mainstream Christian denominations.
Perhaps such is also the plight of a church born out of wedlock. In 1534, when the Roman Catholic Church would not grant Henry VIII an annulment from his 25-year marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry broke with Rome and instituted the Church of England – which granted his divorce.
Short of unfeigned repentance, another divorce, that of the Episcopal Church from the World Anglican Communion, looms just over the horizon.