Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

The Revolutionary William White and Democratic Catholicity

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

The Revolutionary William White and Democratic Catholicity

Article excerpt

On 4 February 1937, in an address delivered at a church service commemorating the 150th anniversary of the consecration of bishops for America by the English archbishops, the Reverend Walter H. Stowe claimed that those consecrations were "as revolutionary in the ecclesiastical world as the War of Independence was in the political world."1 To speak of the conferring of an episcopal succession as a revolution would today seem more appropriate for what occurred on 11 February 1989, when Barbara Clementine Harris was consecrated suffragan bishop in Boston's Hynes Auditorium than for what occurred on 4 February 1787, in London's Lambeth Chapel. But if the ecclesiastical revolution commencing with the consecration of Bishops White and Provoost actually "introduced into the world a democratic type of the episcopate,"2 as Stowe claimed, then the consecration of Barbara Harris might better be understood as the long and belabored outcome of those revolutionary democratic principles introduced into the ecclesiastical world more than 200 years before. That those democratic principles were then but in an embryonic state does not alter their revolutionary significance in 1787. In Stowe's words, perhaps more perceptive than he could have known: "It began that course of history which was to reveal more and more clearly that there is such a thing as a Democratic Catholicism."3 But what were the democratic principles that constituted such an ecclesiastical revolution at the time? And how did their introduction into the Episcopal Church in America affect the nature of traditional catholic orthodoxy? These are the questions this essay will explore with reference to the writings of William White.

If Stowe is correct about the revolutionary introduction of a democratic Catholicism with the English consecration of the first American bishops, and if the force of those democratic principles could not be realized all at once, then part of understanding where the Episcopal Church in America is today may require a renewed appreciation for her revolutionary beginning. But is it possible to join democratic principles with catholic ecclesiology and still maintain the essential integrity of both? In The Language of Liberty Jonathan Clark has made a correlation between heterodoxy and political dissent, particularly as they have a bearing on the religious nature of the American Revolution.4 Following Clark's lead, A. M. C. Waterman has endeavored to clarify further the correlation between catholic ecclesiology and the principle of subordination.5 For these authors, Trinitarian orthodoxy and catholic ecclesiology are seen to be at odds with democratic principles, which therefore appears to question the very compatibility of that which William White thought could be joined together in an American Episcopal Church.

In order to engage the questions which Clark and Waterman have raised concerning orthodoxy and conformity, heterodoxy and rebellion, and the entire compatibility of democracy with Catholicism, a study of the political principles and the basic theology of William White offers a significant test case. What revolutionary political and ecclesiastical principles did William White espouse, and how did they shape the polity and orthodoxy of the Episcopal Church after the American Revolution?

The Philadelphia born William White was twenty-eight years old when revolutionary political leaders in his own city declared independence for America. Reared by his parents, Thomas and Esther White, in the United Parish of Christ Church and St. Peter's, William White would die as the rector and bishop for the same parish in 1836. A graduate of the interdenominational College of Philadelphia, White later studied theology in England where also he was ordained deacon in 1770 and presbyter in 1772. Upon his return to Philadelphia, he became an assistant minister in his home parish, and the following year married Mary Harrison, the daughter of the city's mayor. …

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