I am working on a post that will trace the history and the abuses of the "Abandonment of Communion" canons of The Episcopal Church. In the course of my research, I came across some documents that seem to suggest that we have all been through this before. The occasion was the formation, by a group of "low church" dissenters led by the assistant Bishop of Kentucky, the Rt. Rev. George D. Cummins, of the Reformed Episcopal Church in December 1873. A former minister in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, the Rev. Marshall B. Smith, wrote a strong letter to the diocesan, the Rt. Rev. William Bacon Stevens, on June 6, 1874, in response to the address the latter had given at the Diocesan Convention that year. In the letter, the Rev. Smith (who had assisted Bishop Cummins in the formation of the REC) quotes the following part of Bishop Stevens' address:
"Since we last met in Convention an event has occurred which is unprecedented in the history of our Church. One of its Bishops has abandoned its communion and transferred, as he declared, the work and office which, by consecration, he received from this Church, to another sphere.
That other sphere has proved to be the establishing of a 'Reformed Episcopal Church.' This unfaithfulness to his threefold vows of ordination, this needless rending of the Church of Christ, he has crowned by an act unparalleled in the annals of Christ's Church the consecrating, by his single self, of a lawfully deposed clergyman to the work and office of a Bishop. Vigorous efforts have been made by this disaffected sect to asperse the purity of our Church and sow seeds of discontent amidst our clergy and laity. To this end, falsehoods, misrepresentations, perversions, have been resorted to through the press and the pulpit, in reference to our Prayer-book, our polity and our legislation."
Bishop Stevens was referring to the sequence of events by which Bishop Cummins first addressed a letter in November 1873 to his diocesan resigning from his post in the Diocese of Kentucky, followed by his formation of the Reformed Episcopal Church on December 6, 1873, and followed by his consecration (with no other Bishops participating) of the Rev. Charles Edward Cheney, previously deposed by his Bishop for his actions in helping to organize the REC, to be a bishop in the Reformed Episcopal Church on December 14, 1873 in Christ Church, Chicago. (Scroll down to the bottom of the page for the record of the consecration.)
Reverend Smith describes some of the turmoil and rancor that surrounded the Episcopalian reaction to Cummins' actions:
You speak of "this disaffected sect" as having used the pulpit and the press to asperse the purity of your Church, and sow seeds of discontent, etc. The fact is just the reverse of this. When the Presiding Bishop of your Church, by a monstrous reach of authority, based on no Canon of your Church, but on some supposed apostolic prerogative, declared any acts of Bishop Cummins "null and void," and even sent to him, at Chicago, a telegram designed to effect that object, which I saw at the time; when several Bishops hurriedly gathered in the city of New York, to do something, they hardly knew what, but, I fear, nothing very "apostolic;" when the press of the Protestant Episcopal Church, High, Low, and Broad, with a single exception, assailed our movement, week after week, with hard epithets, and cruel reproaches; we made no reply.Thus the response of the Presiding Bishop (who was also the Bishop of Kentucky, Bishop Cummins' diocesan) to the consecration by Bishop Cummins of a deposed clergyman was to declare it "null and void". Incidentally, the report of Rev. Smith's letter inserts this addendum concerning the legality of the Rev. Cheney's deposition:
[Since the above was written the decision of the Superior Court of Chicago, Illinois, has been rendered, to the effect that the Rev. C. E. Cheney, D.D., was not legally deposed according to the canons and regulations under which he was tried. All the canonical proceedings were pronounced null and void.]We see that the Illinois courts in 1874 did not shy away from ruling on the validity of the Church's canonical actions, much as the Pennsylvania courts are doing today in the case of the Rev. (now Rt. Rev.) David L. Moyer, deposed by Bishop Bennison.
The character of the Rt. Rev. Cheney can be seen in this sermon, preached at Christ Church in Chicago just before his consecration. He describes the trials he has been through with his congregation:
To-night in this congregation there are many who will listen to the subject on which I have been announced to speak with a very different spirit from that in which Paul was greeted by the congregation of Jews at Rome. For fourteen years they have upheld every effort of their pastor to bring about a reform in the Protestant Episcopal Church. To such, this is the dawn for which they have watched with eagerness through a long night of persecution, and trial and bitter disappointment. On the other hand, there may be some here that only know in regard to this subject just what St. Paul's hearers knew in reference to the Gospel. They only know that the religious press has thundered forth its anathemas against us. They only know that the pulpit of the Episcopal Church has resounded with denunciations of our course. They only know that the proclamation of Protestant Bishops has been given to the world, declaring that null and void and utterly without effect, is everything that may be done by this band of "schismatics," who have allied themselves together, as they claim, "against the Church."Rev. Cheney then describes the gulf that separates the two factions in words that sound familiar to us today:
The theory of the High Church party, down at its very foundation, is that, while the Bible is indeed the inspired word of God, it is to be received by the people, only with the authoritative interpretation of the Church. In other words, if I believe that the Bible teaches me a certain truth, and yet my minister tells me that that truth is not in the Bible, I must accept the teaching of my pastor, because he is the representative of the Church, rather than the plain unvarnished statements of the Scripture that God inspired.Rev. Cheney speaks about the different intellectual views that sustain the positions of the high-church versus the low-church factions:
The theory of the Low Church party, on the other hand, has ever been that which Chillingworth announced long years ago--that the sole rule of faith and practice is the Bible and the Bible alone; that Scripture is to be interpreted to the Christian conscience, not by Churches, not by Councils, not by creeds, not by confessions of faith, not by doctrines of any human authority whatever, but by the Spirit of God sought in prayer.
Between these two systems there can be no harmony. To reconcile them is as impossible as to make truth and error a perfect unit.
The Episcopal Church is filled with the restlessness of the age; it sympathizes with that spirit of freedom, of intellectual development that is characteristic of the time; the throbs of mental activity have started its sluggish pulses, and both parties have felt the effect. . . . The thinker who starts with putting an infallible interpretation of the Church upon the Scripture, will unquestionably go on to a more highly organized ecclesiastical system, because the Church greedily demands it. He must have a sacrificing priesthood, because that will give the Church more spiritual power. He must have the confessional, because that rivets that power upon the people. He must have the body and the blood of Christ present in the bread and in the wine, because that dogma elevates the doctrine of the Church above the word of God. He must teach that every baptized infant is regenerate in the hour that the drops of water are sprinkled upon its brow, because by that act, it is placed within the Church; and he wants to have it unmistakably taught that the act of regeneration is something of ecclesiastical rather than of divine accomplishment.He continues in the same vein for a while, and then turns to the expected deposition of Bishop Cummins:
On the other hand, the thinker who starts with the Bible, and the Bible alone, as the foundation of all divine truth, inevitably will push on to his conclusions also; and he will discover that the divine authority of Bishops is the figment of human fancy. He will discover that rites and ceremonies may be multiplied to a point where they will become intolerable bondage. He will come on to feel that the teaching of the Gospel is above sacraments and symbols and rites and ceremonies. He will come to that point, above all things else, where he will feel that, as high above all ecclesiastical authority as heaven is higher than the earth, is the enlightened Christian conscience. And when men follow out these diverging paths because they think and investigate, and push their premises to their ultimate conclusions, they must burst the shell that holds them together.
The highest churchman in the land cannot deny the validity of the Episcopate of the Reformed Episcopal Church. Bishop Cummins was ordained by Bishop Hopkins, Bishop Hopkins by Bishop White, and Bishop White by the Archbishop of Canterbury; and if that fact is worth anything, it certainly ought to stand for what it is worth.It was undoubtedly as a result of actions such as the consecrating of the Rt. Rev. Cheney that the Episcopal Church revised its canons in 1874 to provide that a Bishop charged with "abandonment of communion" would, with the consent of the three senior bishops in the Church, be "suspended" (i.e., inhibited) from the ability to perform any episcopal acts until the he either renounced or disproved the alleged acts of abandonment, or the House of Bishops voted to consent to his deposition. In the event, the House of Bishops did not confirm the deposition of Bishop Cummins until well after the six-month period for him to recant had expired.
The argument is sometimes made (I have heard it repeatedly of late) that, by and by, Bishop Cummins will be deposed. Did you know that every Bishop in the Protestant Episcopal Church to-day derives his consecration through a line descended from Bishops of the English Church, every man of whom was not only either suspended or deposed at the time of the Reformation, but was actually excommunicated from the Church of God? If deposition can take away authority to-day, it could have taken it away then. More than that, no power in the Protestant Episcopal Church can depose a Bishop under less than six months. The law holds in check the thunderbolts of Episcopal wrath, and before that time, other Bishops will have been ordained to perpetuate this apostolic succession, if it is worth perpetuity.
Next, Rev. Cheney takes up the criticisms of the validity of his coming consecration through the hands of just a single bishop:
Still again, it is argued that Bishop Cummins stands alone, that no other Bishop is shoulder to shoulder with him in this great conflict. "Does it not require," we are told, "the concurrence of three Bishops to ordain another Bishop?" It is exceedingly unfortunate for the High Church party--they have my sincerest sympathy--that they could not foresee the course of events. They have already answered that question. The Old Catholic movement in Germany has appealed very strongly to the High Church sympathy in England and America. They felt that here were Catholics, and yet Catholics who did not obey the Pope, and therefore, because they themselves were rampant Catholics in everything but obedience to the Pope, they felt that they were one with those who, while clinging to the character and the name of "Catholics," have thrown off the papal authority in Europe. Consequently, when Bishop Reinkens, the only Bishop of the old Catholic movement in Germany, (they have but one,) was consecrated, it was by one Bishop only, "with the laying on of hands of the presbytery." Bishop Coxe, of the Diocese of Western New York--a man well known throughout this land for his eloquence, for his poetic genius, and for an adherence to what he believes to be the truth, that does him honor alike as a man and as a Bishop, and yet who is one of the most decided of High Churchmen in regard to this doctrine of the apostolic succession, wrote a letter to Bishop Reinkens, the German Bishop, recognizing the fact that his consecration by a single Bishop was perfectly valid, and carried with it the full claim to the historic episcopate. And then, as if that were not enough, the "Church Journal" has published to the world the fact that Bishop Reinkens is undoubtedly in the apostolic succession, because, though the canons of the Church of England may require three; one Bishop only is necessary to transmit whatever authority may be in this episcopal prerogative.Rev. Cheney closes his sermon with words of advice for the two different factions:
Now, I have two pieces of counsel to two different classes of people in this assembly. I have no doubt that there are High Churchmen here to-night. I certainly have no words but those of welcome for them within these walls. Always are we glad to see them here; always do we desire that they too may enjoy the blessings of evangelical religion, and the preaching of a simple gospel. But while I have no words of bitterness, nothing in angry controversy to say to such as they, I have just one piece of counsel and advice. It is very old. More than eighteen hundred years ago, "Gamaliel, a doctor of the law," stood up in the Sanhedrim in the city of Jerusalem, and to men who were raging against a new sect that was "everywhere spoken against," he gave this advice: and I repeat it to every High Churchman who may be here to-night; I would repeat it to every Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church if my voice could reach him; I repeat it to those papers, secular or ecclesiastical, that revile or sneer at this movement toward reform:
"And now I say unto you, refrain from these men, and let them alone; for if this counsel and this work be of man, it will come to naught; but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God."
I have also a word of advice to this people--to those who meet together here to-night around their pastor. This is our day of rejoicing and of gladness. You have seen your Rector dishonored and disgraced before the world. You have seen his name cast out as a vile thing. You have heard with pompous dignity the sentence pronounced upon him that consigned him to the uncovenanted mercies outside of the Church of God--and you only twined your arms--God bless you for it!--you only twined your arms around him the more tenderly, you only stood by him with a stronger determination. To-day God is bringing your reward. To-day you have an Episcopal Church; you have the liturgy of your fathers; you have the truth as it is in Jesus, in connection with all that was worth retaining of what is known as the Protestant Episcopal Church. Let us prayerfully and solemnly and decidedly act together.
As I mentioned earlier, this sermon was followed by his consecration by Bishop Cummins a week later. The Presiding Bishop did move to depose Bishop Cummins, and at first declared him deposed without calling a meeting of the House of Bishops, but after obtaining written consents of a full majority of the House by mail. Because doubts remained about the validity of such a procedure under the canons, a revised canon on abandonment was adopted at the General Convention in 1874 in which the Presiding Bishop was directed to convene the House for a vote on deposition. Immediately after the adoption of this canon, the House convened and voted to depose Bishop Cummins. You can read a more detailed account of the beginnings of the Reformed Episcopal Church here.
It appears, if a new Anglican province in America is going to form out of the churches in the Anglican Network, that history might well be repeating itself.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose . . .