Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Documentary History of ECUSA's Constitution

There is much litigation going on currently in State courts over the polity of the Episcopal Church. At the same time, there do not appear to be any online versions readily available of ECUSA's early Constitution, either as originally adopted or as subsequently from time to time amended. The commentary on the history of the Constitution and Canons published in 1981 by Messrs. White & Dykman, and reprinted in 1997, is available for download from this site (along with two supplements written by others, carrying the account through General Convention 1991). However, even it does not have in one place a complete version of ECUSA's original Constitution, which is so important for understanding the nature of ECUSA's mixed form of ecclesiastical polity.

Since the nature of ECUSA's polity is so much in dispute these days, I have decided that as a public service, I will publish in this post the earliest version of the Church's Constitution, as well as some further historical materials leading up to its formulation. The purpose will be so that everyone may access and understand the Church's organic evolution (see this earlier post for even more detail and background), out of a meeting of delegates from the various successors, in each new State, of the previously established Church of England in the respective colonies.

Let us begin with the six principles for the formation of a national replacement in the States for the Church of England, as it had existed in the Colonies prior to the Revolutionary War. The Rev. Dr. William White, of Christ Church in Philadelphia, later one of the first Bishops in the newly established Church, first proposed them in a pamphlet which he had published in 1782, entitled The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered:

I. That the Episcopal Church in these States is and ought to be independent of all foreign Authority, ecclesiastical or civil.

II. That it hath and ought to have, in common with all other religious Societies, full and exclusive Powers to regulate the Concerns of its own Communion.

III. That the Doctrines of the Gospel be maintained as now professed by the Church of England; and Uniformity of Worship be continued, as near as may be, to the Liturgy of the said Church.

IV. That the Succession of the Ministry be agreeably to the Usage which requireth the three Orders of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons ; that the Rights and Powers of the same respectively be ascertained, and that they be exercised according to reasonable Laws, to be duly made.

V. That to make Canons or Laws, there be no other Authority than that of a Representative Body of the Clergy and Laity conjointly.

VI. That no Powers be delegated to a general ecclesiastical Government, except such as cannot conveniently be exercised by the Clergy and Vestries in their respective Congregations.
(Emphasis added.) The last principle thus expressed from the very outset the belief that the "general ecclesiastical Government" would consist of powers delegated to it from local congregations. Those who contend that the lack of any limitation in the powers so delegated means that they are unlimited, or that once delegated, they may not be withdrawn, are ignorant of this documentary history of how General Convention came into being.

This pamphlet had a wide reception in the mid-Atlantic States, and served as the basis for a further "Declaration of certain fundamental rights" agreed upon by the assembled former Anglican clergy of the State of Maryland, at a gathering in Annapolis in August 1783, which stated in relevant part as follows:
DECLARATION of certain fundamental Rights and Liberties of the Protestant Episcopal Church of Maryland, &C.

WHEREAS by the CONSTITUTION and FORM of Government of this State "All Persons professing the Christian Religion, are equally entitled to Protection in their Religious Liberty . . . And Whereas the ecclesiastical and spiritual Independence of the different religious Denominations, Societies, Congregations, and Churches of Christians in this State, necessarily follows from, or is included in, their civil Independence,

WHEREFORE WE the Clergy of the Protestant Episcopal Church of Maryland (heretofore denominated the Church of England, as by Law established) with all Duty to the civil Authority of the State, and with all Love and Good-will to our Fellow-Christians of every other religious Denomination, do hereby declare, make known, and claim, the following, as certain of the fundamental Rights and Liberties inherent in and belonging to the said Episcopal Church . . .

I. WE consider it as the undoubted Right of the said Protestant Episcopal Church, in common with other Christian Churches under the American Revolution, to compleat and preserve herself as an entire Church, agreeably to her ancient Usages and Profession, and to have the free Enjoyment and free Exercise of those purely spiritual Powers, which are essential to the Being of every Church or Congregation of the faithful, and which, being derived only from CHRIST and his APOSTLES, are to be maintained independent of every foreign or other Jurisdiction, so far as may be consistent with the civil Rights of Society.

II. That ever since the Reformation, it hath been the received Doctrine of the Church whereof we are Members . . . "That there be these three Orders of Ministers in CHRIST'S Church, BISHOPS, PRIESTS, and DEACONS," and that an Episcopal Ordination and Commission are necessary to the valid Administration of the Sacraments, and the due Exercise of the Ministerial Functions in the said Church.

III. That, without calling in Question the Rights, Modes, and Forms of any other Christian Churches or Societies, or wishing the least Contest with them on that Subject, we consider and declare it to be an essential Right of the said Protestant Episcopal Church to have and enjoy the Continuance of the said three Orders of Ministers forever, so far as concerns Matters purely spiritual; and that no Persons, in the Character of Ministers, except such as are in the Communion of the said Church, and duly called to the Ministry by regular Episcopal Ordination, can or ought to be admitted into, or enjoy any of the "Churches, Chapels, Glebes, or other Property," formerly belonging to the Church of England in this State, and which by the Constitution and Form of Government is secured to the said Church forever, by whatsoever Name, she the said Church, or her superior Order of Ministers, may in future be denominated.

IV. That as it is the Right, so it will be the Duty, of the said Church, when duly organized, constituted, and represented in a Synod or Convention of the different Orders of her Ministry and People, to revise her Liturgy, Forms of Prayer, and public Worship, in order to adapt the same to the late Revolution and other local Circumstances of America; which it is humbly conceived, may and will be done, without any other or farther Departure from the venerable Order and beautiful Forms of Worship of the Church from whence we sprung, than may be found expedient in the Change of our Situation from a DAUGHTER to a SISTER-CHURCH.
(Emphasis again added.) The editor of the volume in which this declaration is to be found appends a piece of contemporary correspondence, with the following introductory remarks (I have added the italics):
In connection with these "Fundamental Principles," which appear not only in this printed address, but again and again in subsequent Journals and fragments of Journals of the Maryland Conventions, it may be well to subjoin the following important letter, from the Rev. Dr. William Smith, the leading spirit in the Maryland organization, which bears strongly upon the question of diocesan independence, as held by the framers of our ecclesiastical Constitution. It forms, moreover, a fitting preface to the "Proceedings" it so clearly indicates in advance.

Dear Sir:

The Clergy of Maryland are to meet (in pursuance of the sanction obtained from the G. Assembly) on the 13th of this Month; but as Mr. Gates and myself were to call this Meeting, we found on consulting some of our nearest Brethren, that they did not think it proper, nor that we were authorized, to call any Clergy to our assistance from the neighboring States that the Episcopal Clergy of Maryland were in some respects peculiarly circumstanced, and ought, in the first instance, to have a preparatory Convention or Conference, to consider and frame a DECLARATION of their own Rights as one of the Churches of a separate and independent State, to agree upon some articles of Government and Unity among themselves, to fix some future Time of meeting by adjournment, to appoint a Committee to bring in a Plan of SOME FEW alterations that may be found necessary in the Liturgy and Service of the Church, and by the authority of this first Meeting to open a correspondence on the subject with the Clergy of the neighboring States, and to have some speedy future and more general meeting with the Clergy of those States, or Committees from them, to unite if possible in the alterations to be made, which many among us think cannot have a full Church Ratification, till we have on some plan or another the three Orders of Bishops, Priests and Deacons to concur in the same. What STATE or civic ratification may be necessary, or whether any is a question yet to be determined. In Maryland, I presume, a few words of a Declaratory Act, that a Clergy, ordained in such a form, and using a Liturgy with such alterations as may be agreed upon, are to be considered as entitled to the Glebes, Churches and other property declared by the Constitution to belong to the CHURCH OF ENGLAND for ever. I say such a short Act as this, or the Opinion of the Judges that such Act is not necessary, is I conceive all that will be wanted.

Chester: August 4th, 1783.
To Rev. Dr. WHITE.
From the Bishop White MSS., in the possession of the Rev. F. L. Hawks, D.D.
There followed a gathering of clergy and laity from New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey at Brunswick, New Jersey on May 11, 1784, which resulted in a determination to gather again in October, and to invite representatives from churches in additional States. This meeting also spurred the clergy and laity from the parishes in Pennsylvania to begin their own organizing. To that end, they assembled in Philadelphia toward the end of May 1784. The meeting was the first of its kind in the former Colonies to include laity from each and every parish. It ended up by adopting the following recommendation concerning the creation of a "standing committee" -- the first use of this term in the nascent Church:
That they think it expedient to appoint a standing committee of the Episcopal church in this state, consisting of clergy and laity; that the said committee be empowered to correspond and confer with representatives from the Episcopal church in the other states, or any of them; and assist in framing an ecclesiastical government; that a constitution of ecclesiastical government, when framed, be reported to the several congregations, through their respective ministers, church-wardens, and vestrymen, to be binding on all the congregations consenting to it, as soon as a majority of the congregations shall have consented; that a majority of the committee, or any less number by them appointed, be a quorum; that they be desired to keep minutes of their proceedings; and that they be bound by the following instructions or fundamental principles. [There follow the six fundamental principles first set out by the Rev. Dr. White in his pamphlet.]
The "standing committee" so formed did communicate with clergy and laity in other States, as I have already related in this earlier post. This resulted in a series of further meetings and drafts of a national constitution, as I have spelled out in great detail there, and I will not repeat here what I said earlier. My concern from this point on is to set out the version of the Church Constitution as finally agreed upon by the assembled representatives of the Churches in the States of Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina in the city of Philadelphia in September-October 1789, and as finally ratified by diocesan conventions in each of those States, since the text does not readily appear elsewhere on the Web. Here, then, is the text of that original Constitution, in full:


ART. 1. There shall be a General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America on the second Tuesday of September, in the year of our Lord 1792, and on the second Tuesday of September in every third year afterwards, in such place as shall be determined by the Convention; and special meetings may be called at other times, in the manner hereafter to be provided for; and this Church, in a majority of the States which shall have adopted this Constitution, shall be represented, before they shall proceed to business, except that the representation from two States shall be sufficient to adjourn; and in all business of the Convention, freedom of debate shall be allowed.

ART. 2. The Church in each State shall be entitled to a representation of both the Clergy and the Laity, which representation shall consist of one or more Deputies, not exceeding four of each Order, chosen by the Convention of the State: and in all questions, when required by the Clerical or Lay representation from any State, each Order shall have one vote; and the majority of suffrages by States shall be conclusive in each Order, provided such majority comprehend a majority of the States represented in that Order. The concurrence of both Orders shall be necessary to constitute a vote of the Convention. If the Convention of any State should neglect or decline to appoint Clerical Deputies, or if they should neglect or decline to appoint Lay Deputies, or if any of those of either Order appointed should neglect to attend, or be prevented by sickness or any other accident, such State shall nevertheless be considered as duly represented by such Deputy or Deputies as may attend, whether lay or clerical. And if, through the neglect of the Convention of any of the Churches which shall have adopted, or may hereafter adopt this Constitution, no Deputies, either Lay or Clerical, should attend at any General Convention, the Church in such State shall nevertheless be bound by the acts of such Convention.

ART. 3. The Bishops of this Church, when there shall be three or more, shall, whenever General Conventions are held, form a separate House, with a right to originate and propose acts for the concurrence of the House of Deputies, composed of Clergy and Laity ; and when any proposed act shall have passed the House of Deputies, the same shall be transmitted to the House of Bishops, who shall have a negative thereupon unless adhered to by four-fifths of the other House. And all acts of the Convention shall be authenticated by both Houses. And in all cases, the House of Bishops shall signify to the Convention their approbation or disapprobation, the latter with their reasons in writing, within three days after the proposed act shall have been reported to them for concurrence, and in failure thereof it shall have the operation of a law. But until there shall be three or more Bishops as aforesaid, any Bishop attending a General Convention shall be a member ex officio, and shall vote with the Clerical Deputies of the State to which he belongs; and a Bishop shall then preside.

ART. 4. The Bishop or Bishops in every State shall be chosen agreeably to such rules as shall be fixed by the Convention of that State. And every Bishop of this Church shall confine the exercise of his Episcopal office to his proper Diocese or District, unless requested to ordain or confirm, or perform any other act of the Episcopal office, by any Church destitute of a Bishop.

ART. 5. A Protestant Episcopal Church in any of the United States not now represented, may, at any time hereafter, be admitted, on acceding to this Constitution.

ART. 6. In every State, the mode of trying Clergymen shall be instituted by the Convention of the Church therein. At every trial of a Bishop there shall be one or more of the Episcopal Order present: and none but a Bishop shall pronounce sentence of deposition or degradation from the Ministry on any Clergyman, whether Bishop, or Presbyter, or Deacon.

ART. 7. No person shall be admitted to Holy Orders, until he shall have been examined by the Bishop and by two Presbyters, and shall have exhibited such testimonials and other requisites as the Canons in that case provided may direct. Nor shall any person be ordained until he shall have subscribed the following declaration: "I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation: and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrines and worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church in these United States." No person ordained by a foreign Bishop shall be permitted to officiate as a Minister of this Church, until he shall have complied with the Canon or Canons in that case provided, and have also subscribed the aforesaid declaration.

ART. 8. A Book of Common Prayer, Administration of the Sacraments, and other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church, Articles of Religion, and a form and manner of making, ordaining, and consecrating Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, when established by this or a future General Convention, shall be used in the Protestant Episcopal Church in those States, which shall have adopted this Constitution.

ART. 9. This Constitution shall be unalterable, unless in General Convention by the Church in a majority of the States which may have adopted the same; and all alterations shall be first proposed in one General Convention, and made known to the several State Conventions, before they shall be finally agreed to, or ratified, in the ensuing General Convention.

Done in General Convention of the Bishops, Clergy, and Laity of the Church, the second day of October, 1789, and ordered to be transcribed into the Book of Records, and subscribed, which was done as follows, viz.


SAMUEL SEABURY, D.D., Bishop of Connecticut.

WILLIAM WHITE, D.D., Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Pennsylvania.


WILLIAM SMITH, D.D., President of the House of Clerical and Lay Deputies, and Clerical Deputy from Maryland.


SAMUEL PARKER, D.D., Rector of Trinity Church, Boston.


BELA HUBBARD, A.M., Rector of Trinity Church, New Haven.
ABRAHAM JARVIS, A.M., Rector of Christ Church, Middletown.


BENJAMIN MOORE, D.D., } Assistant Ministers of
ABRAHAM BEACH, D.D., } Trinity Church, in the City of New York.
RICHARD HARRISON, Lay Deputy from the State of New York.


UZAL OGDEN, Rector of Trinity Church, Newark.
WILLIAM FRAZER, A.M., Rector of St. Michael's Church, Trenton, and St. Andrew's Church, Amwell.
R. STRETTELL JONES, } Lay Deputies.


SAMUEL MAGAW, D.D., Rector of St. Paul's, Philadelphia.
ROBERT BLACKWELL, D.D., Senior Assistant Minister of Christ Church and St. Peter's, Philadelphia.
JOSEPH G. J. BEND, Assistant Minister of Christ Church and St. Peter's, Philadelphia.
JOSEPH PILMORE, Rector of the United Churches of Trinity, St. Thomas, and All Saints.
TENCH COXE, } from the State
FRANCIS HOPKINSON, } of Pennsylva-


JOSEPH COWDEN, A.M., Rector of St. Anne's.
ROBERT CLAY, Rector of Emanuel and St. James's Churches.


JOHN BISSETT, A.M., Rector of Shrews bury Parish, Kent County.


JOHN BRACKEN, Rector of Bruton Parish, Williamsburg.


ROBERT SMITH, D.D., Rector of St. Philip's Church, Charleston.
WILLIAM SMITH, } Lay Deputies from
WILLIAM BRISBANE, } the State of South Carolina.

Note the many features in common with the version we have today, as well as the provisions that have been greatly expanded (e.g., Art. V, on how dioceses form and join) and that were subsequently dropped altogether (e.g., the last sentence of Art. 2, as discussed and explained in the paper by Mark McCall published by the Anglican Communion Institute [see n. 44 and the text at that point]; repealed as part of the overhaul made in 1901.) As I deem it useful, I will document additional versions of the Constitution in subsequent posts.


  1. "I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation: and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrines and worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church in these United States."

    Would that the clergy of the current Episcopal Church faithfully follow this dictate.

  2. In this diocese (SC) we still do. In fact one of our recent resolutions concerned this very thing and even went further:

    Part of Resolution #1
    “In the Diocese of South Carolina, we understand the substance of the "doctrine, discipline and worship‟ of The Episcopal Church to mean that which is expressed in the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Creeds, the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral and the theology of the historic prayer books.”

  3. Thank you so very much. Most informative and helpful.
    I hope this will be passed on to attorneys all over the United States who, if they are acting in their client's best interests, should contact an expert such as yourself.

  4. The influence of the Articles of Confederation on the first constitution of the Episcopal Church is very apparent.

    Any constitutional crisis in the life of the Episcopal Church appears to be pretty much a parallel to the constitutional crisis of the United States when operating under the Articles.

  5. Most interesting observation, rrchapman. Could you expand on your first point, viz. evidence of the apparent influence of the Articles of Confederation on PECUSA's original Constitution?

    It appears that the Curmudgeon's current series of posts may well shed some light on your second point re: PECUSA's constitutional crises.


  6. To start:

    1. Brevity.

    2. President, or Presiding Bishop, heads Congress, or House of Delegates, instead of an executive branch.

    3. No judicial provisions at national level.

    It took the United States under 10 years to recognize the need to centralize power in the federal government. This process is still continuing, as communications and transportation call for more uniformity across the nation.

    The Episcopal Church started to see the need for more centralized power after the Civil War. It has only been about 50 or so years that we created an executive branch by having the Presiding Bishop leave his (or her) diocese to take up an office more akin to a primate than leader among fellow bishops.

    Communications and transportation are changing things for us, too. Only a bit slower.

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