The Church of England and the American Episcopal Church

by Philip Jones

The consecration of Bishop Seabury was performed by Scottish bishops, not by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and was not authorised by any English, or British, law (Phillimore Ecclesiastical Law 2nd ed 1895, p.1771).  However, the Archbishop of Canterbury did ordain two other American bishops under the authority of an Act of Parliament of 1786 (26 Geo 3, c.84, now repealed).

The 1786 Act enabled either Archbishop to consecrate as bishop ‘citizens of countries out of His Majesty’s Dominions’, without requiring the Monarch’s licence for their election or the royal mandate for their consecration, and without requiring the candidates to take the oaths of allegiance and obedience.

However, this power was subject to conditions.  The Monarch’s licence was required for the consecration of the particular candidate.  The Archbishop was required to be ‘fully ascertained of [the candidates’] sufficiency in good learning, of the soundness of their faith, and of the purity of their manners’.  The consecration was to be performed according to the manner prescribed by ecclesiastical law, that is, not by the Archbishop alone, but with the assistance of two other bishops.

Thus the provisions of the 1786 Act do not support the supposed primacy or ‘presidency’ of the Archbishop of Canterbury over the Anglican Communion.  The Archbishop did not, and could not, consecrate the American bishops on his own authority, but only on the authority of the British Parliament and with the licence of the Monarch (who was then King George III).  He did not consecrate the bishops by himself, but with the assistance of other Church of England bishops. 

Moreover, the power to consecrate was shared with the Archbishop of York.  If the Archbishop of Canterbury had suddenly died or been taken gravely ill and so been unable to act, or had merely been unwilling to act, the Archbishop of York could have performed the American consecrations just as lawfully.

It is true that the Archbishop of Canterbury was the principal agent of the American consecrations, but in performing them he was acting as an official of the Church of England and in accordance with English law, as laid down by the (secular) authority of Parliament.  He was not exercising any power or charism supposedly inherent in his office.

It is arguable that the 1786 Act, by permitting the consecration of American bishops in the Church of England, gave implicit legal recognition to the earlier consecration of Seabury.  The historical evidence apparently suggests that the Act was passed after the American ambassador had assured the Archbishop that the consecrations would not be regarded as an interference in domestic American politics (Chapman, Anglicanism, OUP 2006, p.99).  It is therefore arguable that the consecrations enjoy recognition in international law, as well as in domestic English law.  However, the basis of any legal recognition is the secular authority of the British Parliament and of the American government.