By Mark Michael
Bishops and deputies from across the Episcopal Church who convene in Baltimore for the 80th General Convention follow those who gathered at previous “Charm City” conclaves to debate the burying of duelists, sidestep Ritualist prosecution, and approve the first major revision of the American Book of Common Prayer. This, Baltimore’s fourth General Convention, will also be the only one in which bishops and deputies are not asked to approve a new hymnal. There will be masks, but — let us hope — at least a little singing, to honor the tradition.
General Convention 1808: Duels, Hymns, and a Scoundrel
In 1808, when Baltimore hosted the ninth General Convention, it was America’s third-largest city (behind New York and Philadelphia, the only cities to serve more often as hosts for the gathering). The Episcopal Church was relatively strong in Maryland, where Anglicanism had been established for over 70 years. The Diocese of Maryland was the first to organize itself, in 1780, and its initial bishop, Thomas John Claggett, was consecrated 12 years later, the church’s first on American soil.
Claggett welcomed “the House of Clergy and Laity,” as it was then called, and just one fellow bishop (William White, the presiding bishop) to St. Paul’s Church. A later building on the same site stands just a few blocks up Cathedral Hill from the Convention Center that will host bishops and deputies this summer.
Old St. Paul’s, as it is known today, was one of 30 parishes established by the General Assembly in 1692. The church had been constructed in 1730, one of the first public buildings in the new city of Baltimore. By 1808, it was proving inadequate for the city’s growing population (evening services during the Convention needed to be held at the newly built St. Peter’s Church because St. Paul’s couldn’t be fitted with enough candles), and it would be torn down and replaced with a larger structure a few years later.
General Convention 1808 was a modest affair, lasting only nine days. Seven of the ten dioceses sent a total of 27 deputies, and the two attending bishops convened in the rector’s parlor.
The Convention approved a significant change from the Episcopal Church’s original canons, striking a provision that had allowed the House of Clergy and Laity to annul a veto of the House of Bishops by a four-fifths majority. It added 30 hymns to the hymnal, more than doubling the number authorized for use. Five of the 30 (in current versions — “Hark the glad sound,” “Come, we that love the Lord,” “Awake, my soul,” “All praise to thee, my God, this night,” and “Before the Lord’s eternal throne”) have been sung by Episcopalians ever since.
The convention also passed canons forbidding ministers from marrying divorced couples and using the burial service for people killed in duels. The latter was at least an indirect rebuke of Bishop Benjamin Moore of New York, who had buried the loser of the age’s most famous duel, Alexander Hamilton, in Trinity Churchyard four years earlier.
The House of Bishops also pointedly refused to consider an appeal from Ammi Rogers, a former priest of the Diocese of Connecticut, who claimed to have been unjustly defrocked by his bishop. They asserted that they had no authority to act in the case, adding that “having made a candid and impartial inquiry into his character and conduct … they were of opinion that Ammi Rogers, far from having been treated with injustice, had not received a sentence sufficiently severe.”
The bishops’ judgment was apparently vindicated nine years later, when Rogers, then working as an itinerant evangelist, impregnated a young woman, Asenath Smith, and then forced her to abort their child. In one of the most infamous trials of the age, a Connecticut court found Rogers guilty of sexual assault, but was unable to prosecute him for demanding the abortion, because no law existed against the practice. In response, the State of Connecticut passed the nation’s first anti-abortion law in 1821.
General Convention 1871: Ritualism Saved
General Convention had expanded to nearly three weeks when delegates gathered again in Baltimore for the 30th Convention in 1871. Gatherings of the full convention and the House of
Deputies were held in Emmanuel Church and the House of Bishops met at nearby Grace Chapel (now known as Grace & St. Peter’s Church).
The bishops and deputies admitted the Diocese of Arkansas into union with General Convention and authorized a division of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, which created the present-day Diocese of Bethlehem. The convention was also the first to appropriate funds for expenses associated with the presiding bishop’s ministry ($500), though the position would not be organized as a full-time role until 1937.
Special collections were taken for relief in Chicago, where the “Great Fire” broke out on the fourth day of the gathering. Once again, a hymnal was approved, this time with 520 hymns. It would serve the church until General Convention returned to Baltimore, 21 years later.
The Ritualist Controversy was the real focus of attention. From the mid-1850s, priests across the Anglican Communion, influenced by the Oxford Movement, had begun introducing Catholic worship practices, including the use of vestments, candles, and ceremonial gestures. Many bishops, especially those of the evangelical school, sought to suppress these practices, believing that they expressed Catholic sacramental doctrine and encouraged superstition.
A proposed canon on ritual had failed at the 1868 General Convention, and a group of bishops prepared a report for the convention proposing restrictions of practices they deemed “foreign to the genius and spirit of our services.” These included a ban on incense, processional crosses, colored vestments, and altar candles, as well as restrictions on surpliced choirs and chancel arrangements.
A committee chaired by Bishop William Whittingham of Maryland proposed a canon based on the report that passed the House of Bishops 24-19. James DeKoven, the 40-year-old warden of Racine College in Wisconsin, emerged as the champion of the Ritualists. In a dramatic speech on the floor of the House of Deputies, he urged tolerance and commended the pastoral aims of Anglo-Catholic clergy. The deputies defeated the proposed canon by a slim margin.
On the convention’s penultimate day, after many deputies had departed, the House of Bishops passed a scaled-down ritual canon, which forbade the elevation of the Eucharist’s elements and “any gesture, posture, or act implying … adoration” of them.
DeKoven rose to the challenge, defending the controverted practices and the teaching on which they relied: “I believe in the Real, Actual Presence of our Lord, under the form of bread and wine, upon the altars of our churches. I myself adore, and would, if it were necessary or my duty, teach my people to adore, Christ present in the elements under the form of bread and wine.”
He added: “If I prostrate myself — I do not do it — but were I to prostrate myself before the altar, it would only be because I see, hidden behind all material forms, him, my own Savior, Whom I believe in, and love, and adore. And if I place upon head, upon lip, and upon breast, the sign of the cross, it is only to remind me of him and his crucifixion. And if I place upon the altar the lights that blaze and glow, it is only because they typify here on earth the seven lamps of fire which burn before the throne of God, which no canons and no General Conventions can ever put out; for there, Mr. President, there, is the worship of heaven!”
The proposed canon was defeated by the deputies, by a wider margin this time, and DeKoven emerged as the most influential leader of the nascent Anglo-Catholic movement. He would be nominated for bishop four times in the next four years, and elected by the Diocese of Illinois in 1875, but he failed to secure the necessary consents and was never consecrated.
Two years later, Bishop George Cummins of Kentucky, an evangelical stalwart, was joined by 21 clergy and lay leaders in founding the Reformed Episcopal Church (now part of the Anglican Church of North America). The rigid Reformed Episcopalians’ canons on ritual insisted on the simple Protestant worship they believed General Convention could not secure. A watered-down ritual canon was passed at the 1874 convention, but only one cleric was ever prosecuted under its provisions, and it was quietly repealed in 1904.
General Convention 1892: Prayer Book Revision
By 1892, General Convention had expanded to three weeks with related gatherings of the Women’s Auxiliary, the Christian Social Union, and the American Sunday School Institute. Emmanuel Church again hosted the major sessions, and comfortable accommodations for the presiding bishop and several other senior colleagues were provided by J.P. Morgan, who rented “one of the largest residences in the entire city” for the month.
The Convention’s most memorable accomplishment was the time-consuming adoption of the first comprehensive revision of the prayer book, a project that had been in development for 12 years. The conservative edit left — by express directive — the liturgy for Holy Communion untouched. But it added a Penitential Order for use on Ash Wednesday and a holy day for the Transfiguration (with the magnificent collect by one of the revision’s primary architects, the Rev. William Reed Huntington). Rubrical changes allowed for more flexibility in saying the Daily Office. A new hymnal, the church’s fourth, and the last to include only texts, was also approved.
The movement for church unity was just beginning in 1892, and the convention set up a committee to inquire into the validity of the orders of the Swedish Lutheran Church and authorized a plan for closer cooperation with the Church of England in the Japanese mission field. The church also sought to wash its hands of an early false step in ecumenical work, declaring as null and void the episcopal consecration of Rene Vilatte, an opportunistic Old Catholic priest who had previously served several Francophone missions in the Diocese of Fond du Lac.
The convention also took the — then unusual — step of issuing a political statement, an appeal “to the several governments of the Christian nations of the world” urging the peaceful arbitration of political differences and a reduction in military expenditures. “The spectacle that is presented of Christian nations facing each other with heavy armaments, ready upon provocation to go to war and settle their differences by bloodshed or conquest, is, to say the least, a blot upon the fair name of Christian.” A commission was appointed to facilitate the personal delivery of the statement to the various heads of state who were expected to attend the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893.
Five new missionary jurisdictions were created in the West by the convention, including in Alaska, where the first priest had arrived less than a decade earlier, and three dioceses, Florida, Virginia, and Washington [state], received permission to divide, as rapid congregational growth was making regular episcopal visitation impractical. Church growth was also the rationale for a resolution that set in motion the process of dividing the Episcopal Church into provinces, which the proposers (optimistically) hoped would prove an antidote to “the dimensions, costs, and unwieldiness of our Triennial Convention.”
The 2022 General Convention will be the shortest one held in Baltimore, though its costs would surely stagger the deputies of 1892, who refused to approve a royalty of one-tenth of one cent on the new prayer books and hymnal for the cause of supporting clerical widows and orphans. If this year’s proceedings prove unwieldy, this will be nothing new in the long story of our church’s work in council. Controversies come and go, but we pray that the same Holy Spirit who was at work in Baltimore many years ago will guide the bishops and deputies who gather to direct our common life today.