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A Pioneer for Anglican Unity

What else other than an adventurous, romantic temperament would have prompted a privileged 18-year-old English youth of good family and prospects to have left all behind in 1828 to follow Bishop Philander Chase to his nascent college in the frontier wilderness of Ohio? Or to marry the bishop’s niece, Mary Chase Batchelor, when he was only 20? Or to go on to serve as missionary, then parish priest, and then teacher at a church school in St. Louis? If the ardent spirits of youth brought Henry Caswall to America, a more mature Romanticism later channeled them into a hopeful vision of a worldwide communion of Anglican churches. He manifested a focused determination to do all he could to lower the structural and interpretative barriers to understanding between the Church of England of his baptism and the Episcopal Church of his ordination.

Caswall was the son of the vicar of Yately in Hampshire; his great-uncle was Thomas Burgess, who as Bishop of St. David’s founded St. David’s College, Lampeter, and therefore strongly supported the efforts of Bishop Chase to found his own “western seminary.” Henry’s younger brother Edward also gained renown as a translator of ancient hymns and as a follower of John Henry Newman to Rome and the Birmingham Oratory. The Caswall family had the advantages of wealth and influential connections, but both brothers defied convention in the ways they fulfilled their vocations to the priesthood.

If he chose to defy convention, Henry nevertheless had in abundance the confidence imparted by his family’s station in the world. He negotiated with precocious aplomb the grueling journey by ship, river and canal boats, stagecoach, and farmer’s wagon from England to Gambier, Ohio. If he ever regretted exchanging the cloisters of Oxford for the frontier hardships of Gambier, he gave no clue. He imbibed the democratic spirit of Americans and engaged easily with people of all sorts of backgrounds and religious persuasions. In the first edition of his book America and the American Church (1839), Henry (writing in the third person) summed up his early experiences:

He has resided nearly ten years in the United States, and has travelled no less than eight thousand miles within their spacious boundaries. As a student, he has mingled with students, as a teacher with teachers, and as a clergyman with clergymen. He has seen society in the log-cabin as well as in the drawing-room, while in his pastoral capacity he has been called to study the foibles of his parishioners, no less than their excellencies.

In each edition of America and the American Church (second edition, 1851), Caswall sought to inform a British audience about the nature of the Episcopal Church and its distinctive history, character, witness, context, and vocation, as well as to entertain them with accounts of the natural wonders of North America and of the vigorous progress of “civilization” there. He also wanted to shake the English church out of its introverted complacency by showing the power and effectiveness of reformed episcopacy in the new world: “The contemplation of a remote branch of the English establishment rising from its ruins, and not merely sustaining itself, but increasing with unprecedented rapidity, will induce Englishmen, it is hoped, to prize more highly those blessings which they now enjoy, and which so many in America are labouring to extend.”

Each edition also had a particular polemical focus, the different emphases between the two testifying to the speed with which the reality of an Anglican Communion was developing in this period. In 1839 Caswall drew his readers’ attention to the anomalous division between the ministries of the two churches. The Episcopal Church was established by the Church of England, which also consecrated bishops for the newly independent American church. They shared a common liturgical tradition and principles of church government, but the priestly orders of Caswall, an Englishman ordained in the Episcopal Church, were not recognized in the Church of England. American clergy could not even preach in English pulpits. He wanted to raise an Anglican consciousness, a sense of common purpose across national divisions, the better to share the blessings of the Anglican tradition in a global context.

Caswall was not shy about acknowledging the strong differences between English and American churches and governments. On the contrary, he insists not only that the differences between them are appropriate but also that this diversity contributes strength and flexibility to the whole. The Anglican Church could never become universal if it could coexist with only one form of civil government or culture. He is never more eloquent than when he rejoices in the breadth of the Anglican witness:

As [the author] may appear to speak occasionally like a republican, he deems it incumbent on him to state, that he regards the American form of government as being, on the whole, well adapted to the present condition of the people, and to the independence which naturally belongs to the possessors of a territory more than sufficiently ample for the population. But, though he may be a republican in America, he is satisfied that he never could become a republican in England. In like manner, he admires the popular constitution of the American Church, chiefly on account of its fitness to the peculiar habits and feelings of the nation. It is a beautiful scheme by which, on the one hand, the proper influence of the three orders in the ministry is maintained; while, on the other hand, the voice of the people not only receives due respect, but exerts as much authority as the most democratic Christian could desire. Although the author considers that many regulations similar to those of the American Church might be adopted in England with safety and advantage, he believes it must be plain, that a large portion of the peculiarities of the system are exclusively American, and would be exotics in any other portion of Christendom.

Here surely is an important reminder for Christians today, that the faith is inculturated in different settings in individual ways and that unity in faith does not depend on uniformity in practice.

Even if Caswall recognized the need for national churches to have their own customs and peculiarities, he was no advocate of an ecclesiastical free-for-all. With the second edition of 1851, he had returned to England and become Vicar of Figheldean in Wiltshire, having obtained a private Act of Parliament passed on his behalf recognizing the validity of his orders. The greatest issue for Caswall was now “Synodical Action.” The Church of England, though still established, needed to recognize that it was no mere creature of the state and to be weaned from any sense of Erastian dependence on the state. Caswall’s American experience was instrumental: “While corporately identical with the Church of England, it will appear that the American Church has, by degrees, formed for itself a system of legislation adapted to its position, and favourable to its growth, without the slightest interference on the part of any secular authority.”

Convocation had not yet been re-established in the Church of England, but disestablishment of colonial Anglican churches in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand was inspiring the desire for synods and indeed for a great synod which would unite all the churches of the English Reformation. For Caswall, synods were no panacea; he was alive to the dangers of political institutions in the life of the Church, to the divisive power of “local feelings and party prejudices. … In times of controversial excitement, American Churchmen look forward to the meetings of their Conventions with anxious apprehension, and regard them as a subject of earnest prayer and supplication to the Almighty.” Nevertheless the benefits of such institutions far outweighed their disadvantages.

It was to exclude the damaging effects of “merely local and temporary influences” that Caswall argued for “Synodal Action on a grand scale” to unite the churches of England and America and to accrue great advantages to both. If the relative balance of influences he perceived between the churches now feels dated, there is an enduring wisdom in his passionate desire that the churches should recognize their mutual interdependence on one another:

We should not be so much in danger of “measuring ourselves by ourselves, and comparing ourselves among ourselves.” Each portion of the Church might supply to the other many of the very elements of which it is particularly in need. It cannot be doubted that various causes, historical and otherwise, retard the advancement of the Church of England, which might be more clearly manifested to us by the unbiased discrimination of our western brethren. On the other hand, we might contribute our part in elevating their standard of judgment on various important points of doctrine and of practice. We might increase their feelings of reverence and respect for antiquity, and in return receive from them a portion of their elasticity, their perseverance, and their energy.

Caswall loved passionately both of these churches and their individual expressions of the Anglican tradition, but more than anything he longed for the unity of the whole Church, knit together by the episcopate joined by a great synod:

Then it would appear that neither the local influence of Rome, or of England, or of America, is essential to the efficiency of that spiritual society, which is built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone. The same Episcopate to which in the beginning the work of diffusing Christianity was committed, and on which the gracious promises of the Redeemer were conferred, would show itself as the great bond of union, and the main foundation of ecclesiastical strength.

Caswall dedicated the remainder of his life to strengthening the bonds of union between the churches and nations. He accompanied the delegation of English clergy to the United States in 1852 for the celebrations of the third Jubilee of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, which had supported missionaries in the colonial period. He poured his energies into the Anglo-American Emigrants Society, encouraging emigrating English and Irish Anglicans to join the Episcopal Church. He returned once again to the United States in 1868, and he died in Franklin, Pennsylvania, in 1870. He did live to see the revival of the Convocations of the English Clergy from 1854 and the convening of the first Lambeth Conference in 1867, for both of which he had been such an effective evangelist.

We live in a time when hard-headed rationality tells us that our churches have grown too far apart for unity to be recovered. We need to recover something of Caswall’s romantic affection for the distinctive riches that characterize the churches of England and America, and also to see one another with eyes of love, to recognize that with all our differences God has made us to be one in him. We have a common heritage that has made us the Christians we are today; it is an inheritance which is too precious to throw away.

Crucial as bonds of affection are, however, they cannot do all the work of unity alone. Caswall challenges all of us not to measure ourselves by ourselves, but to acknowledge that in order to be whole we need through our different perspectives and priorities to find ways to rediscover that unity that Christ has bestowed on us by baptism. In a telling phrase, he insists that “the hope of the Church is in going forward, in ‘lengthening her cords and strengthening her stakes.’” The Church must be flexible enough to allow for different expressions in different places, but she must also be anchored ever more firmly to the stake that is our unity in the Body of Christ. Caswall knew the challenges of this paradox were acute in his own day; they are no less so in ours.

Pioneer Anglican Unity


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