William White, First Bishop of Pennsylvania
July 4th is a Feast Day in the Episcopal Church’s calendar. That might not seem revolutionary, but it actually is (pun intended).
During the American War of Independence, Church of England clergy in the American Colonies found themselves facing three possible actions: they could stay loyal to the Crown and risk fines, injury, or imprisonment, they could betray their oath to the King in the name of Independence, or they could stay and accept the changes while only grudgingly embracing the revolution. Many thousands chose the first and left for Canada, England, or elsewhere. Another group was “all in” with Independence. Those who did not support the revolution but stayed had to find a way to survive in the newly-independent nation and the brand-new Episcopal Church. Hard feelings were everywhere and memories were long (indeed, Pamela and I knew a priest and his wife in New York whose families were on opposite sides of the American Revolution: it was still a sore subject in the late 1980s).
Early on, there was quite a lot of pressure to make July 4th a Feast in the Episcopal Church’s Calendar. The thought was that, just as the Church of England had a holiday celebrating the accession of the monarch to the throne, the new nation needed a church feast celebrating independence. This is called patriotism. It was also gratifying for some to rub the noses of the clergy who had “lost” in their disappointment, making them say prayers, preach, and lead liturgies celebrating a cause they didn’t really support. This is called partisanship.
One of the key pro-revolutionary figures in the early Episcopal Church was The Rev’d Dr. William White, who became the first Bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania. He was a friend of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. He had been chaplain to the Continental Congress. He had “cred” with the Revolutionaries. When discussion at a church convention about an Independence Day Feast was taken up, it was expected White would encourage the observance of an event he so clearly supported and for which he had risked so much. Such was not the case, however.
White wrote this about the attempt:
The members of the Convention wanting to force this observance seem to have thought themselves so established in their station of ecclesiastical legislators, that they might expect of the many clergy who had been averse of the American Revolution the adoption of this service; although, by the use of it, they must make an implied acknowledgement of their error, in an address to Almighty God….
White rebuked those who, in their triumph, gloated over those who had lost. Once he wrote this, the energy for the 4th of July Feast Day in the liturgical calendar collapsed. It was not included in our calendar until over a century later, in the 1928 revision of the Book of Common Prayer.
Today we would say White’s judgment was wise for a number of reasons. First of all, the American Revolution had only partly lived out the ideal of the Declaration of Independence. Race slavery was incompatible with its ideals and its retention was one of the clearest signs that national failure and hypocrisy was as much the issue as independence and liberty on July 4th. White, who would not own enslaved people (unlike our first Bishop, Samuel Seabury), also ordained African-Americans (Absalom Jones and William Levington) to ministry, and was conscious of this profound discrepancy.
White also knew that when you are right you don’t have to prove it by being belligerent. Such tactics are those of a weak person or cause. His refusal to “get on the bandwagon” for the July 4th Feast Day was a refusal to descend into the narrowly partisan, smugly self-certain aspect of faith. He held strong views and wasn’t shy about sharing them, but he remained convinced the Gospel’s force was blunted—not sharpened—by adopting mean-spirited, partisan tactics.
Finally, White understood that liturgy is not the place for mockery or invective. Our address to God in prayer must rise above self-serving ends or the gratification of unworthy aims. Liturgy must glorify God and increase love of neighbor—not contempt for neighbor. That remains true. The 4th of July prayers in the BCP pray God’s grace to make our nation a truly just and equitable land, not a smugocracy of self-delusion.
William White’s commitment to a truly Christian approach in political life meant he was free to see the real needs present and to act with regard to them. He worked tirelessly over his long life to bring the Gospel to those in need: persons with disabilities, in prison, or women who had experienced abuse (the first such institution in the United States). When most every other white clergyman fled Philadelphia during the Yellow Fever outbreaks of the 1790s, Bishop White stayed to minister to the sick. He was a true Christian.
The Church today is faced with a major decision: to follow the logic of partisanship and retreat into the shadows of the “culture war,” taking pot-shots and allowing the Cross of Christ to be merely a tool used by humans for political advantage, or to confront the cruelty, injustice, and selfishness of our society with the words and power of the risen Christ.
Some want the Church to be apolitical, by which they mean uninvolved. Others want the Church to ally itself with one or another political party, by which they mean subordinated. Neither represents Christ’s way of challenging the powers of this world while remaining firmly anchored in the love of God. Christ was involved, and so must we be. But his involvement always means loving God and loving neighbor as ourselves—not descending in a race to the bottom of disrespect and partisanship.
There are few easy answers in the matter of Church and political life. I look to the example set by Bishop White as a better way to live in response to the challenges of faith and politics: we practice the Gospel by taking personal risks and making personal sacrifices for the safety of others and a more just world. We link our worship to our actions, becoming more Christ-like as we live. We become more truly “revolutionary” this way rather than more partisan and mean-spirited. When we gather on Sunday, July 4th, we will pray for our country, give thanks, and—like Bishop White—labor on that it might become the kind of nation it has long proclaimed: a land “with freedom and justice for all.”
The Collect for Independence Day:
Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.