As we in the Diocese of Fort Worth approach our historic convention at which we will determine whether or not to sever our relationship with the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, it has become necessary to reassert an element of the precedent for our action, and thereby confront the charge that our deliberations and our possible move are historically unfounded and illegal.
In addressing his diocese’s separation from the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, The Right Reverend John David Schofield, Bishop of San Joaquin, likened their decision to that of the Southern dioceses, which, during the Civil War, withdrew from that Convention and formed the General Council of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America. He maintained that his diocese, as an independent jurisdiction, had the right to separate from the General Convention, as those Southern dioceses did. Some, however, have suggested that the Confederate dioceses had to separate because of the Southern states’ secession from the Union, and thus any analogy with our present situation is flawed. Quite simply put, their argument is that if the states in question left the United States, their respective dioceses could not have, therefore, been a part of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. From there some have reasoned that there is no inherent freedom in a diocese to separate from the General Convention.
In addressing that claim, it is best to begin with the assertion that the Southern Dioceses had to separate from the General Convention. While many Southern Bishops felt the secession of the states to require a separate ecclesiastical structure, not all Southern bishops accepted this notion. The Right Reverend Thomas Atkinson of North Carolina refused to accept that the actions of the state had any bearing on the dioceses, but rather that the Confederate dioceses acted of their own accord, as they had the authority to do. The following quotations from Bishop Cheshire’s work The Church in the Confederate States: A History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States and from Bishop Atkinson’s Diocesan Convention addresses illustrate his position on the independence of the diocese as an ecclesiastical entity:
“ … And now that soundness of judgment and clear view into the true principles of Church polity, which Bishop Atkinson had showed in 1861, became manifest. Of all the Southern Bishops he was the least embarrassed or trammeled by the results of the war. Those who had maintained, in theory or in practice, that political separation, ipso facto, produced, nay, effected, ecclesiastical division, had to face the correlative of that proposition--namely, that the restoration of civil unity necessitated, if it did not ipso facto restore, ecclesiastical unity. He, on the contrary, had maintained, and had acted upon the principle, that political union or disunion did not of itself at all affect the Constitution or organization of the Church. Therefore, when the war ended, and the union of the States was assured, his position was no ways affected. His hands were free and his mind also was free. He had no need to struggle to reconstruct his principles, or to cast about how he might save the remnants from the wreck. Party heat had not affected his judgment in 1861, and he came to the consideration of the situation in 1865 with the same calm mind and clear vision. He said to his people, in effect: The war is over. Bitter as is the confession--we have failed, and all the States are again united under the authority of the Federal Government. We acted for the best. We have no regrets, and we make no apologies. We formed the Church in the Confederate States, because we found it necessary to do so. We did not wait to ask permission from the Dioceses in the North. The emergency was, and is, the explanation and the justification of our course. Facing the present situation, and feeling, as we did in 1861, that we have the right to act freely, and are not controlled or constrained by the course of political events, we find that the interests of the Church, and consistency with our own principles and professions, require us to go back to the Church in the United States. We believe our sister Dioceses will follow us, but we must act upon our own convictions. We can not wait because others are so situated that they can not act with us at this moment. We can act at once, and we believe it is for the interests of all that we should act at once. And so North Carolina showed then, as perhaps she has at other times shown, that she can be prompt when the occasion calls for it, though sometimes she is slow” (p. 272-73).
“Bishop Atkinson alone contended that the political action of the State had of itself no effect whatever upon the Church; but that the Diocese was free to remain connected with the Church in the United States or to form an independent organization as the necessity might seem to require with reference to its own spiritual interests and work” (p. 29).
Bishop Atkinson’s Address to the Diocesan Convention of the Diocese of North Carolina, 1861:
“…I mention this to show that I did not then, as I do not now, entertain the view, which many hold, that the severance of the National Union does, of itself, and without any act of the Church, produce a disruption of the bonds which bind our Dioceses together…” (p.29).
“…The duty of the Church in this Diocese, to the State, is then clear. The only question is, what is her duty to herself? Is she to regard the Ecclesiastical system of which she formed a part, as dissolved by the act of the State, without any action of her own; or, is she to consider it as still subsisting, and liable to be abolished, or modified, as she, after deliberate inquiry and consultation, shall see best?” (p. 6).
“…While then, I see insuperable objections to the acceptance of the Theory that, the secession of the State does, without any act of the Church, produce a disruption of the Church, I see no plausible argument to incline one to accept it. At the same time, some very important changes in our relations with the Northern Dioceses will be necessary, and it may be best to form an entirely new Ecclesiastical system. This ought to be done with the utmost possible forethought and deliberation…” (p. 8).
Bishop Atkinson’s Address to the Diocesan Convention of the Diocese of North Carolina, 1862:
“I do not see then, how any considerate man, who does believe in the authority and mission of the Church, can suppose that its organization has been broken up by the mere act of the State…We do not lose our rights and interest, then, in that Church by ceasing to be citizens of the United States, but only when we voluntarily withdraw from that Ecclesiastical organization, and establish another for ourselves. This, I conceive, we had the right to do, even if the United States had not been divided, were there sufficient cause for it; and that division does itself furnish sufficient cause. In the mean time, according to my belief, until we form a new organization, the old continues to subsist. There is no interregnum of anarchy. We are not left weltering in chaos, without a Constitution, without any binding regulations for the consecration of Bishops, for the ordination of Clergymen, for the enforcement of discipline, so that each man is free to do what is right in his own eyes. God forbid we should ever be in such a condition" (p.34).
Bishop Atkinson clearly held to the view that the Southern states’ secession from the Union did not, of itself, effect the separation of the Southern dioceses from the General Convention. Rather, each diocese was free to make a determination and act, based upon its own “spiritual interests and work.”
Some, however, might argue that Bishop Atkinson represented an extreme minority view, not held by the other Southern dioceses, and therefore not a legitimate position today. Responding to this, it is worth noting that though many of the other Southern bishops held to the view that the secession of the states required separation from the General Convention, when the war ended the proposition of reunion with the Northern dioceses was not immediately assumed by all. Bishop Thomas Davis of South Carolina in a pastoral letter to his diocese, dated October 5th, 1865 states,
“No sound mind can suppose that the separation of the Southern from the Northern Church, under the influence of the political revolution which has passed over the country, can be schismatical...There had been therefore no schism. The Southern Church is now rightly constituted, and is an independent and integral branch of the Church Catholic. As such she can, of right, shape her own course. She is, also, free to return to her union with the Church at the North. Which shall she do? This is the great proposition” (p. 34).
So we see that even among those bishops who held to the necessary separation caused by the states’ secession, reunion of the dioceses after the war was not assumed, but rather diocesan independence was asserted.
Finally, when the Southern bishops and deputies gathered in November of 1865, in Augusta, GA for what would prove to be the last General Council of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America they passed two significant resolutions. Rather than insist that each constituent diocese return to the General Convention, now that the war had ended, these joint resolutions affirmed the right of each diocese to decide for itself the ecclesiastical structure with which it would affiliate:
"Resolved, I. That in the judgment of this Council it is perfectly consistent with the good faith which she owes to the Bishops and Dioceses with which she has been in union since 1862, for any Diocese to decide for herself whether she shall any longer be in union with this Council."
V. "That whenever any Diocese shall determine to withdraw from this Ecclesiastical Confederation, such withdrawal shall be considered as duly accomplished when an official notice, signed by the Bishop and Secretary of such Diocese, shall have been given to the Bishops of the Dioceses remaining in connection with this Council" (p.250).
We of the Diocese of Fort Worth affirm with Bishop Atkinson our independence as a diocese and now for the sake of our own “spiritual interests and work” we prepare to take counsel together as to whether we will separate from the General Convention, as the Southern dioceses did in years past. We seek to do so, as Bishop Atkinson advised, with the “utmost possible forethought and deliberation”(p.8). We also do so with the confidence that any deliberation or action on our part is both historically justified and, we believe, thoroughly licit.