Preached by the Right Reverend Arthur E. Walmsley, (Retired) Bishop of Connecticut
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Anniversary of the Consecration of Samuel Seabury – November 14, 2010
I shall recount the Lord’s unfailing love, what he has done for them in his tenderness and by his many acts of faithful love. Surely they are my people. Isaiah 63:7
Those words, written seven hundred years before the coming of Jesus the Christ by the prophet Isaiah, contain the core of the faith which Jews and Christians profess: a loving creator holds us close to his heart. God says to us, if we open ourselves to hear him, “I love you, I love you, I love you. All that you are – woman, man, child, of whatever background, language, race, sexual orientations, even whatever you believe about me – all that you are is precious to me. I am there for your well being, you life, and your healing.”
We are gathered here this afternoon as the choristers of Seabury Academy lead us in a service of praise and thanksgiving commemorating the event from which we take both the name Seabury but also his significance for this parish of St. Paul’s in Norwalk. We are here as people who dare to gather week by week around the altar of this place and others like it to celebrate how our God offers us love, not because we deserve it, but because it is God’s very nature to love.
I want to say three things very briefly about the importance of the man Samuel Seabury to St. Paul’s and to this wonderful chorus. His story is as old as that of our country as an independent nation and of the Episcopal Church in it. We can’t look him up or find his photograph on the Internet, but we can in our imagination uncover why giving his name to the Seabury Academy is important not just for the good music and art the Academy stands for. I have on the wall of my study a portrait of Seabury painted from life by an American artist, Ralph Earl. Whatever else Mr. Earl’s portrait shows, it is a man serious about his faith. Look into his eyes and you cannot fail to see someone passionate about bringing people to faith, most of which he did criss-crossing the roads of Connecticut on horseback. He was a man of quiet personal prayer, convinced that the commonwealth of Connecticut and the budding new nation needed to become a place of unity and common purpose after the upheaval of the War for Independence.
He was consecrated – made bishop – in the year 1784 on today’s date, November 14. By then, the battles of the War of Independence were long over, and deliberations underway in Philadelphia which would lead to the Constitution and the foundations of the United States. It is important to remember that from the beginnings of the war in 1775 at Concord and Lexington, Episcopalians no less than other colonists were divided over it. Two thirds of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Episcopalians. So were Paul Revere, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin. But many others did not support the patriots’ cause. Among them was Seabury, who wrote an angry set of letters opposing it. He was by then serving congregations in New York and New Jersey. For a time he was held prisoner under house arrest by the Sons of Liberty for his militancy against the war, later as a refugee behind British lines in New York City, where he served as a physician and chaplain for loyalist troops.
When the war ground to an end with the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781, the scattered congregations of Episcopalians had regrouped, coming together across the lines which had divided them during the war. Seabury was elected by the clergy in Connecticut to serve as their bishop in an independent Episcopal Church, and in 1783 he sailed to England to seek consecration. Here is a first important point: he could not be consecrated there without taking an oath of loyalty to the King. One of the founding principles of the Episcopal Church is that ours would be a free church, not beholden to civil authority as their English counterparts were (and are today) part of the state. We are a catholic church, one which adheres to the ancient faith and worship we share with our Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters. But the governance put in place as the Episcopal Church came into being followed the tradition of the earliest days. Yes, it would be led by bishops, but their leadership would not be a top-down one, rather one in which all members, lay and clergy alike would share in the life and ministry. So, in 1976, we would break with history and extend the possibility of ordination to women on the grounds that all have equal access to the life and love of God. In the half century in which I have served in the church’s ministry, our church played a key role in declaring that discrimination on the basis of race or ethnic background has no place, either in church or society. And with the election of the Bishop of New Hampshire where we live in retirement, the church which looks back to Samuel Seabury as our first bishop broke through the barrier of sexual orientation when the people of that diocese elected Gene Robinson.
Seabury Academy stands in that tradition, open and innovative to hear fresh how the loving God speaks in our time. The second point I want to make has to do, as the first did, with how the Church sees itself in the wider society. When I was a youngster, this nation was very clear that we stood solidly for public education as a given. One of the important elements of that was the inclusion of music and art and the life of culture from the earliest grades on. Today, public education is in deep trouble. School budgets are slashed, and the arts and physical education are the first elements to be cut. I remember my excitement in singing a lead role in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta when I was in the seventh grade – what a challenge and what a gift! Seabury Academy by its recruitment of the young across the spectrum of the entire community of Norwalk – not a narrow church slice of it – makes a statement which goes way beyond the numbers you actually are able to serve: A healthy society depends on its public and community services being available to all without exception; a healthy society depends on access to the best in music, in the arts, in the richness of literature and culture, in finding ways to make that tradition part of the heritage open to all. The sharp political turn that the country took the other day is not just about taxes and the respective roles of local and state and national structures of government, but a test of what it means that people of good will and faith share a vision of the common good. Last Spring, I ran into a young man who stepped out of the classroom where he had been teaching a class of children at the exact moment that the devastating earthquake in Haiti leveled the room behind him with great loss of life among the young he was serving. Weeks later, his face still showed the dazed look of one who understands the price of living out the truth that God’s love is indiscriminate: I love you all with an indiscriminate love, I grieve when you grieve, I rejoice when you love one another, and I stand with you when you serve one another.”
And that leads to my last point. It was my privilege to appoint Nicholas Lang as the priest in charge of St. Paul’s in 1993. The parish could not have been at a lower point in its life then, having just lost its rector in a tragic death. What has emerged in the years since then is a rebirth of spirit and life. St. Paul’s is well known for the remarkable growth in your numbers, to the extent that you have had to add an additional Sunday morning service. The clue to that growth is the way in which people find welcome. Many, perhaps most have come not because this is an Episcopal Church but because it is a place in which God’s invitation to grow in love for one another through growing in love of God in the sacrament, in the community which is so abundantly present here. Seabury Academy represents that kind of imagination at work.
Every bishop in the Episcopal Church stands in a heritage which goes back to Samuel Seabury. I was #736 in the succession which began with him. New year I will have been a priest for sixty years, a bishop for thirty-two of them. I want to end where I began these reflections. Isaiah, writing seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, says it just right: I shall recount the Lord’s unfailing love, what he has done for them in his tenderness and by his many acts of faithful love. Surely they are my people.
Think of this occasion as a love offering. To these choristers who are being exposed to the best of the church’s music. To the congregations and audiences who share that tradition through them, here, elsewhere in Connecticut, this country, and overseas. But think most of all that it is God’s love offering to a congregation, to its lay leaders and to its clergy and staff, who open up in an often cynical and uncaring society a vision of wholeness. “I love you, I love you, I love you,” says our God.