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The Lambeth Conference and the Reformed Episcopal Church

Joint Commission on Approaches to Unity of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the U.S.A.
no place: no publisher, 1941.

The Right Rev. E. L. Parsons, D.D., Chairman
The Right Rev. G. R. Fenner, S.T.D.
The Right Rev. W. B. Stevens, D.D.
The Right Rev. R. E. L. Strider, D.D.
The Right Rev. F. E. Wilson
The Rev. F. J. Bloodgood, Secretary
The Rev. Angus Dun, D.D.
The Rev. T. O. Wedel, Ph.D.
The Rev. A. C. Zabriskie, S.T.D.
The Rev. H. R. Robbins, D.D.
Wm. L. Balthis
Clifford P. Morehouse
Dr. K. C. N. Sills
J. C. Spaulding
Alexander Guerry

Associate Members

The Right Rev. G. A. Oldham, D.D.

The Right Rev. Spence Burton, S.S.J.E.


At the Lambeth Conference of 1888 a statement was presented on behalf of the American Bishops regarding Holy Orders in the Reformed Episcopal Church. No action was taken by the Conference but the statement was received and printed in the record (see The Lambeth Conferences of 1867, 1878, and 1888—pp. 359-363).

In the past few years conversations have been held between a Commission of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the U. S. A. and a similar Commission of the Reformed Episcopal Church, resulting in further investigation and the uncovering of information which was evidently not available to the Bishops in 1888. In view of what has been brought to light the Commission of the Protestant Episcopal Church believes that the statement presented to the Lambeth Conference in 1888 should be reconsidered as the first step toward reaching a working agreement with the Reformed Episcopal Church. Since no action was taken on the original statement, there is no resolution to be rescinded or amended. But since the statement does appear in the record, it seemed proper and courteous to the members of our Commission that a review of the whole matter should be laid before the present members of the Lambeth Conference, raising the question as to whether any objection would be felt toward such a reconsideration and toward working out a possible plan of intercommunion between the Protestant Episcopal Church and the Reformed Episcopal Church based on the information contained in this brochure.

Accordingly the following resolution was presented and adopted by the House of Bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church meeting in General Convention in October of 1940:

RESOLVED, That the House of Bishops authorize the Commission on Approaches to Unity to prepare a brochure on the question of Holy Orders in the Reformed Episcopal Church with special reference to the report made to the Lambeth Conference on this subject in 1888; that copies of the brochure be sent to all the Bishops of the Anglican Communion; that the replies of the Bishops be presented to the House of Bishops and that any further action should be contingent on the nature of these replies.

To carry out the purpose of that resolution the following pages have been written. They are sent to the Bishops with the request that replies should be sent to

Bishop of Eau Claire,
510 S. Farwell St.,

For the Commission on Approaches to Unity,
All Saints Day, 1941.


Perhaps it was a case of nerves following a great war.

In any case, whatever the cause, the years immediately after the close of the Civil War (from 1865 onward} saw a wave of controversy sweep over the Episcopal Church in the United States. The points at issue had to do with Churchmanship, ritual and ceremonial. Arguments waxed stormy and feelings were brittle. People were easily offended. Matters which might have been passed over at other times were magnified into vital issues.

In this highly charged atmosphere a difference arose between the rector of a parish in Chicago and his Bishop. The rector was the Rev. Charles Edward Cheney and the Bishop was the Rt. Rev. Henry John Whitehouse, both men of strong character. Whatever other factors may have contributed to the general situation, the issue as it finally emerged centered around the use of the word "regeneration') in the baptismal office. Dr. Cheney refused on conscientious grounds to use any parts of the office which contained references to "regeneration". The matter was brought to the Bishop's attention and he called Dr. Cheney to account for mutilating the service and for denying the Church's doctrine. So the issue was joined and the controversy over Churchmanship was for the moment focused at this point, partisans ranging themselves on one side or the other.

On June 12, 1869, Bishop Whitehouse appointed a committee consisting of two priests and one layman to examine the case and, if the evidence appeared to warrant it, to present Dr. Cheney for trial before a diocesan court. This committee made its presentment on June 21, 1869, and on the same date a citation was issued by the Bishop to Dr. Cheney giving him a list of eight Presbyters from which, in accordance with the canons of the Diocese of Illinois, he was requested to select not less than three or more than five to act as assessors at the trial over which the Bishop would preside as Judge. Dr. Cheney having failed to respond to this request, the Standing Committee of the Diocese, again in accordance with the diocesan canons, selected five assessors from the list submitted.

Thereupon Dr. Cheney entered a formal protest to the assessors who now constituted the Ecclesiastical Court, raising various technical objections to the procedure. These objections were overruled by the Ecclesiastical Court. Dr. Cheney then filed a bill in the Superior Court of Chicago (a secular court) asking an injunction against the Ecclesiastical Court from proceeding with the trial. A temporary injunction was granted. The question was carried to the Supreme Court where the action of the lower court was reversed, the injunction dissolved and the Ecclesiastical Court left free to proceed with the trial.

However, during the course of this legal sparring, one of the assessors on the Ecclesiastical Court, the Rev Henry Niles Pierce, was consecrated Bishop of Arkansas, thus severing his connection with the Diocese of Illinois and disqualifying himself as a member of the Court. Over Dr. Cheney's objection the remaining four members sitting as a Court, found him guilty as charged and recommended his suspension from the exercise of his ministry. The Bishop pronounced the sentence of suspension. Dr. Cheney objected that the Court was incompetent to act because the vacancy of Bishop Pierce had never been filled and the diocesan canon provided that "the court being duly constituted by the presence of the requisite number of Presbyters, they shall receive such evidence as may be adduced etc." He therefore refused to recognize the sentence of suspension and continued to exercise his ministry in his parish Church without interruption.

On March 27, 1871, a second presentment was made to the Bishop against Dr. Cheney charging him with contumacy because of his disregard of the sentence of suspension. A new Court was formed consisting of five assessors. Dr. Cheney was adjudged guilty and his deposition was recommended. The sentence of deposition was duly pronounced by the Bishop, June 2, 1871. This also was completely ignored by Dr. Cheney who continued to hold services and exercise his ministry as before in his parish Church with the consent and approval of his Wardens and Vestrymen.

At a convention of the diocese held later in the same year, 1871, a long resolution was adopted in which the antecedent course of events was reviewed and it was resolved "that legal proceedings shall be taken to prevent the further diversion and maladministration of the property and revenues of the said parish of Christ Church, Chicago, and to effect the rescue of the same for their legitimate and godly uses". In pursuance of this resolution a civil suit was instituted in the Circuit Court of Cook County seeking to enjoin the Wardens and Vestrymen from continuing Dr. Cheney as rector and from allowing him to occupy the rectory and use the Church building for conducting services and from paying him a stipend from the funds of the parish.

It was in the trial of this civil suit that Dr. Cheney and his attorneys argued the incompetency of the original Ecclesiastical Court. They claimed that the sentence of deposition issuing from the second Court was void because it depended on the sentence of suspension issuing from the first Court and that the first Court was incompetent to act because the vacancy created by the removal of one of its members had never been filled as the canons required. Under date of August 15, 1874, Judge E. S. Williams handed down his decision in which he said:

"I cannot avoid the conclusion that the court, which the standing committee of the diocese had selected for the trial of the defendant Cheney, was, in view of his express stipulation and their election, under the well settled rules of law, a court of five presbyters, and their presence and consequent action was necessary at all stages of the trial . . . and that the action of the four assessors (no one of them having willfully withdrawn), in finding said Cheney guilty, was unauthorized and void . . .

"The second trial of Mr. Cheney was based upon his contumacious conduct in not submitting to the former sentence of suspension . . .

"If the views above expressed are correct, it follows that neither of the verdicts of the assessors was of any validity. Upon the first trial there was no court present during the examination of witnesses nor at the rendition of the verdict. The second presentment was based wholly upon the contumacious conduct of the accused in not obeying a sentence which I have declared void, and therefore the finding of that court was of no validity". [1]

Thus the civil court presumed to invalidate the sentence of deposition and left Dr. Cheney in full possession of his rights and privileges as rector of the parish of Christ Church, Chicago.

Counsel for the Diocese of Illinois thereupon appealed the case to the Supreme Court. The decision of the lower court was upheld by the Supreme Court but (and this point is significant) on other grounds than the invalidity of the sentence of deposition. In fact the Supreme Court said quite plainly that as a civil court it was concerned only with the question of property rights and not at all with matters of ecclesiastical discipline. The following paragraph written by the Supreme Court simply disregards the bulk of the argument written by Judge Williams for the lower court:

"We shall, in considering the question, assume, although the fact is denied by Cheney, that he was, by the proper church judicatory, deposed from the ministry of the Protestant Episcopal Church, because of non-conformity with certain of its tenets." [2]

Parenthetically it should be added that this whole question was recently submitted to Mr. James G. Mitchell, a Churchman, an attorney of New York City, and a member of the Presiding Bishop's Commission on Ecclesiastical Relations. After careful examination of all the records he has prepared an extended memorandum in which he finds the argument of Judge Williams regarding Dr. Cheney's deposition to be entirely unwarranted and considers the above paragraph taken from the decision of the Supreme Court to be a rebuke to the lower court from which the appeal was taken. Mr. Mitchell cites authorities in support of the thesis that a civil court in the United States has no jurisdiction for the review of a question of ecclesiastical discipline under the provisions of canon law. [3]

Whatever anyone might think about it, Dr. Cheney and his Vestry retained control of the Church property while the Protestant Episcopal Church continued to count him as a deposed priest.

Naturally these proceedings created quite a furor throughout the Church and those who sympathized with Dr. Cheney on grounds of Churchmanship largely rallied to his support. In fact the situation became so acute that a separatist movement was definitely launched under the leadership of the Rt. Rev. George David Cummins, Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Kentucky. Under date of Nov. 10, 1873, Bishop Cummins addressed a letter to the then Presiding Bishop stating briefly his case and saying "I, therefore, leave the communion in which I have labored in the sacred ministry for over twenty-eight years, and transfer my work and office to another sphere of labor". He then issued a call to clergy and laity who held convictions similar to his own to meet with him in New York City on Dec. 2nd to revise the Prayer Book and reform the Church.

Seven clergy and about twenty laymen attended the meeting over which Bishop Cummins presided. Out of it came forth the Reformed Episcopal Church. The Proposed Prayer Book of 1785 was adopted as the official formulary and standard of worship. [4] It was also at this meeting that Dr. Cheney was elected to be their first Missionary Bishop. Twelve days later, on Dec. 14, 1873, in his own parish Church in Chicago Dr. Cheney was consecrated to the episcopate by Bishop Cummins.

This was the origin of the Reformed Episcopal Church and it was through these two men that their Orders were derived and their ministry constituted.


To the Lambeth Conference of 1888 was presented "A statement in regard to Ordinations or Consecrations performed by Dr. Cummins, or others claiming Ordination or Consecration from him, prepared by the Presiding Bishop of the American Church, the Right Rev. John Williams, D. D., L.L. D." At the end of the Statement appear the names of A. Cleveland Coxe, Wm. Croswell Doane, and George F. Seymour, "Committee on behalf of the American Bishops". A perusal of the Statement impresses one with the fact that the atmosphere surrounding the whole question was still highly inflammable. It is almost entirely concerned with the circumstances connected with the consecration of Dr. Cheney and says that "four things must be taken into account—(1) the condition of the Consecrator; (2) the act itself; (3) the service used; and (4) the condition of the person said to be consecrated . . . "

(1)—Regarding the first of these four points, "the condition of the Consecrator", the Statement goes on to say: "Bishop Cummins had not been deposed, and therefore his act, however inconvenient, cannot, so far as he is concerned, be counted as having no force. He was, however, acting in the face of canonical obligations".. [5] This would appear to concede that the condition of the Consecrator, however unfortunate, was not such as would impair the validity of the consecration.

(2)—Regarding point two, "the act itself", the Statement says: "The Consecration itself is, clearly, utterly uncanonical, though, of course, not, PER SE, invalid". In other words, it was obviously irregular without being invalid.

(3)—Regarding point three, "the service used", two questions are raised. In the first place the Statement says that it is not known what form was employed and therefore it is impossible to say whether it was sufficient. In the second place, exception is taken to certain remarks contained in Bishop Cummins' sermon preached during the consecration service, which, it was said, impeached his "intention" of conveying the historic episcopate. Let us consider these two objections as (a) and (b).

(a) Evidently somebody saw to it that a public record should be preserved of that service of consecration. It was reported in full in the Chicago Tribune of Dec. 15, 1873—not merely a description of the service but the service itself in full form covering several closely printed newspaper columns. [5]. After the reading of the Gospel Bishop Cummins made the following announcement: "I desire to state to the congregation, before announcing the next hymn, that the prayer-book used on this occasion is the Prayer-Book of 1785, as set forth by the First General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in that year, presided over by the Rev. Dr. White, afterwards Bishop White. The Litany to be used this morning, and the Communion Service, are also from the Prayer-Book of 1785". Now it happens that the Proposed Book of 1785 contains no Ordinal but Article 19 of the Articles of Religion in that Book simply adopts the Ordinal of the English Prayer Book "excepting such parts as require any Oaths inconsistent with the American revolution".

An examination of the service used for Dr. Cheney shows that it actually was the Service of Consecration taken from the English Ordinal with a few verbal changes which we shall note. The important features are all present. The special suffrage in the Litany was used without change; the Interrogatory is the same except for one additional question; Veni Creator was said over the kneeling candidate; and the prayer for grace, immediately following, was used without change; at the laying on of hands Bishop Cummins used the following form—"Take thou authority to execute the office and work of a Bishop in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost''; the delivery of the Bible followed together with the exhortation as in the English Book; the special prayer before the benediction was used without change.

Certain variations from the English service are to be noted. The presentation was made by two presbyters (of course, there were no other Bishops available), using the following form:

"Reverend brother in Christ, we present unto you this godly and well-learned man, to be consecrated to the office and work of a Bishop".

The following question was added to the Interrogatory: "Will you faithfully feed the flock of God, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; nether as being lord over God's heritage, but being an example to the flock?"

The form used at the laying on of hands is different from that in the English Ordinal but is the equivalent of the alternative form in the present American Book for the ordination of priests. It is also to be noted that the presbyters joined in the laying on of hands but not in the recitation of the words.

The opening words of the Collect are slightly different: "Almighty God, from whom cometh every good and perfect gift, give grace, we beseech Thee, to all Bishops and other pastors of Thy Church . . . " The Epistle and Gospel are among the alternatives provided in the English service—namely ACTS 20:17 and ST. MATTHEW 28:18 FF.

Other changes are trifling, such as using "we" instead of "I".

Bishop Cummins officiated alone as Consecrator at this service. There were no co-consecrators. There was not the minimum number of three Bishops which has been the historic practice of the Church at least as far back as the Council of Nicaea. This constitutes an irregularity but does not in itself create invalidity. For instance, the whole Roman Catholic hierarchy in the United States was initiated when John Carroll, Roman Catholic Bishop of Maryland, alone consecrated four Bishops—and Carroll himself had previously been consecrated by a single Bishop in England.

Thus it would appear that the form of service used for Dr. Cheney which was unknown to the American Bishops in 1888 is now available for public scrutiny; that it contains the elements which are historically essential to the transmission of valid episcopal Orders; and that this portion of the objection contained in the Statement to the Lambeth Conference may no longer be considered sound.

(b) It is quite true that some things were said by Bishop Cummins in his sermon at this Consecration service which were scarcely up to Anglican standards. But certain facts must be kept in mind. It must be remembered that this service was the culmination of a heated controversy which had been gathering momentum over a period of years and that the preacher was undoubtedly driven to extreme statements to justify his extraordinary action. It must also be remembered that however inadequate his interpretation of episcopacy may have been, he did intend to convey the Historic Episcopate as is clearly indicated by the fact that he used with only trifling variations the "matter" and "form" of the Ordinal of the Church of England. And it must further be remembered that Dr. Cheney understood himself to have been made a Bishop in the full sense of the word, that he said so repeatedly, and that he so comported himself during more than a quarter of a century of his subsequent episcopate in the Reformed Episcopal Church. It should also be added that the careful preservation of the Episcopate has been one of the peculiar marks of the Reformed Episcopal Church from that day to this. An adaptation of the unanswerable arguments pronounced by the English Archbishops in their reply to the papal encyclical "Apostolicae Curae" in 1896 should be sufficient to resolve any doubts as to the "intention" connected with the consecration of Dr. Cheney.

(4)—Regarding "the condition of the person said to be consecrated" a curious analogy is adduced dating back to the year 457 A. D. when the Emperor Leo I circularized the Bishops preparatory to extruding Timothy Aelurus, the Monophysite candidate, from Alexandria. The Bishops of Cappadocia and the Bishops of Galatia both replied that a deposed presbyter was ineligible for the higher order. This is said to constitute a precedent affecting Dr. Cheney's eligibility for consecration. It is difficult to see a real parallel between these two situations separated by so many centuries and under such totally different conditions. Moreover one might well be reluctant to press the analogy too far in view of the cloud resting over the proceedings against Dr. Cheney which resulted in his deposition. If one is dealing in technicalities, one cannot escape the fact that the decision of a secular court is a matter of record which invalidates Dr. Cheney's deposition under the provisions of the Church's own canons. One might question the right of a secular court to render such a decision (just as one might question the position of the Emperor Leo as a secular ruler) but one can scarcely ignore it in passing judgment on the whole complicated state of affairs. And it is ignored completely in the Statement made to the Lambeth Conference, in spite of the fact that there was a body of opinion in the Church at that time which quite agreed with the scholarly Dr. Fulton, editor of the Church Standard, that the "sentences of suspension and deposition pronounced upon Dr. Cheney were illegal, uncanonical, and therefore utterly void; hence he was never suspended nor deposed".

The Statement to the Lambeth Conference also makes incidental mention of the only other consecration at which Bishop Cummins officiated—namely that of the Rev. W. R. Nicholson, a presbyter who left the Protestant Episcopal Church in order to enter the newly constituted Reformed Episcopal Church. The real burden of the argument, however, rests on the Cheney case and the Nicholson case simply goes along with it. Through these men the Historic Episcopate has been preserved in the Reformed Episcopal Church and the episcopal succession has been carefully maintained from this beginning.

It is well known that there have been irregularities among the Reformed Episcopalians in the course of more than half a century of struggle to maintain an effective ministry. On one occasion when there were only two bishops available for the conferring of episcopal Orders a Methodist bishop was called in to make a third and on another occasion a Moravian bishop was used for the same purpose. Such departures from Anglican tradition are disconcerting but they do not necessarily affect the technical validity of the Orders conveyed. It is also true that there have been instances of ministers received from Protestant communions into the ministry of the Reformed Episcopal Church without any episcopal ordination at all. On Feb. 16, 1938, an officially appointed Commission of the Reformed Episcopal Church gave assurances that there were no such instances existing at that time. Again it is disconcerting but it would have to be expected that irregularities would occur in times when the storms of controversy were raging. The question to be decided is whether they are of sufficient weight to warrant an entirely negative answer regarding the validity of Holy Orders in the Reformed Episcopal Church.


Conversations have been initiated between a Commission of the Protestant Episcopal Church and a similar Commission of the Reformed Episcopal Church. There are hopeful indications that the acerbities of a past generation are ready to be set aside in favor of a frank discussion of the possibility of reconciliation. The Statement of the American Bishops to the Lambeth Conference stands definitely in the way of progress in this direction. A fresh and probably less biassed study of the whole situation has brought to light information which was evidently not available in 1888 when the Statement was prepared. That information is presented herewith.

Therefore it is now proposed that the Statement to the Lambeth Conference of 1888 should be considered as a significant document of an earlier generation but with no current authority and that it should not be allowed to stand in the way of negotiations looking toward the healing of this particular schism—provided always that necessary safeguards should be erected on those matters which have been or still are points of issue between these two bodies of Christian people.


[1] Decision of Judge E. S. Williams taken from the Chicago Legal News, Vol. VI, pp. 382-384, 389-392.

[2] Calkins v. Cheney (1879) 92 Ill. 463.

[3] Again parenthetically, the writer of this pamphlet would like to express his agreement with the conclusions reached by Mr. Michell—namely, that it is an intrusion for the civil courts to venture decisions in matters of ecclesiastical discipline. Furthermore I believe the objection raised by Dr. Cheney was purely technical and outside the merits of the case. I also believe that if his objection had been entirely met and a new court appointed in the first place, the outcome would have been exactly the same. Nevertheless, these legal complications are deserving of consideration because they have a bearing on one of the points raised in the statement of the American Bishops to the Lambeth Conference, in which statement they are completely ignored.

[4] The Proposed Book of 1785 was a suggested revision of the English Prayer Book for use in the United States after the Revolutionary War. It was withdrawn in favor of the revision of 1789 which was adopted as the official formulary of the Protestant Episcopal Church.

[5] On Nov. 15, 1866, Bishop Cummins had been regularly and canonically consecrated a Bishop. No question has ever been raised as to his own Orders.

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