MY BRETHREN OF THE CLERGY AND LAITY--The important interests to which your attention has been directed during the session of this Convention, are calculated to engage the most earnest endeavours that the counsels agreed upon for the advancement of the Church, and the kingdom of the Redeemer, should be successful. But to this end it is not only necessary that the measures directed by this body should be correct in principle, and required by the interests of the Church, but practically attainable, also, by the reasonable ability of the members. That such is the character of the resolutions body have now come to, must be evident to all who consider the magnitude of the objects to be attained, with the means which are at the reasonable disposal of the representatives of the Church.
Past experience, however, teaches us, that neither the necessity nor the advantage of a particular measure, nor yet the ability to carry it into effect, are in themselves sufficient to insure general co-operation. The Convention of the Church, though the proper representative of the particular congregations comprising it, and in fact a legislative body; yet; as it is clothed with no coercive power, is liable to find ifs best devised and best intended measures, paralyzed, if not altogether defeated, by the negligence or indifference of its constituents.
That this every way indefensible, and, if much longer continued, most ruinous state of insubordination to the fundamental principle of all regularly associated bodies, is, in our particular case, my brethren, the consequence of inconsideration in some, and want of proper information in others, I am well persuaded; and am, therefore, induced to give 'My' annual Charge to the diocese such a direction as may tend to obviate this evil, by laying before the -members of the church such a plain yet concise view of the popular nature of our frame of ecclesiastical government, as shall tend to engage and secure the ready concurrence and co-operation of all our members in favour of the measures agreed upon, either for particular or general good, by the regularly elected representatives of the particular congregations of the diocese at large.
The first delegation of power and authority by the members individually, is that committed to the Vestries of each particular congregation. These are bodies of men, varying in number according to the constitution of particular dioceses, but most commonly limited to twelve, annually chosen by a majority of the votes of each particular congregation; and forth, as it were, the legislative council of the parish or congregation by which they are elected. To the Vestries it appertains to direct and transact the secular concerns of the congregation; to asses and collect the pecuniary contributions required of the members; to appoint the delegates to the diocesan Conventions; to elect the church-wardens out of their own body; and to act as counsellors and assessors with their clergyman, if required, in cases of discipline, and other matters of common concern. They are also required to keep a regular record of the members of the congregation, of the marriages, baptisms, and burials, in the parish or congregation, and to enter a statement of their proceedings at every meeting.
To the Church-wardens it more especially belongs, to take care of the church buildings; of the communion plate, boons end vestments; to provide the elements for the holy communion at the common expense; to maintain order and decorum during public worship; and to regulate the necessary, provision for the poor of the parish. It is their duty also, in the absence, or at the desire of the minister, to preside according to seniority of appointment, at all meetings of the vestry to direct the entries to be made by the secretary according to the determination of the majority; to sign the proceedings g each meeting; and to certify all extracts from the record particularly all certificates of delegation to the diocesan Conventions.
From this brief view of the appointment and purpose vestries it must be evident, I think, that provision is made for the administration of parochial affairs upon the most popular model compatible with order and effect. The vestry-men being themselves members of the congregation, must be intimately acquainted with the condition and circumstances of their constituents; and as they must themselves be affected, in a proportional degree, by the resolves of the vestry, every security is obtained that nothing life oppression or injustice towards the rest of the members will be attempted. But even if such a case should occur, the congregation retains the remedy in their own bands, in the annual elections.
The next delegation of power and authority from the members of the Church, is that which is exercised mediately through the vestries, in the appointment of lay delegates to the diocesan Conventions.
These bodies are to the dioceses at large, what the particular vestries are to the several congregations composing them: the only difference between them being that which arises from the charge and management of general and particular interests, and the consequently superior importance of their determination,
To the diocesan Conventions, and of course to this body as such, it appertains to consult and provide for the general interests of the diocese; to enact, amend, or repeal canons, or laws ecclesiastical, for the regulation of the members at large; to elect the Bishop, to appoint the standing committee, or council of advice for the. Bishop, to choose the clerical and lay delegates to represent the diocese in the triennial Conventions of the General Church in these United States; and to assess and regulate the pecuniary contributions which are required for the general interests. And as the particular vestries are the organs through which the enactments of the diocesan Conventions are carried `into effect, so are the diocesan conventions also the organs whereby the General Convention fulfils its still higher and more comprehensive duties. Through these, as links in the chain, the frame of our ecclesiastical government is compacted together joints and bands which are essentially popular. It is based upon the will of the majority of the members, personally exercised the immediate election of the vestries, and it returns to them again in the annual controul which they retain over those elections; and that they may act with judgment on their, affairs, provision is made for their full information by the public manner in which the conventions hold their sessions, and by the general dissemination of the annual journals of their proceedings.
With a frame of ecclesiastical government as directly assimilated to, and equally as congenial with, the civil institutions of our country as that of any other known religious denomination in it, Episcopalians may surely be permitted to express their sorrow that so persevering an effort should have been made to impress upon the public mind the false and unfounded persuasion, that the principles of their government and the tenets of their religious belief, are alike hostile to the free and happy institutions of this favoured land; and to indulge the hope, that both those who circulate and those who receive so injurious and uncharitable a misrepresentation, will at least take the pains to be more truly informed. As, however, the remainder of a most unhappy prejudice has been widely spread, and long entertained, I feel it due to the interests committed to me to show further, that in the administration of the frame of government adopted by the Protestant Episcopal Church in these United States, nothing contrary to the will of the individual members of the Church, expressed by a majority of their representatives, can be forced upon them: Every Bishop is elected by the votes of the Clergy and laity of the diocese, assembled in Convention; every pastor, of a particular parish or congregation, is called to the charge by the vestry of the parish; and the vestry being elected by the members themselves, every precaution is taken, that as the whole is instituted for the common benefit, common consent shall; be the basis from which all necessary power and authority to administer the system with advantage and effect, shall spring. Nothing despotic, nothing unregulated by laws passed by the representatives of the members of the Church, is admitted the constitution of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Even the Bishop is only an executive officer, restrained and directed express canons in the exercise of the authority committed him; the only absolute power possessed by him being that negative nature, and this confined to matters purely conscientious--such as the refusal to admit a candidate for ordination, although recommended by the examiners as in their judgment qualified to receive orders, and cases of a like nature. A bishop can neither suspend, displace, nor degrade a clergyman, otherwise than as the canons direct. Nor can a clergyman exercise the discipline of the Church upon a communicant, except according to the rubrics and canons, and ultimately liable to the decision of the bishop, to whom, in every such case an appeal lies.
Every security being thus taken against the oppressive exercise of the authority confided to the different officers who are appointed to administer its affairs, and no authority being conferred but what is absolutely necessary for the edification of the body; it should surely be a prevailing argument with Episcopalians to respect and support their ecclesiastical constitution, by the observance of all the duties it imposes upon them.
And first, they owe to their own interest, to the credit and welfare of the Church, and to the advancement of true religion, a CONSCIENTIOUS PERFORMANCE OF THEIR RIGHT AND DUTY IN THE ELECTION OF THE MEMBERS OF THE VESTRY. On this everything may be said to depend, because to the vestries all subsequent measures for the year are referred. And not only is it a conscientious duty that every member of the Church should personally attend on the annual election day, but that he should vote also for those persons who, for their piety, their standing in public estimation, and other qualifications combined, give the best assurance of a faithful and profitable performance of the trust committed to them. In electing these men, respect should be had, in the first place, to their standing as Christians; a Christian body should surely be represented by Christians. In truth, it is desirable, that in every case the representatives of the Church should be communicants. But as this unhappily is not in all cases possible, it is therefore not insisted upon; nor is it in any particular congregation, or the Church at large debarred by any regulation from the services of those friendly laymen, whose orderly lives, and respect for religion, encourage the happy hope that they are not far from the kingdom of GOD.
Secondly, they owe it to conscience and to consistency, to OBEY THE REGULATIONS, TO CARRY INTO EFFECT THE LAWFUL RESOLUTIONS AND ENACTMENTS OF THEIR REPRESENTATIVES. As the members of a particular Church are morally bound by the acts of their vestry; so are all the congregations in a diocese, equally bound by the acts of their Convention; and all the Conventions of this country by the acts of the General Conventions of this Church. And the ground of this obligation is plain and obvious. As the individual members are bound by every principle of right reason to perform the duties and fulfil the engagements growing out of the lawful acts of their immediate representatives; so are these also, in the same manner, equally bound by the lawful acts of their immediate representatives, up to the highest judicatory known to the Church.
From this very brief but just statement of the popular principle upon which the frame of our ecclesiastical government is founded, the members of the Church in this diocese, I trust, will be induced to pay more attention to the election of their immediate representatives, and feel that the carelessness and indifference, too frequently manifested as to this duty, is, in fact, a surrender at once of private and public obligation, and a marl of great laxity of principle, both as churchmen and Christians.
As an additional and very powerful reason to give the whole of this subject the serious consideration its real importance demands, I would remark that as the whole power possessed by the administrative bodies of the Church is of a moral nature, and dependant for its effect on the influence of this principle over the members, all unnecessary neglect of the personal duties consequent on the right of election by them, of the relative duty of representatives, with all refusal to carry into effect the decisions of the vestries and Conventions, is, so far, very conclusive elusive proof of the weakness of the moral principle--of indifference to the interests of religion--and of disregard for the just and safe ground on which either civil or religious libel can be maintained, viz. submission to the will of the majority constitutionally declared.
Let not, then, the Church of which we are happily members, have to take up the reproach of her great Founder and Head, as expressed by the prophet Isaiah, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me. Our nursing mother appeals to us for support; let us not prove ourselves unnatural children by devouring the breasts which we have sucked, and refusing the support and defence which our spiritual parent requires in the day of her need. She has given all to her children; she has reserved nothing for herself, but the comfort and consolation which springs from unfeigned love and devoted attachment in them;--grounded on the irrefragable testimony of heaven and earth united in favour of her divine origin and saving purpose, as held and maintained by the Protestant Episcopal Church in these United States.