The first services provided by the Church of England were performed by Rev. Hunt in Jamestown in 1607. In 1624, Virginia became a royal colony and forced to conform to the Church of England. Under the Kings of England, most churches during America’s colonial period were part of the Church of England and subject to its rule under the Archbishop of Canterbury. There were other churches – Quakers, Catholics, Huguenots (French Protestants), etc. – but the Church of England was the prevalent and “official” church in the American Colonies. Following the Revolutionary War, in 1783, most of the Bishops and Priests, who remained loyal to the Church of England, fled the former colonies to Canada, remained as Tories, or returned to England. This left a vacuum in the Church’s hierarchy and the ability to appoint and consecrate new Bishops and Priests was gone.
The “Rite of Succession” is a tradition within the Anglican Church. All consecrated clergy in the Church had been ordained through the “laying on of hands” in an unbroken line of succession from the very first ordination in the early Church of England following the end of Roman control of Great Britain and the first Popes. The Church of England never appointed a Bishop to the Colonies, necessitating all candidates for ordination as Priests to travel to England; a long and perilous journey by sea. Following the Revolutionary War, Rev. Samuel Seabury remained in the United States. Three Bishops are required to ordain a new Bishop. In order to become consecrated as a Bishop, he would have had to return to England, where upon his arrival, he would surely be hung for treason and sedition against the English Crown. Fortunately for Seabury, Scotland was not on friendly terms with England and was trying to win its own independence from Great Britain at that time. Since Scotland had Bishops, Rev. Seabury traveled there and was consecrated as the first American Bishop.
By 1787, the feelings towards Americans had become more welcoming in England. William White of Philadelphia, along with Samuel Provoost of New York were consecrated as the 2nd and 3rd Bishops in the American Episcopal Church. In 1789, the First General Convention of the Episcopal Church was held in Philadelphia. The house of Bishops and House of Deputies was established. The Book of Common Prayer was revised and adopted at this time.
Other pertinent dates in the Episcopal Church:
1804 – Absolom Jones was ordained as the first black Episcopal Priest in America
1974 – Eleven women ordained as Priests in Philadelphia, PA
1976 – The Episcopal Church General Convention approves the ordination of women to all three orders; Bishop, Priest and Deacon.
2006 – Katherine Jefferts Schori elected and consecrated first female Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and the first female primate in the Anglican Church.