Historical Backdrop Presses the Issue of the Form of Governance
Upon Bishop Seabury's return from Scotland in 1785, two schools of thought contended for control. His Connecticut Plan held that the organization of the American churches could not be achieved until a bishop was in place. White's Pennsylvania Plan sought to achieve unity first, and then secure a bishop as soon as was practicable.
Seabury objected to plans to allow lay representation in Convention and to changes in the Prayer Book that would remove the Athanasian and Nicene Creed and the passage "He descended to Hell" from the Apostles Creed. Loveland, 181. Seabury also saw no need to incorporate the Articles of Religion into the new church, believing the Prayer Book held sufficient theological grounding for the church. However, White wisely saw the Articles as a guard against heterodoxy and as a link to the Church of England. Loveland, 269.
White's supporters responded by refusing to recognize Seabury's consecration and by not recognizing the validity of any ordinations which he performed. Seabury's Scotch pedigree and his attempt to incorporate portions of the Scotch Communion Office in place of sections of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer Communion Office as well as High Church views of the episcopacy divided the American Chu rch into competing camps.
Events soon took a new twist when the American Minister in London, John Adams, equipped with testimonials from two leading Episcopalians in the new United States, John Jay of New York and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, approached the Archbishop of Canterbury on behalf of White's party and began the slow process of negotiations towards changing English law. Loveland, 173.
On June 26, 1786, Parliament passed an Enabling Act that granted English bishops the authority to consecrate candidates from "countries out of his Majesty's Dominions" without requiring the oath of allegiance and supremacy to the King or the oath of obedience to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Samuel Provoost of New York and William White were elected bishops by their state conventions; on February 4, 1787, they were consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Old Chapel in Lambeth Palace. White, Memoirs, 367-9, 27.
Though there were now three Bishops in the United States, Seabury in Connecticut, White in Pennsylvania and Provoost in New York, the Episcopal Church was no nearer to forming a united church. Provoost would not recognize Seabury's Scotch orders while Seabury continued to object to the proposed liturgical revisions of the Prayer Book and to White's system of church government.
The Compromise of 1789 Established the Parish as the Primary Unit
The Episcopal Churches met in state conventions between 1782 and 1789. It met in national
conventions on three occasions before the two national Conventions of 1789. During this period of time, a series of compromises were reached that, by 1789, allowed the two bodies to be united. The essence of the compromise was that Seabury's orders would be accepted by the whole church, that White's system of government would be adopted, with a few minor and unrelated changes, and Prayer Book revision would be kept to a minimum. This is precisely what transpired.
At the 1789 Convention, Seabury's objection to seating the Bishops as members ex officio of Convention was resolved by creating two houses of government, i.e., a House of Bishops and a House of Deputies. The bishops were to constitute "a House of revision; and when any proposed act shall have passed in the General Convention, the same shall be transmitted to the House of revision for their concurrence." Article 3 of the Constitution of 1789.
The New England clergy proposed a compromise. "If the third article of that Constitution may be so modified as to declare explicitly the right of Bishops, when sitting in a separate House, to originate and propose acts for the concurrence of the other House of Convention, and to negative such acts proposed by the other House as they may disapprove", then the Seabury faction would ascent to the proposed Constitution.
The disagreements over the Creeds were resolved by compromise and by passing the responsibility for final revisions to a committee. The Athanasian Creed would be removed but not the Nicene. No changes would be made to the Apostles Creed. Portions of the Scotch Communion Office would be introduced into the new prayer book, but the balance, less the politically necessary changes, would come from the English Prayer Book.
Earlier objections to Seabury's Scotch orders were thereupon laid aside. Political expediency and the death of the last Stuart pretender in 1788 allowing the Scottish Episcopal Church to give allegiance to George III removed the legal impediment between the Church of England and the Scottish Episcopal Church.
This resolved the question of the legitimacy of Seabury's episcopal orders for many in the Convention. Loveland, 237. White also defused a crisis surrounding Seabury's pension from the British government. White noted the money received by Seabury was for past services and had nothing to do with present loyalties. Bishop White finally settled the matter by offering a resolution which the Journal of Convention recorded as, "Resolved unanimously, that it is the opinion of this Convention, that the consecration of the Right Rev. Dr. Seabury to the Episcopal office is valid." William S. Perry, ed., Journals of General Conventions of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, published by authority of General Convention. Vol. I and II of A Half Century of the Legislation of the American Church (Claremont, NH: Claremont Manufacturing Company, 1874) 1:60-83.
Not all of the contentious issues that divided the Church in 1789 were resolved by that Convention. Nevertheless, by accepting Seabury's orders, adopting White's polity for ECUSA, and keeping the Prayer Book and Articles essentially unchanged, the churches were able to achieve union. The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America was now formed.
Loveland's pertinent conclusion summarizes the important points at issue: "Before the end of the Revolutionary War, it was evident that the American Chu rch must break with the English politico-ecclesiastical system. The organization of the Protestant Episcopal Church today  is essentially the same as that suggested by Bishop White in 1782. ? Not Parliament, but its own representative General Convention constitutes its final legislative body. The basic unit in the government of the Church is not the diocese as in England, but the parish. Every parish sends representatives to its annual diocesan conventions, at which diocesan representatives to the triennial General Convention are elected. Thus, every parish is represented in the General Conventions, by which the Church is governed.
Another break with the English system ? was the change in the status of bishops. ? American bishops have no political power or prestige. Each one is elected by the church members of a specific region, solely to supervise and administer their ecclesiastical affairs. ? The power and prestige of each American bishop lies in his control of the affairs of the Church in his own diocese. The purely ecclesiastical bishop, considered an impossibility in 1772, but a necessity in 1784, is a continuing reality today.
The third innovation adopted by the Protestant Episcopal Church during the period of reorganization, which has remained a vital part of the American Chu rch, is the principle of lay representation. ? The struggles of the years 1780-1789 ended in real achievement. In 1789, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America was established with a new form of government suited to its new political situation, but universally recognized as continuous in thought and feeling with the Church of England. Loveland, 284-8 (emphasis added).