“First presbyter of the Church,” was the well-deserved, if unofficial, title of the sixth rector of Grace Church, New York City. Huntington provided a leadership characterized by breadth, generosity, scholarship, and boldness. He was the acknowledged leader in the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention during a period of intense stress and conflict within the Church. His reconciling spirit helped preserve the unity of the Episcopal Church in the painful days after the beginning of the schism, led by the Assistant Bishop of Kentucky, which resulted in the formation of the Reformed Episcopal Church.
In the House of Deputies, of which he was a member from 1871 until 1907, Huntington showed active and pioneering vision in making daring proposals. As early as 1871, his motion to revive the primitive order of “deaconesses” began a long struggle which culminated in 1889 in canonical authorization for that order. Huntington’s parish immediately provided facilities for this new ministry, and Huntington House became a training center for deaconesses and other women workers in the Church.
Christian unity was Huntington’s great passion throughout his ministry. In his book, The Church Idea (1870), he attempted to articulate the essentials of Christian unity. The grounds he proposed as a basis for unity were presented to, and accepted by, the House of Bishops in Chicago in 1886, and, with some slight modification, were adopted by the Lambeth Conference in 1888. The “Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral” has become a historic landmark for the Anglican Communion. It is included on pages 876–878 of the Book of Common Prayer, among the Historical Documents of the Church.
In addition to his roles as ecumenist and statesman, Huntington is significant as a liturgical scholar. It was his bold proposal to revise the Prayer Book that led to the revision of 1892, providing a hitherto unknown flexibility and significant enrichment. His Collect for Monday in Holy Week, now used also for Fridays at Morning Prayer, is itself an example of skillful revision. In it he takes two striking clauses from the exhortation to the sick in the 1662 Prayer Book, and uses them as part of a prayer for grace to follow the Lord in his sufferings.
In his book The Church-Idea: An Essay Towards Unity (1870), Huntington claims to answer to the question of “what Anglicanism pure and simple is” and to clarify “the absolutely essential features of the Anglican position” regarding the "Church of the Reconciliation" in America. According to Huntington, those features are:
1st. The Holy Scriptures as the Word of God.
2d. The Primitive Creeds as the Rule of Faith.
3d. The two Sacraments ordained by Christ himself.
4th. The Episcopate as the key-stone of Governmental Unity.
Huntington’s four-fold explication of the Church-Idea laid the groundwork for the formulation of the Chicago Quadrilateral at the General Convention of 1886 and the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888:
That, in the opinion of this Conference, the following Articles supply a basis on which approach may be by God's blessing made towards Home Reunion:
(a) The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as "containing all things necessary to salvation," and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
(b) The Apostles' Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
(c) The two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself - Baptism and the Supper of the Lord - ministered with unfailing use of Christ's words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him.
(d) The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church
To this day, Huntington's The Church-Idea remains an outstanding American contribution to Anglican thought on ecclesiology and ecumenism. And it also shows that Huntington believed that the Gospel is universal and comprehensive in scope, i.e., catholic. The community called together by this Gospel must, therefore, embody the intention of the Gospel to save “all souls collectively.” And this means that the Church on earth must form a visible unity.
For more detailed discussions of Huntington, as well as background for the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, check out two of my earlier postings: "William Reed Huntington and the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral" and "On the Way to the Quadrilateral."
In The Church-Idea, Huntington argued that “Anglicanism stands or falls” with the historic episcopate, and he drove the point home in strong language:
Indeed, … if the Episcopate have no more claim on our regard than any other form of ecclesiastical polity, then the sooner Anglicans in America shut their church-doors and burn their prayer-books, the better; for they are only adding, upon insufficient grounds, one more to the sectarian divisions under which the land groans. But if they have in the Episcopate that which links them by an actual historical connection to the Church of the primitive times, then ought they to thank God and take courage, and do all they can by the removal of misapprehension and disabilities and needless partition walls of prejudice, to make their inheritance available for the enrichment of the whole scattered flock of Christ.
Huntington also wrote eloquently about the connection between reconciliation and catholicity:
If our whole ambition as Anglicans in America be to continue a small, but eminently respectable body of Christians, and to offer a refuge for people of refinement and sensibility, who are shocked by the irreverences they are apt to encounter elsewhere; in a word, if we care to be only a countercheck and not a force in society; then let us say as much in plain terms, and frankly renounce any and all claim to Catholicity. We have only, in such a case, to wrap the robe of our dignity about us, and walk quietly along in a seclusion no one will take much trouble to disturb. Thus may we be a Church in name, and a sect in deed.
But if we aim at something nobler than this, if we would have our Communion become national in very truth, - in other words, if we would bring the Church of Christ into the closest possible sympathy with the throbbing, sorrowing, sinning, repenting, aspiring heart of this great people, - then let us press our reasonable claims to be the reconciler of a divided household, not in a spirit of arrogance (which ill befits those whose best possessions have come to them by inheritance), but with affectionate earnestness and an intelligent zeal.
141 years later, Huntington's ecumenical call for the nobler aim of reconciliation and catholicity continues to resonate.