The Episcopal Church

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Bishops! Including the bishop of the Diocese East Carolina, the Rev. Robert S. Skirving (front, 2nd from left)

The Episcopal Church is the Province of the Anglican Communion in the United States — a province that also includes Honduras, Taiwan, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and the British Virgin Islands along with parts of Europe. As of 2008, it is a church of 2,057,292 baptized members making it the fifteenth largest Christian denomination in the United States.

In keeping with Anglican tradition and theology, the Episcopal Church considers itself both “Protestant and Catholic.” The Church has a long history of both social action and liturgical tradition. Organized shortly after the American Revolution when it separated from the Church of England, the Episcopal Church was the first of what would become 37 autonomous national churches tracing their roots to the Church of England and bound together by “bonds of affection.”

The word “Episcopal” comes from the Greek word that is usually translated “bishop” and points to the church’s understanding that a bishop is the primary shepherd of the church. Under the Episcopal form of government, the bishop’s authority is equal to that of the Apostles and follows a line of succession by the laying on of hands in ordination. Formed out the crucible of the American Revolution, the Episcopal Church is governed by a representative democratic process. Our bishops are elected by both clergy and laity – rather than being appointed – and decisions made for the whole church can only be made by our General Convention (which meets every three years) and includes laity, clergy and bishops. Priests come under the authority of the bishops and are responsible for the teaching and administration of the local churches.

 

What Do Episcopalians Believe?

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A true and simple answer might be to say that we believe in God, in Jesus Christ the Son of God, and in the Holy Spirit.

But in our world today, full of division and uncertainty, many people find that simple answer unsatisfying. After all, don’t ALL Christians believe those things? People want to know precisely what a church believes about God, not just that we believe in God. People want to know specifics, so that they can decide if we’re “right” or “wrong,” if we have the right understanding, the right interpretation.

That is not how The Episcopal Church tends to approach faith and belief. Our list of “non-negotiable” points are very few, and largely shared with most every other Christian tradition. Those relatively few points are:

  • There is one God, who is a Trinity of Persons.
  • The First Person of the Trinity, traditionally called “Father,” created all things at the beginning of time.
  • Jesus Christ, the very human rabbi from 2000 years ago, was and is the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, and our Savior.
  • The Holy Scriptures (the Bible) are the revealed word of God, written by human beings under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, who is the Third Person of the Trinity. The Bible contains all things necessary for salvation.

Certainly there is more to be said, more that can be believed about God and Jesus. Many demoninations or church traditions take very specific stances on issues or questions concerning things such as (for example) the nature of God or the method of salvation. The Episcopal Church, though, is not bound together by a shared positions on academic theological questions or by tests of doctrine. We are bound together by our love of God in Christ Jesus, by our shared traditions and experiences of God in the worship and the life of the community.

The threefold sources of authority in the Episcopal Church (and other Anglican churches) are scripture, tradition, and reason. These three sources uphold and critique each other in a dynamic way. That is not to say that Episcopalians don’t believe specific or particular things. It is just that each member of our community is able to think for herself or himself, to wrestle with doubt and the questions of faith, and to prayerfully arrive at conclusions which may be different than those of other members within the community.

This openness has led The Episcopal Church to a number of positions, what you might call beliefs, that actually are somewhat unique among Christian churches. These ideas and practices are not so much points of doctrine, like you might learn in Sunday School or a theology class, but they are defining characteristics of our church.

Open, Affirming, and Welcoming

Not only does The Episcopal Church accept and welcome a wide range of theological ideas and thoughts, we also accept and welcome all people. We do not discriminate against anyone or any group for any reason.

It saddens us that throughout our history, the Christian church has discriminated against particular groups for such a long time that we must explicitly state what should be obvious and self-evident: In our church, women are of equal worth and dignity as men, and have full access to all orders of ministry, including the ordained priesthood and the office of bishop. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons are likewise full and equal members of our church, and likewise have full access to all orders of ministry, including the ordained priesthood and the office of bishop.

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Tradition and Progress, hand in hand

Our worship (or “liturgy”) varies in style and outward appearance, according to the needs and tastes of each local community in its own place and time. But the basic format and structure of our liturgy is the same everywhere you go, and has its roots in the earliest known Christian communities. Our Sunday services are not essentially different than those recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and continually offered by Christians for the last two thousand years.

Episcopal worship services are rooted in the Book of Common Prayer (.pdf). The Book of Common Prayer is a treasure chest full of devotional and teaching resources for individuals and congregations, but it is also the primary symbol of our unity as a Church. Prayer shapes belief. We, who are many and diverse, come together in Christ through our worship, our common prayer. A Book of Common Prayer with local variations is used in churches inside and outside the Anglican Communion in over 50 different countries and in over 150 different languages.

It is a most invaluable part of that blessed ‘liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free,’ that in his worship different forms and usages may without offence be allowed, provided the substance of the Faith be kept entire” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 9).

 

Come and See

Faith is not a set of words- it can’t be written down in some medieval manuscript or linked to from Facebook. Our faith is a living experience, and our church is a community, not an idea. The only way to know what Episcopalians believe is to come and see for yourself. We invite you to worship with us, pray with us, and sing with us at the table of the Lord.

 

For More Information

Visit the Episcopal Church, USA or the Diocese of East Carolina.

Episcopalians committed to advancing social justice through public policy may be interested in the Episcopal Public Policy Network.

 

(text adapted from All Saints Church, Pasadena and the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth)