About the Episcopal Church

What is the Episcopal Church?

The Episcopal Church in the USA is part of the worldwide communion of Anglican churches, with the Church of England as the symbolic home base, or “mother church” of Anglican Christians. The Archbishop of Canterbury serves as a symbolic locus of unity for Anglicans while not exercising the same amount of control or influence as, for example, the Pope does over Roman Catholics.

While it is true in some historical sense that King Henry VIII launched the Church of England in the sixteenth century by wanting a divorce (the Pope refused to grant permission), very little changed in English churches after Henry officially broke ties with Rome. The Protestant Reformation (spurred by Luther, Calvin, and others) took root much more slowly in England and with different theological and liturgical emphases. Many refer to the reforms (and compromises) enacted by Queen Elizabeth I (the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn) as the more definitive historical moment for the emergence of Anglican traditions. For these and other reasons, the casual observer frequently sees little difference between Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, leading to the rather tongue-in-cheek description of the Episcopal Church as “Catholic lite.”

Why is it called “Episcopal”?

“Episcopal” comes from the Greek word for “bishop.” After the American Revolution, Anglican churches in the former colonies were in disarray and it became problematic for Anglicans to continue to refer to ourselves as “Anglican” let alone the “Church of England.” The reorganization of the church took a form similar to the newly formed government of the United States (a bicameral legislative body) and we Anglicans renamed ourselves “The Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA” (that is, a church in the Protestant—or reformed tradition—but with bishops). The emergence of a church body still connected to England but effectively free from English control (i.e., the Episcopal Church in the USA) marked the beginning of what has become known as the worldwide Anglican Communion. The various provinces of this communion (Canada, New Zealand, a host of African nations, and so on) are all self-governing, but still “in communion” with the Church of England. What this means precisely has always been vague and, in recent years, much more hotly debated, especially given the apparent differences in liturgical practice and theological ethics among some of the provinces.

Do Episcopalians believe the same things as Roman Catholics?

Yes and no. Even among Roman Catholics you would find some differences between “official” church teaching and what any given set of individuals actually believe and how they practice their faith. Most mainline Christian denominations would accept and affirm the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed as a baseline for Christian belief. Subtle nuances of doctrine, organizational structure and liturgical practice separate these various church bodies.

Thus, while the same structure exists for both Anglicans and Roman Catholics (a diocesan system with local bishops, regional bishops and provincial bishops), the kind of authority a bishop exercises differs between the two groups. Most notable in this regard is the authority vested in the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) as compared to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who functions more as a symbol of unity among worldwide Anglican Christians rather than a “ruler” or “legislator.”

In terms of doctrine and ethics, Anglicans have traditionally practiced a bit more latitude in Christian belief and practice. Probably more Roman Catholics than Anglicans would, for example, believe in Purgatory and fewer Anglicans than Roman Catholics would practice sacramental confession. Liturgically, you would find virtually the same structure for Christian worship in both a Roman Catholic and an Anglican parish (see below for differences among Episcopal Church congregations).

Are all Episcopal Church congregations the same?
No. There’s a surprising amount of diversity in the Episcopal Church, ranging from “high church” (a style of practice sometimes joking called, “smells and bells”) to “low church” and everything in between. You can find nearly all kinds of theological perspectives and worship styles. Some congregations are part of the charismatic movement; others draw from Medieval Latin mass sensibilities; some are a combination of both. The Episcopal Church has traditionally drawn from the upper classes of American society—the over-educated, wealthy, and politically conservative. Those demographics have changed a bit over the years (thankfully), and one can find in some congregations a much wider representation.

What’s the difference between “Episcopal” and “Episcopalian”?

It’s a grammatical difference, which very few people seem to manage correctly, including some members of the media and even some Episcopalians. “Episcopal” is the adjective and “Episcopalian” is the noun. Thus, an Episcopalian is someone who belongs to the Episcopal Church. It is not correct, therefore, to refer to the “Episcopalian Church” or to call a member of the church an “Episcopal.” (But don’t worry about remembering this little tidbit of “grammatical correctness.”)

For more information about the Episcopal Church in the United States, click here.

For more information about the Anglican Communion, click here.