The Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. (ECUSA) is the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion — a “daughter” of the Church of England. It came into existence as an independent denomination after the American Revolution. Today it has between two and three million members in the United States, Mexico, and Central America, all of which are under jurisdiction of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori. Episcopalians celebrate the Mass in ways similar to the Roman Catholic tradition, yet do not recognize a single authority such as the Pope of Rome.
Although we subscribe to the historic Creeds (the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed), consider the Bible to be divinely inspired and hold the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper to be the central act of Christian worship, the Episcopal Church grants great latitude in interpretation of doctrine.
The Anglican Communion is an inheritor of 2000 years of catholic and apostolic tradition dating from Christ himself, rooted in the Church of England. When the Church of England spread throughout the British Empire, sister churches sprang up. These churches, while autonomous in their governance, are bound together by tradition, Scripture, and the inheritance they have received from the Church of England. They together make up the Anglican Communion, a body headed spiritually by the Archbishop of Canterbury and having some 80 million members, making it the second largest Christian body in the Western world.
Through the Anglican Communion, churches across the world worship in many different languages, and use many different words and musical styles. Nevertheless, the shape of our liturgy and the components of our Holy Eucharist are the same, and this is what binds us all together. “Anglican” simply means “of England” — the Episcopal Church in the United States, like all Anglican churches worldwide, descend from the Church of the English Reformation, whether through colonial histories or missionary activity.
“Episcopos” is the Greek word for “bishop.” Thus “Episcopal” means “governed by bishops.” The Episcopal Church maintains the three-fold order of ministry as handed down by the Apostles; deacons, priests and bishops, in direct descent, via the laying on of hands, from the original Apostles. If you’ve been to a Roman Catholic or Lutheran Church, our services will seem very familiar.
Is the Episcopal Church Protestant or Catholic? Or Protestant and Catholic?
Both, Neither, Either! Anglicanism is often referred to as a “bridge tradition.” We stand squarely in the Reformed tradition, yet considers ourself as directly descended from the Early Church as the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches. In Greek, the word “Catholic” means “universal.” “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi,” which in Latin means, “the rule of prayer is the rule of belief.” We find our unity in common prayer, not conformity to a certain set of doctrines. We articulate our faith in the historic Nicene Creed each Sunday, but there are many ways to understand the Christian faith as it is presented in that text. When the Church of England separated itself from Rome, it did not consider itself to be a Protestant tradition. It saw itself returning to the original organization of the church, with local/national congregations organized under the rule of their own bishops. As the church evolved in England, certain elements of the Reformation (such as worship in the vernacular, an emphasis on Scriptural authority, and a broader view of what happens during the consecration of the Eucharist) became a part of its tradition. In an attempt to reconcile the views of the Reformers with the tradition of the Catholic Church, the Anglican tradition became a home for both. Thus you will find very traditional (“high church” or “Anglo-Catholic”) parishes and very reformed (“low church” or Evangelical) parishes throughout the Anglican Communion. Most parishes probably fall in the middle of the two extremes.
What is the Book of Common Prayer?
Unique to the Episcopal Church and Anglican communion is the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), our worship services in use throughout the communion. It is called the book of “common prayer” because we all pray it together, around the world. The first BCP as it is also know was compiled in English by Thomas Cranmer in the 16th century. It has since undergone many revisions for different times and places. The Episcopal Liturgy that we use today in worship is unique to the United States, and was adopted in 1979, after a long study process, replacing the former 1928 edition. The 1979 book uses more contemporary language and focuses on the early church practice of celebrating the Eucharist every Sunday. We use many other worship resources and prayers to enrich our worship, but the BCP is the baseline. The 1662 book of common prayers continues to be used today in England.
Latin and Greek were the two early “official” languages of Christianity. The tradition of the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism however, is the belief that Christians should be able to worship God and read the Bible in their first language. For many Episcopalians that language is English, but the Book of Common Prayer has been translated into a variety of languages as well.
Scripture, Tradition, and Reason Sixteenth Century theologian Richard Hooker used the term “three legged stool” to describe the Anglican approach to our faith. The three “legs” are Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. Hooker felt that each of these play a critical part in maintaining the structure’s integrity. As Episcopalians, we place great importance on the Bible or scripture, recognizing it as the Word of God. We also rely on our church’s tradition to connect all generations of believers past and present and to offer people the space for applying the Word of God to our own lives. The Church, as a worshiping body of faithful people, has for two thousand years seen God in many different ways, and we believe that understanding how God’s Word has guided and shaped the lives of those who have gone before us is critical to understanding how it can guide and shape our own. Our vision is to be “grounded in tradition, yet open to the world.” We rely on Reason, given to us by God to help us understand the teachings of the Bible in their original historical context and also in the context of our lives today. We also need to use our reason to examine how Scripture can help us with contemporary issues unique to our world today. God’s call to be stewards of the earth is a timeless charge.
To learn more about the Episcopal Church of the US, click here: The Episcopal Church