The Episcopal Church in the United States of America has its origin in the Anglican Church or Church of England, which formed during the Reformation in the sixteenth century. After the American Revolution of the 1700s, the Anglicans in America formed an independent church in the town of Philadelphia. Due to sentiments following the Revolutionary War, the English refused to ordain the first American bishop, Samuel Seabury. A small group of Anglicans existed in Scotland and consented to consecrate Seabury. That church was called the Scottish Episcopal Church and exists until this day.
The term “episcopal” is from the Greek term episkopos (episkopos), which literally means “bishop.” Although the American Episcopal Church is very democratic in its government (meaning bishops, priests, and laity participate in the councils of the church), the term episcopal refers to a church that is governed by bishops. Episcopalians believe in the “apostolic succession” or unbroken line of succession through its bishops since the first apostles of Jesus in the first century A.D. There would be no Episcopal Church without the bishops, and the participation of the members of the other orders of ministers – the laity, deacons, and priests (Book of Common Prayer, p15).
As part of the Anglican tradition, we describe ourselves as the Via Media (or “the middle way”). We are a bridge between the Catholic tradition (dating from the Early Church) and Reformed Protestantism (the roots of which are traceable to the 14th century). In other words we inherited many gifts, such as customs and beliefs, from the Roman Catholic tradition. This is one reason many of our visitors state that our manner of worship is similar to the “Catholic Church.” At the same time, we are beneficiaries of the Reformation – chiefly an emphasis on reading and interpreting the Bible, and empowering the laity to share in the ministries of the Church.
WHAT DO EPISCOPALIANS BELIEVE?
A starting point for understanding what Episcopalians believe is with a verse of scripture most Christian Americans memorized as children – John 3:16. “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the extent that all who believe in him,” [as the Savior of the world] “might inherit eternal life.” This God is the creator of the world and of all people, who are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26). A simple statement of the New Testament is so fundamental to our faith: “God is love” (1 John 4:7). In the mystery of the Incarnation or “the Word [becoming] flesh” (John 1:14), the otherwise invisible God, demonstrated this incredible love for all people through Jesus, the Savior of the world. The gift of love is God’s most powerful creation action!
Jesus declared he was the Messiah and the Savior for whom his Jewish brothers and sisters had long awaited. He gave “the Great Commandment,” based upon the love of God: “Hear O, Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all of the Law and the Prophets” [of the Old Testament] (Matthew 22:39).
Jesus issued to his disciples an additional commandment, that is, “Love one another,” (John 13:34).
In addition to possessing a Bible-based faith or belief system, Episcopalians also use the Creeds of the Church – both the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds – as the orthodox statements of faith, which were inherited from the Early Church.
Salvation is an act of Grace, and one begins a new life of grace with the sacrament of Holy Baptism. And through the presence of the Holy Spirit in baptism, one is born anew and is fully initiated into the Body of Christ, the Church. Though the Episcopal Church recognizes many sacramental rites (also received from the Early Church tradition) all baptized persons receive the Holy Eucharist (or Communion) on a regular basis as spiritual nourishment and a reminder of God’s grace through Jesus Christ.
Basically stated, an Episcopal Church 1) believes the Bible, the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, to be the Word of God and contain all things necessary for salvation; 2) uses the Nicene Creed of the Church as a statement of orthodox faith; 3) administers the “Great Sacraments of the Gospels” – Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist (Communion); and 4) recognizes the unbroken apostolic succession through the history and lineage of her Bishops. (Adapted from the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of – page 877 of The Book of Common Prayer).
WHAT IS UNIQUE ABOUT THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH ?
- We always lead with the message of God’s love in our worship and in our daily lives.
- The message of love logically leads to a message of God’s forgiveness and pardon.
- All people are welcome.
- We are a sacramental church and we believe that God’s presence comes to us through outward and visible signs, such as bread and wine, water, and the human touch.
- The Holy Eucharist (Communion) is a sacrament and the principal service every Sunday.
- The sacrament of Holy Baptism offers full initiation into the Body of Christ, the Church, and all baptized Christians are invited to receive Holy Communion in the Episcopal Church.
- We are a liturgical church and observe the seasons and holy days of the Church Year – and the emphasis of each day or season influences the theme of each day’s worship. Each Sunday and Feast Day always offers something refreshing and different.
- “Liturgy” means “the work of the people.” Our services are participatory in nature and are not dominated by the clergy.
- We don’t call our Sunday worship “preaching.” Although the sermon is only one aspect of the worship experience the primary emphasis is on Holy Communion.
- Although we are a biblical church, we are not biblical literalists or fundamentalists. No one person’s interpretation is viewed as authoritative. The life and work of Jesus Christ himself is our final authority.
- “We believe the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the Word of God and to contain all things necessary to salvation” (the Rite of Ordination, BCP, p. 513).
- We use the Bible extensively in our worship: an Old Testament and a New Testament Epistle reading; the recitation of a Psalm; and a reading from a Gospel.
- We are a community of believers. To be a part of a church community does not allow one to be a “Lone Ranger.” We seek to understand the will of God through the witness of all members of the community of faith as each is led by the Holy Spirit – whether that community is the congregation’s elected leadership (the vestry), the parishioners in each congregation, the diocese, or the national convention of the Episcopal Church.
- We are a church that encourages each person to use his or her God-given mind. Questions are invited in the Episcopal Church.
- Episcopalians are recipients of the gifts of the Early Church, dating from the First Century A.D. Some of those gifts include the Creeds, the authorized canon or final form of the New Testament as we have it today, our understanding and use of Sacraments, and our liturgies (rites), as well as many of the orthodox doctrines of the Church.
- We also affirm a belief in the mystery of the Incarnation, that is, the nature of Jesus as being both human and divine. We also proclaim the Resurrection – that Jesus died for the sins of the world and was raised from the dead, and salvation is available through belief in the Risen Lord.
- We are Trinitarians and profess a faith in the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- We are Christians. We believe, based on the witness of the Holy Scriptures, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Savior of the world.