What is the Episcopal Church?
Episcopal Church is the American branch of the Anglican Communion. 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. Together they make up the Anglican Communion, a body headed spiritually by the Archbishop of Canterbury and having nearly 80 million members, making it the second largest Christian body in the world.
While Anglican Churches share a common heritage, their worship is expressed in a variety of languages and customs. All accept Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments as “containing all things necessary to salvation;” the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds as sufficient statements of the Christian faith; the two great sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion as instituted by Christ himself, and a ministry comprised of the laity, deacons, priests and bishops whose succession reaches back in time to the Apostles. In this sense, Anglicans share a heritage which includes both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. Although these three great communions remain separated, all are working toward understanding and cooperation. By seeking the middle way (“via media”), Anglicanism is “the bridge church” between protestant and catholic traditions.
The Episcopal Church came into existence as an independent denomination after the American Revolution. Certain changes in church governance had to be made since Americans could no longer pledge allegiance to England and English bishops as had been formerly required.
It is no accident that the governance of the Episcopal Church followed that of the United States Government since two-thirds of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as George Washington, were committed Anglican churchmen. The first bishop of the Episcopal Church, Samuel Seabury of Connecticut, was consecrated in Scotland by three Scottish Episcopal Bishops who were not subject to the Church of England. Our next two American bishops, however, were consecrated in England because the laws were changed.
Today the Episcopal Church in the United States 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, Frank Griswald.
Bishops in the American Episcopal Church are elected by individual dioceses and are consecrated into the Apostolic Succession, considered to witness to an unbroken line of Church leadership beginning with the Apostles themselves. For more than two decades the American Episcopal Church has ordained women to the priesthood and several women bishops have been consecrated.
Although it subscribes to the historic Creeds (the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed), considers the Bible to be divinely inspired, and holds the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper to be the central act of Christian worship, the Episcopal Church grants great latitude in interpretation of doctrine. It puts less stress on the confession of particular beliefs than the use of the Book of Common Prayer in public worship. This book, first published in the sixteenth century but revised over the centuries, stands today as a major source of unity for Anglicans around the world.