Frequently Asked Questions about the
Episcopal Church and the Anglican Tradition
By Audrey E. Nickel
Do you have a question about the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Tradition that you don't see addressed here? Drop us a line at office[at]standrewslc.org and we'll see if we can find an answer for you (or at least give you an idea of where you might begin looking for an answer). And if you have a question that you think needs to be added to the Episcopal FAQ page, please let us know!
What is the Episcopal Church?
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.
How did it get started?
There have been Anglicans in what was to become the United States since the establishment of the first English colony at Jamestown. Following the American Revolution, some reorganization was necessary for those Anglicans who chose to remain in the new country, as the Church of England is a state church which recognizes the monarch as her secular head (obviously, not a popular idea in post-Revolutionary America!). Thus the "Protestant" Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. was born (the word "Protestant," used to distinguish the Episcopal Church from the Roman Catholic Church, which is also "episcopal" in its organization, has since been dropped from the official title). There were some rocky periods, especially in the early days of the church, when bishops of the established Church of England were reluctant to consecrate new bishops who would not recognize the reigning monarch as the head of the church. That's all water under the bridge, however, and the Episcopal Church is now fully "in communion" with the Church of England and with other Anglican churches throughout the world.
What does "Episcopal" mean?
"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. By the way, "Episcopal" is an adjective: "I belong to the Episcopal Church." The noun is "Episcopalian": "I am an Episcopalian."
So is the Episcopal Church Protestant or Catholic?
Both. Neither. Either. Anglicanism is often referred to as a "bridge tradition." When the Church of England separated itself from Rome, it did not consider itself to be a "Protestant" tradition. Rather, 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.
Isn't it true that the Church of England was founded by Henry VIII?
Not entirely. While Henry VIII's desire for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was, in a manner of speaking, the straw that broke the camel's back (and, for what it's worth, Henry's request wasn't out of line with church laws of his day...but that's another story), the trend toward separation from Rome had been building for quite some time in England, which had never fully embraced the rule of the papacy.
Isn't the Archbishop of Canterbury the Anglican Pope?
No, he's not. We don't have a pope. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the spiritual leader of the Church of England, and is considered "first among equals" by the rest of the Anglican Communion. He is highly respected, but he does not have the same authority over the churches of the Anglican Communion that the Pope has over the Roman Catholic Church.
How is the church governed?
In an established, self-sustaining congregation, or "parish", day-to-day matters are handled by a panel of elected lay people called a "vestry." The head priest, or "rector", handles spiritual and worship-related matters, and usually serves in an advisory capacity on church committees. Depending on the size of the congregation, the rector may have one or several ordained assistants (sometimes referred to as "curates"). Often there will be other lay or ordained people in charge of specific areas, such as a music director (who coordinates worship music for the congregation) or a "sexton" (i.e., a person who handles physical maintenance of the church building and grounds). Churches that are not self-sustaining are called "missions." Often they are newly formed congregations, or congregations with a very small membership. These churches are administered by the bishop's office. The head priest of a mission is called a "vicar" because he or she serves as the bishop's representative. All individual congregations are part of a larger geographical area called a "diocese," which is lead by a bishop. Some churches in the Anglican Communion also have larger administrative districts called "archdioceses," which are comprised of several dioceses and are administered by "archbishops." ECUSA does not have archdioceses or archbishops. Instead we give primacy to a "Presiding Bishop," who is elected to serve a nine-year term.
What is "The Book of Common Prayer"?
Contrary to what some believe, The Book of Common Prayer (the "Prayer Book") is not an "Anglican Bible." We love it, use it and depend on it, but it is not Scripture (though it does contain quite a lot of Scripture), and we do not view it or use it as such. The first Book of Common Prayer was produced by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1549, and revised by Cranmer in 1552 (further revisions occurred in 1559 and 1662; the latter revision is still used as the official Prayer Book of the Church of England, and is considered a literary classic among scholars). The book was intended to facilitate worship in English rather than Latin and to bring the rites of the church together into one book for use by both clergy and layfolk. Each national church in the Anglican Communion has its own adaptation of the Prayer Book. The American version, used by most churches in ECUSA, was last revised in 1979 (some Episcopal churches prefer to use the 1928 version). In the Prayer Book, you will find the orders of service for the various rites of the church, the Daily Office, prayers for use within the context of the liturgy and prayers for use in home devotions, the Lectionary (i.e., the Scriptural readings to be used in corporate worship, organized so as to carry the congregation through the entire Bible in a three-year period), the Psalter (Psalms), the Calendar of the Church Year, The Outline of the Faith (Catechism) and various historical documents.
How do Episcopalians worship?
If you are familiar with Roman Catholic or Lutheran services, you will find Episcopal services remarkably similar. The central rite is the Service of Holy Eucharist (aka "Communion," or "The Lord's Supper"), analogous to the Roman Catholic Mass (and referred to as "Mass" by some Episcopalians). The first part of the liturgy ("The Liturgy of the Word") consists of prayers, scripture readings and a sermon or homily. This is followed an Affirmation of Faith (The Nicene Creed), the Prayers of the People, Confession of Sin, Absolution, and the Exchange of Peace. The second part of the liturgy ("The Liturgy of the Eucharist") begins with the offerings of the congregation, and then proceeds with the Eucharistic Prayer, Consecration of the Elements (bread and wine), Communion, the Post-Communion Prayer, Blessing and Dismissal. Two Eucharistic Rites are commonly used by the Episcopal Church: The modern and less-formal Rite II is usually used for most of the year, with the older and more formal Rite I being used during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent.
Does the church celebrate other rites?
Other public rites of the church include Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer and Evensong or Evening Prayer Baptism, Confirmation/Reception and Ordinations.
How can I learn more about Episcopal worship practices?
The best way to learn more about our worship practices is to look through a copy of The Book of Common Prayer. These can typically be found in the pews in every Episcopal Church, and no one is likely to mind if drop by to peruse a copy. Copies can also often be found in libraries and bookstores.
I'm planning on visiting an Episcopal Church. May I take communion?
All baptized Christians, regardless of denomination, may take communion in the Episcopal Church. Your own denomination may have some restrictions on where you may or may not communicate, however, so it would be wise to check with a clergy person in your own church first.
What are the sacraments of the Episcopal Church?
Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Holy Matrimony, Reconciliation ("confession"), Ordination and Unction of the Sick. Of these, Baptism and the Eucharist are considered "necessary" sacraments...the others are "conditional" sacraments (i.e., they are not required of all persons, but apply in certain situations). "Sacraments" are defined as "Outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace."
Does the Episcopal Church baptize infants?
Yes. We believe that the grace conferred by the Sacrament of Baptism is not and should not be reserved only for "informed believers."
At what age may a child take communion?
A child may take communion at any age. We do not believe that a certain "understanding" of the proceedings is necessary for the sacrament to be valid. The decision of when to take communion is left up to the child and his/her parents.
Does the Episcopal Church ordain women to the clergy?
Yes. The Episcopal Church has ordained women to all orders of ministry since 1976.
How do I join the Episcopal Church? Do I need to be confirmed?
If you are coming from a church in the Apostolic Succession (i.e., Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox), and have already been confirmed, you would be "received" by the bishop of your diocese, in a ceremony that normally takes place during the bishop's visit to your church. If you are coming from a different tradition, confirmation would be appropriate. Most churches hold "inquirer's courses" for people interested in reception or confirmation prior to the bishop's visitation. You will want to speak to the rector or vicar of your church if you are interested. Note that confirmation or reception is NOT necessary before you can take communion, or participate in the life of the church.
I have already been baptized in another church. If I become an Episcopalian, do I need to be re-baptized?
No. "We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins." Once you have been baptized with water, in the name of the Trinity, you have been received by adoption into the family of Christ (not into a particular denomination) and that need not...in fact, should not...be repeated. This is true even if you were a tiny baby when you were baptized. If you wish to make a public, adult, affirmation of faith, you may choose to be confirmed, if appropriate (see above). You also always have the option of publically reaffirming your baptismal vows, even after confirmation, if you so choose...but this is a highly personal matter, and not in any way required.
What is the significance of the Episcopal Seal ("The Shield") and Flag?
This symbol, which you will see at virtually every Episcopal Church and website, is the official "logo" of ECUSA, and depicts our history. It is red, white and blue...the colors of both the U.S. and England. The red Cross of St. George on a white field is symbolic of the Church of England. The blue field in the upper left corner is the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. It features a Cross of St. Andrew, in recognition of the fact that the first American bishop was consecrated in Scotland. This cross is made up of nine crosslets, which represent the nine dioceses that met in Philadelphia in 1789 to form the Protestant Episcopal Church of the U.S.A.
*Episcopal FAQ's used with permission, St Luke’s Episcopal Church, Durham, NC