The Episcopal Church, commonly called The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, is the Province of the Anglican Communion in the United States, Honduras, Taiwan, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, the British Virgin Islands and some parts of Europe.
The Church was organized shortly after the American Revolution after being forced to break with the Church of England on penalty of treason, as Church of England clergy were all required to swear allegiance to the British monarch,and became, in words of the 1990 report of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Group on the Episcopate, "the first Anglican Province outside the British Isles". It is today it divided into nine provinces and has dioceses outside the United States in Taiwan, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Europe. The Episcopal Diocese of the Virgin Islands encompasses American and British territory.
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Keeping with Anglican tradition and theology, the Episcopal Church considers itself a via media, or middle way, between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.
The Episcopal Church was very highly in the Social Gospel movement of the late nineteenth century and since the 1960s and 1970s has played a large role in the progressive movement and on related political issues. For example, in its resolutions on state related issues the Episcopal Church has opposed the death penalty, and supported the civil rights movement and affirmative action. Some leaders and priests marched with civil rights demonstrators. The church calls for the full civil equality of gay men and lesbians. Most dioceses ordain openly gay men and women; in some, same-sex unions are celebrated with services of blessing, but "no diocese currently permits same-sex marriage...even in those states and municipalities which permit it." On the topic of abortion, the church has adopted a nuanced position. Concerning all these issues, individual members and clergy can and do frequently disagree with the stated position of the church. The Episcopal Church ordains women to the priesthood along with the diaconate and the episcopate. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church today is Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first female primate in the Anglican Communion.
Total membership of active baptized members in 2007 within the United States was 2,154,572, according to the 2008 National Council of Churches Report, representing a 4.15% decline from the NCC's figure for 2006. The statistics for the most recent year available from the Episcopal Church itself, 2005, are 2,205,376 in the United States and 2,369,477 worldwide, which are calculated from all submitted parochial reports for 2005 – the latest year available.
In recent years many of the mainline denominations have experienced a decline in membership. Once changes in how membership is counted are taken into consideration, the Episcopal Church's membership numbers were broadly flat throughout the 1990s, with a slight growth in the first couple years of the 21st century. A loss of 115,000 members was reported in the years 2003–5, attributed in part to controversy concerning ordination of homosexuals to the priesthood and the election of Gene Robinson (who is openly gay) as the Bishop of New Hampshire.
The governance of the Episcopal Church is Episcopal polity, which is the same as other Anglican churches. After the American Revolution, American Anglicans were technically not a part of the structure of the Church of England, so they had to form their own Church. The Church has its own system of canon law.
The Episcopal Church is comprised of 110 dioceses in the United States, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, Venezuela and the Virgin Islands. Also, it includes the Convocation of American Churches in Europe and the Navajoland Area Mission, which are jurisdictions very similar to a diocese. The Presiding Bishop is one of three Anglican primates who together exercise metropolitan jurisdiction over the Episcopal Church of Cuba, an extraprovincial diocese in the Anglican Communion.
These dioceses are formed into nine provinces. Each province has a synod and a mission budget, yet does not have authority over the dioceses which make it up.
Today, there are over 7000 congregations, each one electing a vestry or bishop's committee. Subject to approval of its diocesan bishop, the vestry of each parish elects a priest, which is called the rector, that has spiritual jurisdiction in the parish and selects assistant clergy, both deacons and priests. (There is a difference between vestry and clergy elections – clergy are ordained members selected from outside the parish, whereas any member in good standing in a parish is eligible to serve on the vestry.) The diocesan bishop, however, appoints the clergy for all the missions and may also choose to do so for non-self-supporting parishes.
The middle judicatory consists of a diocese that are headed by a bishop. Diocesan conventions are generally held annually. Unlike the Church of England in which bishops are governmental appointees, bishops of the Episcopal Church are elected at these diocesan conventions, subject to confirmation by the House of Bishops. (All bishops must first be ordained priests.)
At a national level, the Episcopal Church is governed by the triennial General Convention, which consists of two bodies:
The Chief Officer of the Episcopal Church, who is elected from and by the House of Bishops and confirmed by the House of Deputies at General Convention, is called Presiding Bishop and serves for one term of 9 years.
The location of the office of the Presiding Bishop is the Episcopal Church Center, the national administrative headquarters, located at 815 Second Avenue, New York, NY. It's often referred to by Episcopalians simply as "815."
Varying degrees of liturgical practice succeed within the church, and one can find a variety of worship styles: traditional hymns, more modern religious music, Anglican chant, liturgical dance, charismatic prayer, and vested clergy of varying degrees. As varied as services can be, the central binding detail is the Book of Common Prayer or supplemental liturgies.
High Church, especially the very high Anglo-Catholic movement, is ritually inclined towards embellishments such as incense, formal hymns, and a significantly higher degree of ceremony. In addition to clergy vesting in albs, stoles and chasubles, the lay assistants may be vested in cassock and surplice. The sung Eucharist is genarally emphasized in High Church congregations, while Anglo-Catholic congregations and celebrants use sung services almost exclusively. Often times, due to the effects of the Second Vatican Council on the Roman Catholic Church, some Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian services are even more elaborate than a modern Roman Catholic Mass.
Low Church is simpler and incorporates other elements such as informal praise and worship music. "Low" congregations tend towards more "traditional Protestant" outlooks with an emphasis of Biblical revelation over symbolism. The spoken Eucharist tends to be emphasized in Low Church congregations.
Broad Church incorporates both low church and high church.
The majority of Episcopalian services are considered to be "High Church" but still falling somewhat short of a typical Anglo-Catholic "very" high church service. On the other hand, "Low Church" services are somewhat more rare. However, while some Episcopalians refer to their churches by these different labels, often there is much overlapping, and the basic rites do not greatly differ. There are also variations that blend elements of all three and have their own unique features, such as New England Episcopal churches, which have elements drawn from Puritan practices, combining the traditions of "high church" with the simplicity of "low church". Typical parish worship features Bible readings from the Old Testament as well as from the Epistles and the Gospels of the New Testament.
In the Eucharist or Holy Communion service, the Book of Common Prayer clarifies that bread and wine are consecrated for consumption by the people. Those that wish to avoid alcohol are free to decline the cup. Eucharists can be part of a wedding to celebrate a sacramental marriage and of a funeral as a thank offering (sacrifice) to God and for comfort of the mourners. The veneration of saints in the Episcopal Church is a continuation of the ancient tradition from the early Church which honors important people of the Christian faith. The use of the term "saint" is similar to Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Those inclined to the Anglo-Catholic traditions may invoke saints as intercessors in prayer.
The Episcopal Church publishes its own Book of Common Prayer (BCP) (similar to other Anglican BCPs), containing most of their worship services (or "liturgies"). Because of its widespread use in the church, the BCP is both a reflection of and also a source of theology for all Episcopalians.
The full name of the BCP is: The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with The Psalter or Psalms of David According to the use of The Episcopal Church.
Previous American BCPs were published in 1789, 1892, and 1928. (A proposed BCP was issued in 1786 but not adopted.) The BCP is in the public domain; however, any new revisions of the BCP are copyrighted until approved by the General Convention. After this happens, the BCP is placed into public domain.
The current edition dates from 1979 and is marked by a linguistic modernization and, in returning to ancient Christian tradition, restored the Eucharist as the central liturgy of the church. The 1979 version also de-emphasized personal sin and reflected the theological and worship changes of the ecumenical reforms of the 1960s and 1970s. In whole, it changed the theological emphasis of the church to be more Catholic in nature. In 1979, the Convention adopted this revision as the "official" BCP and required churches that used the old (1928) prayer book to also use the 1979 revision. Enough strife came from implementing and adopting the 1979 BCP that an apology was issued at the 2000 General Convention for any that were "offended or alienated during the time of liturgical transition to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer". The 2000 General Convention also authorized occasional use of some parts of the 1928 book, under the bishop's direction.
The 1979 edition contains a provision for use of "traditional" (Elizabethan) language under various circumstances not directly provided for in the book, and the Anglican Service Book was produced accordingly, known as "a traditional language adaptation of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer together with the Psalter or Psalms of David and Additional Devotions."
The focus of Episcopal teaching is the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The basic teachings of the church, or catechism, includes:
The full catechism is included within the Book of Common Prayer. The threefold sources of authority in Anglicanism are: scripture, tradition, and reason. These sources uphold and critique each other in a dynamic way.
The Church follows the via media or "middle way" between Protestant and Roman Catholic doctrine and practices: it is both Catholic and Reformed. Not all Episcopalians identify with this image, especially ones whose convictions lean toward either evangelicalism or Anglo-Catholicism. Many different theologies are represented within the Episcopal Church. Some theologians hold evangelical positions, affirming the authority of scripture over all. The Episcopal Church website glossary defines the sources of authority as being a balance between scripture, tradition, and reason. These are characterized as a "three-legged stool" which will topple if any one overbalances the other. It also notes:
The Anglican balancing of the sources of authority has been criticized as clumsy or "muddy." It has been associated with the Anglican affinity for seeking the mean between extremes and living the via media. It has also been associated with the Anglican willingness to tolerate and comprehend opposing viewpoints instead of imposing tests of orthodoxy or resorting to heresy trials.
This balance of scripture, tradition and reason is traced to the work of Richard Hooker, who was a sixteenth century apologist. In Hooker's model, scripture is the primary means of arriving at doctrine and things that are stated plainly in scripture are accepted as true. Ambiguous issues are determined by tradition, which is checked by reason. Recently, the Episcopal Church has developed a fourth leg known as "experience." This understanding is very dependent upon the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher. These "four legs" of Episcopal theology are likened to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Methodist theology.
A public example of this struggle between different Christian positions in the church is the 2003 consecration of the Right Reverend Gene Robinson, an openly gay man living with his long-term partner. The acceptance/rejection of his consecration is motivated by many different views on the authority of and understanding of scripture. This struggle concerns some members that the church may not continue its relationship with the larger Anglican Church. Others, view this pluralism as an asset, allowing a place that both sides can balance each other.
Comedian and Episcopalian Robin Williams describes the Episcopal faith (and, in a performance in London, specifically the Church of England) as "Catholic Lite – same rituals, half the guilt."