The following is a little something I put together to help members of little Grace Church in Dayton, WA use when asked about the Episcopal Church. It has limited value, but you might enjoy it.
I am always a little surprised when people don’t know what an Episcopalian is. Then again, it’s a funny word, hard to spell, and not that easy to pronounce, so maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise.
The Episcopal Church has been around a long time. It arrived in America even before the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock fame, and it traces its roots in the Church of England to a time not long after Peter, Paul and the other Apostles. And that brings me to the first question often asked.
Are Episcopalians Christian?
Yes, we are Christians in the historic tradition of the ancient Church.
Is the Episcopal Church Protestant or Catholic?
Yes we are. Our ancestors in England split from Roman Catholicism about five hundred years ago, mostly over a political argument that had little to do with theology. Afterwards, we adopted many of the reforms suggested by Martin Luther and others while retaining the Catholic forms of ministry and orders of service. Our ministers are deacons, priests and bishops, and we celebrate Holy Communion every Sunday. So we are both Catholic and Protestant.
Is it a bible believing and preaching Church?
We not only believe it and preach it, we read it, out loud, in church. Come to one of our services and you will hear four fairly long passages from scripture: Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel. Come every Sunday for three years and you will have heard most of the bible read out loud. We take it very seriously. We believe it is divinely inspired and reveals holy truth, but we do not take it as the historically accurate and inerrant Word of God.
What goes on in an Episcopal worship service?
We are a liturgical church, as are Catholics, Lutherans and some others. That means we follow an order of worship that goes as far back as anyone knows. Our services are divided into two parts, one devoted to scripture and prayer, and the other devoted to Holy Communion (the Eucharist). Following a congregational hymn, we ask God to prepare us for holy worship, recite an ancient prayer of glory to God, offer a prayer for the particular Sunday, and listen to readings from scripture. Sermons are fairly short because we have a lot to do. After the sermon we affirm our faith in one of the ancient creeds of the Church, most often the Nicene Creed, we offer prayers for the world and one another, and confess to God that we have sinned and seek God’s forgiveness. Then we offer each other a sign of God’s peace, we offer announcements about the life and ministry of the congregation, and we offer our tithes of money as we prepare for Holy Communion. For us, Communion is not just an occasional memorial of the Last Supper. God in Christ Jesus is truly present in, with, and under the bread and the wine (we use real wine). The prayers of thanksgiving we offer over them are very, very old, even if they are said in modern English. Everyone comes forward to stand or kneel at the altar rail and is served a portion of bread and sip of wine in communion with the living Christ who is present with us. After a blessing and final hymn, we go out into the world to do the work God has given us to do. Whew!
It sounds pretty fancy.
It can be. Candles, vestments, choirs, anthems, chanted prayers, even incense and bells. In a small church such as Grace Church in Dayton, we do it country style. We are just friends gathered for worship. We keep it simple and relaxed. The liturgy has only one purpose, and it’s not for entertainment. The purpose of the liturgy is to be a conduit, an avenue, guiding us ever deeper into communion with God.
I hear there is a lot of kneeling, bowing, making the sign of the cross and stuff like that.
It’s true. Episcopal aerobics, we call it. We generally stand to sing and pray, and sit to listen. Kneeling is an option that we don’t practice much at Grace, but it’s normal in other congregations. Making the sign of the cross, another option, is a practice signifying the giving or receiving of God’s blessing. Most of us offer a brief bow before the altar as a sign of respect and worship, but it’s not required. One thing to remember, the congregation plays an active role in the service. It’s not just the priest doing all the work.
Now and then I read about controversy in the Episcopal Church. What’s up with that?
Episcopalians believe that Christians are called to continue the reconciling and healing ministry of Jesus Christ. That almost always means a bias toward justice, the poor, and the oppressed, and that can sometimes lead into controversy. Racial integration, the ordination of women, and full equality for gays have been controversial issues. Contrary to some media reports, the Episcopal Church has not split asunder over them. Some have left, as is their right to do. Some have come in their place. For us, the important thing is to keep Christ at the center of our lives. We are pretty good at doing that.
So does that make you one of those liberal type Churches?
Once upon a time it was said that the Episcopal Church was the Republican Party at prayer led by left wing clergy. It was also said that we were the church of the wealthy and powerful ministering to the poor and needy. There is always some truth in stories such as those, but not much. What we are is a Church committed to following where Christ has led, and that means healing and reconciliation. Our members are a hodgepodge of conservative, liberal, poor, rich, and none of the above who remain together in the power of the love of Christ. We are not conservative evangelicals, if that’s what you mean.
OK, one other question. What’s an Anglican?
Anglican is a word that encompasses everything connected with the Church of England, including the Celtic Christianity of the earliest Christian worship in Britain, the Roman Catholic heritage of the Middle Ages, the Protestant reforms following the break with Rome, and the Churches throughout the world that are in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the honorary head of the World Wide Anglican Communion. Episcopalians are Anglicans.
There are some congregations, mostly in America, that call themselves Anglican but are not a part of the Anglican Communion. They are faithful Christians, to be sure, just not members of the World Wide Anglican Communion.