Whether you are a beginning explorer or a “cradle Episcopalian,” this summary will help you better comprehend the nature of the Episcopal Church.
Trinity is a member of the Episcopal Church of The United States and of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. The Episcopal Church, originally from the Church of England, is also a member of the Anglican Communion—an international association of churches consisting of the Church of England and of national and regional Anglican churches. Worldwide membership is currently estimated at around 80 million members.
Like all Anglican churches, Episcopal churches share certain things in common.
Both Protestant and Catholic
The Episcopal Church stands squarely in the Reformed, or Protestant, tradition and yet we consider ourselves to be equally directly descended from the early Church as the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches.
While we worship in ways similar to the Roman Catholic tradition, we do not recognize a single authority, such as the Pope. The Episcopal Church is often referred to as the “middle way,” since it contains elements of both the Catholic Church and Protestant Churches.
Our present prayer book in the Episcopal Church was published in 1979. While other worship resources and prayers exist to enrich our worship, the Book of Common Prayer is the authority that shapes our worship.
Scripture, Tradition and Reason
Episcopalians value Scripture, Tradition and Reason equally. We often use the metaphor of a three-legged stool, with the legs of the stool representing Scripture, Tradition and Reason.
The Anglican approach to reading and interpreting the Bible is unique compared to many other denominations. While we, like all Christians, acknowledge the Bible (or the Holy Scriptures) as the Word of God and completely sufficient to our reconciliation to God, we believe the Bible should be looked at in the context of our own time and place.
For two thousand years Christianity has amassed experiences of God and of following Jesus, and what these people have said to us through the centuries is critical to our understanding it in our own context. The traditions of the Church connect all generations together and give us a starting point for our own understanding.
Episcopalians believe that every Christian must build an understanding and relationship with God. To do that, God has given us intelligence and our own experience, which we refer to as “Reason.” Based on the text of the Bible itself, and what Christians have taught us about it through the ages, we then must sort out our own understanding of it as it relates to our own lives.
Who is in charge of the Church?
Both lay (non-ordained) and clergy share leadership in the Episcopal Church. The Vestry is the governing body of a church and oversees the property and assets of a church, while the Rector is a priest who is charge of the worship and music of the church and manages the entire staff.
Every parish is connected to an even larger structure. The word “Episcopal” means “bishop” in Greek, and the Episcopal Church is governed in part by its bishops. The basic unit of ministry in the Episcopal Church is the “diocese,” or a region of a reasonable number of Episcopalians. Each diocese is presided over by a “diocesan bishop” who may have help from a variety of other kinds of bishops, depending on the circumstances.
The Diocesan Bishop chooses and ordains priests and deacons to serve the “parishes,” or congregations, of the diocese, which carryout the ministry of the diocese in their local communities. The priests lead the parish in worship, make decisions related to the sacramental life of the parish, and in general, supports the ministry of the worshiping Christians there.
The Episcopal Church is governed by a Constitution and a set of laws (known as “canons”) which it establishes for itself by Convention, but the diocesan bishop is the ecclesiastical (or “church”) authority in his or her particular diocese. The bishops of the Episcopal Church have no jurisdiction outside of their dioceses, so they meet together twice per year to pray and make decisions about the life of the Church. Every nine years, the Church elects a “Presiding Bishop” who represents the Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion and “presides” over meetings of the bishops, known as the “House of Bishops.”
Every three years, delegations (or “deputations”) from all the dioceses, along with the House of Bishops, gather to worship and pass legislation for the Church. This General Convention is where broad decisions are made about policy and worship, as well as revitalizing the Christian community for ministry “back home.”