Episcopal Churches

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Episcopal Churches

Although episcopal churches have diverse beliefs and practices, they are commonly rooted in the Anglican tradition. The Episcopal Church in the USA (ECUSA), with more than 2.3 million members, is affiliated with the worldwide Anglican Communion, a consortium of churches recognizing one another as legitimate representatives of Anglicanism in their respective countries.

As descendents of the Anglican tradition, episcopal churches have a direct lineage with the Church of England. King Henry VIII in 1531 declared the English church separate from the papal authority of the Roman Catholic Church, culminating a wider English dissatisfaction over matters of authority, discipline, and practice. Elizabeth I set forth the notion of via media for the church, meaning "middle road" between Roman Catholic and Protestant influence. Subsequent Puritan and Anglo-Catholic movements produced a turbulent history for Anglicanism.

The first permanent Anglican congregation in America was founded in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia. By the time of the Revolutionary War, Anglicanism was the established religion in five colonies (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, and Virginia). Although bishops, many priests, and loyalists fled to Canada or England, most congregations supported the Revolution. Following the war, representatives gathered as a general convention in 1785 to develop an independent church. Since Anglicanism has a Catholic understanding of Apostolic succession, whereby apostles and subsequently bishops continuously have laid hands on one another since the time of Jesus Christ, the absence of bishops created a crisis. Samuel Seabury, elected bishop in Connecticut, traveled to England to seek consecration. He would not take an oath to the Crown, a required part of the rite; however, the Episcopal Church of Scotland (1784), which imposed no such obligation, consecrated him. This act provided the episcopal authority to initiate what would become the U.S. Episcopal Church (the term "episcopal" comes from the Greek episkopos, meaning "bishop").

Other Episcopal churches took a different direction. Church of England clergyman John Wesley had founded the Methodist movement, emphasizing spiritual discipline and an evangelical emphasis on experience. Carried to the United States, the Methodist movement grew rapidly in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Partly reflecting the growing tension between Methodism and Anglicanism, the Methodist Episcopal Church in America organized as a separate denomination in 1784. The church, split over slavery in 1844, was reunified in a merger along with other Methodist groups in 1939, forming the Methodist Church. Racial discrimination also resulted in the breakaway and emergence of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1816) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1820), as well as other independent Episcopal churches. Over time, new episcopal churches have emerged with strong evangelical, reformed, Anglo-Catholic, orthodox, or charismatic influences, many catalyzed by protest over changes within the ECUSA since the 1960s.

The ordained hierarchical structure of the Episcopal Church consists of bishops, priests, and deacons, who, along with elected lay leaders, set doctrine and other matters of policy. Dioceses function as the chief administrative units, serving congregations within their geographic boundaries. Governance of the national church occurs primarily through a triennial General Convention, consisting of a House of Bishops and House of Deputies, the latter having equal numbers of clergy and laity elected by their respective dioceses. A presiding bishop, the chief representative of the denomination, is elected every twelve years.

Doctrinally, the Episcopal Church recognizes Anglicanism's three sources of religious authority: scripture, church tradition, and reason. Since church teachings are intended as guidance rather than as binding policy, a diversity of religious interpretation has emerged over time. Consequently, the church tenuously holds together evangelical, low-church Protestant, high-church Anglo-Catholic, charismatic, theologically conservative, liberal, and feminist strains. Partly because of this doctrinal flexibility and Anglicanism's traditional respect for personal conscience on matters of belief and practice, the Book of Common Prayer represents an important symbol of Anglicanism by binding together the diversity of beliefs and practices into a basic liturgical format. Another core symbol, with new prominence since the 1960s, is the centrality of Holy Communion in worship. Overall, Episcopal churches place a greater emphasis on sacramental rites as part of the core worship structure than do churches in more Protestant traditions. The seven sacraments—baptism, confirmation, communion, penance, ordination, matrimony, and laying hands upon the sick—symbolize the church's ties to Catholic tradition.

Contemporary Conflicts: Tradition vs. Transformation

The Episcopal Church has undergone more change and experienced more internal turbulence in the last half of the twentieth century than at any other time in its history. The most pressing issues have involved civil rights activism, conscientious objection to the Vietnam War, revision of the Book of Common Prayer to incorporate contemporary language and worship, women's ordination, and sexual orientation. Additionally, during the 1960s a charismatic movement evolved within the church, reminiscent of Pentecostal tradition and proliferating through the 1970s and 1980s through a variety of renewal movements. The outgrowth has been a growing tension between personal piety and social activism, resulting in a growing parochialism that includes loss of contributions to the national church, which has limited programs and ministries.

After experiencing nearly 20 percent growth in the 1950s and 1960s, peaking in 1966 with 3.6 million members, the Episcopal Church saw a sizable membership erosion in the 1970s as well as several schisms that resulted primarily from women's ordination and prayer book revision. Losses plateaued during the 1980s, with overall numbers of communicants at the end of the century up about 2 percent from 1950.

Some attribute a strong civil rights advocacy by many clergy and laity to expanding rights for women within the church. In 1950 women could neither be ordained nor hold elected lay governing positions in the church. Twenty years later, women were seated as delegates to the General Convention, and women's ordination to the diaconate was approved. Resistance to women's ordination to the priesthood effectively was blocked at the 1973 General Convention. Frustrated, three retired bishops ordained eleven female deacons to the priesthood on July 29, 1974, in a controversial irregular ceremony. Many credit these ordinations with regaining the progressive momentum that led to the 1976 General Convention's granting of priesthood to women. Another crisis arose surrounding the 1988 election of Barbara Clementine Harris as suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Massachusetts, the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion. Her consecration led to the formation of an irregular, nongeographic synod and more schism within the church. Today the church requires that women from any diocese have access to ordination on the same basis as men. Expectedly, the percentage of women clergy has grown, changing the overall demographic composition as men retire. By 1999 about 18 percent of the seventeen thousand clergy were female. Concerns have been raised about the feminization of the priesthood, although men continue to be more likely to attain leadership positions. So far, eight women have been elected bishops.

Issues surrounding sexual orientation also have created tension within the Episcopal Church. While homosexuality itself is not a barrier to ordination, sexual relationships outside of marriage have been affirmed as contrary to church teaching. Progressive movements have sought to liberalize this norm as well as develop a liturgical service for homosexual couples committing themselves to permanent partnership. Traditionalist factions have fought bitterly against such change. In 1996 they brought retired bishop Walter Righter to a church trial for heresy, for having ordained an active homosexual. Righter was acquitted, the verdict being that he violated church teachings but not canons.

Ecumenism has been a major interest of the Episcopal Church since 1960. Currently it is developing an intercommunion relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. If approved, the Episcopal Church will retain its distinctive governance and tradition.

See alsoBook of Common Prayer; Church; Liturgy and Worship; Methodism; Ministry; Ordination of Women; Religious Communities.


Booty, John. The Episcopal Church in Crisis. 1988.

Darling, Pamela W. New Wine: The Story of WomenTransforming Leadership and Power in the EpiscopalChurch. 1994.

Hood, Robert E. Social Teachings in the EpiscopalChurch: A Source Book. 1990.

Nesbitt, Paula D. Feminization of the Clergy in America:Occupational and Organizational Perspectives. 1997.

Prichard, Robert W. A History of the Episcopal Church. 1994.

Sumner, David E. The Episcopal Church's History 1945 –1985. 1987.

Paula D. Nesbitt