The following is a pamphlet published by the Forward Movement. It is the 12th printing of the Revised Edition, 2007.
1. What is the Episcopal Church?
It is the continuance of the Church of England, brought to these shores by the first settlers and reorganized as the Episcopal Church in 1785 after the Revolution by which the colonies in America won their independence from the mother country. After the Revolution it became self-governing and self-sustaining. Today it is known as the Episcopal Church.
2. Is that when the Episcopal Church began?
No, it did not begin then. It took its new title at that time; but it was the same church that had been here from the founding of the American colonies in the seventeenth century. Those colonists who were members of the Church of England brought their church with them. Our church is a daughter church of the Church of England.
3. Was the Church of England founded by Henry VIII?
No, it was not. The Church of England has a long history. It was part of the Catholic Church before there were any divisions in the church at all. For several centuries after 644 A. D. it did, in common with all western Christendom, recognize the pope as chief bishop; but at the reformation it rejected the claims of the pope to singular, universal authority. It did not, however, reject the catholic and apostolic faith which it had always held. It kept the historic catholic creeds and the three-fold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons. The reason our church is called Episcopal is that it maintains the ancient episcopal order in its ministry. "Episcopal" comes from the Greek word episcopos, meaning bishop.
4. But how can you be both catholic and protestant?
The word "protestant" was used in 1785 to distinguish our church from the Church of Rome, because of the English reformation in the sixteenth century. Yet this does not mean that we are simply one of the many protestant churches deriving from the reformation. Those made a greater break with the past than our church did. "Protestant" is not opposed to "catholic." The world "catholic" really means "universal," and we are certainly part of the universal church. It also refers to the ancient catholic faith as expressed in the creeds - and we hold that. So we rightly claim to be both catholic and protestant.
5. What is the Anglican Communion?
This is the name given to all the churches throughout the world descended from the English church that are still in communion with it and with each other. As the British Empire spread, so did the Church of England, the established church of the realm. Other churches overseas were begun by the missionaries of daughter churches such as the Episcopal Church. Today the Anglican Communion consists of some 78 million members of more than forty national churches like our own. It is found on all the continents, with particular strength in Africa. Members of these churches are known either as Episcopalians or Anglicans because of their common origin and common heritage. Each national church or province is self-governing. International communications are maintained through the Anglican Consultative Council with offices in London, and through a once-a-decade meeting of bishops known as the Lambeth Conference.
6. How is the Episcopal Church governed?
There are three principal levels of organization or expressions of the church's life: the local congregation or parish; the diocese, consisting of many parishes in an area under the supervision of a bishop; the national church. In each case, government is a mixture of hierarchy and democracy, with distinct role and privileges for clergy and a strong voice for lay persons, both men and women. In the congregation, the rector of the parish is chosen by the vestry for the people, with the approval of the bishop; and rector and vestry together are responsible for the work of the parish subject to the constitution and canons of the diocese and the national church. Each diocese had an annual convention or council with the clergy and elected lay deputies from the congregations to share with their bishop the work of the church on the local, diocesan level. At the national level, the chief priest and pastor is the presiding bishop. The highest governing body is the General Convention of the church which meets every three years to deal with the business of the church and to make its laws or canons. This convention is composed of two houses, one of bishops, the other of elected clerical and lay deputies; legislation has to be passed in both houses. For carrying on the work between conventions, an executive council is elected which is representative of the whole church, and of which the presiding bishop is chair.
7. Is a bishop's function simply administrative?
By no means. The bishop ordains men and women to ministry, confirms, and is pastor to all clergy and people. This is the primary work; all the rest is oversight of the diocese.
8. What are the roles of the laity and other ministers?
The Episcopal Church teaches that lay members are also ministers called to share in the ministry of Christ in the world. Those ordained or set aside for special ministries in and on behalf of the church include bishops, priests, and deacons. Bishops are successors to the apostles and oversee the diocese. Priests usually are spiritual leaders of local congregations. The word "priest" comes from presbyter, meaning elder. Deacons usually assist priests and have a special ministry to the poor and the sick. The word "deacon" means servant.
9. What are the doctrines of the Episcopal Church?
The main doctrines of the Episcopal Church are contained in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. These creeds were written in the days of the undivided church, and the Nicene Creed has been the standard confession of catholic faith ever since. Beside the beliefs expressed in the creeds, the Episcopal Church holds to other catholic beliefs and practices found in The Book of Common Prayer. It is this Prayer Book, in fact, that gives the authoritative doctrinal standards of the Episcopal Church. See, for example, "An Outline of the Faith," beginning on page 843 of the The Book of Common Prayer.
10. What are the sacraments?
"The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace." Episcopalians believe there are two sacraments given and directed by Christ, Baptism and the Eucharist. We celebrate and administer other sacraments grounded in the Bible. They are confirmation, which comes after Baptism, matrimony, in which woman and man are united in marriage; unction, the sacrament of healing; penance, in which the assurance of God's forgiveness is given; and Holy Orders, in which bishops, priests, and deacons are ordained. Baptism and the Eucharist are considered necessary for all Christians. Confirmation is a normal part of church life. Not everyone participates in the other sacraments.
11. What is Baptism?
Baptism is the sacrament of initiation into membership into the body of Christ, the church. The outward sign is the pouring of water or immersion in the name of the Trinity. The inward grace is new life, death to sin, and rising with Christ. Baptism is birth into eternal life. Episcopalians baptize infants, as did the early church. The church is the family of God, and as in an earthly family, parents and other family members see to a child's raising until the child is old enough to accept responsibility. The Episcopal Church recognizes any Baptism with water in the name of the Trinity. We do not practice rebaptism. All baptized persons are entitled to receive the Eucharist.
12. What is confirmation?
In the early church the bishop baptized and laid hands on the new members and prayed for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, that they might be equipped by God to live the life of a Christian. When the multitudes began to join the church, bishops allowed priests to baptize but reserved the laying on of hands--confirmation--for themselves. It is expected in the Episcopal Church that members at some time will stand before the bishop, the chief pastor, representative of the apostles, to declare their intention to live as a Christian and to receive at the bishop's hands the traditional blessing.
13. What is the Eucharist?
The same sacrament may also be called the Holy Communion, the Lord's Supper, or the mass. The outward and visible sign is the bread and wine. The inward and spiritual grace is the body and blood of Christ. At the Last Supper, Jesus said that when we eat the bread and drink the wine together we should do it for his remembrance. The word we translate "remembrance" is the Greek anamnesis, which means much more than to remember; it means "to make present." Episcopalians do not try to explain philosophically how the "real presence" of Christ occurs in the Eucharist. It is a great, sacred mystery. Yet for two thousand years Christians have meet week-by-week, believing that in sharing the blessed sacrament they are in communion with Christ, with God, and with all other Christians of all times and places.
14. Why does the Episcopal Church always seem to be involved in controversy over sexuality issues?
Issues relating to the life and morality always concern the church. The Episcopal Church is no more controversial in this regard than any other. Our discussions may seem more public and sometimes it feels that way. Commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ requires our community to address issues honestly, openly, and in the spirit of love. Absent a magisterium telling us what to believe, discussions can get messy. We understand scripture, tradition, and reason can bring faithful people to opposite conclusions. This can be painful, but it is not new. Slavery was once accepted by Christians. So was the subjugation of women to men, sending children to work in subhuman conditions, and anti-Semitism. We believe the Holy Spirit is active in the world and in the church, constantly pushing us in directions we may not wish to go. Our best resolve amid controversy is to understand God is working His purpose out. The significance of what binds us to God, and to one another, takes precedence over human disagreement. Our task is to stay in communion with one another, in the spirit of love, and allow the Holy Spirit to direct us. It is not always easy or fun, but it is faithful, and often exhilarating.
15. Why do your clergy say the prayers in church out of a book?
Prayers in church have been said "out of a book" from very early times, and the Episcopal Church is following ancient and historical practice. The Book of Common Prayer is a compilation from many old and some comparatively modern sources and is used and revered throughout the world today. Our clergy are not so tied to it that they can never use any other prayers or say an extemporary one if they desire to do so. Yet, the use of the Prayer Book does protect us from the vagaries of a disordered service and provides for the full participation of the congregation in the act of worship. No other church affords this so completely as the Episcopal Church does. Hence the name--The Book of Common Prayer.
16. What is the meaning of the different colors used in the Episcopal Church?
Each color symbolizes the main idea of the season or holy day on which it is used. White signifies purity and joy, and is used at Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Trinity, All Saints' Day, and on other joyful occasions such as weddings. Red signifies fire and is used at Pentecost (Whitsunday) and at ordinations--as symbolic of the Holy Spirit. It also signifies blood, and is therefore used on the festivals of martyrs. Purple (or violet) is for penitence, and is used during Advent and Lent, although blue is used in Advent in some parishes. Green signifies hope and growth, and is used through the weeks after Epiphany and Pentecost. Black is used in many churches on Good Friday.
17. What place do you give the Bible in the Episcopal Church?
The Bible is given a primary place. Take a look at the Prayer Book and see how much of the Bible is in it. The canticles are from the Bible; so are the psalms. Two or three passages from the Bible are read at every celebration of Holy Communion, and lessons from the Old and New Testaments at Morning and Evening Prayer. The Prayer Book, in fact, is the Bible in some form or another from beginning to end. The very prayers, in many instances, are paraphrases of scripture. Moreover, the church's standard of faith is the Bible, and nothing in belief is required from its members that cannot before proved from, or is not agreeable to, the teaching of Holy Scripture.
18. Is the Episcopal Church the church of the rich and powerful?
Many rich and powerful people have been Episcopalians, as have many of our national leaders. But Episcopalians come from every economic level, every ethnic background, every race. Episcopalians traditionally are in the forefront of movements for human rights, of struggles against oppression. The Episcopal Church welcomes all people.
19. Do Episcopalians drink alcoholic beverages?
Moderate drinking is not discouraged. Jesus certainly didn't condemn it; wine was a part of daily life in Palestine. At the same time we teach the danger of alcohol abuse and we lead in ministry to alcoholics. Alcoholics Anonymous has its roots in the Episcopal Church and many churches make a place for AA meetings.
20. How does a person become a member?
Talk to the priest in charge of the congregation. He or she will guide you from there. Probably there will be classes to attend, teaching about Christianity and the Episcopal Church. If you have been baptized, normally at some point you will be presented for confirmation or, if you were confirmed in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox communions, received by the bishop. Any baptized person whose baptism is registered in an Episcopal parish is considered to be a member of the Episcopal Church.
And may the peace of the Lord be always with you.