10 Things People Should Know about the Episcopal Church
1. We don’t all love “The Crown.”
The Episcopal Church began in the United States as an outpost of the Church of England. When the American Revolution started, shifting from the Church of England to become the Episcopal Church was no easy choice. Many of the founders and upper crust of our country worshiped in the Episcopal Church, as have many of the men elected President. We are no longer the church of the establishment. We have changed in deeply important ways.
Royal weddings are exciting in their own ways by many who recognize the words of the wedding services as our own. We are also energized by our own Episcopal identity. Our churches include the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. and communities that gather to worship in homes and homeless shelters. Our Sunday Eucharist is celebrated in over a dozen languages, including Spanish and several Native American languages, and we strive to become a more diverse church.
2. We are people of the Bible.
The Bible is a foundational part of our church. Our outline of faith states, “We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures.” The Bible is the epic, challenging, and life-changing story of God’s relationship with humanity.
A typical Sunday service includes four different readings from Holy Scripture following the lectionary (a guide of biblical readings for Sundays and Holy Days.) We take very seriously the role of Holy Scripture in our spiritual life and our worship.
3. We are people of the Book of Common Prayer.
The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) contains our prayers and services for our life as a church. We call these our liturgies. Our liturgies for Holy Eucharist, for Baptism, for marriages and burials, for daily prayers, and for prayers and worship over almost any human experience live deep within the words of the BCP and are all driven or quoted from the Bible and adapted as prayer. Scripture is quoted extensively in our prayers. These liturgies span thousands of years of Christian faith and human experiences of celebration, sin, grief, and joy. What ties us together as Episcopalians is not a particular confession, a hierarchy of religious authority, or a particular dogma, but our common prayers. Our prayers shape our beliefs.
4. We understand that visitors and newcomers may be a bit lost during the service.
Don’t worry, you are in good company. Many people sitting in the pews with you did not grow up in the Episcopal Church, but were drawn to the serenity and beauty of the liturgy, the love of tradition balanced with the ability to question and discern, and the inclusive welcome. A worship service can be a workout for your body, mind, and spirit. We joke about pew aerobics, because in a typical Episcopal service, you will stand, sit, and kneel — all postures for prayer dating back to the ancient church. Please note, however, that you do not have to rise up to worship. The service offers for you to stand or kneel as you are able.
Our faith is not a passive one, where you come, sit, and leave at the end. We engage our faith. We sit to listen and learn. We stand to praise and pray. We kneel in solemn confession and silence. We ask questions. And we are okay with not having all the answers.
5. We believe in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
We believe in the traditional tenets of the apostolic faith and we value them. We are apostles of God and Jesus Christ. We believe there are many ways to understand and experience the mystery of the Holy Trinity. We believe God continues to dwell in the church, guiding us. We realize some traditions, when placed under the lens of love, need to change. This is our balance of Scripture, tradition, and reason. Faith is living and continuing, shaped by God and God’s community of the Church. Yes, we welcome, baptize, and, if God has called them, ordain the full inclusion of people — not because we’re the “liberal church,” but because we have heard God’s call to follow where God’s love leads us.
6. We talk about more than sex and politics.
We made national and worldwide headlines a decade ago for consecrating the first openly gay bishop. Yes, we talk about sex and how God is present in sexual relationships. We recognize that sexuality is part of our created humanity. We also know that political issues can be tricky and often our faith can be questioned by political figures or trends. For this reason, we also spend time in deep prayer and action for peace, for equality for all people, for dignity for those on the margins of society, for welcome to the outcast, and for justice for the poor.
We hear and believe the message that God loves all people. No exceptions. “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” is not just a sentence on our signs. We strive to share that welcome with each other and those we encounter in our lives.
7. We were not formed because Henry VIII wanted a divorce.
This story is often mentioned and is true in some ways. The Church of England’s structures for worship and prayers very much resemble the Roman Catholic liturgy. While the official Church of England came to fruition in the sixteenth century, however, Christianity existed in the British Isles since the second century and likely earlier. For more than 500 years, residents of the British Isles practiced a particular expression of Christian worship, broadly called Celtic Christianity (which isn’t an exact term).
When the Roman practice of the faith became official in the seventh century, the deep roots of centuries of faith were not abandoned or eradicated. So eventually, when the particular blend of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism became official under Elizabeth I, Anglicanism’s ancient “middle way” finally had room to bloom and grow.
8. We are working to change the “whiskey-palian” stereotype.
We have often heard the joke about where you find four Episcopalians, you will always find a fifth. While our faith does not prohibit the consumption of alcohol, we do recognize that for some members of our church communities, substance abuse prevents them from fully loving God, their neighbors, and themselves.
An Episcopal priest worked with Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson to create the foundations of The Twelve Steps. Episcopal Churches have long been a welcoming space for recovery groups, and our most recent General Convention re-committed our church to end complicity in issues of substance abuse and employ our church as a community of healing for those in recovery.
9. We are part of something bigger.
The Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican Communion, a global family of national and regional churches with roots in the Church of England. We have no central authority such as the Pope. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, but each national and regional church is self-governing. Like all communities, we have differences, but we have our liturgy and prayers in common, even when they are in different languages. Attending a member church in Hong Kong, a small village church in England, or St. George’s in Jerusalem is a powerful reminder that the Kingdom of God is far, far larger than our neighborhood or country. In our prayers each Sunday for sister churches across the globe, we remember the vastness of the Church.
10. We take seriously our relationship with God through community.
We celebrate the Holy Eucharist (also called Holy Communion and Mass) together on Sundays. We come together to the altar to receive the Body and Blood of Christ from a common cup. We do not h ave private baptisms; we baptize in community. We make a community covenant with God and the newly baptized (if an adult) or on behalf of the newly baptized (if a child).
Faith in community is wonderful and complicated. Our neighbors challenge our individual ideas. We are asked to see different viewpoints, to reach beyond ourselves and to move outside comfort zones.
Jesus lived in community with his followers. We follow Jesus’ example, sometimes in messy ways, sometimes in transformative ways and sometimes fearfully as we realize how deeply we need each other. But we always follow the way of Jesus . . . together.
Written by The Rev. Laurie Brock, who serves as the rector of St. Michael the Archangel Episcopal Church in Lexington, Kentucky. She blogs at DirtySexyMinistry.com, is the co-author of Where God Hides Holiness (Church Publishing) and contributor to There’s a Woman in the Pulpit (Skylight), as well as several devotional books. We asked her to list 10 things she wishes people knew about the Episcopal Church.