Episcopal Church Frequently Asked Questions

Why is the Episcopal Church especially welcoming?

Episcopal congregations make an effort to welcome visitors or “guests,” as some congregations put it, a dominant characteristic of any Episcopal church experience. Our signs mean that you specifically are welcomed to join the community of people who have a great deal in common with you.

What does it mean to be a Church?

The word “church” comes from the Latin ecclesia, which means “a gathering,” and eventually came to mean the gathered people of God. Later it came to be associated with the building used by the gathered church. The church is the place where the God’s people worship, pray, sing and celebrate sacraments together. The church is at once human and divine, just like Jesus Christ.

What does it mean to be an Episcopal Church?

It means that our church is “overseen” by bishops. The word “episcopal” comes from the Greek episcope, which means “oversight.” Each parish belongs to a larger geographical area called a diocese , which is overseen by an elected bishop. All the dioceses together make up the church across the country, and they, in turn, are overseen by another elected bishop, called the Presiding Bishop.

A bishop is a priest who has been elected by a diocese and approved by the other bishops. Bishops are consecrated to their life-long calling. However, all of the people of the church participate in the administration of the church family.

The governing body of the church is the General Convention, which meets every three years. General Convention has two houses, the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies , made up of lay and clerical representatives chosen by their dioceses.

As a result, while the Episcopal Church is overseen by bishops, and they represent the unity of faith in the midst of much diversity, both lay people and clergy share in the governance of the Episcopal Church.

In a word, what is unique about the Episcopal Church?

Its espousal of a gracious, tolerant and–we believe–wise form of Christianity.

There are churches that say, “We have the truth!” and there are churches that argue “you must believe this in order to be saved” and there are churches that claim “those other churches have it wrong!”

While we respect all faith journeys because we believe that God meets people where they are, we like to think that our branch of the Christian tradition has learned over the centuries to look to the Holy Spirit for truth and not our own humanly-framed claims.

That often means we choose silence when we are tempted to shout our version of the truth. It often means that we are more saddened than edified by all the competing religious claims. We sometimes imagine God saying in the face of the cacophony that is the religious scene today, “Will you be quiet for just a few minutes so you can hear me?”

We believe that God is fully in our midst as an Episcopal Church, but we also believe that God is fully active in every human life on the planet. That’s the God we worship.

What do Episcopalians do on a Sunday morning?

We celebrate God’s overwhelming love for us. We believe that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ shows us the lengths to which God has gone to bring us back into relationship with him. The great theologian Karl Barth, when asked what he knew that was most important, replied “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Simple faith from a great man.

The primary form of worship on a Sunday morning in the Episcopal Church is the celebration of the Eucharist, which is also called Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper . In the Eucharist, we believe, we receive the grace-bestowing body and blood of Christ. Indeed, “eucharist” means thanksgiving! In fact, it is difficult for us to imagine more intimate, life-giving words than “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” which the priest speaks to the recipient of communion.

Of course, the Eucharist is set in a larger liturgy which includes Scripture reading, a sermon, hymns and a ceremonial style of worship that adds beauty to our expressions of praise.

Why is it important to worship in a community? Can't a person simply love God as an individual outside the church?

Indeed, loving God is important as an individual but we believe that God has also called us to be in relationship with each other in congregations.

Music in Christian community speaks to us and few experiences can. L.E. Landon once observed, “We love music for the buried hopes, the garnered memories, and the tender feelings that it can summon at a touch.”

We celebrate as a community because Jesus called us into community. We know this is the case since Jesus called a group of disciples , and before he died he told them to go out and make other disciples in every land on earth. In a word, we are living out nothing less than the commands of Jesus, the Son of God, to live in relationship in community.

How important is Scripture in the Episcopal Church?

Beyond all measure! Scripture is read in four lessons at each service, it comprises the basic texts of how we worship, and it shapes the creeds we confess.

Holy Scripture, also called the Bible, is the story of God’s relationship with his people. The Bible is divided into two main sections, called the Old Testament and the New Testament.

The Old Testament (or Hebrew Scriptures) is the remembered account of God’s covenant with the nation of Israel. Prominent themes include the giving of the Law of Moses and the promise of a Messiah.

The New Testament is the account of God’s full disclosure in Jesus, whom Christians confess was the promised Messiah. The New Testament includes the four gospels as well as a number of letters stemming from St. Paul, the greatest of the early Christian missionaries.

Both Testaments represent the inspired record of God’s gracious dealing with people over a two-thousand-year period. That’s why the reading of Scripture is so prominent in Episcopal worship.

What is tradition? How is it related to the way the Episcopal Church worships?

Tradition also includes how we worship, most notably our liturgy and the music in our hymnals, and the creeds we say in worship which express our beliefs. The liturgy used in the Episcopal Church, in fact, is largely the same one used in all Western liturgical churches, such as the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches. In fact, tradition is important in all churches whether it is conceded or not.

Tradition is the account of the relationship of God and the people of the church after the close of the New Testament period. We believe that God is still active in the church and that the Holy Spirit has been promised to guide the church. Important traditions in the Episcopal Church are the use of the Book of Common Prayer, the priesthood, and the sacraments.

Is the Episcopal Church a Catholic or Protestant church?

The Episcopal Church is descended from the Church of England, and through its bishops, can trace its history all the way back to the earliest Christian communities. The Church of England separated itself from Roman jurisdiction but did not reject its Catholic heritage.

Thus, the Church of England came to be called the via media, or the “middle way,” between the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church. In this way, churches in the Anglican Communion are both Protestant and Catholic, and maintain traditions found in both of those branches of Christianity.

The Episcopal Church recognizes itself to be a part of the “one holy and catholic church.” It has bishops, priests and deacons, like the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. As well, its liturgy is similar to the Catholic mass.

But its emphasis on Scripture, its willingess to allow clergy to marry, as well as its love of great hymns, establishes some parallels with Protestant traditions as well.

In a sense, therefore, it is both. Mixed marriages, with one partner Roman Catholic and the other from a Protestant tradition, often find in the Episcopal Church a home they can share so that the family is united in the faith.

What is the Book of Common Prayer? Is it as important as the Bible?

The Book of Common Prayer has been called a “masterpiece” even by those outside of the Anglican tradition. Central to the Episcopal tradition is our commitment to common worship . We can disagree about all manner of things, but we agree to meet at the Lord’s Table under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and, more pragmatically, the Book of Common Prayer. We believe the Spirit prompts us to prayer as the dominant way of worship. In prayer, we establish intimate communication with God.

It is the book that contains the prayers and liturgies that shape the worship life of the Episcopal Church. The Prayer Book binds together all those in the Anglican Communion. The first Prayer Book was written in 1549 by Thomas Cranmer, who translated the mass into the English language and added the best worship resources he could find in the church at large. The first Book of Common Prayer for the new Episcopal Church in the United States was published in 1789.

The Book of Common Prayer is so important because it faithfully and eloquently puts the Bible in liturgical form.

Who are the ministers of the Episcopal Church?

Every baptized person is a minister in the Episcopal church. At your Baptism, you become a member of the laity, and thus have a ministry of carrying your faith into the world and practicing it in the church. There are three orders of ministry , recognized since the very earliest times of the church, that require special education and preparation and for which people are ordained:

A deacon is a person set aside to do the servant ministry, usually in parishes, on behalf of the bishop. In a word, deacons are the servant hands of the bishop to the local community. Deacons assist in worship, preach, and minister to people wherever they happen to be. Deacons usually retain secular employment and work in a church about 10 hours a week.

A priest is a person who has been affirmed by the larger community as one designated to convey the means of grace to Christians in the community. Only bishops may ordain priests and deacons. Priests baptize and preside at the Eucharist, preach the Word of God, and hear confessions from those who wish to make them. It is the priest who pronounces forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ if the bishop is not present.

Bishops have already been mentioned, and they have special duties of oversight and pastoral care for the clergy and laity who work and worship in their dioceses.

What are the Sacraments? Do Episcopalians practice private confession?

The sacraments are defined in the Book of Common Prayer as the “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” The sacraments are tangible means (water, bread, wine) of God’s bestowal of God’s grace given to us. The two principal sacraments in the Episcopal Church are the sacrament of Baptism, in which we are initiated into new life with Christ, and the Eucharist, in which we remember and celebrate Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Baptism happens only once since it signifies adoption by God and adoption happens only once. The Eucharist, by contrast, happens weekly in the church since it is the parish Sunday meal commissioned by the Lord. The other traditional rites that are sacramental include confirmation, ordination, marriage, reconciliation (confession and absolution), and the anointing of the sick. They are sacramental because they bestow the grace of God on the recipient.

Episcopalians may make private confessions to a priest and indeed some should, but private confession is not obligatory in the Episcopal Church. A general confession of sins is part of each Eucharist. The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis came to make private confession a part of his Christian life as he grew in his faith. We would do well to follow his lead.

How are deacons and priests discerned and ordained? May they marry?

The ordained ministry is open to all and each diocese of the Episcopal Church has a process, called “discernment,” to assist those who feel they may be called to ordination. Ordination to either the diaconate or the priesthood is a recognition by the community that such persons have been called by God to an ordained ministry. Bishops do the ordaining. Ordained clergy may be either men or women, and they may marry and have children.

What do you mean by "Reason"? Isn't it dangerous to rely on reason in religious matters?

This means that we recognize that God is always working in the world, and we value our God-given intellect. Instructed by Scripture and Tradition, we wrestle with the issues of living together on earth, and we recognize that there are no easy answers. This is why Episcopalians often disagree on things such as interpretation of Scripture or social issues. But for all our points of view on a wide range of issues, we confess the Nicene Creed together and we gather at the Lord’s Table, which is the symbol of the unity we have.

Sometimes the relationship of Scripture, Tradition and Reason is compared in the Episcopal Church to a tricycle, with Scripture being the largest of the three wheels. Since Christian reason is always shaped by Scripture and the experience of the Christian community, it is not dangerous at all. In fact, we believe it to be restored to its proper role when shaped by faith.

What do members of the Episcopal Church believe?

Episcopalians believe that God has revealed himself as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. The more traditional language is “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This means that God is the source of all life, and that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our sins are forgiven and our lives are brought into closer union with God. We believe in the church as the body of Christ, one that is holy, catholic (or universal), and apostolic, and it is the church that Jesus charged with the responsibility of spreading the Good News to all people.

The Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed , which are in the Book of Common Prayer and often recited in our liturgy, spell out the beliefs we share with the majority of Christians. Specific explanations of the beliefs of Episcopalians can be found in the catechism (or outline of faith) that is also in the Book of Common Prayer. Most Christians hold these creeds in common.

How did the Episcopal Church in this country originate?

In one sense, there was an Episcopal Church here as soon as people arrived from England as members of the Church of England in the 1600s. But in 1789, at the American Revolution, the church here became jurisdictionally independent as a separate branch of the Church of England. While autonomous, or self-governing, the Episcopal Church maintains a relationship, based on common faith and practice, such as use of the Book of Common Prayer, with the Church of England and more than 30 other Anglican churches all over the world. All churches in this tradition make up what we call the Anglican Communion.

How large is the Episcopal Church today?

Today we have more than 2.5 million members and 7,500 parishes and missions in the United States. Although we are not one of the larger churches in America, as part of the Anglican Communion, we make up one of the larger Christian traditions in the world. The fastest growing branches of the Anglican Communion can be found in Africa and Asia, making us part of a world-wide church. There are currently more than 75 million people in the Anglican Communion.

What is the point of living out our lives in the church?

God both calls us to live vibrant lives here and to anticipate the life that has been created for us after this one.

In the liturgy each Sunday, we celebrate the life that God has created for us now and anticipate the new life that God intends for us in the future. Each liturgy affirms our baptism and gives us a glimpse of the kingdom to come. We are always both in the present and anticipating the future, when all will come together in the final consummation of God’s passionate love for creation.

From baptism to the commendation at a funeral, where Christian brothers and sisters gather to commend the deceased to the safekeeping of God, a member of the church knows that he or she belongs to God. As the Psalmist puts it, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Amen.

Developed by Fr. Larry Crockett, St. Mary’s Church, Hastings, MN. Please distribute this in any form you would like and God bless!

What is the mission of the Episcopal Church?

The mission of the whole church is to seek and serve Christ in others, and we do that by teaching, working, and living our lives according to our beliefs. The mission of the Episcopal Church is to follow this plan in keeping with our tradition, and also to live in cooperation and harmony with every other Christian church as we do so.

We attempt to form people so that the forgiveness embodied in Christ can heal people to be the whole people God intends. Generations ago, people in this church spoke of the purpose of the church to be the “cure of souls.” That language has faded some but it captures the essence of the mission of the church. With forgiveness and restoration to spiritual health comes the recognition that we have obligations to other children of God, to minister to them as we have been ministered to. As a result, members of the Episcopal Church have been active in applying the gospel to social causes as well.

How does a person become a member of the Episcopal Church?

You should talk with the rector or priest in charge of your local Episcopal parish. If you are already baptized, you can arrange to be confirmed or received into the church, and if not, you will find help in preparing for Baptism. However, you are always invited to join us for worship. You are bound to find people who will greet you and welcome you into the community of faith. We are on much the same road, searching and questioning and helping each other along so that we live our lives in the wise, loving way God wishes.