When one is trying to understand a new thing, it helps to know where it came from and what it is for. 

 

You probably studied the Reformation in a history class somewhere along the line. As you may recall, between the time of Christ and about 600 there was one undivided Christian Church, called the Catholic church because "catholic" means universal. In the 600s, however, the Christian Church got divided between the western world, which was then essentially Europe, and the eastern world including Greece and parts east of there. That church became known as the Orthodox Church.

So, things remained so for nearly 1000 years until the 1500s -- the time of the Great Reformation. It was clear that the Roman Catholic Church was sorely in need of major reformation. In short, it had really lost its way theologically and by the political distractions it got involved in.  In Europe the Reformation was led by Luther, Zwingli and others -- which brought us the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches among others. These leaders made significant and lasting efforts to reform and refocus Christian theology.

But in the Reformation that occurred in England, the issues were largely political -- matters relating to who has the power and authority to make what sorts of decisions for which people. 

In many ways, the Episcopal Church can be seen as the heir to this English Reformation in the United States and subsequently elsewhere. Among the denominations emerging out of the sixteenth-century reformations, the Church of Englad was distinctive especially because it retained -- and slightly revised -- the Catholic understanding of the sacraments and held to Catholic traditions. It saw itself as both Catholic and Reformed. 

Some chose to emphasize one aspect of this heritage over the other, but tensions between different factions in the Church were resolved in the so called "Elizabethan Settlement." The importance of this settlement cannot be over-stressed. It ordained that different points of view could co-exist within a single church with basic agreement about the historic Creeds and a common liturgy, embodied in the Book of Common Prayer. And the church said that Scripture was not the only authority over the church -- rather the long-standing tradition of the Christian Church and the reason God gave the Church and individuals in it should always inform one's understanding of the scriptures and of the many issues one faces in the world.

After the American Revolution of 1776, the Episcopal Church became self-governing, no longer subject to the Crown. And, unlike the Church of England, this church would not be a state church. It would stand alongside others with no particular favor of the government. Bishops were consecrated in historic succession for the American church, and a form of governance was established which included a much larger role for parish priests and lay people. It is no coincidence that the church's governance resembles that of the new nation, since some of the same people were involved in the development of both. 

The Episcopal Church meets once every three years in "General Convention" to set policy for the church and elect its leadership. It is bicameral, with one house being of bishops and the other being of local priests and lay people. Similarly, each diocese --  or region -- of the church is governed by a diocesan convention which passes laws for itself and resolutions of policy, and elects its leadership. 

Unlike some Protestant denominations in which the local parish is considered the base, or fundamental unit of the church, the Episcopal Church considers its base to be the diocese -- a community of local churches in mutual support of one another. The bishop is the chief pastor for all Episcopalians in that diocese. They also oversee its mission and pass on the eye-witness accounts of Jesus's Resurrection down through time, from generation to generation. 

The church at the local level is also governed by an elected local board called a vestry or, under some circumstances, the Bishop's Committee. The church holds an annual parish meeting where the leadership is elected. The priests of the church are generally selected by the local congregation with the approval of the bishop.

Historically, the Church of England spread throughout the world, especially to British colonies during the colonial and post-colonial periods. Wherever the Church of England was established it became self-governing while continuing the church's sacramental understandings and the function of liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer in providing the basis for unity. In this way many of the divisions that plagued other denominations in the west, for example in the matter of slavery, were avoided. 

In more recent years there has been considerable debate about the ordination of women as priests and deacons, and about the place of LGBT people in God's world and the church. In the United States the matter of the ordination of women as priests and bishops is a done deal with only pockets of dissent. The second issue has been much more contentious, especially in relation to the Anglican churches in Africa which tend to be more conservative. All the same, the Episcopal Church is a leader among American denominations in recognizing homosexuality as a variation of human nature that should not be judged -- in and of itself -- on moral grounds. 

From our Anglican heritage, the Episcopal Church has received a habit of encouraging conscientious disagreement within a culture of civility and a framework of common prayer. We do not always agree about everything, but we come to the Lord's Table together, in whatever brokenness we have, seeking a pathway to healing and reconciliation. 

The church is incredibly diverse, including people of all political parties, most theological persuasions, and just about every point of view. We do take stand on matters of public policy and have a strong tradition of advocacy for social justice. 

Our fundamental traditions are a generous ortohodoxy, rooted in the Holy Scriptures and the historic, ecumencial creeds, and a Christian humanism that is open to all truth, wherever it may be found. We encourage respectufl criticism and a variety of interpretation of the traditions we cherish and love. Our church has proven remarkably open to such developments as the theory of evolution and historical criticism of the Bible. Most important, we try to preserve a faithful witness to Jesus Christ which is both open to mystery and responsible to the testimony of our brothers and sisters in other times and places. 


Our hope is summarized in the words of a prayer we offer together in worship from time to time, that "in companionship with one another, God's abounding grace may increase among us, through Hesus Christ our Lord."  


Adapted by the Rev. Carol Hosler in 2014 from a piece written in 2012 by the Rev. Bill Carroll, then Rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio.