Episcopal Church (United States)
|The Episcopal Church|
|Presiding Bishop||Michael Curry|
National Council of Churches
World Council of Churches
|Headquarters||815 Second Avenue|
New York, New York
Further dioceses in Taiwan, Micronesia, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Europe
|Branched from||Church of England|
|Absorbed||Church of Hawaii (1890s)|
|Members||1,403,984 communicant members and 1,835,931 active baptized members (2018)|
1,676,349 active baptized members in the U.S.
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The Episcopal Church (TEC) is a member church of the worldwide Anglican Communion and is based in the United States with additional dioceses elsewhere. It is a mainline Christian denomination divided into nine provinces. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church is Michael Bruce Curry, the first African-American bishop to serve in that position.
In 2018,[update] the Episcopal Church had 1,835,931 baptized members, of whom 1,676,349 were in the United States. In 2011,[update] it was the nation's 14th largest denomination. In 2015,[update] Pew Research estimated that 1.2 percent of the adult population in the United States, or 3 million people, self-identify as mainline Episcopalians.
The church was organized after the American Revolution, when it became separate from the Church of England, whose clergy are required to swear allegiance to the British monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The Episcopal Church describes itself as "Protestant, yet Catholic". The Episcopal Church claims apostolic succession, tracing its bishops back to the apostles via holy orders. The Book of Common Prayer, a collection of traditional rites, blessings, liturgies, and prayers used throughout the Anglican Communion, is central to Episcopal worship.
The Episcopal Church was active in the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since the 1960s and 1970s, the church has pursued a decidedly more liberal course. It has opposed the death penalty and supported the civil rights movement and affirmative action. The church calls for the full legal equality of LGBT people. In 2015, the church's 78th triennial General Convention passed resolutions allowing the blessing of same-sex marriages and approved two official liturgies to bless such unions.
The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (PECUSA) and "The Episcopal Church" (TEC) are both official names specified in the church's constitution. The latter is much more commonly used. In other languages, an equivalent is used. For example, in Spanish, the church is called La Iglesia Episcopal Protestante de los Estados Unidos de América or La Iglesia Episcopal. and in French L'Église protestante épiscopale des États-Unis d'Amérique or L'Église épiscopale.
Until 1964, "The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America" was the only official name in use. In the 19th century, High Church members advocated changing the name, which they felt did not acknowledge the church's Catholic heritage. They were opposed by the church's evangelical wing, which felt that the "Protestant Episcopal" label accurately reflected the Reformed character of Anglicanism. After 1877, alternative names were regularly proposed and rejected by the General Convention. One proposed alternative was "the American Catholic Church". By the 1960s, opposition to dropping the word "Protestant" had largely subsided. In a 1964 General Convention compromise, priests and lay delegates suggested adding a preamble to the church's constitution, recognizing "The Episcopal Church" as a lawful alternate designation while still retaining the earlier name.
The 66th General Convention voted in 1979 to use the name "The Episcopal Church" in the Oath of Conformity of the Declaration for Ordination. The evolution of the name can be seen in the church's Book of Common Prayer. In the 1928 BCP, the title page read, "According to the use of The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America", whereas on the title page of the 1979 BCP it states, "'According to the use of The Episcopal Church".
The Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA) has never been an official name of the church but is an alternative commonly seen in English. Since several other churches in the Anglican Communion also use the name "Episcopal", including Scotland and the Philippines, some, for example Anglicans Online, add the phrase "in the United States of America".
The full legal name of the national church corporate body is the "Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America", which was incorporated by the legislature of New York and established in 1821. The membership of the corporation "shall be considered as comprehending all persons who are members of the Church". This should not be confused with the name of the church itself, as it is a distinct body relating to church governance.
The Episcopal Church has its origins in the Church of England in the American colonies, and it stresses continuity with the early universal Western Church and claims to maintain apostolic succession (though the Catholic and Orthodox churches do not recognize this claim).
The first parish was founded in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, under the charter of the Virginia Company of London. The tower of Jamestown Church (c. 1639–43) is one of the oldest surviving Anglican church structures in the United States. The Jamestown church building itself is a modern reconstruction.
Although no American Anglican bishops existed in the colonial era, the Church of England had an official status in several colonies, which meant that local governments paid tax money to local parishes, and the parishes handled some civic functions. The Church of England was designated the established church in Virginia in 1609, in New York in 1693, in Maryland in 1702, in South Carolina in 1706, in North Carolina in 1730, and in Georgia in 1758.
From 1635 the vestries and the clergy came loosely under the diocesan authority of the Bishop of London. After 1702, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) began missionary activity throughout the colonies. On the eve of Revolution about 400 independent congregations were reported[by whom?] throughout the colonies.
Embracing the symbols of the British presence in the American colonies, such as the monarchy, the episcopate, and even the language of the Book of Common Prayer, the Church of England almost drove itself to extinction during the upheaval of the American Revolution. More than any other denomination, the War of Independence internally divided both clergy and laity of the Church of England in America, and opinions covered a wide spectrum of political views: patriots, conciliators, and loyalists. While many Patriots were suspicious of Loyalism in the church, about three-quarters of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were nominally Anglican laymen, including Thomas Jefferson, William Paca, and George Wythe. It was often assumed that persons considered "High Church" were Loyalists, whereas persons considered "Low Church" were Patriots: assumptions with possibly dangerous implications for the time.
Of the approximately three hundred clergy in the Church of England in America between 1776 and 1783, over 80 percent in New England, New York, and New Jersey were loyalists. This is in contrast to the less than 23 percent loyalist clergy in the four southern colonies. Many Church of England clergy remained loyalists as they took their two ordination oaths very seriously. Anglican clergy were obliged to swear allegiance to the king as well as to pray for the king, the royal family, and the British Parliament. In general, loyalist clergy stayed by their oaths and prayed for the king or else suspended services. By the end of 1776, some Anglican churches were closing. Anglican priests held services in private homes or lay readers who were not bound by the oaths held morning and evening prayer. During 1775 and 1776, the Continental Congress had issued decrees ordering churches to fast and pray on behalf of the patriots. Starting July 4, 1776, Congress and several states passed laws making prayers for the king and British Parliament acts of treason. The patriot clergy in the South were quick to find reasons to transfer their oaths to the American cause and prayed for the success of the Revolution. One precedent was the transfer of oaths during the Glorious Revolution in England. Most of the patriot clergy in the South were able to keep their churches open and services continued.
Early Republic era
In the wake of the Revolution, American Episcopalians faced the task of preserving a hierarchical church structure in a society infused with republican values.
When the clergy of Connecticut elected Samuel Seabury as their bishop in 1783, he sought consecration in England. The Oath of Supremacy prevented Seabury's consecration in England, so he went to Scotland; the non-juring bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church consecrated him in Aberdeen on November 14, 1784, making him, in the words of scholar Arthur Carl Piepkorn, "the first Anglican bishop appointed to minister outside the British Isles". On August 3, 1785, the first ordinations on American soil took place at Christ Church in Middletown, Connecticut.
By 1786, the church had succeeded in translating episcopacy to America and in revising the Book of Common Prayer to reflect American political realities. Later, through the efforts of Bishop Philander Chase (1775–1852) of Ohio, Americans successfully sought material assistance from England for the purpose of training Episcopal clergy. The development of the Protestant Episcopal Church provides an example of how Americans in the early republic maintained important cultural ties with England.
In 1787, two priests – William White of Pennsylvania and Samuel Provoost of New York – were consecrated as bishops by the archbishop of Canterbury, the archbishop of York, and the bishop of Bath and Wells, the legal obstacles having been removed by the passage through Parliament of the Consecration of Bishops Abroad Act 1786. Thus there are two branches of Apostolic succession for the American bishops: through the non-juring bishops of Scotland who consecrated Samuel Seabury and through the English church who consecrated William White and Samuel Provoost. All bishops in the American Church are ordained by at least three bishops. One can trace the succession of each back to Seabury, White and Provoost. (See Succession of Bishops of the Episcopal Church.)
In 1789,[when?] representative clergy from nine dioceses met in Philadelphia to ratify the church's initial constitution. The Episcopal Church was formally separated from the Church of England in 1789 so that clergy would not be required to accept the supremacy of the British monarch. A revised version of the Book of Common Prayer was written for the new church that same year. The fourth bishop of the Episcopal Church was James Madison, the first bishop of Virginia. Madison was consecrated in 1790 by the Archbishop of Canterbury and two other Church of England bishops. This third American bishop consecrated within the English line of succession occurred because of continuing unease within the Church of England over Seabury's non-juring Scottish orders. The Episcopal Church thus became the first Anglican Province outside the British Isles.
On 17 September 1792, at the triennial general convention (synod) of the Episcopal Church at Trinity Church on Wall Street, in New York City, Thomas John Claggett was elected the first bishop of Maryland. He was the first bishop of the Episcopal Church ordained and consecrated in America and the fifth Bishop consecrated for the Episcopal Church in the United States.
In 1856 the first society for African Americans in the Episcopal Church was founded by James Theodore Holly. Named The Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting The Extension of The Church Among Colored People, the society argued that blacks should be allowed to participate in seminaries and diocesan conventions. The group lost its focus when Holly emigrated to Haiti, but other groups followed after the Civil War. The current Union of Black Episcopalians traces its history to the society. Holly went on to found the Anglican Church in Haiti, where he became the first African-American bishop on November 8, 1874. As Bishop of Haiti, Holly was the first African American to attend the Lambeth Conference. However, he was consecrated by the American Church Missionary Society, an Evangelical Episcopal branch of the Church.
Episcopal missions chartered by African-Americans in this era were chartered as a Colored Episcopal Mission. All other missions (white) were chartered as an Organized Episcopal Mission. Many historically Black parishes are still in existence to date.
When the American Civil War began in 1861, Episcopalians in the South formed the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America. However, in the North the separation was never officially recognized. By May 16, 1866, the southern dioceses had rejoined the national church.
By the middle of the 19th century, evangelical Episcopalians disturbed by High Church Tractarianism, while continuing to work in interdenominational agencies, formed their own voluntary societies, and eventually, in 1874, a faction objecting to the revival of ritual practices established the Reformed Episcopal Church.
Samuel David Ferguson was the first black bishop consecrated by the Episcopal Church, the first to practice in the U.S. and the first black person to sit in the House of Bishops. Bishop Ferguson was consecrated on June 24, 1885, with the then-Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church acting as a consecrator.
During the Gilded Age, highly prominent laity such as banker J. P. Morgan, industrialist Henry Ford, and art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner played a central role in shaping a distinctive upper class Episcopalian ethos, especially with regard to preserving the arts and history. These philanthropists propelled the Episcopal Church into a quasi-national position of importance while at the same time giving the church a central role in the cultural transformation of the country. Another mark of influence is the fact that more than a quarter of all presidents of the United States have been Episcopalians (see religious affiliations of Presidents of the United States). It was during this period that the Book of Common Prayer was revised, first in 1892 and later in 1928.
Era of change (1958–1970s)
At the 1958 general convention, a coalition of liberal church members succeeded in passing a resolution recognizing "the natural dignity and value of every man, of whatever color or race, as created in the image of God". It called on Episcopalians "to work together, in charity and forbearance, towards the establishment ... of full opportunities in fields such as education, housing, employment and public accommodations". In response, the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity (ESCRU) was founded in December 1959 in order to eliminate racial, ethnic and class barriers within the Episcopal Church. Opposition from southern church leaders prevented the Episcopal Church from taking a strong stand on civil rights prior to 1963. One prominent opponent of the movement was Charles C.J. Carpenter, the Bishop of Alabama. By 1963, many church leaders felt more comfortable speaking out in support of racial equality. That year, Presiding Bishop Arthur Lichtenberger wrote a pastoral letter urging Christians to work "across lines of racial separation, in a common struggle for justice", and the House of Bishops endorsed civil rights legislation.
In 1967, Lichtenberger's successor, John Hines led the Episcopal Church to implement the General Convention Special Program (GCSP). The program was designed to redirect nine million dollars over a three-year period (a quarter of the church's operating budget at the time) to fund special grants for community organizations and grassroots efforts facilitating black empowerment in America's urban ghettos. The effectiveness of the GCSP was limited due to the reluctance of conservative bishops in southern dioceses, who objected to the awarding of grants to groups perceived as radical. The GCSP also drew opposition from the recently formed Foundation for Christian Theology, a conservative organization opposed to "involv[ing] the Church in the social, political, and economic activities of our times". The tension between liberal and conservative constituencies in the church erupted during the Special General Convention of 1969. The convention was disrupted by black militants who demanded that the Episcopal Church hear their concerns. When white deputies objected to allowing the militants a hearing, African-American deputies walked out of the convention. The Special General Convention also witnessed protests of the Vietnam War. During this time period, African-American clergy organized the Union of Black Episcopalians to achieve full inclusion of African Americans at all levels of the Episcopal Church. 
The liberal policies of Presiding Bishop Hines and the general conventions of 1967 and 1969 led to a conservative reaction. Facing declining membership and a one million dollar budget cut, the Special Program became an easy target for conservatives, who succeeded in drastically reducing the financial support for the program in 1970. It was finally ended in 1973 with little protest. A year later, Hines was succeeded by John M. Allin, the Bishop of Mississippi and a conservative.
The first women were admitted as delegates to the church's general convention in 1970. In 1975, Vaughan Booker, who confessed to the murder of his wife and was sentenced to life in prison, was ordained to the diaconate in Graterford State Prison's chapel in Pennsylvania, after having repented of his sins, becoming a symbol of redemption and atonement.
In recent decades, the Episcopal Church, like other mainline churches, has experienced a decline in membership as well as internal controversy over women's ordination and the place of homosexuals in the church. The 1976 General Convention also passed a resolution calling for an end to apartheid in South Africa and in 1985 called for "dioceses, institutions, and agencies" to create equal opportunity employment and affirmative action policies to address any potential "racial inequities" in clergy placement. Because of these and other controversial issues including abortion, individual members and clergy can and do frequently disagree with the stated position of the church's leadership. In January 2016, the Anglican Primates Meeting at Canterbury decided that in response to the "distance" caused by what it called "unilateral action on matters of doctrine without catholic unity", "for a period of three years, The Episcopal Church [would neither] represent [the Communion] on ecumenical and interfaith bodies… [nor] take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity."
Revised prayer book
In 1976, the General Convention adopted a new prayer book, which was a substantial revision and modernization of the previous 1928 edition. It incorporated many principles of the Roman Catholic Church's liturgical movement, which had been discussed at Vatican II. This version was adopted as the official prayer book in 1979 after an initial three-year trial use. Several conservative parishes, however, continued to use the 1928 version.
Ordination of women
On July 29, 1974, a group of women known as the Philadelphia Eleven were irregularly ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church by bishops Daniel Corrigan, Robert L. DeWitt, and Edward R. Welles, assisted by Antonio Ramos. On September 7, 1975, four more women (the "Washington Four") were irregularly ordained by retired bishop George W. Barrett. In the wake of the controversy over the ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven, the General Convention permitted the ordination of women in 1976 and recognized the ordinations of the 15 forerunners. The first women were canonically ordained to the priesthood in 1977. The first woman to become a bishop, Barbara Harris, was consecrated on February 11, 1989.
At the same time, there was still tolerance for those dioceses who opposed women's ordination. In 1994, the General Convention affirmed that there was value in the theological position that women should not be ordained. In 1997, however, the General Convention then determined that "the canons regarding the ordination, licensing, and deployment of women are mandatory" and required noncompliant dioceses to issue status reports on their progress towards full compliance.
In 2006, the General Convention elected Katharine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop. She is the first and, currently, the only woman to become a primate in the Anglican Communion. Schori's election was controversial in the wider Anglican Communion because not all of the communion recognizes the ordination of women.
At the time of the formation of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), three U.S. dioceses did not ordain women as priests or bishops: San Joaquin, Quincy, and Fort Worth. Following the departures of their conservative majorities, all three dioceses now ordain women. With the October 16, 2010, ordination of Margaret Lee, in the Peoria-based Diocese of Quincy, Illinois, women have been ordained as priests in all 110 dioceses of the Episcopal Church in the United States.
Affirmation of LGBT people
The Episcopal Church affirmed at the 1976 General Convention that homosexuals are "children of God" who deserve acceptance and pastoral care from the church and equal protection under the law. The first openly gay person ordained as a priest was Ellen Barrett in 1977. Despite such an affirmation of gay rights, the General Convention affirmed in 1991 that "physical sexual expression" is only appropriate within the monogamous lifelong "union of husband and wife".
The church elected its first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in June 2003. News of Robinson's election caused a crisis in both the American church and the wider Anglican Communion. In October 2003, Anglican primates (the heads of the Anglican Communion's 38 member churches) convened an emergency meeting. The meeting's final communiqué included the warning that if Robinson's consecration proceeded, it would "tear the fabric of the communion at its deepest level". The news of his ordination caused such an outrage that during the ceremony, at which his long-time partner was present, Robinson was forced to wear a bullet-proof vest beneath his vestments, and he also received numerous death threats following his installation as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire.
In 2009, the General Convention charged the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to develop theological and liturgical resources for same-sex blessings and report back to the General Convention in 2012. It also gave bishops an option to provide "generous pastoral support", especially where civil authorities have legalized same-gender marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships.
On July 14, 2009, the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops voted that "any ordained ministry" is open to gay men and lesbians. The New York Times said the move was "likely to send shockwaves through the Anglican Communion". This vote ended a moratorium on ordaining gay bishops passed in 2006 and passed in spite of Archbishop Rowan Williams's personal call at the start of the convention that, "I hope and pray that there won't be decisions in the coming days that will push us further apart."
On July 10, 2012, the Episcopal Church approved an official liturgy for the blessing of same-sex relationships. This liturgy was not a marriage rite, but the blessing included an exchange of vows and the couple's agreement to enter into a lifelong committed relationship.
On June 29, 2015, at the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, a resolution removing the definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman was passed by the House of Bishops with 129 in favor, 26 against, and 5 abstaining. The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, expressed "deep concern" over the ruling. In 2016, Anglican leaders temporarily suspended the Episcopal Church from key positions in their global fellowship in response to the church changing its canons on marriage.
Transgender people have also joined the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. The Rev. Cameron Partridge, who transitioned in 2001 and was ordained in 2005 was the first openly transgender priest to preach at the Washington National Cathedral.
Separations from the church
Following the ordination of Bp. Gene Robinson in 2003, some members of a number of congregations left the Episcopal Church. For example, in Cleveland, Ohio, four parishes "with about 1,300 active members, decided to leave the U.S. church and the local diocese because of 'divergent understandings of the authority of scripture and traditional Christian teaching.'" Four dioceses also voted to leave the church; Pittsburgh, Quincy, Fort Worth, and San Joaquin. The stated reasons included those expressed by the Pittsburgh diocese, which complained that the church had been "hijacked" by liberal bishops. A few years later, in 2012, the Diocese of South Carolina voted to withdraw.
The Episcopal Church did not acknowledge any of the purported diocesan withdrawals, stating that under canon law an Episcopal diocese cannot withdraw itself from the larger Episcopal Church. In a "pastoral letter" to the South Carolina diocese, Presiding Bishop Schori wrote that "While some leaders have expressed a desire to leave The Episcopal Church, the Diocese has not left. It cannot, by its own action. The alteration, dissolution, or departure of a diocese of The Episcopal Church requires the consent of General Convention, which has not been consulted." She further wrote that the South Carolina diocese "continues to be a constituent part of The Episcopal Church, even if a number of its leaders have departed. If it becomes fully evident that those former leaders have, indeed, fully severed their ties with The Episcopal Church, new leaders will be elected and installed by action of a Diocesan Convention recognized by the wider Episcopal Church, in accordance with our Constitution and Canons."
Many departing members joined the Continuing Anglican movement or advocated Anglican realignment, claiming alignment with overseas Anglican provinces including the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone of America and the Church of Nigeria. Some former members formed the Anglican Church in North America which, as of 2017, claimed over 1,000 congregations and 134,000 members. Episcopal Church leaders, particularly former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, responded by taking a firm stance against the separatists. Litigation between the church and departing dioceses and parishes cost all parties tens of millions of dollars; one estimate has the Episcopal Church spending over $42 million and separatists roughly $18 million, for a total of over $60 million in court costs. Litigation has largely centered around church properties. Episcopal leadership asserts that, as a hierarchical church, they retain ownership of parish property when parishioners leave. Departing groups, in contrast, assert that they should be able to retain ownership of individual church facilities and diocesan property.
Church property disputes
In a letter to the House of Bishops during summer 2009, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori instructed local dioceses not to sell parish property to departing groups. She stated: "We do not make settlements that encourage religious bodies who seek to replace The Episcopal Church".
Before Schori took this stand, prior bishops had treated parish property disputes as internal diocesan matters that are "not subject to the review or oversight of the presiding bishop". One example was when then-Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold told the Diocese of Western Louisiana on May 11, 2006, that the national church involved itself in parish property disputes only upon invitation of the local bishop and diocesan standing committees. Schori's letter stated that her firm stance was the consensus of the Council of Advice and expressed hope that "those who have departed can gain clarity about their own identity".
After the South Carolina diocese voted to withdraw, it sued the national Episcopal Church to retain control over its property. The departing diocese initially won, but mostly lost on appeal to the South Carolina Supreme Court. Seven parishes affiliated with the departing group were allowed to keep their property. All other church and diocesan property in the lawsuit remained with the Episcopal Church and its affiliated local diocese. The name "Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina" and related names and marks were initially claimed by the departing group. In 2019, a federal court ruled that they legally belonged to the Episcopal Church and its South Carolina affiliates.
As of 2018[update], the Episcopal Church reported 1,835,931 baptized members. The majority of members are in the United States, where the Church has 1,676,349 members. Outside of the U.S. the Church has 159,582. Total average Sunday attendance (ASA) for 2018 was 562,529 (533,206 in the U.S. and 29,323 outside the U.S.), a decrease of 24.7% percent from 2008.
According to a report by ARIS/Barna in 2001, 3.5 million Americans self–identified as Episcopalians, highlighting "a gap between those who are affiliated with the church (on membership rolls), versus those who self-identify [as Episcopalians]". Church Pension Group also cited having 3.5 million adherents in 2002. More recently, in 2014, Pew Research found that approximately 1.2 percent of 245 million U.S adults, around 3 million people, self–identified as mainline Episcopalian/Anglican.
According to data collected in 2000, the District of Columbia, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Virginia have the highest rates of adherents per capita, and states along the East Coast generally have a higher number of adherents per capita than in other parts of the country. New York was the state with the largest total number of adherents, over 200,000. In 2013, the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti was the largest single diocese, with 84,301 baptized members, which constitute slightly over half of the church's foreign membership.
According to the latest statistics U.S. membership dropped 2.7 percent from a reported 1,866,758 members in 2013 to 1,745,156 in 2016, a loss of 121,602 persons. Attendance took an even steeper hit, with the average number of Sunday worshipers dropping from 623,691 in 2013 to 570,454 in 2016, a decline of 53,237 persons in the pews, down 8.5 percent. Congregations dropped to 6,473.
The Episcopal Church experienced notable growth in the first half of the 20th century, but like many mainline churches, it has had a decline in membership in more recent decades. Membership grew from 1.1 million members in 1925 to a peak of over 3.4 million members in the mid-1960s. Between 1970 and 1990, membership declined from about 3.2 million to about 2.4 million. Once changes in how membership is counted are taken into consideration, the Episcopal Church's membership numbers were broadly flat throughout the 1990s, with a slight growth in the first years of the 21st century. A loss of 115,000 members was reported for the years 2003–05. Some theories about the decline in membership include a failure to sufficiently reach beyond ethnic barriers in an increasingly diverse society, and the low fertility rates prevailing among the predominant ethnic groups traditionally belonging to the church. In 1965, there were 880,000 children in Episcopal Sunday School programs. By 2001, the number had declined to 297,000.
In the twentieth century, Episcopalians tended to be wealthier and more educated (having more graduate and postgraduate degrees per capita) than most other religious groups in the United States, and were disproportionately represented in the upper reaches of American business, law, and politics. According to Pew Research Center Episcopal Church "has often been seen as the religious institution most closely associated with the American establishment, producing many of the nation’s most important leaders in politics and business." And about a quarter of the presidents (11) were members of the Episcopal Church.
In the 1970s, a Fortune magazine study found one-in-five of the country's largest businesses and one-in-three of its largest banks was run by an Episcopalian. Numbers of the most wealthy and affluent American families such as the Vanderbilts, Astors, Whitneys, Morgans and Harrimans are Episcopalians. The Episcopal Church also has the highest number of graduate and post-graduate degrees per capita (56%) of any other Christian denomination in the United States, as well as the most high-income earners. According to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center, Episcopalians ranked as the third wealthiest religious group in the United States, with 35% of Episcopalians living in households with incomes of at least $100,000. In recent years, the church has become more socially and racial diverse through evangelism, and has attracted many Hispanic immigrants who are often working-class.
The Episcopal Church is governed according to episcopal polity with its own system of canon law. This means that the church is organized into dioceses led by bishops in consultation with representative bodies. It is a unitary body, in that the power of the General Convention is not limited by the individual dioceses. The church has, however, a highly decentralized structure and characteristics of a confederation.
Parishes and dioceses
At the local level, there are 6,447 Episcopal congregations, each of which elects a vestry or bishop's committee. Subject to the approval of its diocesan bishop, the vestry of each parish elects a priest, called the rector, who has spiritual jurisdiction in the parish and selects assistant clergy, both deacons and priests. (There is a difference between vestry and clergy elections – clergy are ordained members usually selected from outside the parish, whereas any member in good standing of a parish is eligible to serve on the vestry.) The diocesan bishop, however, appoints the clergy for all missions and may choose to do so for non-self-supporting parishes.
The middle judicatory consists of a diocese headed by a bishop who is assisted by a standing committee. The bishop and standing committee are elected by the diocesan convention whose members are selected by the congregations. The election of a bishop requires the consent of a majority of standing committees and diocesan bishops. Conventions meet annually to consider legislation (such as revisions to the diocesan constitution and canons) and speak for the diocese. Dioceses are organized into nine provinces. Each province has a synod and a mission budget, but it has no authority over its member dioceses.
There are 110 dioceses in the United States, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, Venezuela and the Virgin Islands. The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe and the Navajoland Area Mission are jurisdictions similar to a diocese. The Presiding Bishop is one of three Anglican primates who together exercise metropolitan jurisdiction over the Episcopal Church of Cuba, which is an extraprovincial diocese in the Anglican Communion.
The highest legislative body of the Episcopal Church is the triennial General Convention, consisting of the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops. All active (whether diocesan, coadjutor, suffragan, or assistant) and retired bishops make up the over 300 members of the House of Bishops. Diocesan conventions elect over 800 representatives (each diocese elects four laity and four clergy) to the House of Deputies. The House of Deputies elects a president and vice-president to preside at meetings. General Convention enacts two types of legislation. The first type is the rules by which the church is governed as contained in the Constitution and Canons; the second type are broad guidelines on church policy called resolutions. Either house may propose legislation. The House of Deputies only meets as a full body once every three years; however, the House of Bishops meets regularly throughout the triennium between conventions.
The real work of General Convention is done by interim bodies, the most powerful being the Executive Council, which oversees the work of the national church during the triennium. The council has 40 members; 20 are directly elected by the General Convention, 18 are elected by the nine provinces, and the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies are ex officio members. Other interim bodies include a number of standing commissions which study and draft policy proposals for consideration and report back to General Convention. Each standing commission consists of three bishops, three priests or deacons, and six laypersons. Bishops are appointed by the Presiding Bishop while the other clergy and laypersons are appointed by the president of the House of Deputies.
The Presiding Bishop is elected from and by the House of Bishops and confirmed by the House of Deputies for a nine-year term. The Presiding Bishop is the chief pastor and primate of the Episcopal Church and is charged with providing leadership in the development of the Church's program as well as speaking on behalf of the Church. The Presiding Bishop does not possess a territorial see; since the 1970s, however, the Presiding Bishop has enjoyed extraordinary jurisdiction (metropolitical authority) and has authority to visit dioceses for sacramental and preaching ministry, for consulting bishops, and for related purposes. The Presiding Bishop chairs the House of Bishops as well as the Executive Council of the General Convention. In addition, the Presiding Bishop directs the Episcopal Church Center, the national administrative headquarters of the denomination. Located at 815 Second Avenue, New York City, New York, the center is often referred to by Episcopalians simply as "815".
Worship and liturgy
Worship according to the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is central to the Episcopal Church's identity and its main source of unity. The current edition of the BCP was published in 1979 and is similar to other Anglican prayer books in use around the world. It contains most of the worship services (or liturgies) used in the Episcopal Church.
The Episcopal Church has a sacramental understanding of worship. The Episcopal catechism defines a sacrament as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given to us". Episcopalians believe that sacraments are material things that God uses to act in human lives. The BCP identifies Baptism and the Eucharist as the "two great sacraments of the Gospel". Confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent, and unction are identified as "sacramental rites". Private confession of sin is available in the Episcopal Church, though it is not as commonly practiced as in the Roman Catholic Church. This is in part due to the general confession provided for in Episcopal services.
The prayer book specifies that the Eucharist or Holy Communion is "the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord's Day". The service has two parts. The first is centered on Bible readings and preaching. At each service, four scripture passages are read from the Old Testament and the New Testament. The readings are organized in a three-year cycle during which much of the Bible will have been read in church. The second part of the service is centered on the Eucharist. The Episcopal Church teaches the real presence doctrine—that the bread and wine truly become the body and blood of Christ. However, it does not define how this happens, which allows for different views to coexist within the church. Generally, Episcopal churches have retained features such as the altar rail, the inclusion or exclusion of which does not elicit much controversy, but usually celebrate in the versus populum orientation.
Often a congregation or a particular service will be referred to as Low Church or High Church. In theory:
- High Church, especially the very high Anglo-Catholic movement, is ritually inclined towards the use of incense, formal hymns, and a higher degree of ceremony such as ad orientem in relation to the priest and altar. In addition to clergy vesting in albs, stoles, and chasubles, the lay assistants may also be vested in cassock and surplice. The sung Eucharist tends to be emphasized in High Church congregations, with Anglo-Catholic congregations and celebrants using sung services almost exclusively. Marian devotion is sometimes seen in the Anglo-Catholic and some High Church parishes.
- Low Church is simpler and may incorporate other elements such as informal praise and worship music. "Low" parishes tend towards a more "traditional Protestant" outlook with its emphasis of Biblical revelation over symbolism. A few "low" parishes even subscribe to traditional Evangelical theology (see Evangelical Anglicanism). The spoken Eucharist tends to be emphasized in Low Church congregations. Altar rails may be omitted in this type.
- Broad Church indicates a middle ground. These parishes are the most common within The Episcopal Church. However, unlike the Anglican Church in England, most Episcopal "broad church" parishes make use of a liturgy that includes eucharistic vestments, chant, and a high view of the sacraments, even if the liturgy is not as solemn or lacks some of the other accoutrements typical of Anglo-Catholic parishes. Unlike many Roman Catholic churches, the altar rail has usually been retained and communion is usually served kneeling at the altar rail similar to a Tridentine Mass, because the Episcopal Church teaches, through its Book of Common Prayer, a theologically high view of the church and its sacraments, even if not all parishes carry this out liturgically.
The veneration of saints in the Episcopal Church is a continuation of an ancient tradition from the early church which honors important people of the Christian faith. The usage of the term "saint" is similar to Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. There are explicit references in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer to invoking the aid of the prophets, patriarchs, saints, martyrs and the Virgin Mary as in an optional prayer in the committal at a funeral, p. 504. In general Anglicans pray with the saints in their fellowship, not to them, although their intercessions may be requested. Those inclined to the Anglo-Catholic traditions may explicitly invoke saints as intercessors in prayer.
The 1979 edition contains a provision for the use of "traditional" (Elizabethan) language under various circumstances not directly provided for in the book, and the Anglican Service Book was produced accordingly, as "a traditional language adaptation of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer together with the Psalter or Psalms of David and Additional Devotions".
Belief and practice
The center of Episcopal teaching is the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Doctrine of the Episcopal Church is found in the Canon of Holy Scripture as understood in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds and in the sacramental rites, the Ordinal and Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer. Some of these teachings include:
- Jesus Christ is fully human and fully God. He died and was resurrected from the dead.
- Jesus provides the way of eternal life for those who believe.
- God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ), and God the Holy Spirit, are one God, and are called the Holy Trinity ("three and yet one").
- The Old and New Testaments of the Bible were written by people "under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit". The Apocrypha are additional books that are used in Christian worship, but not for the formation of doctrine.
- The two great and necessary sacraments are Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist.
- Other sacramental rites are confirmation, ordination, marriage, reconciliation of a penitent, and unction.
- Belief in heaven, hell, and Jesus' return in glory.
- Emphasis on living out the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor fully.
The full catechism is included in the Book of Common Prayer and is posted on the Episcopal website. In practice, not all Episcopalians hold all of these beliefs, but ordained clergy are required to "solemnly engage to conform" to this doctrine.
The Episcopal Church follows the via media or "middle way" between Protestant and Roman Catholic doctrine and practices: that is both Catholic and Reformed. Although many Episcopalians identify with this concept, those whose convictions lean toward either evangelical Anglicanism or Anglo-Catholicism may not.
A broad spectrum of theological views is represented within the Episcopal Church. Some Episcopal members or theologians hold evangelical positions, affirming the authority of scripture over all. The Episcopal Church website glossary defines the sources of authority as a balance between scripture, tradition, and reason. These three are characterized as a "three-legged stool" which will topple if any one overbalances the other. It also notes
The Anglican balancing of the sources of authority has been criticized as clumsy or "muddy." It has been associated with the Anglican affinity for seeking the mean between extremes and living the via media. It has also been associated with the Anglican willingness to tolerate and comprehend opposing viewpoints instead of imposing tests of orthodoxy or resorting to heresy trials.
This balance of scripture, tradition and reason is traced to the work of Richard Hooker, a 16th-century apologist. In Hooker's model, scripture is the primary means of arriving at doctrine and things stated plainly in scripture are accepted as true. Issues that are ambiguous are determined by tradition, which is checked by reason. Noting the role of personal experience in Christian life, some Episcopalians have advocated following the example of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Methodist theology by thinking in terms of a "Fourth Leg" of "experience". This understanding is highly dependent on the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher.
A public example of this struggle between different Christian positions in the church has been the 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man living with a long-term partner. The acceptance/rejection of his consecration is motivated by different views on the understanding of scripture. This struggle has some members concerned that the church may not continue its relationship with the larger Anglican Church. Others, however, view this pluralism as an asset, allowing a place for both sides to balance each other.
Comedian and Episcopalian Robin Williams once described the Episcopal faith (and, in a performance in London, specifically the Church of England) as "Catholic Lite – same rituals, half the guilt".
Marriage of same-sex couples
At its 2015 triennial general convention, the church adopted "canonical and liturgical changes to provide marriage equality for Episcopalians". The canonical change eliminated "language defining marriage as between a man and a woman". The "two new marriage rites" contain language that allows "them to be used by same-sex or opposite-sex couples". The blessing of same-sex relationships is not uniform throughout the Episcopal Church. Following the 2015 general convention, bishops were able to determine whether churches and priests within their dioceses were permitted to use the new liturgies. Bishops who did not permit their use were to connect same-sex couples to a diocese where the liturgies were allowed. However, following the 2018 general convention, resolution B012 was amended to "make provision for all couples asking to be married in this church to have access to these liturgies". This effectually granted all churches and clergy, with or without the support of their bishop, the ability to perform same-sex marriages. The church also opposes any state or federal constitutional amendments designed to prohibit the marriages of same-sex couples.
Ordination of LGBT identified individuals
Openly gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals are eligible to be ordained. The Episcopal Church has a nondiscrimination policy that prohibits discrimination on the basis of "gender identity and expression".
In 1861, John Henry Hopkins' wrote a pamphlet entitled, A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery, attempting to justify slavery from the New Testament: the pamphlet gives a clear insight into the Episcopal Church's involvement in slavery. Bishop Hopkins' Letter on Slavery Ripped Up and his Misuse of the Sacred Scriptures Exposed, written by G.W. Hyer in 1863, opposed the points mentioned in Hopkins' pamphlet and revealed a startling divide in the Episcopal Church over the issue of slavery. In 1991, the General Convention declared "the practice of racism is sin," and in 2006, a unanimous House of Bishops endorsed Resolution A123 apologizing for complicity in the institution of slavery, and silence over "Jim Crow" laws, segregation, and racial discrimination. In 2018, following the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry said that "the stain of bigotry has once again covered our land" and called on Episcopalians to choose "organized love intent on creating God's beloved community on Earth" rather than hate.
The Church does not approve of the use of abortion as a means of birth control or family planning, but considers it a woman's right to receive one. The Church opposes any legislation which would prevent women from obtaining abortions or information about abortions.
The Episcopal Church disapproves of assisted suicide and other forms of euthanasia, but does teach that it is permissible to withdraw medical treatment, such as artificial nutrition and hydration, when the burden of such treatment outweighs its benefits to an individual.
Agencies and programs
The Society for the Increase of the Ministry (SIM) is the only organization raising funds on a national basis for Episcopal seminarian support. SIM's founding purpose in 1857 – "to find suitable persons for the Episcopal ministry and aid them in acquiring a thorough education". SIM has awarded scholarships to qualified full-time seminary students.
Episcopal Relief & Development is the international relief and development agency of the Episcopal Church of the United States. It helps to rebuild after disasters and aims to empower people by offering lasting solutions that fight poverty, hunger and disease. Episcopal Relief and Development programs focus on alleviating hunger, improving food supply, creating economic opportunities, strengthening communities, promoting health, fighting disease, responding to disasters, and rebuilding communities.
There are about 60 trust funds administered by the Episcopal Church which offer scholarships to young people affiliated with the church. Qualifying considerations often relate to historical missionary work of the church among American Indians and African-Americans, as well as work in China and other foreign missions. There are special programs for both American Indians and African-Americans interested in training for the ministry.
Church Publishing Incorporated (Church Publishing Inc., CPI) began as the Church Hymnal Corporation in 1918, dedicated initially to publishing a single work, The Hymnal 1918, which still remains in print. It is the official publisher for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States. Imprints include Church Publishing, Morehouse Publishing (independently founded in 1884) and Seabury Books (the "trade" imprint).
Like the other churches of the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church has entered into full communion with the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht, the Philippine Independent Church, and the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar. The Episcopal Church is also in a relationship of full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Northern and Southern Provinces of the Moravian Church in America. The Episcopal Church entered into a full communion agreement with the Church of Sweden at its General Convention in Salt Lake City on June 28, 2015.
The Episcopal Church maintains ecumenical dialogues with the United Methodist Church and the Moravian Church in America, and participates in pan-Anglican dialogues with the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Roman Catholic Church. In 2006 a relation of interim Eucharistic sharing was inaugurated with the United Methodist Church, a step that may ultimately lead to full communion.
Historically Anglican churches have had strong ecumenical ties with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Episcopal Church particularly with the Russian Orthodox Church, but relations in more recent years have been strained by the ordination of women and the ordination of Gene Robinson to the episcopate. A former relation of full communion with the Polish National Catholic Church (once a part of the Union of Utrecht) was broken off by the PNCC in 1976 over the ordination of women.
The Episcopal Church was a founding member of the Consultation on Church Union and participates in its successor, Churches Uniting in Christ. The Episcopal Church is a founding member of the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, and the new Christian Churches Together in the USA. Dioceses and parishes are frequently members of local ecumenical councils as well.
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