Episcopal Q & A

As you travel in almost any city in America, you see signs of all kinds ­ highway signs and signs for hotels, restaurants, car dealerships, stores and much more. You might also have noticed signs for various churches, some of which say: “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.”These are a reminder that on every journey you take, God is with you and a community of people is behind you. If you would like to know more about this community of people that is the Episcopal Church, we invite you to follow one of these signs to the church it announces. Once there, feel free to ask as many questions as you like. For example:

What does it mean to be Episcopal?

It means that our church is governed or “overseen” by bishops. The word “episcopal” comes from the Greek word episcope, which means “oversight.” Each individual church (or “parish”) belongs to a larger governing area called a “diocese,” which is overseen by an elected bishop. All the dioceses together make up the church across the whole country (and a few missionary dioceses in other countries), and they are overseen by a specially elected bishop known as the Presiding Bishop. A bishop is one kind of ordained clergy person, along with priests and deacons.

However, all of the people of the church participate in carrying out the church’s mission and ministry. The governing body of the church is General Convention, which meets every three years, with Executive Council carrying on the business of the church in the intervening years. General Convention has two houses, the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, made up of lay and priest representatives chosen by their dioceses.

What does it mean to be a Church?

The word church comes from the Latin word ecclesia, which means a gathering, and eventually came to mean the gathered people of God, as well as the place where they gather. The church is the place where the people of God worship, pray, sing and celebrate sacraments together, and it is also the people themselves, participating in worship, praying, singing and celebrating. All baptized persons are members of the Christian Church.

What does it mean to be welcoming?

It means that everyone who seeks a place in the Episcopal Church finds one! Seeking is an important part of this church, and you will find most people in the pews have more questions than answers, which is the way we like it. The fundamentals of the Episcopal Church are based on scripture, tradition and reason. Anyone with questions about who God is and how God works in his or her life can find in the Episcopal Church both a home and many people with whom to share questions and journeys.

Who is welcome in the Episcopal Church?

Absolutely everyone! No qualifications, no limitations. No matter what your age, what language you speak, your gender or where you were born, the Episcopal Church welcomes you. Episcopal worship is conducted in almost every language you can think of, including sign language. It is celebrated in many places, including college dorms, cruise ships and army bases. You can even find Episcopalians celebrating before running marathons and after playing football games.

What are you celebrating?

We are celebrating the love of God made manifest in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We believe that Jesus died to save us, to bring us into new life with God. We remember this and celebrate our continuing life together through worship, prayer and sacraments.

Why do you celebrate together?

We celebrate together because Jesus called us into community. We know this because 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. Jesus also commanded us to love one another as we have been loved, so we know that to live a Christian life is to live a life in which we are in relationship with others as well as in relationship with God.

What is Scripture?

Holy Scripture, also called the Bible, is the story of God’s relationship with His people. The Bible is divided into two main sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is the story of God’s promise to the people of Israel to make them a great nation. The New Testament is the story of a new relationship with God revealed in Jesus Christ, which promises to bring everyone into the kingdom of God. Both the Old and the New Testaments reveal the response of the people of God, the questioning and testing and waiting, as well as the love and the faith and the obedience, all part of an ongoing relationship.

What is Tradition?

The tradition of the church is the record of what the church believes, formed over time. Important traditions in the Episcopal Church are the use of the Book of Common Prayer and the sacraments, particularly the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist. Tradition also refers to how we worship, our liturgy and the music in our hymnals, and to the creeds we say as part of our worship. In these ways, the important truths of our faith are kept alive and handed down through generations.

What is the Book of Common Prayer?

It is the book that contains the prayers and liturgies that are part of the worship life Episcopalians share with each other. It also contains historical documents, the church calendar, the catechism or statement of what we believe, and the lectionary, a schedule of scripture readings to use in liturgy and personal devotions. The prayer book binds together the whole Anglican Communion. The very first prayer book was written in 1549, and the first Book of Common Prayer for the new Episcopal Church in the United States was written in 1789. You will find prayer books in every Episcopal Church, and you can follow any service by reading it.

What are the Sacraments?

The sacraments are defined in the prayer book as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” This means that we recognize God as active and sustaining in our lives, and through the sacraments we participate in this sustaining and saving power. The two main sacraments in the Episcopal Church are 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 in a person’s life, but we celebrate the Eucharist at least once a week. The other traditional rites that have sacramental character include confirmation, ordination, marriage, reconciliation (confession and absolution), and anointing of the sick.

Who are the ministers of the 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.

  • Deacons assist the priest in the parish, assist the bishop in the diocese, and have a special ministry of service to the world. Deacons have special functions in liturgy, such as reading the gospel and dismissing the congregation, but they cannot celebrate the Eucharist or pronounce forgiveness of sins (absolution).
  • Priests are ordained to be leaders of parishes or congregations, in which they teach and lead, both spiritually and administratively. Priests also have special liturgical duties, such as baptizing, celebrating the Eucharist, pronouncing absolution, and leading at most church services.
  • Bishops
  • have special duties of oversight and pastoral care for the clergy and laity who work and worship in their dioceses.

What do you mean by Reason?

This means that we recognize that God is always working in the world, and we value our God-given intellect which we use to understand God’s will. Within the boundaries of 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 you can find many faithful Episcopalians who disagree on things such as interpretation of scripture or social issues. We believe that true faith includes our minds as well as our hearts. This is why you find many Episcopal scientists, historians and philosophers, because we believe strongly that increasing your ability to think critically also increases your ability to know God more fully.

What do Episcopalians believe?

Episcopalians believe in a Trinitarian God (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) who created us, redeems us and never lets us go. This means that God is the source of all life, that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our sins are forgiven and our lives are brought into closer union with God. It also means that God’s love is present in the world and with us always. We believe in the church as the body of Christ, one that is holy, catholic (or universal), and apostolic, continuing the teaching of Jesus through the apostles to this day. The Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, found in the Book of Common Prayer and often recited in our liturgy, outline our beliefs.

More specific explanations of the beliefs of Episcopalians can be found in the catechism (or outline of faith) in the Book of Common Prayer.

What is the history of the Church?

The Episcopal Church is descended from the Church of England, and through the consecration of bishops, has roots all the way back to Jesus and his original followers. The Church of England developed during the 16th century, as it moved away from being overseen by the Pope but did not reject its Catholic origins. Thus, the Church of England grew to be called the via media, or the “middle way,” between what became known as 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.

When did the Episcopal Church start?

It started when the United States started in 1789. Members of the Church of England started a new, independent church to go along with their new, independent country, and it was based on a lot of the same principles. While we are self-governing, the Episcopal Church maintains a relationship, based on common faith, traditions, history and 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 the Anglican Communion.

How many churches are there in the Episcopal Church?

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 denominations in America, as part of the Anglican Communion we make up one of the largest Christian denominations in the world. In fact, the fastest growing branches of the Anglican Communion can be found in Africa and Asia, making us part of a true worldwide church. There are currently more than 75 million people in the Anglican Communion.

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 do this by participating in the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches, by participating in the ecumenical movement with our brothers and sisters of different churches, and by seeking understanding with people of all the world’s other faiths.

How do I join?

Just come to any Episcopal Church and talk with the rector or priest in charge. If you are already baptized, you can arrange to be confirmed in the church, and if not, you will also find help in preparing for baptism. However, you are always invited to come worship with us any time. Just look for the signs and stop in. You are bound to find people who will greet you and welcome you into the community. We are all on the same road, searching and questioning and helping each other along.

What’s at the end of the road and why are we traveling at all?

God is calling. God is the road and the destination, the vehicle and the energy which drives us. We find ourselves on the trip, and learn from it and everyone on it with us. We would love for you to come along. The Episcopal Church welcomes you. The signs are everywhere.

Adapted from a Forward Movement publication by Catherine Anne Caimano, a graduate of Georgetown and General Seminary and a member of the clergy staff of Holy Trinity, New York City. Used with permission. © Forward Movement Publications

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