The Episcopal Church (also officially known as the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America) is a mainline Anglican Christian church found mainly in the United States (including its unincorporated territories), but also in Honduras, Taiwan, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, the British Virgin Islands and parts of Europe. The Episcopal Church is the Province of the Anglican Communion in the United States and most other territories where it has a presence (excluding Europe). The Episcopal Church describes itself as being “Protestant, Yet Catholic“. In 2009, the Episcopal Church had a baptized membership of 2,175,616 both inside and outside the U.S. In the United States, it had a baptized membership of 2,006,343, making it the nation’s fifteenth largest denomination.
The Church was organized shortly after the American Revolution when it was forced to separate from the Church of England, as Church of England clergy were required to swear allegiance to the British monarch. It became, in the words of the 1990 report of the Archbishop of Canterbury‘s Group on the Episcopate, “the first Anglican Province outside the British Isles”. Today it is divided into nine provinces and has dioceses outside the U.S. in Taiwan, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. The Episcopal Diocese of the Virgin Islands encompasses both American and British territory. In Europe, the Church’s Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe co-exists with the Church of England’s Docese of Gibraltar in Europe and with the Reformed Episcopal Church of Spain.
The Episcopal Church was active in the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th century. Since the 1960s and 1970s, it has opposed the death penalty and supported the civil rights movement and affirmative action. Some of its leaders and priests marched with civil rights demonstrators. Today the Church calls for the full civil equality of gay men and lesbians. Most dioceses ordain openly gay men and women; in some, same-sex unions are celebrated with services of blessing. In 2009, the Church’s General Convention passed resolutions that allowed for gay and lesbian marriages in states where it is legal. On the question of abortion, the Church has adopted a nuanced position. About all these issues, individual members and clergy can and do frequently disagree with the stated position of the Church.
The Episcopal Church ordains women to the priesthood as well as the diaconate and the episcopate. The current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church is Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first female primate in the Anglican Communion.
There are two official names of the Episcopal Church specified in its constitution: “The Episcopal Church” and the “Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America”. “The Episcopal Church” is the more commonly used name.
Early in the church’s history, “Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America” was used. In the middle of the 19th century, some began trying to drop the word “Protestant” from the church’s name. The desire by some to remove “Protestant” from the church’s name reveals, in part, the influence of the Oxford Movement on American Anglicanism. 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 fight continued until the 66th General Convention voted in 1979 to use the name “Episcopal Church” (dropping the adjective “Protestant”) in the Oath of Conformity of the Declaration for Ordination. The 68th General Convention in 1985 rejected a resolution that would have changed the constitution to delete the older name.
The preamble to the Constitution of the Episcopal Church now reads:
The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, otherwise known as The Episcopal Church (which name is hereby recognized as also designating the Church), is a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, a Fellowship within the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces, and regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.
The evolution of the name can be seen in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer (BCP). In the 1928 BCP, the title page said, “According to the use of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America”. In contrast, the change in self-identity can be seen in the title page of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which states, “‘According to the use of The Episcopal Church”.
The Episcopal Church worships in Spanish, French and Chinese, as well as English, because it has dioceses in Asia, the Caribbean, Central and South America and Europe. 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 dans les États unis d’Amérique or L’Église épiscopale.
The alternate name Episcopal Church in the United States of America is commonly seen but has never been the official name of the Episcopal Church. Because it contains integral jurisdictions in many other countries, it was thought that a name was needed which is not directly tied to the United States. But since several other churches in the Anglican Communion also use the name “Episcopal”, the phrase in the United States of America is often added, for example by the Anglican Communion‘s official website and by Anglicans Online.
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”.
A common mistake by non-Episcopalians is over the use of the words “Episcopal” and “Episcopalians”. An Episcopalian is a member of the Episcopal Church but it is not the Episcopalian Church. Likewise, a member is not called an Episcopal, like a Methodist is a member of the Methodist Church. Episcopalian is a noun; Episcopal is an adjective.
Colonial era and the American Revolution (1604–1783)
The Episcopal Church has its origins in the Church of England in the American colonies, and it stresses its continuity with the early universal Western church and maintains apostolic succession. The first parish was founded in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 under the charter of the Virginia Company of London.
Although there was no American bishop in the colonial era, the Church of England had an official status in several colonies, which meant that tax money was paid to the local parish by the local government, and the parish 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 were 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 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. On one hand, Patriots saw the Church of England as synonymous with “Tory” and “redcoat“. On the other hand, about three-quarters of the signers of theDeclaration of Independence were nominally Anglican laymen, including Thomas Jefferson, William Paca, and George Wythe.
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 clergyman remained loyalists as they took their two ordination oaths very seriously. Anglican clergymen 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, 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 nation: 1783-1800
In the wake of the Revolution, American Episcopalians faced the task of preserving a hierarchical church structure in a society infused with republican values. 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.
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 Scottish bishops there 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 there at Christ Church in Middletown.
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 that consecrated Samuel Seabury and through the English church that 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, 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 nonjuring Scottish orders.
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.
When the American Civil War began in 1861, Episcopalians in the South formed their own Protestant Episcopal Church. 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 allpresidents of the United States have been Episcopalians (see List of United States Presidential religious affiliations). It was during this period that the Book of Common Prayer was revised, first in 1892 and later in 1928.
The first women were admitted as delegates to 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.
Recent history (1976 to the present)
In 1976, the General Convention adopted a new prayerbook, 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 prayerbook in 1979 after an initial three-year trial use. Several conservative parishes, however, continued to use the 1928 version. 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. 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 recent decades, the Episcopal Church, like other mainline churches, has experienced a decline in membership and internal controversy, mainly over women’s ordination and the place of homosexuals in the church. In response to what they perceive as a liberal theological agenda, certain conservative Episcopalians have joined the Continuing Anglican movement or have advocated Anglican realignment, where congregations and, in four cases, majorities of diocesan conventions have voted to leave the Episcopal Church and align themselves with other bodies, such as the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone of America or the Church of Nigeria. The phenomenon of Anglican realignment has spawned new denominations, such as the Anglican Church in North America, as well as litigation over church property.
The General Convention permitted the ordination of women in 1976. The first women were canonically ordained to the priesthood in 1977. The first female bishop, Barbara Harris, was consecrated on February 11, 1989. At the present time, three U.S. dioceses do not ordain women at all. The 2006 election of Jefferts Schori as the Church’s 26th presiding bishop was controversial in the wider Anglican Communion because she is a woman, and the full communion does not recognize the ordination of women. She is the only national leader of a church in the Anglican Communion who is a woman. In addition, eight American dioceses have rejected her authority and have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to assign them another national leader.
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. Despite the 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 first openly homosexual priest, Ellen Barrett, was ordained in 1977. The first openly homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, was elected in June 2003.Robinson’s election caused a crisis in both the American church and the wider Anglican Communion. In October 2003, an emergency meeting of the Anglican primates (the heads of the Anglican Communion’s 38 member churches) was convened. 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.”
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‘ 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.”
Those interested in the history might wish to visit the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church or National Episcopal Historians and Archivists (NEHA)