Episcopal Church FAQs

by Catherine Anne Caimano Excerpts republished here courtesy of Forward Movement Publications, ©1999

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, called 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 the running of the business of the church family.  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 clerical representatives chosen by their dioceses.

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 their lives will find a seat in the Episcopal Church, and many people with whom to share questions and journeys.

What is Tradition?

The tradition of the church is the record of what the church believes, that is 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 life in worship Episcopalians share with each other.  It also contains historical documents, church calendar, the catechism (statement of what we believe) and the lectionary (a schedule of Scripture readings to use in liturgy).  The Prayer Book binds together all those in the 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 the sacrament of Baptism, in which we are initiated into new life with Christ, and the Eucharist, in which we remember and celebrate Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  Baptism happens only once in a person’s life, but the Eucharist is celebrated 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.

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 continually 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 may 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) that is also 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 world-wide church.  There are currently more than 75 million people in the Anglican Communion.