The Episcopal Church
We trace our church roots back to Jesus’ first disciples through the Church of England. The earliest missionaries traveled all over Europe bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ, but St. Augustine’s missionary work in 597 marks the formal beginning of the Church in England. You probably know the story about Henry VIII and his wives and that his desire for a divorce began the Church of England in the 16th century. That is partially true, but there is much more to the story of the English Reformation.
When the Church of England arrived in Colonial America, it brought its own practice of the Christian faith. The first churches in Delaware were founded in the late 17th century. Then in the American Revolution, most of the clergy sided with England and abandoned the churches. The Episcopal Church was born in 1789 in Philadelphia, with a convention of lay and clergy crafting a constitution for our structure that was very similar to the new American government. They also ratified a new Book of Common Prayer, no longer recognizing the monarch of England as the head of the Church. When you open the 1979 version of the BCP, you can read the preface of the first American prayer book.
Since the first convention in 1789, The Episcopal Church gathers every three years for General Convention where decisions are made about our mission, our way of worship, and our engagement with the concerns of the world. Our spiritual leaders are elected by the people they are to lead, like bishops of dioceses and rectors (senior priests) of parishes. Lay and ordained members of the church work together, according to the gifts God has given them to use.
Along its history The Episcopal Church has made efforts to proclaim the power of God’s reconciling love in ways that seemed controversial at the time. During the Civil War the Confederate dioceses resigned to form their own Episcopal Church, but the northern churches did not accept the resignation, and when the War was over, they quietly reunited. In controversies about the style of worship, the resolution came with an acceptance that some churches are “high” in liturgical style and symbol with worship as a time for transcendent union with God in Christ, while other churches are “low” and minimize the style and symbols of worship to focus on the word of God as the way to come to the fullness of knowledge and faith. In 1974 eleven women were ordained as priests in The Episcopal Church, by bishops going against the resolve of the previous General Convention. In 1976 the Church changed its mind and accepted women in all four orders of ministry (lay and ordained as deacon, priest, and bishop). In 2003 the General Convention gave consent for the election of Gene Robinson as the diocesan bishop of New Hampshire. This was controversial because Bishop Robinson was open about his homosexuality and in a committed partnership. The Episcopal Church continues to address contemporary issues of morality and faith by turning to scripture with the wisdom of Christian tradition and the influence of learned reason to guide our corporate decisions. Because The Episcopal Church is a representational church, we are open to good people of faith disagreeing and yet still able to worship God and serve the world in Christ’s name.
Today the Episcopal Church has 109 dioceses in 16 nations and three regional areas (like the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe). It is one of 44 national and regional church associations in 166 countries that together are the Anglican Communion. These have in common a tradition based in the English Reformation. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the head of the Anglican Communion. Though not like a pope, he is given high respect and is considered a spiritual leader.
The mission of The Episcopal Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. The 2012 General Convention established the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission as a mission priority framework. Those mission marks are:
- to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
- to teach, baptize, and nurture new believers
- to respond to human need by loving service
- to seek to transform unjust structures of society
- to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth