This page contains a lot of information. For a greater understanding of what the Episcopal Church is all about, read on!
What is the Episcopal Church?
The Episcopal Church is the American branch of the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion is an inheritor of 2000 years of catholic and apostolic tradition dating from Christ himself, rooted in the Church of England. When the Church of England spread throughout the British Empire, sister churches sprang up. These churches, while autonomous in their governance, are bound together by tradition, Scripture, and the inheritance they have received from the Church of England. They together make up the Anglican Communion, a body headed spiritually by the Archbishop of Canterbury and having some 80 million members, making it the second largest Christian body in the world.
The Episcopal Church came into existence as an independent
denomination after the American Revolution. Today it has between two
and three million members in the United States, Mexico, and Central
America, all of which are under jurisdiction of the Presiding Bishop
of the Episcopal Church.
Bishops in the American Episcopal Church are elected by individual dioceses and are consecrated into the Apostolic Succession, considered to witness to an unbroken line of Church leadership beginning with the Apostles themselves. For more than two decades the American Episcopal Church has ordained women to the priesthood. In 1988 the Diocese of Massachusetts elected the first Anglican woman bishop, Barbara Harris.
Although it subscribes to the historic Creeds, considers the Bible to be divinely inspired, and holds the Eucharist or Lord's Supper to be the central act of Christian worship, the Episcopal Church grants great latitude in interpretation of doctrine. It tends to stress less the confession of particular beliefs than the use of the Book of Common Prayer in public worship. This book, first published in the sixteenth century, even in its revisions, stands today as a major source of unity for Anglicans around the world.
The Church of England has always valued the life of the mind and dialogue with fields of secular study. Isaac Newton was an Anglican clergyman and theologian as were several of the founders of the Royal Society, the earliest institution organized for the promotion of science. The Episcopal Church maintains this tradition, routinely requiring its clergy to hold university as well as seminary degrees and supporting many university chaplains.
What to expect when you visit an Episcopal church
You'll be welcome!
We extend a cordial welcome to you to worship with us, and offer this document as a brief introduction to the Episcopal Church and its ways.
The Place of Worship
As you enter, you will notice an atmosphere of worship and reverence.
Episcopal churches are built in many architectural styles; but whether the church be small or large, elaborate or plain, your eye is carried to the altar, or holy table, and to the cross. So our thoughts are taken at once to Christ and to God whose house the church is.
On or near the altar there are candles to remind us that Christ is the ``Light of the world'' (John 8:12). Often there are flowers, to beautify God's house and to recall the resurrection of Jesus.
On one side at the front of the church, there may be a lectern-pulpit, or stand, for the proclamation of the Word; here the Scriptures are read and the sermon is preached. In many churches, however, the lectern is separate from the pulpit and stands on the opposite side of the church.
The Act of Worship
Episcopal church services are congregational. In the pews you will find the Book of Common Prayer, the use of which enables the congregation to share fully in every service. The large print is the actual service. The smaller print gives directions to ministers and people for conduct of the service.
You may wonder when to stand or kneel. Practices vary---even among individual Episcopalians.
The general rule is to stand to sing---hymns (found in the Hymnal in the pews) and other songs (many of them from the Holy Bible) called canticles or chants and printed as part of the service. We stand, too, to say our affirmation of faith, the Creed; and for the reading of the Gospel in the Holy Eucharist. Psalms are sung or said sitting or standing. We sit during readings from the Old Testament or New Testament Letters, the sermon, and the choir anthems. We stand or kneel for prayer to show our gratefulness to God for accepting us as children or as an act of humility before God.
The Regular Services
The principal service is the Holy Eucharist (Holy Communion). In some Episcopal churches it is celebrated quite simply, without music, early on Sunday morning. Weekday celebrations also are frequently without music, and without sermon. When celebrated at a later hour on Sundays, or on other great Christian days such as Christmas, music and a sermon are customary.
Another service is Morning Prayer. The parallel evening service is Evening Prayer. These services consist of psalms, Bible readings, and prayers; and may include a sermon. They may be with or without music.
While some parts of the services are always the same, others change. At the Holy Eucharist, for example, two or three Bible selections are read. These change each Sunday. So do the psalms. Certain of the prayers also change, in order to provide variety. Page numbers for parts of the service printed elsewhere in the Book are usually announced or given in the service leaflet. But do not be embarrassed to ask your neighbor for the page number.
You will find the services of the Episcopal Church beautiful in their ordered dignity, God-centered, and yet mindful of the nature and needs of human beings.
Before and After Services
It is the custom upon entering church to kneel in one's pew for a prayer of personal preparation for worship. In many churches it is also the custom to bow to the altar on entering and leaving the church as an act of reverence for Christ.
Episcopalians do not talk in church before a service but use this time for personal meditation and devotions. At the end of the service some persons kneel for a private prayer before leaving. Others sometimes sit to listen to the organ postlude.
To add to the beauty and festivity of the services, and to signify their special ministries, the clergy and other ministers wear vestments. Choir vestments usually consist of an undergown called a cassock (usually black) and a white, gathered overgrown called a surplice. The clergy may also wear cassock and surplice.
Another familiar vestment is the alb, a white tunic with sleeves that covers the body from neck to ankles. Over it (or over the surplice) ordained ministers wear a stole, a narrow band of colored fabric. Deacons wear the stole over one shoulder, priests and bishops over both shoulders.
At the Holy Eucharist a bishop or priest frequently wears a chasuble (a circular garment that envelopes the body) over the alb and stole. The deacon's corresponding vestment has sleeves and is called a dalmatic. Bishops sometimes wear a special headcovering called a mitre.
Stoles, chasubles, and dalmatics, as well as altar coverings, are usually made of rich fabrics. Their color changes with the seasons and holy days of the Church Year. The most frequently used colors are white, red, violet, and green.
The Church Year
The Episcopal Church observes the traditional Christian calendar. The season of Advent, during which we prepare for Christmas, begins on the Sunday closest to November 30. Christmas itself lasts twelve days, after which we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany (January 6).
Lent, the forty days of preparation for Easter, begins on Ash Wednesday. Easter season lasts fifty days, concluding on the feast of Pentecost.
During these times the Bible readings are chosen for their appropriateness to the season. During the rest of the year---the season after Epiphany and the long season after Pentecost (except for a few special Sundays)---the New Testament is read sequentially from Sunday to Sunday. The Old Testament lesson corresponds in theme with one of the New Testament readings.
Coming and Going
If there are ushers they will greet you, and may escort you to a pew. If you desire, they will answer your questions about the service. Pews are usually unreserved in Episcopal churches.
Following the service the pastor greets the people as they leave if possible.
- You Will Not Be Embarrassed
- When you visit an Episcopal church, you will be our respected and welcome guest. You will not be singled out in an embarrassing way, nor asked to stand before the congregation nor to come forward. You will worship God with us.
- Should you wish to know more about the Episcopal Church or how one becomes an Episcopalian, the pastor or newcomer coordinator will gladly answer your questions and suggest the way to membership.
Produced by the Office of Communication
Frequently Asked Questions
The Episcopal Church Center
What is the Episcopal Church?
The Episcopal Church of the U.S.A (ECUSA) is the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion -- a "daughter" of the Church of England.
How did it get started?
There have been Anglicans in what was to become the United States since the establishment of the first English colony at Jamestown. Following the American Revolution, some reorganization was necessary for those Anglicans who chose to remain in the new country, as the Church of England is a state church which recognizes the monarch as her secular head (obviously, not a popular idea in post-Revolutionary America!). Thus the "Protestant" Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. was born (the word "Protestant," used to distinguish the Episcopal Church from the Roman Catholic Church, which is also "episcopal" in its organization, has since been dropped from the official title). There were some rocky periods, especially in the early days of the church, when bishops of the established Church of England were reluctant to consecrate new bishops who would not recognize the reigning monarch as the head of the church. These problems were overcome, however, and the Episcopal Church is now fully "in communion" with the Church of England, and with other Anglican churches throughout the world.
What does "Episcopal" mean?
"Episcopos" is the Greek word for "bishop." Thus "Episcopal" means "governed by bishops." The Episcopal Church maintains the three-fold order of ministry as handed down by the Apostles -- deacons, priests and bishops -- in direct descent, via the laying on of hands, from the original Apostles. By the way, "Episcopal" is an adjective: "I belong to the Episcopal Church." The noun is "Episcopalian": "I am an Episcopalian."
So is the Episcopal Church Protestant or Catholic?
Both. Neither. Either. Anglicanism is often referred to as a "bridge tradition." When the Church of England separated itself from Rome, it did not consider itself to be a "Protestant" tradition. Rather, it saw itself returning to the original organization of the church, with local/national congregations organized under the rule of their own bishops. As the church evolved in England, certain elements of the Reformation (such as worship in the vernacular, an emphasis on Scriptural authority, and a broader view of what happens during the consecration of the Eucharist) became a part of its tradition. In an attempt to reconcile the views of the Reformers with the tradition of the Catholic Church, the Anglican tradition became a home for both. Thus you will find very traditional ("high church" or "Anglo-Catholic") parishes and very reformed ("low church" or Evangelical) parishes throughout the Anglican Communion. Most parishes probably fall in the middle of the two extremes (referred to as "broad church" parishes).
So is the Episcopal Church "Conservative" or "Liberal"?
Again, the only possible answer is "both," or perhaps "all." Within ECUSA you will find very individuals and churches inhabiting all points of the spectrum, theologically, liturgically, socially and politically. And, people being people, it's probably not a good idea to get too hung up on labels. One person may be very "conservative" theologically and liturgically, but quite "liberal" socially and politically. The reverse is also true. You can't really point to one person (or parish or diocese or province) and say "that's what Episcopalians are like." While this situation can cause a lot of tension, it can also result in great richness and diversity.
Isn't it true that the Church of England was founded by Henry VIII?
Not entirely. While Henry VIII's desire for an anullment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was, in a manner of speaking, the straw that broke the camel's back (and, for what it's worth, Henry's request wasn't out of line with church laws of his day...but that's another story), the trend toward separation from Rome had been building for quite some time in England, which had never fully embraced the rule of the papacy.
What is "The Book of Common Prayer"?
Contrary to what some believe, The Book of Common Prayer (the "Prayer Book") is not an "Anglican Bible." We love it, use it and depend on it, but it is not Scripture, and we do not view it or use it as such. The first Book of Common Prayer as produced by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1549, and revised by Cranmer in 1552 (further revisions occured in 1559 and 1662; the latter revision is still used as the official Prayer Book of the Church of England). The book was intended to facilitate worship in English rather than Latin, and to bring the rites of the church together into one book for use by both clergy and layfolk. Each national church in the Anglican Communion has its own adaptation of the Prayer Book. The American version, used by ECUSA, was last revised in 1979. In the Prayer Book, you will find the orders of service for the various rites of the church, the Daily Office, prayers for use within the context of the liturgy and prayers for use in home devotions, the Lectionary (i.e., the Scriptural readings to be used in corporate worship, organized so as to carry the congregation through the entire Bible in a three-year period), the Psalter (Psalms), the Calendar of the Church Year, The Outline of the Faith (Catechism) and various historical documents. Book of Common Prayer
How do Episcopalians worship?
If you are familiar with Roman Catholic or Lutheran services, you will find Episcopal services remarkably similar. The central rite is the Service of Holy Eucharist (aka "Communion," or "The Lord's Supper"), analogous to the Roman Catholic Mass (and referred to as "Mass by some Episcopalians). The first part of the liturgy ("The Liturgy of the Word" ) consists of prayers, scripture readings and a sermon or homily. This is followed an Affirmation of Faith (The Nicene Creed), the Prayers of the People, Confession of Sin, Absolution, and the Exchange of Peace. The second part of the liturgy ("The Liturgy of the Eucharist") begins with the offerings of the congregation, then proceeds with the Eucharistic Prayer, Consecration of the Elements (bread and wine), Communion, the Post-Communion Prayer, Blessing and Dismissal. Two Eucharistic Rites are commonly used by the Episcopal Church: The modern and less-formal Rite II is usually used for most of the year, with the older and more formal Rite I being used during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent.
Does the church celebrate other rites?
Other public rites of the church include Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer and Evensong or Evening Prayer (held at various times in various churches...see "Schedule of Services" to find when these are held at
Good Shepherd), Baptism (held several times during the year; speak with the rector for more information), Confirmation/Reception (held during the main Sunday service during the Bishop's annual visitation) and Ordinations (these are scheduled by the bishop's office, and held at various churches throughout the diocese).
How can I learn more about Episcopal worship practices?
The best way to learn more about our worship practices is to look through a copy of Book of Common Prayer. These can typically be found in the pews in every Episcopal Church, and no one is likely to mind if drop by to peruse a copy. Copies can also often be found in libraries and bookstores.
I'm planning on visiting an Episcopal Church. May I take communion?
All baptized Christians, regardless of denomination, may take communion in the Episcopal Church. Your own denomination may have some restrictions on where you may or may not communicate, however, so it would be wise to check with a clergyperson in your own church first.
What are the sacraments of the Episcopal Church?
Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Holy Matrimony, Reconciliation ("confession"), Ordination and Unction of the Sick. Of these, Baptism and the Eucharist are considered "necessary" sacraments...the others are "conditional" sacraments (i.e., they are not required of all persons, but apply in certain situations). "Sacraments" are defined as "Outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace."
Does the Episcopal Church baptize infants?
Yes. We believe that the grace conferred by the Sacrament of Baptism is not and should not be reserved only for "informed believers."
At what age may a child take communion?
A child may take communion at any age. We do not believe that a certain "understanding" of the proceedings is necessary for the sacrament to be valid. The decision of when to take communion is left up to the child and his/her parents. However we currently request a first Communion Class which is recommended during the first grade.
Does the Episcopal Church ordain women to the clergy?
Yes. The Episcopal Church has ordained women to all orders of ministry since 1976. There are groups within the church, however, that do not agree with this policy, and ,at the current time, such dissention is allowed.
How do I join the Episcopal Church? Do I need to be confirmed?
If you are coming from a church in the Apostolic Succession (i.e., Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox), and have already been confirmed, you would be "received" by the bishop of your diocese, in a ceremony that normally takes place during the bishop's visit to your church. If you are coming from a different tradition, confirmation might be appropriate. Most churches hold "inquirer's courses" for people interested in reception or confirmation prior to the bishop's visitation. You will want to speak to the rector or vicar of your church if you are interested. Note that confirmation or reception is NOT necessary before you can take communion, or participate in the life of the church.
I have already been baptized in another church. If I become an Episcopalian, do I need to be re-baptized?
No. "We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins." Once you have been baptized with water, in the name of the Trinity, you have been received by adoption into the family of Christ (not into a particular denomination) and that need not...in fact, should not...be repeated. This is true even if you were a tiny baby when you were baptized. If you wish to make a public, adult, affirmation of faith, you may choose to be confirmed, if appropriate (see above). You also always have the option of
publicly reaffirming your baptismal vows, even after confirmation, if you so choose...but this is a highly personal matter, and not in any way required.
What is the significance of the Episcopal Seal ("The Shield")
This symbol, which you will see at virtually every Episcopal Church and website, is the official "logo" of ECUSA, and depicts our history. It is red, white and blue...the colors of both the U.S. and England. The red Cross of St. George on a white field is symbolic of the Church of England. The blue field in the upper left corner is the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. It features a Cross of St. Andrew, in recognition of the fact that the first American bishop was consecrated in Scotland. This cross is made up of nine crosslets, which represent the nine dioceses that met in Philadelphia in 1789 to form the Protestant Episcopal Church of the U.S.A.
Produced by the Office of Communication
The Episcopal Church Center