Holy Scripture as the Core of all Christian Faith and Thought
The Episcopal Church is a member of the world-wide Anglican Communion, with 70 million members in 164 countries.
We are a community of Christians bound together by our belief that Holy Scripture contains the very core of all Christian faith and thought, by the many ancient and modern stories that connect us to Jesus and his teachings, and by discovering daily God’s hope and call to us through our life together.
The precise beliefs and practices of Episcopalians can be a puzzle to those raised in more rigid traditions—and even sometimes to Episcopalians themselves! We are not fully protestant, but at the same time are not Roman Catholic either.
We offer no unquestioning obedience to a central authority—instead debating doctrine among ourselves and often agreeing to differ on it.
Yet we also have splendidly dressed bishops and priests and deacons, just as the Roman Catholics do (except, of course, that many of ours are women, and our senior bishops are all elected), and we center our worship on the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
The connections that bind us can sometimes get lost in the smoke of debate, but they are there nonetheless, have deep historical roots, and are much more powerful than they sometimes seem. Read a 2009 report by The Episcopal Church on how its members see themselves.
The Central Role of Scripture
In response to actions at the Lambeth Conference in 1998, a Hermeneutics Study Group of the diocese developed a scholarly statement of interpretive principles by which we understand the Holy Scriptures,titled “Let the Reader Understand,” which was published in 2002. Read the full text of “Let the Reader Understand.“
The Bible is the Defining Text
Episcopalians agree that the Bible, in the words of Article VI of the Articles of Religion, “containeth all things necessary to salvation.” But the Bible Must be Interpreted: Scripture, Tradition and Reason. One of the defining ideas of Anglicanism is the theory, expounded by the 16th century theologian Richard Hooker, of a middle way (or, in Latin, a via media) between the extremes of the Roman Catholics on the one hand, and of the Puritans on the other.
Hooker argued that while the Scriptures were paramount, reason and tradition should be used to interpret them, and that they should be read as products of the historical contexts in which they were written (as, indeed, should the traditions that we receive and the reasoning that we develop within our own context).
Since Hooker’s day, the tension has never ceased between Anglicans who emphasize the divine origin and immutability of Scripture alone, those who believe that Scripture should hold sway in combination with the particular tradition that they in their small corner of the world happen to have received, and those who believe that the Holy Spirit continues to work through the power of reason to set aside the injustices of humankind and transform the world.
Historically, these issues have been seen as ones of emphasis, resolved by agreeing to disagree; in recent years, however, gaps have undeniably increased within the Anglican Communion and inside individual national churches or provinces as more conservative members have fought what they see as the sacrifice of timeless truths to the moral relativism of contemporary society. Sparking points in this debate have been the ordination of women (and their later consecration as bishops), the new edition of the Book of Common Prayer issued in 1979 (which introduced modern language while simultaneously looking back to the Episcopal Church’s Catholic roots with its replacement of Morning Prayer with the Holy Eucharist (i.e. Holy Communion) as the main Sunday service), and the open acceptance of actively homosexual clergy, culminating in the election of an openly homosexual bishop in 2003.
Throughout all this, though, as throughout its history, the church remains essentially united by its agreement on one thing: that the Book of Common Prayer should be the guide to religious practice for all Anglicans. For more information on the Anglican Communion, visit its website. For a basic but cogent explanation of the ever-shifting interplay between Scripture, Tradition and Reason, you might consider viewing this short YouTube video by Father Matthew Moretz. For a more “traditional” treatment of the subject, the Episcopal Diocese of Texas offers this.
The Book of Common Prayer
United by a Prayer Book
All Episcopal services whatever their style—and they vary from simple spoken ceremonies to elaborate sung ones—follow those laid out in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It ultimately traces its history back to the first Prayer Book of the English church, produced in 1549, following its split with Rome. Services involve participation from the congregation and follow almost exactly the same essential forms. This means that on any given Sunday an Episcopalian can walk into any Episcopal church in the land (and with small local variations, any Anglican church in the Communion) and take part in the service.