Thursday, October 11, 2018

How are the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches Different?

I have had about 10 people ask me to explain the difference between the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches in the last couple of weeks, so I thought it might make a good topic for a blog post.

There are a lot of visible ways that the two Churches are the same: vestments, structure of worship, etc...  There are also a lot of visible ways that they are different - women priests to name just one.  Those similarities and differences all stem from a few fundamentals.

Let's start with:
How are the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches the same?
There are three main similarities between the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches:

  1. Our worship services (especially the Eucharist) follow the ancient pattern of worship that was established in the early Church.  We have the first half of the service, the Liturgy of the Word - where we have an opening prayer, hear portions of Scripture read, have a sermon, recite the Nicene Creed and join in prayers for the Church & the world.  Then the second half of the service is the Liturgy of the Table - where we bless bread and wine using the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, break the bread and share communion.
  2. We have three-fold orders of ordained ministry.  We have deacons, who are ordained to bring the needs of the world to the Church and help the Church connect with the world.  We have priests (all of whom were ordained deacons first) who teach the faith, preside over the sacraments and guide congregations.  We have bishops (all of whom were ordained deacon & priest first) who guard the faith and oversee the ministry of Dioceses.
  3. Our churches have Dioceses (made up of congregations in a geographic region), which are the basic administrative unit of the church.  Geographic groups of Dioceses are formed into provinces and national churches.
How are the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches different?
There are four main differences between the Episcopal and the Roman Catholic Churches:

Theology:  The Episcopal Church is a Protestant Church in terms of theology.  What that means is that in the Roman Catholic Church the magisterium (or teaching authority) of the church tells Roman Catholics what they should believe.  In Protestant theology the role of the Church is to provide boundaries for the believer, within those boundaries, the individual decides (in relationship with God) what they believe.  

For Example:  The Episcopal Church teaches that God is the creator of the heavens and the earth.  Individual Episcopalians can believe that God set off the Big Bang; that God influenced evolution; that God created the world in seven 24-hour days and a wide variety of other ways that God was the creator of the heavens & the earth - all of which are acceptable.

Eucharist: The Roman Catholic Church teaches that what happens at Eucharist is transubstantiation - that the bread and the wine literally become the Body & Blood of Christ while maintaining the outward appearance of bread and wine.  

The Episcopal Church teaches the doctrine of the Real Presence - that is that the Body and Blood of Christ are really present in the bread and wine.  How that happens; transubstantiation, consubstantiation, in some other way is something the Episcopal Church doesn't require specific belief about.

The Role of the Laity: The Episcopal Church believes that the laity have a specific role in the governance of the Church.  Episcopal Churches have vestries that are elected by the members of the Church.  Those vestry members are responsible for the budget of the congregation and for overseeing the programs of the church.  The rector is a part of the vestry and has some specific rights and duties, but the church in governed in collaboration between the rector & the vestry.  When a congregation calls a new rector it is the vestry who votes on who that should be.  The Bishop has to approve the call, but it is the vestry who makes the decision.  

The same thing happens at the Diocesan level.  Each congregation sends lay representatives to Diocesan Convention and those representatives, as well as the priests and deacons in that Diocese, get to make decisions about the life of the Diocese, including electing their bishop.

Authority - in the Episcopal Church the majority of the authority sits with the Diocesan Convention and the Diocesan Bishop.  

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church (which is made up of a House of Bishops and a House of Deputies of elected representatives, lay and clergy, from each Diocese) makes decisions about our Book of Common Prayer & the National Canons, but each Diocese decides how to implement those.  

The House of Bishop elects a Presiding Bishop (currently The Most Rev. Michael Curry) that election is approved by the House of Deputies.  The Presiding Bishop doesn't have any authority to tell Diocesan Bishops what they have to do.  He (or she) even needs the permission of the Diocesan Bishop to preside at Confirmations or Ordinations within the boundaries of a particular Diocese.  

While the Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican Communion, a coalition 38 Churches that are in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury including the Episcopal Church, The Church of England, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Australia among others, no one outside of the Episcopal Church (including the Archbishop of Canterbury) has any authority over how the Episcopal Church governs ourselves.  What this means is that each Church in the Anglican Communion makes its own decisions about our Books of Common Prayer, ordination, structure, budget etc...

For Example:  The Episcopal Church ordained women to the priesthood in 1976 and the first woman as Bishop in 1988.  The Church of England did not ordain women to the priesthood until the 1990's and didn't ordain women as Bishops until a few years ago.  The Anglican Church of Somalia still does not ordain women to the priesthood.

The Episcopal Church does not have an equivalent to the Pope, someone who has authority over the whole church all over the world and everyone who holds any position of authority in the Episcopal Church has been elected to that position by groups who include lay people as well as priests and bishops.

Obviously, this is only a basic description of the difference between the two Churches.  If you have questions or want to know more, please email me at

Monday, October 8, 2018

What Episcopalians Believe

In our Small Plates adult education class over the last few weeks we have been exploring the basics of what Episcopalians believe.

We have been using the book What Episcopalians Believe: An Introduction by Samuel Wells as the basis of our conversation.

Here is the outline of what Episcopalians Believe:

The Triune God: We believe in one God: Father, Son & Holy Spirit

  • God is in Christ
  • Christ is God
  • God is in Christ today
  • The Holy Spirit is one with God and Christ
Transformation in Christ:

  • God became human
  • Jesus is God; Jesus is also fully human
  • Jesus being fully human transformed both humanity & God
  • Jesus was truly human yet did not sin
  • Jesus' death paid the price for our sins
  • Jesus' resurrection and ascension opened the way to eternal life for us
The People of God:

  • Jesus was a Jew
  • To understand Jesus we must understand
    • Israel
    • The covenants between Israel & God
    • Exodus
    • Prophecy
    • Messiah
The Holy Spirit and the Church

  • The Holy Spirit overcomes the distance in space & time between Christ & us
  • The Holy Spirit is invoked by the Church in baptism, confirmation, Eucharist and ordination
  • The Church represents Christ to the world.  The attributes of the Church are:
    • Unified
    • "Catholic" - universal 
    • Apostolic - connected to the teachings of the apostles who walked with Jesus
    • Holy - set apart for God
Creation was good and tends toward good

The kingdom of God will be complete when Christ comes again, but we can bring echoes of it to being here and now

Salvation: God enters human life & redeems it.  

The Sources of our faith are:

  • Scripture
    • Old Testament
    • New Testament
    • Apocrypha
    • Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation - but not all of Scripture is necessary for salvation
  • Tradition
    • teachings & practices that go back to earliest time
    • teachings & practices that emerged during the fist 1000 years of Christianity
  • Reason
    • Richard Hooker: "When reason tells you tradition is no longer applicable, disregard it"
    • Look at the ways in which God is made know:
    • Revelation is seen to be working within human wisdom & investigation
We live out our faith:

  • Holiness - we obey God & strive to set ourselves apart for God
  • Worship - both corporate & personal
  • Ministry - the service we give within the church
  • Mission - the service we give outside the church
The Character of Episcopal believe is shaped by:

  • Incarnation - that God became human and is with us is the core theology of the Episcopal faith
  • English Legacy - our faith grew & developed in England and was shaped by - among others
    • The Synod of Whitby
    • The struggle with the authority of the Roman Church
    • The English Reformation
    • The Oxford Movement
  • We are an American Church also and so our structures value
    • Representative democracy
    • The role of lay people as well as clergy
    • The primacy of the Diocese as the central unit of the church & the Bishop as the primary authority
    • A relatively weak central authority
Obviously these are only the very basics of what Episcopalians believe.  If you want to go into more details, I recommend the book.   If you want to go into more detail the book Anglicanism by Stephen Neal is a good second step as is the volumes of The New Church Teaching Series by Cowley Publishing.