Historical Background of the Episcopal Church
Out of England
The origins of the Episcopal Church lie in the violent religious disagreements of 16th century Europe. The English church had initially split from Rome more for the convenience and enrichment of the heir-obsessed King Henry VIII than for doctrinal reasons. Doctrinal division soon followed, however, as Protestant ideas spread to England from the continent, where they were causing bloody internecine strife.
The typically English solution was a compromise designed to make the national church acceptable to the greatest possible number of those compelled (on pain of quite punitive fines) to attend it. By the standards of the day the Articles of Religion that defined the church avoided narrow doctrinal positions and allowed room for individual conscience provided that outward forms were observed. While this spirit of greater tolerance and inclusiveness did not save every clergyman from being burned at the stake, it definitely made things easier for average mortals. The colonial offshoots of the resulting Church of England were the direct antecedents of the Episcopal Church.
Birth of the Episcopal Church
After the American Revolution, Church of England congregations in the newly independent States reorganized themselves as a new church—free from the King of England and from oversight by English bishops. The new church took the name “Episcopal” to emphasize the historic ministry of bishops, priests and deacons. It changed its name and its constitution (Episcopal bishops are elected, while English ones continue even now to be appointed by the monarch) but continued to use the Book of Common Prayer, with minor modifications to acknowledge the political changes.
Being a product of its time in history, many of the creators of the new church were also founders of America’s new government. Two-thirds of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were Episcopalians, and the services for the inauguration of George Washington were performed by the first Bishop of New York and rector of Trinity Church, Samuel Provoost.
The Anglican Communion Today
Today, members of our church are known both as “Episcopalians” and “Anglicans.” The Episcopal Church (TEC) is one of 30 autonomous national churches that are part of the Anglican Communion. With 70 million members in 64,000 congregations in 164 countries, the Anglican Communion is the third largest body of Christians in the world, after the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions. The current Archbishop of Canterbury is the Most Rev. and Rt. Hon. Dr. Justin Welby.
Resilience Amid Controversy
It may be that The Episcopal Church is an institution where controversy reveals strength. There has never been a rigid party line requiring people to think and behave in a certain way. Rather than depending on orders from a central authority, over the years there has been a steady process of decentralization that has strengthened the individual identity of each congregation and allowed each congregation to discover its own unique mission. This spirit of tolerance and inclusiveness helped to save The Episcopal Church from a bitter split that seriously divided other churches before and after the Civil War.
The all-inclusive catholic heritage of Anglicanism encourages a spirit of mutual respect among all peoples. In the United States (and particularly in New York), the Episcopal Church is a multicultural communion where baptism is the only agreed criterion for equal participation in the life of the Church. “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You,” as the sign says, is an invitation extended without regard to language or race, gender or sexual orientation, abilities or disabilities, age or education, social class or political opinion.