Episcopal Church

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Episcopal Church

Episcopal Church, Anglican church of the United States. Its separate existence as an American ecclesiastical body with its own episcopate began in 1789.

Doctrine and Organization

The Episcopal Church maintains that the Holy Scriptures are the ultimate rule of faith. Its symbols of doctrine are the Apostles' and the Nicene Creed and the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, with certain modifications to fit American conditions. The ministry is of three orders: deacons, priests, and bishops. The system of organization includes the parish, the diocese, the province, and the General Convention. The General Convention, the highest ecclesiastical authority in the church, consists of the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies (which includes the clergy and laity) and meets in session every three years. The ecclesiastical head of the church is the presiding bishop, elected by the General Convention. The National Council, set up in 1919, is delegated by the General Convention to administer all the organized missionary, educational, and social work. The church has more 2.4 million members in the United States (2005).


Anglicanism in America

Anglican Church services in America were first held in 1607 in Jamestown, Va. Except in Maryland and Virginia, there were few clergymen of the Established Church in the colonies. The New England Puritans, although they had not actually seceded from the Church of England, proscribed all that was Anglican. However, in 1686, when the colonial charter of Massachusetts was revoked, Church of England clergymen were appointed in that colony. In 1689, King's Chapel, Boston, was opened, and Trinity Church in New York City was consecrated. Anglicans were active in establishing institutions of higher learning in the colonies. In 1693, James Blair, an Anglican missionary to colonial Virginia, secured the charter for the College of William and Mary. King's College (now Columbia Univ.) was founded in 1754.

An American Church

During the American Revolution the personal loyalties of the church's clergy and laity were seriously split, and American independence brought about the disestablishment of the Anglican Church. After the Revolution the first objective of American Anglicans was to organize a native episcopacy and a national church. The new ecclesiastical body was called the Protestant Episcopal Church, a name approved in 1789 by the first General Convention of the denomination, which also adopted a constitution and a revised version of the Book of Common Prayer. Dr. Samuel Seabury of Connecticut was consecrated bishop in 1784 by bishops of Scotland, and William White of Pennsylvania and Samuel Provoost of New York were consecrated bishops in England in 1787. In 1817, General Theological Seminary was organized, and in 1820 the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society was established.

Episcopal churches were founded by settlers in the newly opened regions of the West. During the Civil War the church was necessarily disunited, but at the General Conference of 1865 there was a full reunion. In 1873 a group of clergy and laity withdrew from the main body, in disagreement over certain sacramental and ritualistic practices, and formed the Reformed Episcopal Church.

In recent decades the church (renamed the Episcopal Church in 1967) has been deeply involved in the ecumenical movement and in focusing the attention of Christians on social issues. Decisions in favor of prayer book revision and the ordination of women were made by the General Convention in 1976. In 1989, Barbara Harris of the Massachusetts diocese was consecrated as the first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion, and in 1993 Mary McLeod became bishop of Vermont, the first woman in the United States to head a diocese of the church. In 1999, the Episcopal Church joined with several others in establishing full communion with the country's largest Lutheran denomination.

The growing role of women in the church and differences over social issues, including the church's stand on homosexuality, caused divisiveness in the 1980s and 1990s. The election by the church in 2003 of its first openly homosexual bishop threatened to split both the church and the Anglican Communion. The church was asked in 2005 to withdraw from the meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council later that year, which it did voluntarily, attending as an observer. In 2006 Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected Episcopal presiding bishop, making her the first woman to head an Anglican church; the church also effectively called for a moratorium on electing openly homosexual bishops.

A 2007 proposal by the Anglican Communion primates to established a separate vicar for conservative American parishes was opposed by Episcopal bishops, who declared it contrary to the constitution and nature of the church; the bishops also accused foreign bishops and primates of violating the church's provincial boundaries. The Nigerian primate, Peter Akinola, an outspoken conservative critic of the Episcopal Church, subsequently installed a Virginia bishop as head of a conservative North American Anglican convocation. Other American bishops similarly have been consecrated by other African Anglican churches, and several Episcopal dioceses have voted to secede from the church. In 2008 four secessionist conservative dioceses announced the formation of the Anglican Church in North America, adopting canons that that differed with the Episcopal Church on homosexuality, woman bishops, and other issues. The Episcopal moratorium on electing openly homosexual bishops was ended in 2009, and in 2010, after a lesbian was elected assistant bishop in Los Angeles, the Anglican Communion suspended Episcopalians from serving as official Anglican members on ecumenical bodies.


See R. B. Mullin, Episcopal Vision/American Reality (1986); R. W. Prichard, History of the Episcopal Church (1991).

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