And just what *do* Episcopalians believe?

Here’s a quick-read find that’s been passed around so much lately it’s practically become its own web-meme within The Episcopal Church. In it, The Rev. David Simmons of St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Waukesha, WI, and associate of the Order of Julian of Norwich, is asked to explain why suddenly shy Episcopalians don’t seem to have a straight answer to the question of what they believe.

It is indeed sometimes confusing for people outside the Episcopal Church to put their finger on who we are. The confusion comes from our self-definition, which is that we are a creedal, rather than a confessional church. What this means is that we do not have foundational doctrinal statements other than the Nicene and Apostles Creeds. Most other Christian denominations have some sort of confessional document, like the Ausburg confession for Lutherans or the Greater Catechism for Roman Catholics, that lays out exactly what the teaching of the church is on most matters. Instead, our central document is the Book of Common Prayer, which defines worship rather than doctrine as a unifying principle. The mark of an Episcopalian is that he or she attends Episcopal services, which includes recitation of the creeds. However, there are no requirements that a layperson believes particular doctrine in order to become an Episcopalian. This is why the friend who says, “You can believe pretty much anything you want, so long as you enjoy going to services together with us” is largely correct. My experience as a priest is that as people participate in the liturgy over the years, the doctrine included in our regular worship becomes part of them by an osmotic process.

Our advice: read the whole thing, then tell us what you think. What are the irreducible minimums?

h/t Amy Real Coultas (@MoAmy) via Twitter. (Amy is a co-moderator of Ask the Priest.)

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  1. Bill Carroll

    Not too bad an answer. The osmosis doesn’t always seem to be working, and it seems to me that catechesis and the baptismal covenant should be given a more prominent role. When he cites Bob Hughes on two dogmas, I find myself agreeing but wanting to insist that both dogmas are meant to proterct the apostolic kerygma of the crucified and risen Jesus. The paschal mystery, which means nothing without the resurrection of the body, is the absolute center of the Church’s liturgy, and hence the Church’s faith.

  2. Read the catechism, buddy – and teach it.

    All of us welcome questions; I get them all the time, and try to pray before I spout off. But some who officially WELCOME QUESTIONS specialize in not knowing any answers at all. Jesus called this the blind leading the blind. He taught by parables but knew exactly what he was about.

  3. FrSimmons

    I do need to clarify here. The question I am answering is not, “What is the full doctrine of the Episcopal Church?” It is, “What is the minimum, irreducible belief that must be held in order to be an Episcopalian?” That would be the Apostles’ creed, because it is the only doctrinal statement present in the baptismal service. Ecumenically, we state the Nicene Creed is the bare minimum.

    While I do use the catechism to teach, there is not a liturgical requirement that anyone give assent to it. It does indeed represent the doctrine of the Episcopal Church, but it is not a dogmatic statement of such.

  4. I am not sure I like the idea of irreducible minimums. In my experience, people who ask about what we believe may find an answer like “the Creed” simply to lead to more questions – and feel that they received a “head answer” to a “heart question.”

    I’m all for more questions and for the answers found in the Baptismal Covenant and in the catechism, but what people are often really asking about is this: what kind of God do you worship in your church and how are you to relate to that God and how does that God relate to you? Which is answered by the Creed and Covenant for sure. But those instruments can sound like technical writing when sometimes what one wants is poetry.

    As it happens, today as I was praying the post-communion prayer, I thought: these prayers we say (all of them, not just that one), these tell people what we believe. We believe that God graciously accepts us as living members of God’s son Jesus, and feeds us spiritual food in the sacrament the body and blood; we believe that God sends us out into the world to do God’s work; we believe that God is eternal, that we have been made worthy to stand before God; we believe with God’s help we are to respect the dignity of every human being; we believe that God hears our prayers; we believe that God created sun, moon and stars and this fragile earth, our island home; we believe that we will be forgiven our sins and that Jesus takes them away; we believe that Jesus stretched out his arms on the hard wood of the cross, that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.

    I wish we talked less about dogmas, doctrines, and rules and more about these things when people want to know what we are about.

    Penny Nash

  5. paigeb

    I’m with Penny–I think “irreducible minimums” serve only to exclude people. Most thinking people struggle with their faith at times, and if you told me that I *had* to believe certain things in order to be an Episcopalian, you might very likely drive me out the door during those times that I struggle.

    Lex orandi, lex credendi is good enough for me. I can pray with the church, even when I struggle with what is in the prayers/creeds, because I know the church is “carrying” me in those prayers. Because of that, I can keep praying until I come to some new understanding or acceptance–and it doesn’t require me to pass some litmus test as I walk through the doors.

    Paige Baker

  6. Derek Olsen

    Doesn’t our Baptismal service cover the minimums just fine? Remember, we’ve got a variety of things in there… When I look at the famed Baptismal Covenant, I find that it’s a combination of assenting to beliefs, but also a commitment to a pattern of acting.

    We say that we believe in the Triune God as understood through the Apostles’ Creed, but we also commit to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers” as well as resisting evil, sharing the Good News of God in Christ, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and striving for justice and peace for all people. As we are gathered around the prayer book rather than a confessional document, it seems that the heart of our understanding of the Gospel is tied into these concrete actions that flow from faith in the creeds.

  7. Bill Carroll

    I’d certainly agree with what Derek and to some extent Paige is saying. I think I am sometimes misheard in this forum, because people are coming at this with a different set of questions. One doesn’t evangelize by a lecture on dogmas, but dogma does inform how we preach, teach, pray, etc. When it comes to the lex orandi principle, there is an interesting interdependency between doxology and theological reflection. Though the point can be overstated, orthodoxy has to do with right praise at least as much asw right belief. I realize that some have little use for anything resembling the Catholic Faith. This is different from the legitimate seeker. It’s a kind of profound confusion, a category mistake. We have been far too lenient in upholding the doctrine that we do have.

    Osmosis is just a little too passive. There is a need for catechesis, preaching, mystagogy. Some may see multivalent signifiers as pure advantage, but there are limits to valid interpretation. The Church has from the time of Irenaeus relied both on the rule of faith and the apostolic succession. I think this provides for both breadth and boundaries. The full baptismal covenant, including the Creed is a great place to begin. I don’t police too tightly for doctrinal purity, but I am very clear with people about where the boundaries are. We ought to expect this of our clergy. The ordinal certainly does. And we ought not pretend that doctrine is a matter of indifference for any of God’s people. The rule of faith helps to defend us from fundamentqal distortions of th Faith, which have consequences for the quality of our life in Christ.

  8. tgflux

    I am very clear with people about where the boundaries are

    In what context, Bill? (And do you preface your definitions w/ “In my opinion…”?)

    IMO (!) any lack of admission of human subjectivity leads to Power-Over (always a sin).

    JC Fisher

  9. Bill Carroll

    In representing the teaching of the Church, I deliberately avoid that qualifier, which is superfluous even when we are in the realm of private opinion (which we aren’t here). I don’t apologize for exercising the authority to teach the Faith. It is the community’s Faith, not mine.

  10. FrSimmons

    “It’s the community’s Faith, not mine.” An important point, and why I am not bashful in saying the creeds are an irreducable minimum. Instead of thinking as the creeds as a limiting statement used to sort out who has intellectual difficulty with some Christian doctrine and who does not, the creeds are a statement of what we as a church believe – even in the “I” form. They are poetic, minimalist, and elegant, and form a starting point rather than an ending point for theological discussion.

    To say a creed in the context of liturgy is not to say, “I have this all worked out in my head,” it is to affirm our place in the church and in the apostolic kerygma. It is more like singing a hymn that writing a personal mission statement.

    Bill, I agree that more than osmosis is desired, but we need to strive to teach within the liturgy through preaching, bulletin inserts, and through whatever else works. In my experience, there will always be people who will not come to Christian Formation time for various reasons. The time where we could assume everyone in the service knows the basics of Christian faith is long past.

  11. Bill Carroll

    Absolutely. The primary locus of Christian formation is the Sunday liturgy. I don’t really envision a separate time, though that’s great when you can get people to do it.

  12. Murdoch Matthew

    It is the community’s Faith, not mine.

    As a Baptist in my youth, I often heard preachers proclaim, “Give God the glory!” Funny how they managed to get a lot of it all over themselves while handing it over.

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