Episcopal Church 101: how do we tell our story?

by Bill Carroll

Note: The following is a brief attempt to tell the history of the Episcopal Church in a relatively non-partisan way (but with a distinct perspective that I don’t presume is shared by all). We include this in our welcome packet at the parish I serve. I’m offering it for the sake of starting a discussion about how we tell our story. What would you change if you had to tell our story in a brief way? What would you add or subtract? I should note that this is part of a bigger packet. There is, for example, another pamphlet that talks about “full and equal welcome.”

O God, you manifest in your servants the signs of your presence: Send forth upon us the Spirit of love, that in companionship with one another your abounding grace may increase among us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

–Book of Common Prayer, p. 125

In many ways, the Episcopal Church can be viewed as the heir to the English Reformation in the United States and several other countries of the Western Hemisphere. Among churches emerging out of the sixteenth-century reformations, the Church of England was distinctive in several respects. Unlike Protestant churches on the continent, the English Reformation resulted in a fundamentally political (rather than doctrinal) separation from Rome and its bishop, the pope. More than most other churches, it retained the sacraments, traditions, and governance of the medieval Church, and it saw itself as both Catholic and Reformed.

Some chose to emphasize one aspect of this heritage over the other, but tensions between different factions in the Church were resolved by royal supremacy. In the so called Elizabethan settlement, it was also agreed that different points of view would co-exist within a single church with agreement about the historic Creeds and a common liturgy, embodied in the Book of Common Prayer. One great apologist for this way of being Christian, John Jewel, argued that the Church of England intended to preserve the faith and practice of the undivided Church. Another, Richard Hooker, argued against the Puritan party that the Church of England would be governed by Scripture, tradition, and reason rather than by Scripture alone.

After the American Revolution of 1776, the Episcopal Church became self-governing, no longer subject to the Crown. With help from the Scottish nonjurors (bishops so called because they had refused an oath of allegiance to the monarch) and eventually the Archbishop of Canterbury, bishops were ordained for service in the new world. The Church was also organized with a Constitution that provided for substantial roles for lay people and clergy other than bishops in the governance of the Church. Every three years, the General Convention meets to set policy for the Church. It is a bicameral legislature, with a house of clerical and lay deputies and a house of bishops. Similarly, each diocese is governed by a diocesan convention, which passes canons (church laws) and resolutions (statements of policy) and elects officers to assist the bishop in the governance of the local church. Unlike some Protestant denominations, in the Episcopal Church, the diocese is the fundamental unit of organization, and the bishop is the chief pastor for all Episcopalians in that diocese. We believe that bishops are successors to the apostles, charged with overseeing the whole Church, coordinating its mission, and preserving the eyewitness testimony to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our diocese, Southern Ohio, includes 82 congregations and about 25,000 people. At the local level, laypeople also participate in Church governance through the vestry, or governing board, and through the annual parish meeting, which elects vestry members and some of the officers of the congregation.

The Church of England did missionary work throughout the British Empire. Beginning in the nineteenth century, bishops from churches established by the British, some of them in former colonies and others still part of the Empire, began to meet to discuss matters of mutual concern. Today, the churches that meet together in this way comprise the Anglican Communion, the third largest Christian body in the world, with roughly 80 million members. Churches in the Anglican Communion are autonomous, fully self-governing, but they do cooperate in mission and seek to come to a common mind on questions of Christian teaching. In recent years, tensions have arisen in the Anglican Communion over different attitudes toward the role of women in the Church and society, and the attitudes of the Church toward LGBT persons. It remains an open question how these tensions will be resolved in a postcolonial age.

From our Anglican heritage, the Episcopal Church has received a habit of encouraging conscientious disagreement within a culture of civility and a framework of Common Prayer. We do not always agree about everything, but we come to the Lord’s Table together. The Episcopal Church is incredibly diverse. It includes all political parties, most theological persuasions, and just about every point of view. We do take stands on matters of public policy and have a strong tradition of advocacy for social justice, but we also try to provide room for those who disagree.

Our fundamental traditions are a generous orthodoxy, rooted in the Holy Scriptures and the historic, ecumenical creeds, and a Christian humanism that is open to all truth, wherever it may be found. We encourage respectful criticism and a variety of interpretations of the traditions we cherish and love. Our Church has proven remarkably open to such developments as the theory of evolution and historical criticism of the Bible. Still, we try to preserve a faithful witness to Jesus Christ, which is both open to mystery and responsible to the testimony of our brothers and sisters in other times and places.

Our hope is summarized in the words of a prayer we offer together at Daily Evening Prayer, that “in companionship with one another, [God’s] abounding grace may increase among us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The Rev. Bill Carroll serves as Rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. His parish blog is at here

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  1. Josh Magda

    Yeah, this seems like a pretty good historical overview. I’d be interested to know what’s in the other packet. I think TEC is much more than this, obviously, and want us at some point to get beyond having to recall our origins story as validation for our continued existence. For instance, I think Scripture, tradition, and reason are very incomplete modalities for encountering God in the present era, for example, and your description of apostolic authority seems to validate only one of the Biblical resurrection narratives (that of a physical resurrection).

  2. James Pirrung-Mikolajczyk

    The epistles of John indicate that an antichrist is one who disbelieves in Christ’s fleshly incarnation. Additionally, 1Co 15 only suggests a physical Resurrection.


    James Pirrung-Mikolajczyk

  3. bsnyder

    What are the other Biblical resurrection narratives?

  4. Bill Carroll

    I agree with James about 1Cor 15 and the basic unity of the appearance and empty tomb traditions. Those who have sought to oppose them seem to me to be missing the point. The empty tomb tradition is very old and likely comes from the women, esp. Magdalene, as the four Gospels suggest. I don’t necessarily embrace James’ tone, though that’s difficult to judge online. I agree with Dodd about the primitive kerygma and the death and bodily resurrection of our Lord is the common thread of otherwise diverse NT Christologies, all of which are nonetheless at least implicitly very high Christologies. Jesus is in Rahner’s phrase the eschatological bearer/bringer of salvation. It’s a short step from there to Chalcedon and beyond.

    As for the legitimate diversity of the NT, even as regards to the resurrection, I say a bit more here, in an adapted version of my Easter sermon a few years ago


  5. Bill Carroll

    P.S. The Gospel story is obviously primary, but there is obviously a parallel with the title of the original post and concerns for origins. The point of talking about the past, even a sacred past, is telling our story for the sake of the present and future. The story of Jesus is a special kind of story, because he is both alpha and omega, present to all times and places and drawing all persons to himself and the future he traces out. Like the passover story, the Gospel story makes us participants in what we retell and remember, as God sets us free also and leads us out of sin and death and into life.

  6. bsnyder

    Also, Christianity is a historical faith that arose from within another historical faith. Both claim, precisely, that God has acted in certain ways in history. Neither makes sense, really, apart from these claims. Both require interpretation of these historical acts of God. That’s the fun part.

    There are other worldviews out there that don’t rely on history, it’s true – but to me, this one is much more interesting. It says something important about God, too : that God is interested in the world, and in our lives as we live them. In the case of Christianity, God actually becomes one of us – and lives (and dies!) among us. That’s a shocking and radical idea, and the ideas that arise from it are among the most spectacular ideas I’ve ever heard.

  7. bsnyder

    (BTW, 2 billion people in the world disagree that “scripture, tradition, and reason” lack the stuff for encounter with God. Obviously, Chrisitianity provides them with something very important, or they wouldn’t be adherents. People are Christians even in parts of the world where they’re in danger for their lives on that account. Gay people are Christians even in a hostile church. Inexplicable – unless there’s something very valuable there….)

  8. Josh Magda

    Well I disagree that Christianity is only or primarily a historical faith. If it is primarily a historical faith, then it becomes about something that may or may not have happened, rather than something that always is (in much the same way that if God is a Being who may or may not exist, She becomes superfluous to our existence.)

    That being said, I do think that history matters in the Biblical tradition, by providing us an origin point and an end point. But I think the dispensationalist theology of the past which would require a particular belief in a historical event has collapsed in light of the Revelation we have received in recent years from the book of Nature, which proclaims an evolutionary model of creation/salvation (to me).

    I am open to all resurrection narratives in the Bible, including the historically first one which did not include a body. Maybe they are all there because people need different things.

    But I do not think a handout that specifically advocates one interpretation is the way to go.

  9. Josh Magda

    As to the point about Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, they are overly “masculine” attributes, emphasizing authority and reason and Correct belief.

    As in the other conversations I have had,our faith becomes profoundly distorted by patriarchy.

    We need Creation, Experience (or Wisdom), and Compassion (or Howard Thurman’s the “love ethic”) to balance them out.

    And to James- I am tired of hearing how anyone who does not conform to your fundamentalist approach to the faith is outside of salvation or an anti-Christ, etc. I feel really, really sorry for you if you actually believe that.

  10. bsnyder

    If it is primarily a historical faith, then it becomes about something that may or may not have happened, rather than something that always is (in much the same way that if God is a Being who may or may not exist, She becomes superfluous to our existence.)

    Well, that’s what the faith is: we assent to the occurrence of these things. We believe that God created the world itself at some point in history. We believe that God gave the Torah at some point in history. We believe that God called each of the prophets at some point in history.

    And we believe that God was incarnate on earth in Christ. This IS a matter of belief, pure and simple; none of these things can be proven. I don’t argue about this stuff with anybody; if people want it, it’s here. If they want something else: that’s cool.

    I’m not sure what an “empty tomb” implies except for a risen Christ – especially given the tradition already in place as noted above. What are you thinking here? What’s the point of the “empty tomb” as a “resurrection narrative without a body”? What does it actually say or mean?

    (P.S. Please don’t insult women by assuming we can’t deal with “Reason.” That’s an old Patriarchal trope itself, and pretty tiresome at this point.)

  11. Ann Fontaine

    I did not find Josh’s widening the scope of the base for our knowledge “insulting” — it opened my eyes to what has been missing for me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate and use scripture, tradition and reason but that not all there is to knowing.

  12. Josh Magda


    That is why I put masculine in quotations. Historically, Reason has been masculine and Wisdom has been feminine. They are all a part of each of our natures and need to be there in a public articulation of the sources of our faith.

    I don’t feel the need to argue about theresurrection, etc. further. I am glad that the dispensationalist view that you have articulated is nourishing to you; I find it incompatible with my own reason, experience, and knowledge of the scriptures and tradition. I do not want to say that God and Nature “can’t” do a specific miracle like a physical resurrection, because that would be foolish, but that is not what I think happened, personally.

    To me, the endpoint is the same- theosis- union with God in the fullness of Her energies; the beatific vision for the whole of the Cosmos to enjoy (god willing, which I think She is). The merger of heaven and earth, Matter and Spirit.

    This endpoint can be arrived at either through a dispensationalist view or an evolutionary one.

  13. bsnyder

    I did not find Josh’s widening the scope of the base for our knowledge “insulting” — it opened my eyes to what has been missing for me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate and use scripture, tradition and reason but that not all there is to knowing.

    I haven’t said anything about that. What I’m objecting to is the gender-role assignment of various traits here – as if any of these things were peculiar to men or women. It’s just another way to shoehorn people into certain boxes for the convenience of the person doing the shoehorning.

    The fact is that women used to have to listen to men go on and on about how Reason was not a feminine attribute; women have gone totally uneducated for their lifetimes because of this argument, and even within my lifetime, I’ve seen and heard this attitude.

  14. bsnyder

    Historically, Reason has been masculine and Wisdom has been feminine.

    So what? It was wrong then and it’s wrong now.

  15. bsnyder

    I don’t feel the need to argue about theresurrection, etc. further. I am glad that the dispensationalist view that you have articulated is nourishing to you;

    First of all, I wasn’t engaging in “argument”; I was asking a question.

    Here it is again: What do you actually mean by a “resurrection narrative without a body”? What is the theology here? I don’t understand where you’re coming from.

    As an illustration: I do understand what TEC teaches about Christ; the Creeds make definite statements, however you interpret them.

    But I don’t understand what your point of view is. If you don’t want to explain, that’s fine of course.

  16. Josh Magda

    I do not have a definitive view of the Resurrection. The Bible to me records at least 3 Resurrection modalities- the visionary experience of Paul (the earliest), Jesus in what the Hindus would call an “astral” body (able to apparate, go through walls, etc.) and in a physical body that can be touched and digest fish, etc.

    My feeling is that the Resurrection experiences were similar to Paul’s- profound, God initiated unveilings of the Truth of the Cosmos- that God’s Love is stronger (and realer) than death, as experienced in the totality of Jesus’ life, teachings, and being- and that the tomb and related stories are mythic in nature (but still communicate very clear truths).

  17. bsnyder

    OK. You’re actually saying, then, that you think that two out the three “modalities” are false, and that the descriptions in the accounts are wrong or used as illustration. Only the “visionary experiences” are real, even when other kinds of experiences are described in a completely different way.

    It’s interesting to read Rowan Williams on this topic, actually, in a response he wrote to John S. Spong when Williams was Bishop of Monmouth. Here’s what he said:

    For the record: I have never quite managed to see how we can make sense of the sacramental life of the Church without a theology of the risen body; and I have never managed to see how to put together such a theology without belief in the empty tomb. If a corpse clearly marked ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ turned up, I should save myself a lot of trouble and become a Quaker.

    I like this a lot, in fact – because he’s saying that he’d still be a Christian even if he learned that the Resurrection never happened. He just wouldn’t be part of a Sacramental tradition.

    Personally, I find the Incarnation to be far more significant than the Resurrection, anyway, so I can totally understand this point of view. But: there are those Biblical accounts to deal with; I don’t think you can just chop them away and ignore them – and they don’t sound like metaphorical or illustrative writing at all, to me. I’m very interested in them, actually; I keep wondering about other dimensions and things like that.

    I don’t fuss with this anymore, though. I just give assent to the Creeds, and leave it at that.

  18. bsnyder

    (BTW, Josh: just as you don’t care for James’ labeling of you, I don’t really care for your labeling, either.

    I didn’t give a “dispensationalist” view; I gave a perfectly ordinary “historical” view, just as I said. I’m not sure why you feel the need to put your own spin on this, but since I’m not a “dispensationalist,” I’d appreciate it if you’d stop trying to label me that way.

    Particularly since you don’t appear to like that sort of thing yourself.)

  19. Josh Magda

    B Snyder,

    I do not think the other experiences are wrong- maybe they all happened literally, though I don’t think they did. Just because something did not happen at the literal level does not mean the stories are not true. And I appreciate Rowan Williams theology but do not agree with him in this statement.

    I did not view dispensationalist to be pejorative, but apparently you did, so I am sorry you felt that way. You mentioned Israel, the prophets, then Jesus, then his return as being important in their sequential sense, and that is a particular kind of historical viewpoint.

    In any event it is not comparable to saying gay people are going to hell or calling people antichrist.

    I get the sense, not just in this post but in others, that whatever I say you will find offensive, and that will just have to be OK, as it is your problem and not mine. Which is why earlier I said I did not care to argue.

  20. bsnyder

    It’s true that I lost patience with you awhile ago when you started expressing open contempt for other people. And it’s true that I’m not being as polite as I was initially.

    Basically, I’m just saying what I think, without any pretense. You should be able to identify with that! 😉

  21. Chris H.

    Obviously TEC does need a story and needs to get it straight, but does anyone else think maybe this is why TEC is so bad at evangelization and getting people to stay? Even among a small group of liberals, nobody can seem to agree on the story and disagreements become insults. Even falling back on “Mere” Christianity doesn’t seem a possibility, because nobody agrees on the “Mere”. When does “inclusivity” become a Tower of Babel scenario where everyone’s there, but nobody can understand each other and everything falls apart? Broadening a word’s use and meaning too much makes it essentially meaningless or completely unintelligible to the original speakers. Is there such a thing as making a church so inclusive that it too becomes meaningless and how close is TEC to reaching that point?

    Chris Harwood

  22. Ann Fontaine

    Pretty broad brush critique Chris. We are growing numerically at our church – we know the story – God loves you – go do something about it. And come back and praise God and thank God for all creation and that we are a part of it. We don’t need to agree on the details – we worship – we break the the bread of God’s presence and drink the wine of the Spirit – are nourished on the word and the Word. And then do it all again

  23. Josh Magda

    As Rowan WIlliams has said, Anglicanism has always accommodated Evangelicals, Catholics, and Liberals (and probably about in equal amounts). It insists that our relationship is much more than “getting “the” story straight.

    In recent years, the human sexuality issue has proven too much for some to bear, but it is true that this is indicative of larger divides. Like in the past fundamentalist/modernist controversy, some conservatives are unwilling or unable to be in the same body with liberals, so they leave.

    I personally see nothing wrong with a more “conservative” Anglican body and a more “liberal” body in the United States, if that is what it takes for us to stop attacking each other. However painful and difficult it might be, we cannot continue in the direction we are going and hope to survive. As in couple’s marriage, sometimes the most loving option is divorce.

  24. Chris H.

    Looking at the statistics only the very conservative or very liberal churches seem to be holding stable/growing. That doesn’t sound like via media. And while some find my old rector’s, “‘Course the Bible isn’t literally true, just be a good person, be thankful for what you find best about God, and give to charity” freeing. Others wonder why they should get up on Sunday to listen to morality tales when you don’t need religion to be moral anymore.

    Chris Harwood

  25. bsnyder

    Others wonder why they should get up on Sunday to listen to morality tales when you don’t need religion to be moral anymore.

    I know I wouldn’t. The church itself is so not fun, so much of the time – but the faith is great.

    Here’s the thing: every single “utopian” project that’s ever been conceived has failed or come to total disaster. But the church has survived for 2,000 years – and it actually has offered “good fruit” over time. It has helped feed the poor and heal the sick; religion in general does encourage these things. Religion in general has been around for many thousands of years, which says that it’s speaking to something very basic in human beings; people get something important from it that they can’t get elsewhere.

    And people haven’t really changed much, I don’t think. The cross was offensive in Paul’s time – and it’s offensive now. People were messed up then, and we’re messed up now. As they say: the 20th Century by itself is more or less proof of Original Sin, if anybody needed any. Today we have the spectacle of entire nations of people living like royalty lived in the past (us) – while people in other parts of the world have nothing. And honestly I think we may now be on the road to a dystopia that could be worse than anything anybody’s ever seen before. The world doesn’t feel at all like a healthy place, to me.

    This is why the “old Christianity” still has plenty to offer, to my mind. It’s not really a “new world” at all – just the same old insane place, now tricked out with a bunch of toys for rich people. And the ability to destroy human beings more efficiently than ever before. The “old Christianity” asks us to look at ourselves, and at the reality of the world.

    I think it’s crucial, especially these days, to rely on what people have learned about that over time – and to strip away all the artifice and get down to what life is essentially like, and what human nature is, by itself. That’s what Christianity itself is dealing with, I think – and why it IS valuable to people in many different ways. I think if we understand this, we’ll know how to move forward.

    In every case: a crucified Savior still has plenty to say to the world.

  26. Josh Magda

    Chris, I agree with you that religion isn’t primarily about moralism- morality flows from an encounter with the “Marvelous More,” which is what religion primarily exists to link us too.

    But I disagree with your linking a nonchalant attitude towards the Bible with nonliteralism. The Bible is a multidimensional text, as we are multidimensional beings- to stay only on the exterior level (literal) cheapens the Bible to me.

    This is where literalists have such a hard time understanding where we are coming from- because like the new atheists, they are stuck at that outer level, making God and religion about something that may or may not have happened in history. When a careful examination shows suggests that maybe some of our cherished Biblical stories did not happen literally, they throw up their hands and say “see, “God” does not exist! We told you so!”

    In the case of the Resurrection, I say even if the physical sightings happened, they would not be enough to sustain and motivate the early Christians- the Resurrection experiences would have HAD to contain a mystical element as well. Physical sightings can later be doubted, the details held up for scrutiny, but a true mystical encounter with Reality, such as Paul had, can never truly be doubted. You have come into contact with something Realer than the physical, and this sustains you as you continue your earthly journey. Often, the experience does not fade, the way a physical sighting does. This is called “seeing with the eye of the heart,” not just with the eye of the flesh.

    Whether or not Jesus walked around for 40 days doesn’t change really anything for me, because I know that if this were the case it would still not be enough for me, just as it was not enough for the early Christians. They KNEW, with a capital K, in a way that purely physical encounters would not lead them to affirm.

  27. Bill Dilworth

    “I personally see nothing wrong with a more “conservative” Anglican body and a more “liberal” body in the United States, if that is what it takes for us to stop attacking each other”

    Neither would I, if I thought that the mutual attacks would stop. At this point, though, I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t. Members of the Episcopal Church – Missouri Synod would would feel forced to blast the Evangelical Episcopal Church in America for every point of departure from past practice, and vice versa. If the differences – woman in orders, or the lack of same, SSBs or one man/woman, inclusive language or the 1662 BCP – didn’t rise to the level of outrages for both parties, any justification for the schism would fall flat. If we could give each other room to live and ignore the things that separate us, we would have done so.

  28. Josh Magda


    I know the Robert Duncan character continues to make outrageous statements, and they have already regressed on women’s ordination. My prayer is that once the people who are going to leave leave there will come a point when the healing can begin.

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