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Episcopal Church 101: how do we tell our story?

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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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.

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.

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.


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.

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

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