Episcopal Church in the United States of America
The Episcopal Church is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. It is divided into nine provinces and has dioceses in the U.S., Taiwan, Micronesia, the Caribbean, Central and South America, as well as the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe and the Navajoland Area Mission. The Episcopal Church describes itself as being “Protestant, yet Catholic”. In 2010, it had 2,125,012 baptized members, 1,951,907 of them in the U.S., making it the nation’s 14th largest denomination. The church is also known as the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (PECUSA or ECUSA).
The church was organized after the American Revolution, when it separated from the Church of England whose clergy are required to swear allegiance to the British monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and became the 1st Anglican Province outside the British Isles.
The Episcopal Church was active in the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since the 1960s and 1970s, it has opposed the death penalty and supported the civil rights movement and affirmative action. Some of its leaders and priests marched with civil rights demonstrators. Today the Church calls for the full civil equality of gay and lesbian people, and the church’s General Convention has passed resolutions that allow for same-sex marriages in states in which it is legal. The convention also approved an official liturgy to bless such unions. On the question of abortion, the church has adopted a “nuanced approach”.
The Episcopal Church ordains women to the priesthood as well as the diaconate and the episcopate. The current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church is Katharine Jefferts Schori, the 1st female primate in the Anglican Communion.
There are two official names of the Episcopal Church specified in its constitution: “The Episcopal Church” and the “Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America“. “The Episcopal Church” is the more commonly used name.
The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, otherwise known as The Episcopal Church, is a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, a Fellowship within the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces, and regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.
The 66th General Convention voted in 1979 to use the name “Episcopal Church” in the Oath of Conformity of the Declaration for Ordination. The evolution of the name can be seen in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer (BCP). In the 1928 BCP, the title page said, “According to the use of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.” In contrast, the change in self-identity can be seen in the title page of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which states, “‘According to the use of The Episcopal Church.”
The alternate name “Episcopal Church in the United States of America” is commonly seen but has never been the official name of the Episcopal Church. Because it contains integral jurisdictions in many other countries, it was thought that a name was needed which isn’t directly tied to the United States. But since several other churches in the Anglican Communion also use the name “Episcopal”, the phrase “in the United States of America” is often added, for example by the Anglican Communion’s official website and by Anglicans Online.
In Spanish the church is called La Iglesia Episcopal Protestante de los Estados Unidos de Amxrica or La Iglesia Episcopal and in French L’xglise protestante xpiscopale dans les xtats unis d’Amxrique or L’xglise xpiscopale.
A common mistake by non-Episcopalians is over the use of the words “Episcopal” and “Episcopalians”. An Episcopalian is a member of the Episcopal Church but it isn’t the Episcopalian Church. Likewise, a member isn’t called an Episcopal, like a Methodist is a member of the Methodist Church. Episcopalian is a noun; Episcopal is an adjective.
The full legal name of the national church corporate body is the “Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America“, which was incorporated by the legislature of New York and established in 1821. The membership of the corporation “shall be considered as comprehending all persons who are members of the Church”. This, however, should not be confused with the name of the church itself, as it is a distinct body relating to church governance.
The Episcopal Church has its origins in the Church of England in the American colonies, and it stresses its continuity with the early universal Western church and maintains apostolic succession. The 1st parish was founded in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 under the charter of the Virginia Company of London. The circa 1639–43 tower of Jamestown Church is one of the oldest surviving Anglican church structures in the United States. The church itself is a modern reconstruction.
Although there was no American bishop in the colonial era, the Church of England had an official status in several colonies, which meant that tax money was paid to the local parish by the local government, and the parish handled some civic functions. The Church of England was designated the established church in Virginia in 1609, in New York in 1693, in Maryland in 1702, in South Carolina in 1706, in North Carolina in 1730, and in Georgia in 1758. From 1635, the vestries and the clergy were loosely under the diocesan authority of the Bishop of London. After 1702, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts began missionary activity throughout the colonies. On the eve of Revolution about 400 independent congregations were reported throughout the colonies.
Embracing the symbols of the British presence in the American colonies, such as the monarchy, the episcopate, and even the language of the Book of Common Prayer, the Church of England almost drove itself to extinction during the upheaval of the American Revolution. More than any other denomination, the War of Independence internally divided both clergy and laity of the Church of England in America, and opinions covered a wide spectrum of political views: patriots, conciliators, and loyalists. While many Patriots were suspicious of Loyalism in the Church, about three-quarters of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were nominally Anglican laymen, including Thomas Jefferson, William Paca, and George Wythe. It was often assumed that persons considered “High Church” were Loyalists, whereas persons considered “Low Church” were Patriots; assumptions with possibly dangerous implications for the time.
Of the approximately three hundred clergy in the Church of England in America between 1776 and 1783, over 80 percent in New England, New York, and New Jersey were loyalists. This is in contrast to the less than 23 percent loyalist clergy in the four southern colonies. Many Church of England clergy remained loyalists as they took their two ordination oaths very seriously. Anglican clergy were obliged to swear allegiance to the king as well as to pray for the king, the royal family, and the British Parliament. In general, loyalist clergy stayed by their oaths and prayed for the king or else suspended services. By the end of 1776, some Anglican churches were closing. Anglican priests held services in private homes or lay readers who were not bound by the oaths held morning and evening prayer. During 1775 and 1776, the Continental Congress had issued decrees ordering churches to fast and pray on behalf of the patriots. Starting July 4, 1776, Congress and several states passed laws making prayers for the king and British Parliament acts of treason. The patriot clergy in the South were quick to find reasons to transfer their oaths to the American cause and prayed for the success of the Revolution. One precedent was the transfer of oaths during the Glorious Revolution in England. Most of the patriot clergy in the south were able to keep their churches open and services continued.
In the wake of the Revolution, American Episcopalians faced the task of preserving a hierarchical church structure in a society infused with republican values. By 1786, the church had succeeded in translating episcopacy to America and in revising the Book of Common Prayer to reflect American political realities. Later, through the efforts of Bishop Philander Chase of Ohio, Americans successfully sought material assistance from England for the purpose of training Episcopal clergy. The development of the Protestant Episcopal Church provides an example of how Americans in the early republic maintained important cultural ties with England.
When the clergy of Connecticut elected Samuel Seabury as their bishop in 1783, he sought consecration in England. The Oath of Supremacy prevented Seabury’s consecration in England, so he went to Scotland; the non-juring Scottish bishops there consecrated him in Aberdeen on November 14, 1784, making him, in the words of scholar Arthur Carl Piepkorn, “the 1st Anglican bishop appointed to minister outside the British Isles”. On August 3, 1785, the 1st ordinations on American soil took place there at Christ Church in Middletown.
In 1789, representative clergy from nine dioceses met in Philadelphia to ratify the Church’s initial constitution. The Episcopal Church was formally separated from the Church of England in 1789 so that clergy would not be required to accept the supremacy of the British monarch. A revised version of the Book of Common Prayer was written for the new church that same year. The 4th bishop of the Episcopal Church was James Madison, the 1st bishop of Virginia. Madison was consecrated in 1790 by the Archbishop of Canterbury and two other Church of England bishops. This 3rd American bishop consecrated within the English line of succession occurred because of continuing unease within the Church of England over Seabury’s nonjuring Scottish orders.
In 1856 the 1st society for African Americans in the Episcopal Church was founded by James Theodore Holly. Named The Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting The Extension of The Church Among Colored People, the society argued that blacks should be allowed to participate in seminaries and diocesan conventions. The group lost its focus when Holly emigrated to Haiti, but other groups followed after the Civil War. The current Union of Black Episcopalians traces its history to the society. Holly went on to found the Anglican Church in Haiti, where he became the 1st African-American bishop on November 8, 1874. As Bishop of Haiti, Holly was the 1st African American to attend the Lambeth Conference. However, he was consecrated by the American Church Missionary Society, an Evangelical Episcopal branch of the Church.
Episcopal missions chartered by African-Americans in this era were chartered as a Colored Episcopal Mission. All other missions were chartered as an Organized Episcopal Mission. Many historically Black parishes are still in existence to date.
When the American Civil War began in 1861, Episcopalians in the South formed their own Protestant Episcopal Church. However, in the North the separation was never officially recognized. By May 16, 1866, the southern dioceses had rejoined the national church.
By the middle of the 19th century, evangelical Episcopalians disturbed by High Church Tractarianism, while continuing to work in interdenominational agencies, formed their own voluntary societies, and eventually, in 1874, a faction objecting to the revival of ritual practices established the Reformed Episcopal Church.
During the Gilded Age, highly prominent laity such as banker J. P. Morgan, industrialist Henry Ford, and art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner played a central role in shaping a distinctive upper class Episcopalian ethos, especially with regard to preserving the arts and history. These philanthropists propelled the Episcopal Church into a quasi-national position of importance while at the same time giving the church a central role in the cultural transformation of the country. Another mark of influence is the fact that more than a quarter of all presidents of the United States have been Episcopalians. It was during this period that the Book of Common Prayer was revised, 1st in 1892 and later in 1928.
The 1st women were admitted as delegates to General Convention in 1970. In 1975, Vaughan Booker, who confessed to the murder of his wife and was sentenced to life in prison, was ordained to the diaconate in Graterford State Prison’s chapel in Pennsylvania, after having repented of his sins, becoming a symbol of redemption and atonement.
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