What is the Episcopal Church?
The Episcopal Church is part of the global Anglican Communion. Anglicanism is a protestant tradition born out of the Reformation of the 1500s and is one of the largest Christian denominations in the world. When we talk about “the Episcopal Church,” we mean the part of the Anglican Communion that is in the United States.
It’s common to speak of Anglicanism as “the middle way” or the via media. This is a casual way of saying that, while we are a protestant tradition, we are nevertheless one that maintained a lot of traditions and worship practices that many other protestant traditions left behind after the Protestant Reformation. When folks talk about the Episcopal Church as “the middle way,” they mean that we’re a good balance between a Roman Catholic approach to Christianity and, say, a Baptist or Presbyterian approach.
For example, similar to our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, the Episcopal Church has bishops, celebrates communion with real wine every Sunday, and has communities of monks and nuns. Our clergy also frequently wear black shirts with white tabs or white collars. However, unlike our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, the Episcopal Church ordains women as deacons, priests, and bishops; our clergy can and do get married and have children; our bishops are elected by clergy and laity alike, rather than appointed; and we do not have a pope or similar figure who is in charge of the global denomination.
What’s worship like on a Sunday?
At St. Christopher’s, Sunday worship focuses on Holy Eucharist, or communion. The words of our worship are found in the Book of Common Prayer. (See below.) We stand to sing hymns and praise; kneel to pray and confess our sins; and sit to hear scripture and the sermon. We have an altar with flowers and candles, and our clergy and altar ministers wear special worship vestments. At St. Christopher’s the people are warm, and you’ll be greeted at the door and during the sharing of Christ’s peace (which is a moment midway through the service when we greet each other). We laugh a lot, and while we take the Christian faith seriously, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We baptize adults and infants alike. You do not have to be an Episcopalian in order to take communion. The Episcopal Church recognizes all baptisms from any Christian denomination as perfectly good and valid in the eyes of God. All baptized Christians, of any stripe, are welcomed to receive communion, and all people are welcome at the altar rail.
You mentioned the Book of Common Prayer. What is that?
The Episcopal Church uses the Book of Common Prayer. The first one was compiled and written by a Reformer in England named Thomas Cranmer in the 1500s. (We’ve updated it several times since then.) The idea with the Book of Common Prayer was to make worship something Christians held in common: clergy and laity together, and not in medieval Latin but in the language people actually spoke. For us in North Carolina, that’s English at most Episcopal congregations, though you will find Spanish language services in Spanish-speaking communities throughout NC, too.
The Book of Common Prayer also combined and simplified the many different worship books Christians in medieval Europe had been using before then. It’s a practical book: there are prayers for morning, evening, noonday, and right before bed. On Sundays, most Episcopal congregations will celebrate the Holy Eucharist, or communion, using the same basic words as all the other Episcopal congregations. We hear the same passages of scripture read and say many of the same prayers. Why? Because ours is a book of prayer held in common. This means our worship is reliable and constant in a world full of so much chaos and change. The music, people, sermon, architecture, and liturgical vestments or other décor could vary widely between congregations, which helps make us a tradition of rich variety, too.
How do I address an Episcopal…Priest? Minister? Pastor?
Clergy are usually called priests in the Episcopal Church, though they are certainly also pastors and ministers! In conversation, Episcopal clergy sometimes go by Father, Mother, Pastor, Reverend, or simply by their first name. Bishops are normally addressed as “Bishop Sam” or “Bishop Jennifer.” At St. Christopher’s, you are welcome to call our priest “Daniel.” If it is important to you to use a title when speaking to clergy, then “Father Daniel” is the title folks use around here.
If the Episcopal Church is the Anglican Communion in the USA, then why do I see other churches that say “Anglican” on them but not “Episcopal?”
You may see other churches in the United States that use the word “Anglican” in their name. Those churches are usually congregations that split from the Episcopal Church but nevertheless still understand themselves to be Anglican. In recent decades, splits like that have usually been over things like sexuality. (Other times, issues around sexuality were just the most recent and most glaring symptom of differences of conviction regarding scriptural interpretation that had been growing for a long time.) The Episcopal Church generally affirms LGBTQ+ persons and their relationships, and we understand same-sex marriage to be a fitting part of the Christian life. (This is certainly true of St. Christopher’s!) Most other congregations in the USA who describe themselves as “Anglican” do not.
Portions copied with permission from "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You", Forward Movement Publications