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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH AND THE ANGLICAN COMMUNION

This guide was originally written by Audrey E. Nickel and is used with permission from St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Durham, NC.   Other additions have been made as necessary and are marked with an * after the question.

The following list should answer most general questions you may have about the Episcopal Church.  If you have a question not answered here, please feel free to contact us.

About the Episcopal Church

About Episcopal Worship

 


 

ABOUT THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH

 

What is the Episcopal Church? * (This answer has been expanded from its original version.)

The Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. (ECUSA) is the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion -- a "daughter" of the Church of England.  It came into existence as an independent denomination after the American Revolution.  Today it has between two and three million members in the United States, Mexico, and Central America, all of which are under jurisdiction of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori.

The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts SchoriAlthough it subscribes to the historic Creeds (the Nicene Creed and the Apostles' Creed), considers the Bible to be divinely inspired, and holds the Eucharist or Lord's Supper to be the central act of Christian worship, the Episcopal Church grants great latitude in interpretation of doctrine.  It tends to stress less the confession of particular beliefs than the use of the Book of Common Prayer in public worship.  This book, first published in the sixteenth century, even in its revisions, stands today as a major source of unity for Anglicans around the world.  BACK TO TOP

 

What is the Anglican Communion? *

The Anglican Communion is an inheritor of 2000 years of catholic and apostolic tradition dating from Christ himself, rooted in the Church of England.  When the Church of England spread throughout the British Empire, sister churches sprang up.  These churches, while autonomous in their governance, are bound together by tradition, Scripture, and the inheritance they have received from the Church of England.  They together make up the Anglican Communion, a body headed spiritually by the Archbishop of Canterbury and having some 80 million members, making it the second largest Christian body in the Western world.  BACK TO TOP

 

How did the Episcopal Church get started?

There have been Anglicans in what was to become the United States since the establishment of the first English colony at Jamestown.  Following the American Revolution, some reorganization was necessary for those Anglicans who chose to remain in the new country, as the Church of England is a state church which recognizes the monarch as her secular head (obviously, not a popular idea in post-Revolutionary America!).  Thus the "Protestant" Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. was born (the word "Protestant," used to distinguish the Episcopal Church from the Roman Catholic Church, which is also "episcopal" in its organization, has since been dropped from the official title).  There were some rocky periods, especially in the early days of the church, when bishops of the established Church of England were reluctant to consecrate new bishops who would not recognize the reigning monarch as the head of the church.  That's all water under the bridge, however, and the Episcopal Church is now fully "in communion" with the Church of England, and with other Anglican churches throughout the world.  BACK TO TOP

 

What does "Episcopal" mean?

"Episcopos" is the Greek word for "bishop."  Thus "Episcopal" means "governed by bishops."  The Episcopal Church maintains the three-fold order of ministry as handed down by the Apostles -- deacons, priests and bishops -- in direct descent, via the laying on of hands, from the original Apostles.  By the way, "Episcopal" is an adjective: "I belong to the Episcopal Church."  The noun is "Episcopalian": "I am an Episcopalian."  BACK TO TOP

 

So is the Episcopal Church Protestant or Catholic?

Both.  Neither.  Either.  Anglicanism is often referred to as a "bridge tradition."  When the Church of England separated itself from Rome, it did not consider itself to be a "Protestant" tradition.  Rather, it saw itself returning to the original organization of the church, with local/national congregations organized under the rule of their own bishops.  As the church evolved in England, certain elements of the Reformation (such as worship in the vernacular, an emphasis on Scriptural authority, and a broader view of what happens during the consecration of the Eucharist) became a part of its tradition.  In an attempt to reconcile the views of the Reformers with the tradition of the Catholic Church, the Anglican tradition became a home for both.  Thus you will find very traditional ("high church" or "Anglo-Catholic") parishes and very reformed ("low church" or Evangelical) parishes throughout the Anglican Communion.  Most parishes probably fall in the middle of the two extremes.  BACK TO TOP

 

Isn't it true that the Church of England was founded by Henry VIII?

Not entirely.  While Henry VIII's desire for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was, in a manner of speaking, the straw that broke the camel's back (and, for what it's worth, Henry's request wasn't out of line with church laws of his day . . . but that's another story), the trend toward separation from Rome had been building for quite some time in England, which had never fully embraced the rule of the papacy.  BACK TO TOP

 

Isn't  the Archbishop of Canterbury the Anglican Pope?

No, he's not.  We don't have a pope.  The Archbishop of Canterbury is the spiritual leader of the Church of England, and is considered "first among equals" by the rest of the Anglican Communion.  He is highly respected, but he does not have the same authority over the churches of the Anglican Communion that the Pope has over the Roman Catholic Church.  BACK TO TOP

 

How is the church governed?

In an established, self-sustaining congregation, or "parish", day-to-day matters are handled by a panel of elected lay people called a "vestry."  The head priest, or "rector", handles spiritual and worship-related matters, and usually serves in an advisory capacity on church committees.  Depending on the size of the congregation, the rector may have one or several ordained assistants (sometimes referred to as "curates").  Often there will be other lay or ordained people in charge of specific areas, such as a music director (who coordinates worship music for the congregation) or a "sexton" (i.e., a person who handles physical maintenance of the church building and grounds).  Churches that are not self-sustaining are called "missions."  Often they are newly formed congregations, or congregations with a very small membership.  These churches are administered by the bishop's office.  The head priest of a mission is called a "vicar" because he or she serves as the bishop's representative.  All individual congregations are part of a larger geographical area called a "diocese," which is lead by a bishop.  Some churches in the Anglican Communion also have larger administrative districts called "archdioceses," which are comprised of several dioceses and are administered  by "archbishops."  ECUSA does not have archdioceses or archbishops.  Instead we give primacy to a "Presiding Bishop," who is elected to serve a nine-year term.  BACK TO TOP

 

What is the significance of the Episcopal Seal ("The Shield") and Flag?

Episcopal Shield

This symbol, which you will see at virtually every Episcopal Church and web site, is the official "logo" of ECUSA, and depicts our history.  It is red, white and blue...the colors of both the U.S. and England.  The red Cross of St. George on a white field is symbolic of the Church of England.  The blue field in the upper left corner is the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A.  It features a Cross of St. Andrew, in recognition of the fact that the first American bishop was consecrated in Scotland.  This cross is made up of nine crosslets, which represent the nine dioceses that met in Philadelphia in 1789 to form the Protestant Episcopal Church of the U.S.A.  BACK TO TOP

 


 

ABOUT EPISCOPAL WORSHIP

 

What should I wear to an Episcopal Service? *

What you wear is entirely up to you.  Many people like to dress up to go to church.  This is more out of tradition than necessity.  You will see people in dresses and suits, and you will see people in shorts and jeans. 

This topic is talked about in James 2:2 . . . "For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?"

The important thing is that you are at church, praising God . . . NOT what kind of clothes you are wearing!  BACK TO TOP

 

What basic things should I expect upon first visiting an Episcopal service? *

Upon entering, you will be greeted by an usher.  If you have any initial questions, this is the person to ask.  The usher will give you the day's bulletin.  After this, you may take a seat anywhere you like . . . there are no assigned seats!

The Episcopal Church uses two main books at any given service.  Both will be found at your seat.  These books are the red Book of Common Prayer and the blue Hymnal 1982.  Page numbers will be announced, and will be in your bulletin and/or on the hymn board at the front of the church.  You may ask, "Where is the Bible?"  All services include scripture readings from the Bible, but these readings are usually found on a separate Lectionary sheet included in your bulletin (the "Lectionary" is a list of Scriptural readings assigned for use at worship services which will take the church through the entire Bible in a three-year period.)  The purpose of this is to make it easier for the congregation to follow along and to limit the number of books we have to juggle.  If you would like to bring your own Bible to church, please feel free!

At first, following along with the Episcopal Service may be a little difficult; but remember, most services follow the same order, so once you've been through it a few times, it will feel natural.  If you get lost, don't hesitate to ask someone where we are!

After the service, be sure to come to coffee hour in our Parish Hall for light refreshments and to meet the congregation!  BACK TO TOP

 

When do I stand, sit, or kneel? *

Specific instructions are in the rubrics (directions) of the Book of Common Prayer; but in general, we stand when we sing, praise, or read the Gospel; we sit during all other Bible readings, and during the Sermon; and we kneel to pray. During the blessing of the bread and wine at communion (The Eucharistic Prayer), either standing or kneeling is appropriate. If your not sure, just follow the example of the people around you.  If you are unable to stand or kneel for long periods of time, please feel free to remain seated.  BACK TO TOP

 

Do I have to pay anything to go to church? *

There is no fee to attend church, but an Offertory is taken as part of the service.  This "passing of the basket" and our annual pledges are what keep the church alive.  This money goes towards maintaining the building, paying our rector and staff, and stocking administrative and liturgical supplies.  To request a pledge booklet, please speak to our treasurer.  BACK TO TOP

 

Is there anything in the Episcopal service which may embarrass me? *

During the announcements, the Rector may ask your name and welcome you to the church, but you will not otherwise be singled out or asked to come forward or speak up for any reason at an Episcopal Service.  BACK TO TOP

 

What is "The Book of Common Prayer"?

Contrary to what some believe, The Book of Common Prayer (the "Prayer Book") is not an "Anglican Bible."  We love it, use it and depend on it, but it is not Scripture (though it does contain quite a lot of Scripture), and we do not view it or use it as such.   The first Book of Common Prayer was produced by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1549, and revised by Cranmer in 1552 (further revisions occurred in 1559 and 1662; the latter revision is still used as the official Prayer Book of the Church of England, and is considered a literary classic among scholars).  The book was intended to facilitate worship in English rather than Latin, and to bring the rites of the church together into one book for use by both clergy and lay folk.  Each national church in the Anglican Communion has its own adaptation of the Prayer Book.  The American version, used by most churches in ECUSA, was last revised in 1979 (some Episcopal churches prefer to use the 1928 version).  In the Prayer Book, you will find the orders of service for the various rites of the church, the Daily Office, prayers for use within the context of the liturgy and prayers for use in home devotions, the Lectionary (i.e., the Scriptural readings to be used in corporate worship, organized so as to carry the congregation through the entire Bible in a three-year period), the Psalter (Psalms), the Calendar of the Church Year, The Outline of the Faith (Catechism) and various historical documents.  BACK TO TOP

 

How do Episcopalians worship?

If you are familiar with Roman Catholic or Lutheran services, you will find Episcopal services remarkably similar.  The central rite is the Service of Holy Eucharist (also known as "Communion," or "The Lord's Supper"), analogous to the Roman Catholic Mass (and referred to as "Mass" by some Episcopalians).  The first part of the liturgy ("The Liturgy of the Word") consists of prayers, scripture readings and a sermon or homily. This is followed an Affirmation of Faith (The Nicene Creed), the Prayers of the People, Confession of Sin, Absolution, and the Exchange of Peace.  The second part of the liturgy ("The Liturgy of the Eucharist") begins with the offerings of the congregation, then proceeds with the Eucharistic Prayer, the Lord's Prayer, Consecration of the Elements (bread and wine), Communion, the Post-Communion Prayer, Blessing and Dismissal.  Two Eucharistic Rites are commonly used by the Episcopal Church: The modern and less-formal Rite II is usually used for most of the year, with the older and more formal Rite I being used during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent.  BACK TO TOP

 

Does the church celebrate other rites?

Other public rites of the church include Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer and Evensong or Evening Prayer (held at various times in various churches...see "Schedule of Services" to find when these are held at St. Luke's), Baptism (held several times during the year; speak with the rector for more information), Confirmation/Reception (held during the main Sunday service during the Bishop's annual visitation) and Ordinations (these are scheduled by the bishop's office, and held at various churches throughout the diocese).  BACK TO TOP

 

How can I learn more about Episcopal worship practices?

The best way to learn more about our worship practices is to look through a copy of the Book of Common Prayer.  These can typically be found in the pews in every Episcopal Church, and no one is likely to mind if you drop by to peruse a copy.  Copies can also often be found in libraries and bookstores.  BACK TO TOP

 

I'm planning on visiting an Episcopal Church. May I take communion?

All baptized Christians, regardless of denomination, may take communion in the Episcopal Church.  Your own denomination may have some restrictions on where you may or may not communicate, however, so it would be wise to check with a clergy person in your own church first.  BACK TO TOP

 

I am handicapped and am unable to walk to the Altar to receive communion.  Can I still receive communion? *

Of course you can!  Simply tell the usher or someone near you who is going to the Altar to have the Rector bring the Elements (the bread and the wine) to you.  BACK TO TOP

 

What are the sacraments of the Episcopal Church?

Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Holy Matrimony, Reconciliation ("confession"), Ordination and Unction of the Sick.  Of these, Baptism and the Eucharist are considered "necessary" sacraments...the others are "conditional" sacraments (i.e., they are not required of all persons, but apply in certain situations).  "Sacraments" are defined as "Outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace."  BACK TO TOP

 

Does the Episcopal Church baptize infants?

Yes.  We believe that the grace conferred by the Sacrament of Baptism is not and should not be reserved only for "informed believers."  BACK TO TOP

 

At what age may a child take communion?

A child may take communion at any age.  We do not believe that a certain "understanding" of the proceedings is necessary for the sacrament to be valid.  The decision of when to take communion is left up to the child and his/her parents.  BACK TO TOP

 

Does the Episcopal Church ordain women to the clergy?

Yes.  The Episcopal Church has ordained women to all orders of ministry since 1976.  BACK TO TOP

 

How do I join the Episcopal Church? Do I need to be confirmed?

If you are coming from a church in the Apostolic Succession (i.e., Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox), and have already been confirmed, you would be "received" by the bishop of your diocese, in a ceremony that normally takes place during the bishop's visit to your church.  If you are coming from a different tradition, confirmation would be appropriate.  Most churches hold "inquirer's courses" for people interested in reception or confirmation prior to the bishop's visitation.  You will want to speak to the rector or vicar of your church if you are interested.  Note that confirmation or reception is NOT necessary before you can take communion, or participate in the life of the church.  BACK TO TOP

 

I have already been baptized in another church.  If I become an Episcopalian, do I need to be re-baptized?

No.  "We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins."  Once you have been baptized with water, in the name of the Trinity, you have been received by adoption into the family of Christ (not into a particular denomination) and that need not...in fact, should not...be repeated.  This is true even if you were a tiny baby when you were baptized.  If you wish to make a public, adult, affirmation of faith, you may choose to be confirmed, if appropriate (see above).  You also always have the option of publicly reaffirming your baptismal vows, even after confirmation, if you so choose . . . but this is a highly personal matter, and not in any way required.  BACK TO TOP

 

   
     

St. Mark's Episcopal Church    State & Ellis Streets    P.O. Box 422    Millsboro, DE 19966    (302) 934-9464    Find Us