The Episcopal Church

The most fascinating truth about The Episcopal Church is that its American existence today is, loosely stated, nothing short of a miracle. Beginning as the Church of England in the New World, how The Episcopal Church survives the American Revolution is remarkable, as the new Americans' state of independence in this country fights against its British chains -- social, political, religious chains -- thus causing those within the Anglican-American church to exist in a quandary as to how, or even if, this Christian tradition is to continue.

Though known less formerly as The Episcopal Church (TEC), yet also known as The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (PECUSA), the official and full legal name of this Anglican-American denomination is telling of its missional nature: the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. The word "Protestant" attached to the title has been a cause of consternation to high church Episcopalians who long to, rightly, emphasize the catholic nature of our church. A compromise was found at General Convention in 1979 to refer to the denomination as The Episcopal Church. We are, and we have always been, a flavorful bunch of catholic, lower-case "c," and reformed, lower-case "r," followers of Christ Jesus.

The first established Episcopal parish is in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. Emmanuel Episcopal Church at Jenkins Bridge in Virginia, where I attend, is established in 1693. The Church of England is the state church of Virginia during this era. Presidents such as George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Chester A. Arthur, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush are Episcopalians.

The Common Prayer Book of Episcopalians in the seventeenth century is that which is brought over from England and, thus, contains prayers for the King and Queen of England. There is no Bishop in America until the Scots-consecration of Samuel Seabury in 1783. The Church of England also establishes state churches in places such as New York (1693), Maryland (1702), South Carolina (1706), North Carolina (1730), and Georgia (1758). In 1635 the Anglican churches in the New World are overseen by the Bishop of London; and, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, attention being drawn toward missions, by the eve of the Revolution, there are approximately 400 congregations throughout the colonies.

At the mention of the American Revolution, if the early American Anglicans are to survive the Independence, then they must also assume their own independence and their own American identity. Prayers from the Book of Common Prayer for the King and Queen of England, then, must cease. But how is this church to survive its own inner turmoil? There are religious loyalists in the established church in America. There are also colonial loyalists prepared to fight for independence. Thankfully, three-quarters of the signers of the Declaration of Independence are Anglicans, so one can still be true to one's religious beliefs and declare independence from England.

Were tensions really that high in the Anglican-American church during this era? Consider this: 80 percent of the Anglican clergy throughout New England were loyalists. The word "tense" is quite the understatement. These clergymen took oaths of loyalty to the King and Queen of England, under whose rule they were consecrated and ordained, and they continued under much strain to pray for the King and Queen or, under threat, dispensed with worship services. Anglican churches begin to close. Many Anglican clergymen transferred their English oaths to the patriots. In 1776, prayers for the King and Queen of England are considered an act of treason.

After the Glorious Revolution, when the patriots have won their cause for freedom against England, the episcopal structure of the Anglican-American church is still at odds with the new republic. How on earth will Episcopalianism survive republicanism? A revision of the Book of Common Prayer is vital: whatever is devoted to a British political system must now reflect American sensibilities. The American Episcopal Church is finally separated from the Church of England in 1789. Anglicanism itself would evolve: Anglican churches in other parts of the world can be "in communion with" Canterbury, in an Anglican Communion, while maintaining their own particular cultural identities -- e.g., throughout Ireland, France, Spain, Africa, India, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, South America, Canada -- without being a Church of England congregation that is governed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Episcopal Church is known for being liberal -- and that term maintains various meanings to various individuals. What TEC has become infamous for is two-fold: 1) affirming LGBTQ people as human beings created in the image of God and blessed by God in their monogamous and wedded relationships; and 2) for disallowing dissident Episcopalians to leave the national church yet retain their places of worship. Well, yes, we affirm LGBTQ people and all people because we believe in social justice. Same-sex marriage is legal in this country and we should all defend the rights of all citizens of this great country. We care about all people. We believe God has called men and women to lead God's church: we elected our first female Presiding Bishop and our first African-American Presiding Bishop. We are looking forward to our first Presiding Bishop from the LGBTQ community of believers in Jesus Christ. We remind ourselves as well as all others: "God is no respecter of persons." (Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11) Neither shall we be respecters of only some people.

Well, no, we do not allow dissidents to retain their places of worship because, usually, those buildings belong to The Episcopal Church. The same can be said, by the way, of churches within the Church of God (Cleveland, TN). Those places of worship technically belong to the Church of God denomination. Here is how I view this matter of church buildings. If I were a Coca-Cola distributor, but I changed my views and wanted to distribute Pepsi, is the Coca-Cola company going to allow me to distribute Pepsi in my Coca-Cola building, which they own, with my huge Coca-Cola sign on the front of that building, and bottle Pepsi soda in Coca-Cola bottles? No. The lawsuits, etc., are embarrassing and hard feelings have resulted. I feel for those who have been forced to leave their local churches. But common sense will tell you that you cannot remain in someone else's building, separated from those who own that building, and expect to carry on. I you dissent from The Episcopal Church then you must exit the church belonging to The Episcopal Church.

Regardless, in spite of its recent hurdles, The Episcopal Church carries on. That it has survived is a testament to the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. Though some conservative evangelicals insist that The Episcopal Church is apostate, I can affirm from within that these Christians are every bit as zealous for Christ, for the Gospel, for Scripture and worship and missions as any other brand of Christians I have witnessed, including Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists and Presbyterians. Jesus has not and will not abandon His people. As long as Jesus Christ remains the Lord and Savior of The Episcopal Church then it shall remain by God's will and to God's glory.


My photo

My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.