The Episcopal Doctrine of the Church

Our Catechism of the Episcopal Church states that the Church is "the community of the New Covenant," described particularly as "the Body of which Jesus Christ is the Head and of which all baptized persons are members," which, to me, is the language of Christianese. I have been thinking about the manner in which we communicate the entirety of the Christian faith and am not at all surprised when "outsiders" find themselves unable to connect with us because of language. The Catechism continues: "It [the Church] is called the People of God, the New Israel, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, and the pillar and ground of truth."

The New Israel? A holy nation? A royal priesthood? We Christians take for granted the language of the Church. We have been taught since childhood what most of these terms are referring to -- we speak the language of the Church fluently and assume that everyone else is familiar with our spiritual lingo. I was made aware of this when in prayer recently. Quoting Psalm 95:7 from a conservative English translation (the NRSV), I spoke the words "the sheep of His hand" and immediately asked myself, What does "of His hand" mean? The New Century Version (cf. CEV, HCSB, ISV, NIV, NLT, The VOICE) brings us clarity: we are "the sheep that he tends."

I think we need some clarity in our communication with others. Even the word "church" is often referred to as a building. The FreeDictionary helps us discover the origins of the word: "Middle English chirche, from Old English cirice, ultimately from Medieval Greek kūrikon, from Late Greek kūriakon (dōma), the Lord's (house), neuter of Greek kūriakos, of the lord, from kūrios, lord [or Lord]." In a New Testament understanding, meaning the manner in which "church" was understood to people in the first century, the "church" did not refer to a building because "church buildings" did not yet exist. Followers of Jesus either attended the Jewish synagogue or they met in someone's house or an outdoor gathering.

The Church, in Koiné Greek, ἐκκλησία -- technically, ek, out of, and kaléō, to call or speak out, lit., the called out ones -- refers to an assembly of people, particularly a group of baptized believers in Jesus who have congregated (hence a congregation) in one place to worship God in and through Christ and in the presence of the Holy Spirit. When these believers assemble, in one place to worship, the Church is present. When these believers disperse, leaving the place of worship, the Church is absent and the building remains. Our Catechism asks and answers:
Q. What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Q. How does the Church pursue its mission?
A. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.
The framers of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion maintain a more Reformed understanding: "The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful [men and women], in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same." (emphasis added) The congregated believers, as the Church, has the authority to "decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith," as long as such does not contradict Scripture.

Councils may also maintain authority among believers, with the caveat that "they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God." The conclusion of which is stated: "Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture."

But what of wicked ministers in the Church? Do such invalidate believers?
Although in the visible1 Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
What is added is that such ministers must be investigated, whether as to their sin, or their heresies. We would do well to heed our Confession in The Episcopal Church. How an overt heretic like retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has not been defrocked decades ago belongs either to gross neglect or a blasé attitude toward rank heresy and pure doctrine.



In the Book of Common Prayer, the Church is described as "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic." Believers are considered "one" in unity because we are all "in union with" Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 12:12, 13). We are "holy," lit., set apart unto God for God's special purpose and use in spreading the Gospel and in furthering God's justice in the earth. We are catholic, with a lowercase "c," meaning that we are part of the universal church worldwide (for that is what "catholic" refers to). Lastly, we are apostolic, meaning that we derive our faith and teachings from the apostles who were inspired of the Spirit of God in writing New Testament Scripture.

Contrary to evangelical proclivities about the purpose of the Church, Anglicans acknowledge that, as the people of God, called the Church, our first priority is not evangelism but worship. Christopher Webber writes:
Jesus gave his disciples two clear commands. The first command, "Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19), is fulfilled in the eucharistic gathering [on every occasion we celebrate the Lord's Supper, or Communion, i.e., the Eucharist, which refers to a thanksgiving]; the second, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20), was understood by the first Christians as a command to go throughout the world with the good news of God's forgiveness and the gift of new life in Christ."2
Believers, i.e., the Church, primarily exist to worship and secondarily to make disciples. Our identity is to be one of holiness, argues Samuel Wells, as he writes: "Holiness is about two movements: a movement apart, in order to be [a distinct people], and a movement toward, in order to be present [the presence of Christ in the world]. Christians are made [or are reckoned to be] holy so that they may be a blessing to those they meet and serve."3 (Do not confuse or conflate holiness with sinless perfection. If you do then you will immediately note that Christians you know are not holy. The Church is to be holy: set apart from sin and set apart unto God.)

As Episcopalians, we believe that our worship of God should be conducted "decently [εὐσχημόνως, properly, appropriately] and in order," as argued by St Paul (1 Cor. 14:40), for "God is a God not of disorder but of peace" (1 Cor. 14:33). As the Church, we are distinct in the manner in which we worship, as we, in unity, derive our spiritual energy from the Book of Common Prayer. Wells outlines the Episcopal conviction that "doctrine and ethics, belief and practice, find their meeting place and testing ground in common prayer. If there were one symbol of the convergence of Scripture, tradition, and reason," he adds, "it would be the Book of Common Prayer."4 This has been the tradition of believers in Christ since the first century, fully established by the third and fourth centuries.5

The weekly participation in the Eucharist is not intended to merely remain an observance. Samuel Wells notes that Episcopalians are
more than simply recalling the circumstances of the Last Supper. Instead, they carry out together a series of actions and words that prepares them to share and receive the sacramental body and blood of Christ, and then prepares them to resume their lives, transformed by the body of Christ in all three senses of the term -- Christ himself, the church, and the consecrated bread.6 (emphases added)
Our proactive participation in the worship of our triune God is intended to transform us in such a way that spills over into our daily lives, as we seek to bring others into our experience with God, in Christ, by the inward ministry of the Holy Spirit. We receive all of the grace and love and mercy of God in Christ in the Eucharist; we are then prepared, as the Church, to share, in word and in deed, this grace and love and mercy with those with whom we come into contact in our daily lives.

The Church is not a building but a living, breathing, worshiping, and evangelizing group of believers intent on experiencing God, both personally and corporately. We are to be "poor in spirit," i.e., mournful over our own sin and the injustices in our world; we are to be humble, as we want the righteousness (rightness, justice) of God to prevail; we are to be merciful, pure in heart (or intent), peacemakers and ever-ready to lay down our lives for Christ and His Gospel, as well as other human beings created in the image of God. (cf. Matt. 5:3-12; John 15:13; 1 John 3:16) This is the Church! This (and more) is what we believe Christ our Savior formed and blesses and works through and loves. Believers are the Church.

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1 Dr. Ian S. Markham notes: "With the split from the Orthodox traditions in 1054 and the emergence of the European Reformation in the sixteenth century, Christians in the same locality were not all worshipping [sic] together and significant differences of theology emerged. John Calvin introduced the distinction between the visible Church and the invisible Church. The visible Church is divided, perhaps corrupt and sometimes wicked; but the invisible Church (those who are truly part of God's elect) is one. This distinction means that the Church is still one, even if it does not appear to be. See Understanding Christian Doctrine (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 161.

2 Christopher L. Webber, Welcome to the Episcopal Church: An Introduction to Its History, Faith, and Worship (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 1999), 115-16..

3 Samuel Wells, What Episcopalians Believe: An Introduction (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2011), 49.

4 Ibid., 50.

5 Ian S. Markham, Liturgical Life Principles: How Episcopal Worship Can Lead to Healthy and Authentic Living (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2009), 88-89.

6 Wells, 53.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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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.