What Episcopalians Believe

Beliefs

What Do Episcopalians Believe? We believe there is One God who creates all things, redeems us from sin and death and renews us as the Children of God. As Episcopalians we promise to follow Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord. We believe the mission of our church is restoration of all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

5Worship

What is an Episcopal Church service like? In worship, we are united, acknowledging the holiness of God, to hear God’s Word, to offer prayer and to celebrate God’s presence among us. We are a church of unity, not uniformity.

All are welcome to participate in our worship because it is in worship that we live out our life as a Christian family together. Scripture is the foundation of our worship.

The service follows an order found in our worship book called the Book of Common Prayer, two-thirds of which is scriptural. Every worship service includes the reading of Holy Scripture from the Old and New Testaments. Many of our prayers and hymns are filled with scripture. The Book of Common Prayer includes a variety of ancient and modern prayers and worship services for occasions when the whole community gathers and for individual use.

The Book of Common Prayer allows everyone to participate, reminding us that each person is an important part of the worship experience, whether the service is a celebration or a solemn occasion.

In our worship service, we celebrate God with us through water, bread and wine. Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us through water we are united with God. We call this Baptism. The Episcopal Church believes through baptism in any Christian denomination, we become brothers and sisters in God’s family.

Jesus shared bread and wine with his first followers and is with us when we share in the family meal we call Holy Communion (Holy Eucharist, Last Supper). Through it we receive the forgiveness of our sins and a strengthening of our union with God and one another as we remember Christ’s life, death and Resurrection.

Any baptized person is welcome and encouraged to share in his meal when visiting an Episcopal Church.

Creeds

Does the Episcopal Church use creeds in worship services? In the Episcopal Church, we say both the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed in our worship. Because we are a community of faith, we openly declare our beliefs and in this way unite ourselves to Christians in the past, present and future.

The Apostles’ Creed dates from the early years of the Christian Church and was used as a statement of faith at Baptism. The Apostles’ Creed is included in the services of daily Morning and daily Evening Prayer that may be used both at church and in private devotions. It is found in the Book of Common Prayer.

The Nicene Creed is the creed which describes the nature of the Trinity and our relationship to it. It is the result of the first four church councils, spanning a time period of 126 years. (The first council, which took place in 325 in Nicaea (modern-day Turkey); hence its name; the last of the four in 451 in Chalcedon). It is a statement which summarizes the Christian faith and is said in unison on Sundays during services of Holy Eucharist (the reenactment of the Lord’s Supper).

Belief and the Creeds

Do I have to believe everything in the creeds? Relationship with God is a personal journey and also one we share with others in this community of faith. The Creeds clearly state the beliefs of the Church, and we recite them as we join with those around us in the process of discovering our own relationship with God. So it is not easy to answer this question “yes” or “no.” It is important that we take part with fellow seekers in this lifelong journey.

Most Episcopalians are comfortable with the realities of modern science and our ever expanding knowledge of history while accepting the theological truths of the Creeds and Scripture. These truths tell us that God is the Creator, we matter and that God cares.

We are a creedal, not a confessional, church. What this means is we do not have foundational doctrinal statements other than the Nicene and Apostles Creeds. Most other Christian denominations have some sort of confessional document, like the Augsburg Confession for Lutherans or the Greater Catechism for Roman Catholics, lays out exactly what the teaching of the church is on most matters. Instead, our central document is the Book of Common Prayer, which defines worship rather than doctrine as a unifying principle.

Doubts and Question

What if I have doubts or questions? It is not unusual to have doubts and questions. We are a church that encourages thought. We do not ask you to check your mind at the door.

In the Episcopal Church, questions are encouraged. There are groups, classes and forums available for discussing questions with other seekers. We have classes at different times throughout the year. In addition, the clergy are eager to be contacted for help with questions.

Cornerstones

What are the foundations of belief? In the Episcopal Church, we are called to live out our faith on a daily basis, whether we are at home, school, work or recreation. The cornerstones of our faith are Scripture, tradition and reason.

Scripture

What do Episcopalians believe about Scripture? Scripture is the word of God contained in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

The 39 books of the Old Testament contain the story of God’s love from the time of Creation to the birth of his son, Jesus Christ. The books contain God’s laws as He gave them to the Hebrew people. The New Testament contains Christ’s teachings, the accounts of his life as told by his followers and the beginning of the Church. It is written in 27 books. Within an Episcopal worship service, Scripture is read in lessons from the Old and New Testaments, the Gospel (the teachings of Jesus), the Psalms (poems from the Old Testament) and other prayers. One of the beauties of the Episcopal Church is we are a “big tent” church, meaning we have members who span the spectrum in their understanding of Scripture. There are those who believe it is the word of God, and to be taken literally without interpretation, and there are those who view Scripture as a moral and ethical framework from which to draw examples how to live.

Tradition

What role does tradition play? We are not Christians in isolation but are part of a living faith that spans 2000 years. Tradition is the embodiment of our experience as Christians throughout the centuries. The heart of our tradition is expressed through the Bible, the Creeds, the Sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism and the ordained ministry passed on by Christ to his Church.

Our tradition is expressed with many voices, among which are a variety of worship styles, languages, cultures, architecture and music. Our tradition encourages this diversity.

We seek to value the life and story each person brings to the community of faith. As in a multi-textured tapestry, each person’s offering is woven into the life of the whole making it stronger and more beautiful.

Reason

What part does reason play in the way Episcopalians believe? Each one of us, with God’s help, makes a decision about how we use tradition and Scripture in our lives. A personal relationship with God allows us to realize and celebrate our lives to the fullest.

The gift of reason, as a complement to Scripture and tradition, leads us to seek answers to our own questions and to grow spiritually.

Being active in a community of faith strengthens us to carry our faith into the world. Weaving Scripture, tradition and reason together, we strengthen our faith and grow as Children of God.

Book of Common Prayer

What is the Book of Common Prayer? The Book of Common Prayer is our guide to worship and devotion. Scripture is the foundation of our worship and two-thirds of the Book of Common Prayer comes directly from the Old and New Testaments.

Our current Book of Common Prayer, revised in 1979, was originally compiled by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, in 1549. There are more than 70 million Anglicans (Episcopalians) in 163 countries throughout the world, using a Book of Common Prayer in their own language, reflecting our diversity and ethnic backgrounds.

The Book of Common Prayer is a collection of ancient and modern prayers and worship services for occasions when the community gathers and for individual use as well. It allows everyone to participate, reminding us that each person is an important part of the worship experience, whether the service is a celebration or a solemn occasion. It is a guidebook for daily Christian living.

Common

Why call it “Common” Prayer? Common does not mean ordinary. These are the prayers we say together or “in common” when we worship as a community.

Personal Devotions

Can the Book of Common Prayer be used in personal devotions? Yes, in private daily prayers or with family, prayers in the morning and evening, special prayers of praise or thanksgiving, requests for others, and for special occasions. All 150 Psalms, or poems from the Old Testament are contained in the Book of Common Prayer and can be read at any time. A calendar for reading through the entire Bible every two years, as well as an outline of the Episcopal faith and Church history, is also included.

Individual Prayer

Can I make up my own prayers? The Book of Common Prayer is meant to complement daily individual prayers, not replace them. Every service in the book includes time for personal prayer requests, either silent or aloud. Prayers from your heart and mind and of your own words and thoughts are the most important prayers.

Services

What services are included in the Book of Common Prayer? The primary service is the reenactment of our Lord’s Last Supper with his disciples, a service that we call Holy Eucharist or Holy Communion. This is the service you are most likely to share with us when you visit an Episcopal Church on Sunday. The Book of Common Prayer also includes services for Morning and Evening Prayer as well as sacramental services such as Holy Baptism.

Sacraments

What are sacraments? In the Episcopal Church we take part in certain regular acts of worship. These are called sacraments or reenactments of Christ’s ministries on earth. The two primary sacraments are Baptism and Holy Communion.

We believe that God is actively present in the world and in us. In the sacraments we realize his presence and his favor towards us. Through the sacraments, which are freely given to us by God, our sins are forgiven, our minds are enlightened, our hearts stirred and our wills strengthened.

These sacraments are contained in the worship services found in the Book of Common Prayer. Additional information can be found in the Book of Common Prayer. Questions are encouraged and always welcome. Please feel free to contact the clergy for more information.

Holy Baptism

What is Holy Baptism and what does it signify? Baptism is the means by which we become members of the community of believers, defined in the New Testament as the Body of Christ.

Just as Jesus was baptized with water by John the Baptist, we include people in the community of faith by baptizing them with water. Following a series of questions, responses and prayers, the priest pours water on the candidate. The sign of the cross is made on the candidate’s forehead with blessed oil. In the Episcopal Church, a person is baptized only once.

Holy Communion

What is Holy Communion? It is a reenactment of the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples before his death on the cross. Any baptized person is welcome to share in this meal of bread and wine. Holy Communion is also called Holy Eucharist, the Last Supper and Mass.

Other Sacraments

What other Sacraments are there? Other Sacraments are confirmation, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent, unction and ordination.

Confirmation is when a baptized person, who has been instructed in the Christian faith, makes a mature commitment to God within a worship setting and receives a special blessing and prayer from a bishop.

Holy Matrimony is a Christian marriage, in which two people enter into a lifelong union and make their promises before God in a worship service. Sometimes couples who were married in a civil ceremony will have their marriage blessed in a worship service.  In states where same-gender marriage is legal, most of the dioceses in those states offer same-gender couples recognition and access to marriage.

While private confession of sins is not a requirement, anyone may request the reconciliation of a penitent from a priest and receive assurances of God’s forgiveness. The confession is always made in private and kept in strict confidence.

Unction is a special blessing for those who are sick or desire special prayers. A sign of the cross is made on their forehead with blessed oil.

Ordination is the sacrament whereby God empowers trained persons for special ministry as deacons, priests or bishops. The service always includes the laying on of hands by bishops.

Visiting With Us

What should I know before visiting an Episcopal Church? Know, first of all, that you are welcome. You are welcome to visit, to worship with us regularly, as a baptized Christian of any denomination to share in the celebration of Holy Communion, and to become an Episcopalian if you wish.

When you worship with us, you may wonder when to stand or kneel. Practices vary–even among individual Episcopalians in the same parish. The general rule is to stand to sing hymns, to say the Creed and for the reading of the Gospel in the Holy Eucharist service. We sit during readings from the Old Testament or New Testament Letters, the sermon and anthems sung by the choir. We stand or kneel for prayer. The best guide is to follow others. If you don’t feel comfortable kneeling or standing, for whatever reason, do what makes you feel comfortable. When you visit an Episcopal Church, you will be our respected and welcome guest. You will not be singled out in an embarrassing way nor asked to stand before the congregation or to come forward. You will worship God with us.

The Episcopal Church

What makes us unique?

So what is it that sets us apart? In some ways, it’s the fact that we insist that we are not set apart from or superior to other Christians. Episcopalians consider themselves one part of the holy, catholic church (lower-case c in catholic means “universal”), of which all baptized Christians are members. We like the way we do things, but do not insist that ours is the only or even the best way. This is why we have been leaders in the Ecumenical movement to reconcile the various denominations of Christianity. At one point in our history, we asked ourselves, “What is the minimum amount of agreement needed in order to re-unify the church?” William Reed Huntington articulated the answer in what we now refer to as the “Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral,” which is a basis for ecumenical work:

  1. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the revealed Word of God.
  2. The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith.
  3. The two Sacraments,–Baptism and the Supper of the Lord,–ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of institution and of the elements ordained by Him.
  4. The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.

We are a church of doctrine, not dogma.

The Theologian Robert Hughes III has remarked that if we talk in terms of dogma (which are core beliefs that are non-negotiable) as opposed to doctrine (on which different positions may be held) there really are only two for Anglicans: the doctrines of the Trinity, and of the two natures in one person in Christ. All the rest, while important, are not core to Episcopal identity. (Note that other doctrines, such as the Resurrection, are implied by those two.)

Question and answers are adapted from a series of five brochures published by the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, with editing and additions by Episconet and the Rev. Carol Gadsden.