Have you ever wondered how the Anglican and Episcopalian churches are different? These two denominations have common origins and share many practices and doctrines. In this article, we will explore their shared history, what they have in common, and what sets them apart.
What is an Episcopalian?
An Episcopalian is a member of an Episcopal church, the American offshoot of the Anglican Church of England. Some countries besides the USA have Episcopal churches, usually planted by American Episcopal missionaries.
The word “episcopal” comes from the Greek word meaning “overseer” or “bishop.” It has to do with the type of church government. Before the Reformation (and afterward for Catholics), the Pope ruled the churches of western Europe and Africa. The Anglican and Episcopal churches are led by bishops, who oversee a group of churches within a region. Each church can make some decisions, but they are not self-governing compared to “congregational” churches like the Baptists.
What is an Anglican?
An Anglican is a member of the Church of England, founded by King Henry VIII in the 16th century as the Protestant Reformation swept through Europe. Anglican churches exist outside of England as the result of missionary work.
Anglican churches practice a specific liturgy or worship rituals and follow the Book of Common Prayer. Most Anglican churches belong to the Anglican Communion and consider themselves part of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
Some Anglicans are remarkably close to Catholics in doctrine and practice, except without a Pope. Other Anglicans fiercely identify with Protestantism, and some are a blend of both.
History of the Episcopalian and Anglican church
Christians took the message of Jesus Christ to Britain before 100 AD. While Britain was a Roman colony, it was under the influence of the church in Rome. As the Romans withdrew from Britain, the Celtic church became independent and developed distinct traditions. For instance, priests could marry, and they followed a different calendar for Lent and Easter. However, in 664 AD, the churches in England decided to join back with the Roman Catholic church. That status remained for almost a thousand years.
In 1534, King Henry VIII wanted to annul his marriage to his wife Catherine so he could marry Anne Boleyn, but the Pope forbade this. So, King Henry broke political and religious ties with Rome. He made the English church independent of the Pope with himself as the “Supreme Head of the Church of England.” While other European countries like Germany had pulled out of the Roman church for religious reasons, Henry VIII mostly kept the doctrine and sacraments the same as in the Catholic church.
When Henry’s son Edward VI became king at the age of nine, his regency council encouraged the “English Reformation.” But when he died at age sixteen, his devoutly Catholic sister Mary became queen and restored Catholicism during her reign. When Mary died, her sister Elizabeth became queen and turned England back into a more Protestant country, breaking from Rome and promoting Reformed doctrine. However, to unify the warring factions between the Catholics and Protestants in England, she permitted things like a formal liturgy and priestly robes.
As Britain settled colonies in North America, priests accompanied the colonists to establish Anglican churches in Virginia and other territories. Most of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were Anglican. After the War of Independence, the Anglican Church in the United States desired independence from the English church. One reason was that men had to travel to England to be consecrated as bishops and take an oath of allegiance to the British crown.
In 1789, the Anglican church leaders in America formed a united Episcopal Church in the United States. They revised the Book of Common Prayer to remove the prayer for the English monarch. In 1790, four American bishops who had been consecrated in England met in New York to ordain Thomas Claggett – the first bishop consecrated in the U.S.
Denominational size difference
In 2013, the Church of England (Anglican Church) estimated it had 26,000,000 baptized members, almost half of the English population. Of that number, about 1,700,000 attend church at least once a month.
In 2020, the Episcopal Church had 1,576,702 baptized members in the United States.
The Anglican Communion includes the Church of England, the Episcopal Church, and most Anglican and Episcopal churches worldwide. The Anglican Communion has about 80 million members.
Episcopalian and Anglican view of the Bible
The Church of England claims the Bible to be authoritative for faith and practice but additionally accepts the Church Fathers’ teachings and ecumenical councils and creeds as long as they agree with the Bible.[i] However, a recent survey revealed that 60% of Church of England members said they never read the Bible.[ii] Furthermore, its leadership often rejects Biblical teaching on sexuality and other issues.
The Episcopal Church states that the Bible contains everything necessary for salvation. They believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the Old and New Testaments as well as some apocryphal texts. However, most Episcopalians differ from Evangelical Christians on what “inspired” means:
“What does ‘inspired’ mean? Surely, it does not mean ‘dictated.’ We do not imagine the men who composed our scriptures becoming automatic writing instruments under the total control of the Spirit. Therefore, a very great deal depends upon how much of scripture one credits to the Holy Spirit, and how much to the imagination, memory, and experience of the human writers. . . But it is not “an instruction book for life. . . Christ is perfect/the Bible is not. . . When we say that the Scripture of the Old and New Testaments contains “all things necessary for salvation,” we do not mean that it contains all true things, or even that all the things in it are necessarily factual, especially from a historical or scientific point of view. We just don’t need any further information (like the Koran or Book of Mormon) for salvation.”[iii]
Book of Common Prayer
The Church of England’s official book of liturgy is the 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer. It gives explicit instructions on how to conduct worship services, such as how to do Holy Communion and Baptism. It provides specific prayers for Morning and Evening Prayers and prayers for services and other occasions.
When the English Church broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, it had to decide what worship and other aspects of the church would look like. Some wanted the church to be essentially Catholic but with different leadership. The Puritans advocated for a more radical reform of the church in England. The 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer was meant to be a middle road between the two.
In 2000, a primarily modern-language Common Worship, which offers different services, received approval for the Church of England as an alternative to the Book of Common Prayer.
In 1976, the Episcopal Church adopted a new prayer book with similar liturgies to Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed churches. More conservative parishes still use the 1928 version. Further revisions are underway to use more inclusive language and address protecting the environment.
The Anglican/Episcopal church doctrine is a middle ground between Roman Catholicism and Reformed Protestant beliefs. It follows the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed.[iv]
Both the Church of England and the Episcopal Church have three groups of doctrinal thought: the “high church” (closer to Catholicism), “low church” (more informal services and often evangelical), and “broad church” (liberal). The high church uses rituals similar to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches and is generally more conservative concerning issues like ordaining women or abortion. The high church believes baptism and the eucharist (communion) are necessary for salvation.
The low church has less ritual, and many of these churches became evangelical following the First Great Awakening: a great revival in Britain and North America in the 1730s and 40s. They were further impacted by the Welsh Revival (1904-1905) and the Keswick conventions, which began in 1875 and continued into the 20th century with speakers like D. L. Moody, Andrew Murray, Hudson Taylor, and Billy Graham.
J. I. Packer was a well-known evangelical Anglican theologian and cleric. He defined Anglican evangelicals as stressing scripture’s supremacy, Jesus’ majesty, the Holy Spirit’s lordship, the necessity for a new birth (conversion), and the importance of evangelism and fellowship.[v]
John Stott, Rector of All Souls Church in London, was also a leader of the evangelical renewal in Great Britain. He was the principal framer of the Lausanne Covenant in 1974, a defining evangelical statement, and the author of many books published by InterVarsity, including Basic Christianity.
Among the Anglican and Episcopalian Evangelicals is a growing Charismatic movement, which emphasizes sanctification, mysticism, and healing. However, it tends to differ from many charismatic groups. For instance, most Anglican charismatics believe that all the gifts of the Spirit are for today; however, speaking in tongues is only one gift. All Spirit-filled Christians do not have it, and it is not the only sign of being filled with the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 30). They also believe church services should be conducted “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14). Charismatic Anglican and Episcopal churches blend contemporary music with traditional hymns in their worship services. Charismatic Anglicans generally are against sexuality that violates Biblical standards, liberal theology, and women priests.
The liberal Anglican “broad church” might follow either “high church” or “low church” worship. However, they question whether Jesus physically resurrected, whether Jesus’ virgin birth was allegorical, and some even believe God is a human construct. They believe morality cannot be based on the Bible’s authority. Liberal Anglicans do not believe in Biblical infallibility; for instance, they reject that a six-day creation or a universal flood are accurate historical accounts.
Episcopal churches in the USA and Canadian Anglican churches tend to be more liberal in theology and progressive concerning sexuality and morality. In 2003, Gene Robinson was the first openly gay priest to be elected to the position of bishop in New Hampshire – both for the Episcopal Church and any other major Christian denomination. The US Episcopal Church website states that leadership is inclusive, “regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.”[vi]
As a result of these decisions, many conservative congregations representing 100,000 members pulled out of the Episcopal Church in 2009, forming the Anglican Church of North America, recognized by the global Anglican community.
Both the Anglican and Episcopal churches follow an episcopal form of government, meaning they have a leadership hierarchy.
The British king or queen is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, more or less an honorary title, as the actual head administrator is the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Church of England is divided into two provinces: Canterbury and York, each with an archbishop. The two provinces are divided into dioceses under the leadership of a bishop; each will have a cathedral. Each diocese is divided into districts called deaneries. Especially in rural areas, each community has a parish, which often has only one church led by a parish priest (sometimes called a rector or vicar).
The top leader of the Episcopal Church USA is the Presiding Bishop, whose seat is the National Cathedral in Washington DC. Its primary governing body is the General Convention, which is divided into the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. All presiding and retired bishops belong to the House of Bishops. The House of Deputies consists of four elected clergy and laypeople from each diocese. Like the Church of England, the Episcopal Church has provinces, dioceses, parishes, and local congregations.
A parish priest leads the local congregations in the Church of England. Before becoming a priest, they serve for one year as a deacon. They can preach and conduct Sunday services but cannot lead a communion service and usually do not perform weddings. After a year, most deacons are ordained as priests and may continue in the same church. They lead Sunday services, conduct baptisms, weddings, and funerals, and lead communion services. Anglican priests can marry and usually have a seminary education, although alternate training is available.
The Episcopal priest or presbyter serves as a pastor to the people, preaching and administering the sacraments. As with the Anglican church, most priests first serve as deacons for at least six months. Most are married, but single priests are not required to be celibate. Episcopal priests have a seminary education, but it doesn’t have to be at an Episcopal institution. Priests are chosen by the parishioners (congregation) rather than a bishop.
Ordination of women & gender issues
In the Church of England, women can be priests, and in 2010, more women were ordained as priests than men. The first woman bishop was consecrated in 2015.
In the Episcopal Church, women can be ordained and serve as deacons, priests, and bishops. In 2015, the Presiding Bishop over all the Episcopal churches in the USA was a woman.
As of 2022, the Church of England does not perform same-sex marriages.
In 2015, the Episcopal Church removed the definition of marriage as “between one man and one woman” and began performing same-sex marriage ceremonies. The Episcopal Church believes transgender and gender non-conforming people should have unrestricted access to public restrooms, locker rooms, and showers of the opposite gender.
Similarities between the Anglicans and Episcopal church
The Anglican and Episcopal churches have a shared history, as the Anglican Church sent the first priests to America to establish what would become the Episcopal Church. They both belong to the Anglican Communion. They have the same sacraments and similar liturgies based on the Book of Common Prayer. They have a similar governmental structure.
Salvation beliefs of Anglicans and Episcopalians
Anglicans believe that salvation is in Jesus Christ alone and that everyone in the world is a sinner and needs salvation. Salvation comes by grace, through faith in Christ alone. Article XI of the Thirty-Nine Articles says that our works do not make us righteous, but only by faith in Christ.
Most Anglicans are baptized as infants, and Anglicans believe this brings them into the covenant community of the church. The parents and godparents who bring a baby to be baptized vow to raise the child to know and obey God. The expectation is that when the child is old enough, they will profess their own faith.
After the age of ten, children go through catechism classes before confirmation. They study what the Bible and the church teach about the essentials of faith. They are then “confirmed” into the faith. Adults who weren’t raised in the church but want to be baptized also go through catechism classes.
In catechism classes, children are taught to renounce the devil and sin, believe in the articles of the Christian faith, and keep God’s commandments. They learn to recite the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. They learn about the sacraments, but personal faith isn’t emphasized.
On its website, the Episcopal Church (USA) defines salvation as:
“. . . deliverance from anything that threatens to prevent fulfillment and enjoyment of our relationship with God. . . Jesus is our savior who redeems us from sin and death. As we share Christ’s life, we are restored to right relationship with God and one another. Despite our sins and insufficiency, we are made righteous and justified in Christ.”
Like the Anglican Church, the Episcopal church also baptizes infants and later (usually in mid-teens) has confirmation. The Episcopal church believes that, even for babies, “baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s body the church, forever.” The Episcopal church believes that a bishop must conduct all confirmations, not the local priest.
The Anglican Catechism (which the Episcopal church also follows)states that the sacraments are “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.” Both Anglicans and Episcopalians have two sacraments: baptism and the Eucharist (communion).
Most Anglicans and Episcopalians baptize infants by pouring water over the baby’s head. Adults may be baptized in the Anglican and Episcopal Church by water being poured over their heads, or they may be fully immersed in a pool.
Most Anglican and Episcopal churches accept baptism from another denomination.
Anglicans and Episcopalians believe the Eucharist (communion) is the heart of worship, celebrated in memory of Christ’s death and resurrection. Communion is practiced in diverse ways in various Anglican and Episcopal churches but follows a general pattern. In both Anglican and Episcopalian churches, the people in the church ask God to forgive their sins, listen to Bible readings and possibly a sermon, and pray. The priest prays the Eucharistic Prayer, and then everyone recites the Lord’s Prayer and receives the bread and wine.
What to know about both denominations?
It’s important to understand that there is a wide range of beliefs in both denominations. Some churches are very liberal in theology and morality, especially the Episcopal churches. Other churches are more conservative about sexual morality and theology. Some Anglican and Episcopal churches identify as “evangelical.” However, their worship services may still be formal compared to most evangelical churches, and they probably will still practice infant baptism.
The Anglican and Episcopal churches have a long history going back seven centuries for the Church of England and over two centuries for the Episcopal Church. Both churches have impacted the governments and culture of Great Britain, the USA, Canada, Australia, and many other countries. They have contributed well-known theologians and writers like Stott, Packer, and C.S. Lewis. However, as they descend further into liberal theology, reject Biblical morality, and question the Bible’s authority, both churches are in marked decline. The one exception is the evangelical branch, which enjoys modest growth.
[v] J. I. Packer, “The Evangelical Identity Problem,” Latimer Study 1, (1978), Latimer House: page 20.