Episcopal Church History, Traditions, Beliefs and Organization


graphic: shield of the Episcopal Church in the USA

The Anglican tradition emerged in the 16th Century, during a turbulent period of reform in the church. Anglican reformers chose a “middle way” between Roman Catholicism and the various forms of Protestantism, which developed in Europe at that time. There were two main stages in the spread of Anglicanism — the first in the 17th Century, during the colonialization in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The second stage began in the 18th Century, when missionaries traveled to Asia, Africa, and South America to spread the Gospel and to establish churches.

The Episcopal Church strives to offer a moderate and inclusive approach to faith. While the church presents clear, biblically based teaching and guidance on most subjects, we also understand there are some issues in life that can be experienced and interpreted in different ways by different people. We encourage respectful listening, dialogue rather than debate, and “unity in diversity” among our members as we seek to live faithful and fruitful lives.


Episcopalians make extensive use of ritual, color, and symbols to bring our worship alive. Central to our life in faith are the symbolic acts or rituals known as the Sacraments. Described as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” the Sacramental acts draw us into God’s presence and allow us to fully experience the grace of God in our lives. The Sacraments celebrated in the Episcopal Church are Baptism, the Eucharist, Confirmation, Marriage, Ordination, Confession, and Anointing With Oil.

What Episcopalians Believe

Although our members come from many different races and cultures and speak many different languages, we are unified by our belief in the transforming love and power of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  We believe that God offers unconditional love and eternal life to those who place their trust and faith in him and who strive to follow Christ’s teachings of compassion, justice, mercy, respect, and love towards others. Central to our life in faith is the concept of “stewardship” — the belief that all things in creation (including our own talents, skills, and financial resources) come from God. We believe God has entrusted these gifts to us to be used wisely and responsibly for the good of all people.


The Episcopal Church consists of lay persons, deacons, priests, and bishops. We consider all baptized Christians to be “ministers” as they share their gifts and talents. However, some members of the church feel called to be ordained as deacons, priests, or bishops. In the Episcopal Church in the United States, both women and men are eligible for ordination.

Deacons serve as a bridge between church and community. Often employed outside the church, deacons help to interpret the needs and concerns of society to church leaders and help to support and nurture church members. There are two kinds of deacons — Transitional deacons, who serve in this role for an interim period before being ordained to the priesthood, and Vocational deacons, who choose the deaconate as a lifelong ministry.

The priest serves as a pastor and teacher to members of the church, leads worship, preaches, and supports members of the congregation as they reach out into their community. Some priests find their vocation in a non-church setting, such as a hospital, university, or prison chaplainry.

Bishops are elected by priests and lay people. They provide leadership and care for congregations and serve as a link with the mission and ministry of the national and international church and with other faith traditions. When bishops are elected to exercise oversight for a larger constituency within the church they receive the title Archbishop.

Titles, Terms, and Descriptions

The Most Rev. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury
The Most Rev. Justin Welby

Anglican Communion — The world-wide network of Anglican Christians from 160 countries. While the church is known as either the Anglican Church, the Church of England, or the Episcopal Church, depending on the region, all Anglican Christians are part of the wider Anglican family, unified under the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. The current Archbishop of Canterbury is The Most Reverend Justin Welby.

Cathedral — Most dioceses have a central church designated as its Cathedral. Although every cathedral serves a local congregation, it is also the “Bishop’s Church” and serves as the central gathering place for all Episcopalians in the diocese for special services and events. Virginia is unique in that there are no cathedrals, owing in part to the transition from Church of England to the Episcopal Church in America.

Diocese — A regional grouping of churches, under the leadership of a bishop. The Right  Reverend Robert L. Fitzpatrick  is Bishop of the Diocese Of Hawaii.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry
The Most Rev. Michael Curry

Primate — The national leader of the church. The Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America is The Most Reverend Michael Curry.

Episcopal/Anglican Glossary