The Episcopal Church in the United States originated in colonial times with early settlers who brought their faith with them from England. They established worship in the New World after the pattern of the Church of England, a Protestant church with ancient Catholic liturgical traditions. When the American republic began, the Episcopal Church severed its ties with the mother church in England. But it retained the liturgical traditions and beliefs of the English church and kept the same service book, the Book of Common Prayer.
Beliefs and Practices
The Episcopal Church traces its beliefs back to the Apostles, the leaders of the early Church. We affirm our faith in the form of the two earliest creeds of Christianity, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. As these creeds state, we conceive of God as a Trinity: one Being in three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe that Jesus rose from the dead after being crucified and that the Holy Spirit remains with the Church to guide us. These beliefs are widely shared among the Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches.
The Episcopal Church is a liturgical church. We follow a liturgy or regular order of service set out in the Book of Common Prayer. We celebrate two major Sacraments, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. We allow infant baptism and recognize the baptisms of all other Christian churches. At St. Luke’s, we welcome all believers to our altar rail to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion. We believe that the life of Christ is truly present in the bread and wine that we share. As a Protestant church, we believe that worship services should be in a language that the congregation understands. So our service is in English, with parts translated into Khmer for our Cambodian parishioners. We also allow our clergy to marry. The Episcopal Church first allowed women to become priests in 1977. In 1989, we ordained our first woman bishop, Barbara Harris of Massachusetts. In 2006, we elected our first female head bishop, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
The Bible holds an honored place in the Episcopal Church. We read several passages from the Bible during each service. We treat the Bible as a unique historical and religious document. We try to understand what the Biblical passages meant to the people who first wrote them and who listened to them. Then we try to apply the Biblical principles to our own circumstances.
The standard of authority in the Episcopal Church combines three elements: Holy Scripture, the traditions of the Church, and human reason. We balance these three elements in discerning God’s will.
The Episcopal Church is organized into dioceses headed by a Bishop. We are in the Diocese of Massachusetts and our Cathedral is in Boston. Our diocesan or head bishop is the Rt. Rev. Alan Gates. He has a suffragan bishop who assists him, the Rt. Rev. Gayle Harris.
Each diocese in the Episcopal Church holds an annual meeting called the Diocesan Convention. Each parish elects delegates to the Diocesan Convention who vote on the annual diocesan budget and elect the officers of the diocese. Bishops are elected by the delegates and serve until retirement.
Every three years, each Diocese sends delegates to a national meeting called the General Convention. The delegates are elected by each Diocesan Convention. The General Convention is the highest authority in the Episcopal Church. It decides matters of doctrine and practice. The General Convention is organized into two bodies, the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. Clergy and lay delegates make up the House of Deputies. The Episcopal Church also has a head bishop, the Presiding Bishop, elected by the House of Bishops for a term of nine years.
On the parish level, Episcopal churches are governed by a lay committee called the Vestry. The Vestry is elected each year at the Annual Meeting at which all members have a vote. The Vestry handles all matters pertaining to the finances of the church. They also oversee the building and program of the parish. They interview and hire the head priest of the parish called the Rector. The Rector chairs the monthly meetings of the Vestry.
The Annual Meeting also reviews the financial records of the parish and elects parish delegates to the Diocesan Convention.
The Episcopal Church is part of an international association called the Anglican Communion. The churches in the Anglican Communion all follow liturgical traditions that originated with the Church of England. The head of the Anglican Communion is the Archbishop of Canterbury, currently the Most Rev. Justin Welby. The bishops of the Anglican Communion hold a meeting once every ten years called the Lambeth Conference. The Conference provides moral guidance for the member churches of the Anglican Communion.