In the heyday of the British Empire, England colonized distant lands with soldiers, sailors and priests, and consequently the Church of England spread across the globe. When British colonies later gained their independence, the Anglican churches in these new nations became distinct from the Church of England, though they retained ties of tradition and affection. Today these daughter churches of the Church of England make up the worldwide Anglican Communion, which consists of over 70 million members.
In the English colonies of North America, the Church of England was often referred to by other Christians as "that church with bishops." The Greek word for bishop is episkopos, and in common speech the colonial Church of England became known as "the Episcopal Church." Like the other daughter churches of the Church of England, the Episcopal Church is now part of the Anglican Communion.
Often, the Episcopal Church is called a "bridge church" between Roman Catholicism and Protestant denominations. This is because much Episcopal theology is Protestant in nature, while much of Episcopal worship, spiritual practice and church structure resembles Catholicism. As a result, individuals and families from a variety of backgrounds will find in the Episcopal Church a home that honors their own faith tradition while providing a new source of shared nourishment. The Episcopal Church is also often referred to as a "broad tent," because within the church a wide spectrum of theological belief is accepted. Episcopalians are thinking Christians who engage questions of faith with both seriousness and great joy.
Episcopalians describe the foundation of our faith by using the image of a "three-legged stool."
The first leg is Holy Scripture, which Episcopalians say is “written by people...inspired by the Holy Spirit” (from the Outline of the Faith in the Book of Common Prayer). The Old Testament chronicles the relationship between God and Israel. The New Testament chronicles the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the faith journey of the first generation of disciples. The wisdom that Scripture provides guides our lives.
The second leg is Tradition. Tradition consists of the interpretation of God’s purposes by past generations of Christians. Especially valued are the interpretations offered by early Church Fathers and the Church Councils, including the First Council of Nicaea. The First Council of Nicaea wrote the Nicene Creed, which Episcopalians recite every week. The Creed reminds us of the nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The third leg is Reason. Episcopalians understand that God makes human beings in his image, which includes gifting us with complex, reasoning minds. We honor God’s gift when we use our minds to think deeply about God’s will, consulting Scripture, Tradition, and the myriad ways that God is revealed in the world around us.
The Book of Common Prayer is an important part of Episcopal life and worship. The Prayer Book includes a wealth of prayers and liturgies for virtually every occasion. It serves as a way to center our lives in Christ.
As mentioned above, the word "Episcopal" is derived from the Greek word for "bishop." Thus, our very name means that The Episcopal Church is structured around bishops. Episcopal bishops, like bishops in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, trace their authority all the way back to the generation of Christ's apostles through a historical process of the laying on of hands known as apostolic succession.
Each bishop oversees a geographic area called a diocese (ours is the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia). Within a diocese are local congregations called parishes. A parish consists of a body of baptized Christians, often served by ordained priests and deacons.