By the Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, missioner for Asiamerica Ministries in the Episcopal Church.
Many of the questions and answers that follow are based on the Episcopal Catechism, or Outline of the Faith, which can be found on pages 843-862 of the Book of Common Prayer (Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979). Please note that the Book of Common Prayer states that the catechism “is a commentary on the creeds, but is not meant to be a complete statement of belief and practices; rather, it is a point of departure for the teacher” (BCP, p. 844).
In that same spirit, the responses to the questions that follow are not offered as definitive answers, but rather as general background information on the traditions and customs of the Episcopal Church, and while content is factual and duly referenced, it does contain certain interpretations by the author and does not necessarily represent the official viewpoint of the Episcopal Church.– Fred Vergara (2010).
Is the Episcopal Church known by any other names? Yes, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS) is the legal, corporate name of the Episcopal Church. When the church was incorporated 1821 its full legal name was the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, but that name was changed when the church became international; the Episcopal Church is now in 16 nations.The church has also gone by several acronyms in the recent past, including ECUSA (pronounced “ee-KYOO-sah”), which stands for the Episcopal Church in the USA, as well as TEC for The Episcopal Church.
Where did the Episcopal Church originate? Early English settlers established the Church of England in the original colonies of the United States, and in 1789, after the American Revolution, an assembly met in Philadelphia to unify all Anglicans in the United States into a single national church. A constitution was adopted along with a set of canonical laws, and the English Book of Common Prayer of 1662 was revised, principally by removing the prayer for the English monarch. Samuel Seabury was ordained in Scotland as the first American bishop.
Why was the name “Episcopal Church” chosen? The Greek word episcopos means “bishop” or “overseer,” which is used because the Episcopal Church is governed by bishops.
Who is the head of the Episcopal Church? The General Convention, comprised of the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops, is the governing and legislative body of the Episcopal Church. The Presiding Bishop is the Chief Pastor and Primate of the Church. Michael Bruce Curry is the 27th and current Presiding Bishop of the The Episcopal Church. Elected in 2015, he is the first African American to serve in that capacity. He was previously bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina.
What is a primate? A primate is the chief bishop or archbishop of one of the thirty-eight churches of the Anglican Communion.
What is the Anglican Communion? An international association composed of over 80 million people in 44 regional or national churches all in full communion with the Church of England and, more specifically, with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Who is the current Archbishop of Canterbury? The Archbishop of Canterbury is the senior bishop and principal leader of the Church of England, the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion and the diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Canterbury. The current archbishop is Justin Welby. He shares the primacy of the Church of England with the Archbishop of York.
What are the four Instruments of Communion in the Anglican Communion? In the Anglican Communion, there is no one single authoritative leader. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the symbolic head of the Communion, the Focus for Unity among the other three Instruments of Communion, and the “first among equals” among the Primates of the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion is governed by three consultative and collaborative international bodies: the Anglican Consultative Council, the Primates Meeting, and the Lambeth Conference. Together with the Archbishop of Canterbury, these four institutions function as the Instruments of Communion (or Instruments of Unity) of the Anglican Communion. .
What does theology mean? The Greek word theos means “God,” and logos means “study,” so theology means, literally, the study of God.
What is the three-legged stool of faith in the Episcopal Church? Scripture, tradition, and reason. The source of this metaphor is generally attributed to the Rev. Richard Hooker (1554-1600), an Oxford University scholar who wrote: “What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience are due; the next whereunto, is what any man can necessarily conclude by force of Reason; after this, the voice of the church succeedeth.” Some scholars argue that the modern interpretation of a “three-legged stool” is a misunderstanding of the passage; that in fact, Hooker explained the three components as being hierarchical, not equal. What do we mean by “scripture”? The Holy Scriptures, commonly called the Bible, are the books of the Old and New Testaments (BCP, p. 853).
What do we mean by “tradition”? The Episcopal Church has inherited ancient traditions from apostolic times, as well as historical customs, laws, practices, and values that have become part of the common life of the church.
What do we mean by “reason”? Reason is both the intellect and the experience of God that illuminates scriptures and tradition as they relate to our common lives, ministries, and contemporary situations.
What are the Four Marks of the Christian Church? The Four Marks of the church are expressed in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in  one,  holy,  catholic, and  apostolic Church” (BCP, p. 358).
What does “via media” mean? Via media is Latin for “middle road,” which refers to the tendency of Anglican theology to strike a middle ground between reformed Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.
What are the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed? These two creeds state the Episcopal Church’s basic beliefs about God. The Apostles’ Creed (BCP, p. 96) is the ancient creed of baptism and is used in the church’s daily worship to recall our Baptismal Covenant. The Nicene Creed (BCP, p. 358) is the creed of the universal church and is used at the Eucharist.
What is the Holy Trinity? The Holy Trinity is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (BCP, 852).
Mission and Ministry
What is the mission of the Episcopal Church? To “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP, p. 855).
What are the Five Marks of Mission adopted by the Episcopal Church in 2009? To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom; To teach, baptize, and nurture new believers; To respond to human need by loving service; To seek to transform unjust structures of society; To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.
What are the four orders of ministry in the Episcopal Church? The four orders are: bishops, priests, deacons, and lay leaders. “Bishop” is from the Greek word episcopos, or “overseer”; “priest” is from the Greek word presbyteros, or “elder”; “deacon” is from the Greek word diakonos, or “intermediary”; and “lay” comes from the Greek laos, which means “the people.”
What is “the priesthood of all believers?” This phrase is based in part on 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” The priesthood of all believers refers to the belief that all baptized Christians have been given direct access to God, just as a priest would have, and that God is equally accessible to all the faithful, and every Christian has equal potential to minister for God.
How does the church pursue its mission? The church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love (BCP, p. 855).
What is the duty of all Christians? The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God (BCP, p. 856).
What are the nine virtues that St. Paul called the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22)? Love – Joy – Peace – Patience – Kindness – Goodness – Faithfulness – Gentleness – Self control
Why did St. Paul describe the church as the “Body of Christ,” with Christ as its head? Saint Paul was referring to the way in which all members of the church are united with Christ. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
What is the Great Commission to the Church according to Matthew? In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). This is called the Great Commission
What is the Episcopal Church’s main guide to worship and liturgy? The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is the official book of worship of the Episcopal Church. The BCP provides liturgical forms, prayers, and instructions so that all members and orders of the Episcopal Church may appropriately share in common worship.
What are the major gestures or actions in the Episcopal liturgy? Standing to praise God Sitting to listen to God’s Word Kneeling to pray for the church and the world Bowing in reverence Lifting hands in prayer, or “orans” Making the sign of cross, usually with the right thumb on the forehead or with the right hand on the forehead, chest, and shoulders Genuflecting, or bending the knee in reverence Giving and receiving a kiss of peace, a sign of greeting and reconciliation Elevating the bread and wine during the Eucharist, offering them to God or showing them to the people Extending hands in greeting, (e.g., when the priest says, “The Lord be with you”) Laying on of hands or extending them over people as a sign of blessing and authorization at baptism, confirmation, ordination, and other sacraments.
What is the chief worship service in the Episcopal Church? The Holy Eucharist, also known as the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Mass, Divine Liturgy, and the Great Offering (BCP, p. 859).
What are the liturgical seasons? The Christian calendar divides the year into six liturgical seasons: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. The season after the Day of Pentecost is often called “Ordinary Time,” although this term is unofficial and does not appear in the Book of Common Prayer. Every season has a designated color, which is displayed on clergy vestments and altar veils during that season.
White signifies purity and joy and is used during Christmas and Easter, and on All Saints’ Day and other joyous occasions such as weddings. White is also used during funerals because death is viewed in relation to Christ’s resurrection. Purple and blue signify penitence and patient waiting and are used during Advent and Lent. These colors also suggest royalty, indicating that during Advent we await the return of Jesus Christ, the King of kings and the Lord of Lords. Red symbolizes the fire of the Holy Spirit and is used on Pentecost Sunday and for the ordination of bishops, priests, and deacons. It also signifies the blood of Christ and is used in the festival of martyrs. Green suggests hope and growth and is used during the weeks after Epiphany, Trinity Sunday, and Pentecost.
The calendar (BCP, pp. 15-33) orders the liturgical year of the Episcopal Church by identifying two cycles of feasts and holy days-one dependent upon the movable date of Easter Day and the other dependent upon the fixed date of Christmas, Dec. 25.
Easter Day is the first Sunday after the full moon that falls on or after Mar. 21. The sequence of all Sundays in the church year is based on the date of Easter. Tables and rules for finding the date of Easter Day, and other movable feasts and holy days are provided by the BCP, pp. 880-885. The date of Easter determines the beginning of the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday and the date of Pentecost on the fiftieth day of the Easter season.
The Sundays of Advent are always the four Sundays before Christmas Day. The church year begins on the first Sunday of Advent. The calendar also identifies and provides directions concerning the precedence and observance of principal feasts, Sundays, holy days (including Feasts of our Lord, other major feasts, and fasts), Days of Special Devotion, and Days of Optional Observance.
The calendar lists dates for the celebration of major feasts and lesser feasts by month and date. Appropriate Sunday Letters and Golden Numbers are also provided. (see BCP, pp. 880-881). The calendar also lists the titles of the seasons, Sundays, and major holy days observed in the Episcopal Church throughout the church year, including Advent season, Christmas season, Epiphany season, Lenten season, Holy Week, Easter season, the season after Pentecost, holy days, and National Days.
The first season of the church year, beginning with the fourth Sunday before Christmas and continuing through the day before Christmas. The name is derived from a Latin word for “coming.” The season is a time of preparation and expectation for the coming celebration of our Lord’s nativity, and for the final coming of Christ “in power and glory.”
In the BCP, Christmas Day is one of the seven principal feasts. The Christmas season lasts twelve days, from Christmas Day until Jan. 5, the day before the Epiphany. The season includes Christmas Day, the First Sunday after Christmas Day, the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and may include the Second Sunday after Christmas Day. In many parishes, the main liturgical celebrations of Christmas take place on Christmas Eve. The BOS includes a variety of resources for use during Christmas, including a form for a Station at a Christmas Crèche, a form for a Christmas Festival of Lessons and Music, and seasonal blessings for use during the Christmas season.
The manifestation of Christ to the peoples of the earth. The winter solstice was kept on Jan. 6 at some places during the first centuries of the Christian Era. In opposition to pagan festivals, Christians chose this day to celebrate the various manifestations, or “epiphanies,” of Jesus’ divinity. These showings of his divinity included his birth, the coming of the Magi, his baptism, and the Wedding at Cana where he miraculously changed water into wine. The day was called “The Feast of Lights.” Celebration of the Son of God replaced celebration of the sun. Baptisms were done, and a season of preparation was instituted. It was later called Advent. The solstice was kept on Dec. 25 by the fourth century. Jesus’ birth was celebrated on this day in both eastern and western churches. The western church commemorated the coming of the Magi on Jan. 6. The eastern church continued to celebrate the Baptism of our Lord and the Wedding at Cana on Jan. 6. In the east the day was called “Theophany” (manifestation of God). The coming of the Magi is celebrated on the Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6, in the BCP. The Baptism of our Lord is celebrated on the First Sunday after the Epiphany.
Early Christians observed “a season of penitence and fasting” in preparation for the Paschal feast, or Pascha (BCP, pp. 264-265). The season now known as Lent (from an Old English word meaning “spring,” the time of lengthening days) has a long history. Originally, in places where Pascha was celebrated on a Sunday, the Paschal feast followed a fast of up to two days. In the third century this fast was lengthened to six days. Eventually this fast became attached to, or overlapped, another fast of forty days, in imitation of Christ’s fasting in the wilderness. The forty-day fast was especially important for converts to the faith who were preparing for baptism, and for those guilty of notorious sins who were being restored to the Christian assembly. In the western church the forty days of Lent extend from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, omitting Sundays. The last three days of Lent are the sacred Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Today Lent has reacquired its significance as the final preparation of adult candidates for baptism. Joining with them, all Christians are invited “to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP, p. 265).
The feast of Christ’s resurrection. According to Bede, the word derives from the Anglo-Saxon spring goddess Eostre. Christians in England applied the word to the principal festival of the church year, both day and season.
Easter Day is the annual feast of the resurrection, the Pascha or Christian Passover, and the eighth day of cosmic creation. Faith in Jesus’ resurrection on the Sunday or third day following his crucifixion is at the heart of Christian belief. Easter sets the experience of springtime next to the ancient stories of deliverance and the proclamation of the risen Christ. In the west, Easter occurs on the first Sunday after the full moon on or after the vernal equinox. Easter always falls between Mar. 22 and Apr. 25 inclusive. Following Jewish custom, the feast begins at sunset on Easter Eve with the Great Vigil of Easter. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Easter on the first Sunday after the Jewish Pesach or Passover (which follows the spring full moon). Although the two dates sometimes coincide, the eastern date is often one or more weeks later.
The season after Pentecost, according to the calendar of the church year (BCP, p. 32). It begins on the Monday following Pentecost and continues through most of the summer and autumn. It may include as many as twenty-eight Sundays, depending on the date of Easter. This includes Trinity Sunday which is the First Sunday after Pentecost. The BCP provides proper collects and readings for the other Sundays of the season. These propers are numbered and designated for use on Sundays which are closest to specific days in the monthly calendar, whether before or after. For example, Proper 3 is designated for use, if needed, on the Sunday closest to May 25. Proper 29 is designated for use on the Sunday closest to Nov. 23. Prior to the 1979 BCP, Sundays in this long period of the church year were identified and counted in terms of the number of Sundays after Trinity Sunday instead of the number of Sundays after Pentecost. This period is also understood by some as “ordinary time,” a period of the church year not dedicated to a particular season or observance, as in the Roman Rite adopted after Vatican II. See Ordinary Time.
This term is used in the Roman Catholic Church to indicate the parts of the liturgical year that are not included in the major seasons of the church calendar. Ordinary time includes the Monday after the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord through the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, and the Monday after Pentecost through the Saturday before the First Sunday of Advent. A vigil or other service anticipating the First Sunday of Advent on the Saturday before that Sunday would also be included in the season of Advent. Ordinary time can be understood in terms of the living out of Christian faith and the meaning of Christ’s resurrection in ordinary life. The term “ordinary time” is not used in the Prayer Book, but the season after Pentecost can be considered ordinary time. It may be referred to as the “green season,” because green is the usual liturgical color for this period of the church year. The BCP provides numbered propers with collects and lectionary readings for the Sundays of the Season after Pentecost. The Epiphany season includes the Epiphany, the First Sunday after the Epiphany: the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Second Sunday through the Last Sunday after the Epiphany (BCP, p. 31). In view of the Epiphany themes that are presented throughout the Epiphany season, it should not be considered ordinary time. However, many parishes use green as the liturgical color for the Second Sunday through the Sunday prior to the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and sometimes the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. Epiphany season and the season after Pentecost vary in length depending on the date of Easter (see BCP, pp. 884-885).
References: Calendar of the Church Year. (n.d.). The Episcopal Church. https://www.episcopalchurch.org/calendar-church-year/ Vergara, W. B. (n.d.). Questions & Answers About the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Diocese of Texas. https://www.epicenter.org/the-episcopal-faith/episcopal-faith/faq/