The Rev. Canon Leslie Steffensen is the Canon to the Bishop Suffragan for the Armed Forces and Federal Ministries of the Episcopal Church, and a member of the Presiding Bishop’s staff. In the following article, Canon Steffensen gives a thumbnail sketch of the history of The Episcopal Church, beginning with the Church of England’s break from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, following with the growth of the Anglican faith in the New World, up to the present day. Canon Steffensen also shares the commonalities in practice that have developed across the Anglican faith.
The story of the Episcopal Church—known officially as the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States—dates back more than 500 years, to when it emerged from the Church of England. Over the centuries, the Episcopal Church has evolved and adapted to meet the spiritual needs of its members. Canon Steffensen explains that this faith values tradition and is both Protestant and Catholic, maintaining orthodox theology in a unique denomination.
The Birth of the Anglican Church
Canon Steffensen says that it is ma mistake to think that it all began with King Henry VIII of England in 1534, when he declared that he—rather than the Pope—was the supreme head of the Church in England. “Anglican theology actually began when the first Christians set foot in Britain in the 2nd century CE.” They were Roman traders and soldiers who brought a new faith with them. In 597 CE, missionaries sent from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great to the edges of the known world, came to convert the pagan “Angles.” Christianity took on new flavor borrowed from the local culture and their animist understanding of worship and creation. Anglican theology and worship was well developed by the 16th century, when Henry the VIII severed the political ties with the Vatican and brought about the establishment of the Anglican Church. This break was the beginning of the distinct Anglican Church, out of which The Episcopal Church would spring centuries later in the Americas.
Henry VIII’s break from the Catholic Church had an immense impact on the religious landscape of England. The Church of England, as it was known, continued many of the orthodox practices and beliefs as the Roman Catholic Church, but with a few key differences. For example, at that time, all Roman Catholic worship was in Latin. The Church of England made a bold reformation and translated the Bible and liturgy into English, the local language. The Church of England also adopted “the Thirty-Nine Articles,” which outlined the beliefs of the Church and the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. These early Protestant reformations were meant to clear out ignorance and superstition, allowing each person to own their faith and relationship with God.
Anglicanism Continued to Thrive in the New World
The Anglican faith continued to spread across the world as the British Empire expanded, and in the 17th century, it made its way to the New World. After the Revolutionary War and the break from Britain, the Anglicans who remained with the colonies became the “Episcopal Church.” Canon Steffensen explained that the Episcopal Church in the New World was largely the same as the Church of England, but with some notable differences. One of the most significant changes was the adoption of a new, American Book of Common Prayer, which contained liturgies and services. The new edition for the Episcopal Church did not pray for the King!
The Episcopal Church adopted a more decentralized form of leadership, based upon the bicameral model of the Constitution of the new United States. The bishops of the Church were given more autonomy over their own dioceses and formed a voting body, the House of Bishops, which is much like the Senate. Each diocese sent priests and lay representatives to vote in the House of Deputies.
Today’s Church of England and The Episcopal Church
The Church of England and the Episcopal Church remain two separate entities, but both are part of the wider Anglican Communion. The Church of England is still closely tied to the British monarchy. The Episcopal Church, on the other hand, remains an independent church with its own system of governance and leadership. Both are non-dogmatic and allow for diversity in its followers’ beliefs, allowing for a more progressive interpretation of scripture.
Despite the differences between the Church of England and the Episcopal Church, there are many commonalities in practice across the Anglican faith. Canon Steffensen explains that both denominations adhere to the same liturgies and sacraments. The Episcopal Church also maintains some of the same traditions and practices as the Church of England, such as the doctrine of Apostolic Succession, which emphasizes the importance of bishops’ continued ecclesiastical authority in the Church. Both emphasize a faith that holds in tension orthodox, catholic, and Protestant beliefs.
Canon Steffensen notes that the Anglican faith is known for its inclusivity and openness to other faiths. Anglicans embrace diversity of thought and practice, and they strive to be welcoming and affirming of all people regardless of their beliefs or backgrounds. The Episcopal Church interprets the Gospel as an unapologetic call to social justice and LBGTQ+ inclusion and affirmation. The Episcopal Church ordains women and same-sex partnered people.
The Episcopal Church is a faith that has evolved and adapted over the centuries, but it remains rooted in the same teachings and traditions of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. Today, the Episcopal Church is a vibrant and diverse denomination that embraces its Protestant and Catholic roots, while always striving to be welcoming and affirming of all.