What We Believe
The Episcopal Church in the USA (ECUSA) is one of the national churches which make up the world-wide Anglican Communion, a family of churches under the spiritual authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury and a branch of Christ's one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The Anglican Communion is made up of seventy million Christians in 163 countries and is the world' s second largest Christian body. If you are curious about what the Episcopal Church believes, read on!
The Faith Once For All Entrusted to the Saints
We live at a time during which there is much confusion about what Christians should believe and why they should believe it. The Epistle of Jude refers to the "faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (v.3) implying that there is an abiding content to the Christian faith, a core of truth that is not negotiable. Historically, Anglicanism has committed itself to this core of Christian truth but has allowed latitude in how this core truth is received and interpreted. At times Anglicanism appears to be "wishy-washy" and even chaotic but this should not blind us to the fact that it does have definite doctrinal commitments.
The Episcopal Church is committed to the two ecumenical (held by all churches) creeds and includes them in its liturgical life. The first ecumenical creed is called the Apostles' Creed, one of the Church's earliest creeds. The Apostles' Creed goes back in origin to at least 150 AD and began as the baptismal creed of the Church in Rome. This creed was used to instruct adults who had converted from paganism to Christianity and is taken as a summary of the teaching of scripture. This creed is still used in the service of Holy Baptism and can be found on page 304 of The Book of Common Prayer. The Apostles' Creed is Trinitarian in structure making it clear that the basic affirmation of Christianity is the Triune God, the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
THE APOSTLE'S CREED
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried
He descended to the dead
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
The second ecumenical creed is called the Nicene Creed and is found on page 358 of The Book of Common Prayer. This creed is intended to be used at every celebration of the Eucharist. Like the Apostles' Creed it is Trinitarian in shape. The Nicene Creed was formulated by the Council of Nicea in 325 in response to a heretical movement which denied the full divinity of Jesus. This creed was reaffirmed and supplemented by the Council of Constantinople in 381. This council affirmed the full divinity of the Holy Spirit against a heretical movement that denied it. Once again, this creed was understood by the Church to be a summation of the teaching of Scripture.
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten on the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
He suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi
The guiding principle of belief within Anglicanism has been the ancient principle of lex orandi, lex credendi. This Latin expression means that "the law of prayer is the law of belief'. In other words, what we believe should not simply be a collection of doctrines or ideas but should find its expression of the way we worship. The negative of this principle is if something cannot be prayed, it should not be believed.
This principle explains why The Book of Common Prayer is so important. For us, our worship shapes the content of what we believe and we enact what we believe in the context of our worship. In other words, the best way to learn about what Episcopalians believe is to worship with us. If you want to know how we understand the Christian life, you should attend a service at which the sacrament of Holy Baptism is celebrated (see The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 299-311 for the baptismal liturgy). If you want to know we understand Jesus Christ, pay special attention to the celebration of the Eucharist during which we gather at the risen Lord's Table to receive him into our lives (see the Eucharistic prayers in The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 361-375).
All this explains why liturgy is so central and important in the Episcopal Church. We take so much care for the liturgy not because we want it to be pretty or have a fixation about it but because it is the lived out expression of what we believe offered to the praise and glory of God. Because it is the expression of our faith liturgy is the chief work of the Church.
The Book of Common Prayer contains a catechism or "Outline of the Faith" (pp. 845-862). The Catechism is intended to be a "commentary on the creeds" (Apostles" and Nicene) and not a complete statement of faith. Reading through the Catechism is probably the quickest and easiest way to get a sense of what Episcopalians believe. Here are some highlights:
"Jesus is the only perfect image of the Father, and shows us the nature of God...by God's own act his divine Son [Jesus] received our human nature from the Virgin Mary, his mother...so that in him human beings might be adopted as children of God...By his obedience, even to suffering and death, Jesus made the offering which we could not make; in him we are freed from the power of sin and reconciled to God. By his resurrection, Jesus overcame death and opened for us the way of eternal life.. .Jesus took our human nature into heaven where he now reigns with the Father and intercedes for us."
The Holy Spirit:
"The Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity, God at work in the world and in the Church even now. We recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation. We recognize the truths taught by the Holy Spirit when they are in accord with the Scriptures.
"We call them the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible. We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures."
"The Church is described [in Scripture] as the Body of which Jesus Christ is the Head and of which all baptized persons are members...The Church is holy, because the Holy Spirit dwells in it, consecrates its members, and guides them to do God's work. The Church is catholic, because it proclaims the whole faith to all people, to the end of time. The Church is apostolic, because it continues in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles and is sent to carry out Christ's mission to all people."
"The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace...The inward and spiritual grace of Baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God's family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit...The Eucharist, the Church's sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, is the way by which the sacrifice of Christ is made present, and in which he unites us to his one offering of himself...The inward and spiritual grace in the Holy Communion is the Body and Blood of Christ given to his people, and received by faith."
The Christian Hope:
"The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God's purpose for the world...By everlasting life, we mean a new existence, in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other."
Some Points of Reference
The Book of Common Prayer contains (pp. 876-878) some documents which might be thought of as points of reference which guide Anglican belief. One such document is the "Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral", approved by the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church in 1886 and affirmed by the Lambeth Conference of 1888. (The Lambeth Conference is the gathering of the world's Anglican bishops which takes place once every ten years.) This document posits four cardinal points of reference:
(1) The Holy Scriptures as the revealed Word of God.
(2) The Apostles' and Nicene Creeds as sufficient statements of the Christian faith.
(3) The two cardinal sacraments of the Gospel, Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist.
(4) The historic episcopate or apostolic succession of bishops.
The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral posits these points of reference as fundamental, non-negotiable elements of the Church.
The Book of Common Prayer (pp. 867-876) also contains an important document called the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. These were issued in 1563 in the Church of England. The Thirty-nine Articles do not constitute a creed or a complete statement of the Christian faith. The Articles were intended to define the Anglican "middle way" between Roman Catholicism on one hand and radical Protestantism on the other. The Articles, while historically conditioned, still have validity today in that they serve as a framework for Anglican theology. A sampling of the Articles will give a sense of this framework:
"There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost." (Article 1)
"Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation." (Article VI)
"Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God's judgment; yet they are pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring our necessarily of a true and lively faith." (Article XIII)
"The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments are duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same." (Article XIX)
"Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession [as claimed by radical Protestants], but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God's good will towards us, by which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him." (Article XXV)