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 body of Christians. If you are curious about the origins of the Episcopal Church and how it got to America, read on!
In The Beginning
The Episcopal Church derived its existence from the Church of England which began as the Church in England, the branch of the Catholic Church in the British Isles.
It is difficult to say exactly when Christianity was introduced to Britain. According to legend, St. Joseph of Arimathea (who paid for Jesus' burial) first brought the Gospel to the British Isles and established a Christian community at Glastonbury in the first century A.D. It is more likely, however, that Christianity was introduced by the Romans. By 300 A.D. the Church is Britain was well developed and dioceses were established around the major cities such as London, York and Lincoln. St. Alban, the first Christian martyred on British soil, suffered death around 305 A.D.
The Roman presence in Britain came to an end in 401 as the Rome's empire began to collapse under the pressure of barbarian invasions. This left the Christian population open to invasion by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who were pagan. The Christian population was steadily pushed into Scotland and Wales. England ceased to even be nominally Christian.
"The Church of England"
Upon learning that the population of England was not Christian, Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) sent monks under the leadership of Augustine (d. 604) to convert Britain to Christianity in 596 A.D. Augustine was later named Archbishop of Canterbury. (The present Archbishop of Canterbury is St. Augustine's 102nd successor.)
But missionaries also came to England from another direction. The Irish or Celtic Church (founded by St. Patrick) also sent missionaries like St. Adrian (d. 651) and St. Columba (d. 597).
This meant that there were two sources of English Christianity, the Roman and the Celtic. In 664 these two forms of Christianity combined at the Council of Whitby to form what was called "the Church of England". While considering itself to be part of the Catholic Church, the Church of England also saw itself as having a degree of independence from the papacy. The Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215, declared, for example, that "the Church of England is beholden to no one outside this realm".
"Henry the Eighth" and "All That"
There is a popular impression that Henry VIII "invented" the Church of England in order to get a divorce. This impression is mistaken. By the time that Henry broke with Rome in 1534 there had been a continuously existing Church in England for almost a thousand years. Furthermore, Henry's breach with Rome came at the end of a long period during which papal authority was steadily limited in England. The English Parliament began formally limiting papal power in the 13001s. In 1351 Parliament passed the Statutes of Provisors which meant that no one could be appointed to an office in the Church of England without the English monarch's consent. In 1353 Parliament passed the First Statute of Praemunire which limited legal appeals to the pope's court; civil and ecclesiastical appeals which were once made in the pope's court would now have to be made to the English crown. Those appealing to Rome could now be tried for treason.
Henry VIII's breach with Rome must be placed in its historical context, a context which is much wider than Henry's desire for a new wife. This context had at least three aspects. One aspect was growing nationalism in England--increasingly the papacy was seen as an interfering foreign power. A second aspect was growing English resentment of the papacy's financial and political interference in England's affairs. A third aspect of this context was the events which were shaking Europe.
The Reformation of the Church of England
By the time of Henry VIII's break with Rome the Reformation, begun by Martin Luther in Germany in 1517, had been in progress for seventeen years. Whole areas had broken with Rome to become what we know today as Protestant churches. Luther had launched a fundamental critique of papal authority and a call to more securely ground the Church's teaching, worship, and government on Scripture. (It was not, however, Luther's intention to create a new church--he wanted to reform the old one.)
Interestingly, Henry VIII rejected most of Luther's ideas and even wrote a treatise defending the system of seven sacraments against Luther's attacks. For this effort the pope awarded him the title "Defender of the Faith". Henry's break with Rome had little immediate consequence for the worship and theology of the Church of England. He aimed not at a reformation of the Church (as did Luther) but at a "Catholicism without the pope". Henry's commitment to traditional Catholicism can be seen in the Six Articles of 1539 which, among other things, upheld the doctrine of transubstantiation and the necessity of sacramental confession (both denied by the Protestants).
The Reformation of the Church of England did not really begin until the reign of Henry's son, Edward VI who became king in 1547. The architect of reform in England was Thomas Cranmer, whom Henry appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1532. Cranmer moved the Church of England in a more "Protestant" direction. He produced the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 which was the first complete book of Christian liturgy in the English language. He produced a second Book of Common Prayer, even more "Protestant", in 1552.
Edward VI was sickly and was succeeded by his half-sister Mary in 1553. Mary restored papal authority in England and brought all attempts at reform to an end. Under her reign many of the leaders of the English reformation (including Cranmer) were executed. After Henry's break with Rome, the attempts at reform under Edward VI, and Mary's return to Rome, England was in religious chaos.
From Chaos to Equilibrium
In 1558 Mary was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth. During Elizabeth's reign the Church of England moved from chaos to equilibrium, a religious and political state of affairs called the Elizabethan Settlement. The primary theological apologist (defender) of the Anglican "middle way was Richard Hooker (1554-1600). Elizabeth rejected both papal authority and the more radical forms of Protestantism (called Puritanism in England). In 1559 Parliament authorized a third Book of Common Prayer which marked a return to the more "catholic" worship of the 1549 Prayer Book. In 1563 the Thirty-nine Articles were promulgated establishing the doctrinal foundations of the Church of England in contradistinction to the Roman Catholic Church and the more radical Protestant churches. These articles (doctrinal theses) can be found in the back of the present Book of Common Prayer (1979) on p. 867.
The Church of England produced a fourth Book of Common Prayer in 1662; it remains in official use today.
From Canterbury to Philadelphia
Just as the Church of England was the product of the missionary work of the Roman and Celtic Churches, the Episcopal Church in America is the product of the missionary work of the Church of England. The first permanent English settlement was established at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 and was supplied with an Anglican priest. The direct successor of this congregation still exists today as the Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Through the work of Anglican missionary societies like the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), Church of England parishes were established in all thirteen colonies by the time of the Revolutionary War.
At the end of the Revolutionary War Church of England parishes in America had no bishops and few clergy (since many clergy remained loyal to England and left during or after the war).
Samuel Seabury became the first American to be consecrated a bishop; in 1783 he was consecrated as bishop of Connecticut by Scottish bishops in Aberdeen. He was followed in 1787 by Samuel Provoost, who was consecrated bishop of New York, and William White, who was consecrated bishop of Philadelphia. Both were consecrated by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and two other English bishops. These consecrations were significant in that the apostolic succession passed to America and the American church was then able to consecrate its own bishops. (By tradition, three bishops in the historic succession are required to consecrate a new bishop.)
The Episcopal Church in America was officially formed in 1789 at the first General Convention in Philadelphia. This General Convention adopted a constitution for the Church, authorized the first American Book of Common Prayer, and established an official name -- The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.
Today the Episcopal Church has 7,380 parishes and missions and about 2,340,000 members.