Episcopal FAQ’S

What does “Episcopal” mean?

Literally, it comes from the Greek word for “bishop.” So if you called us “the Bishop’s Church,” you wouldn’t be wrong.

Bishops are the highest order of ordained clergy in our Church, and therefore perform a vital role — both spiritually and in governance — in running it.

Our Church maintains three spiritual offices today. Each order has a particular role to play: Bishops are the leaders and actually name and ordain members of the two lower orders. Priests are charged with sacramental duties (such as celebrating The Eucharist) and have become the most prevalent of the three orders. Deacons assist both priests and bishops with both administration and sacramental duties and are especially charged with leading outreach efforts to those in need both inside and outside the Church.

Priests are ordained deacons prior to becoming priests. Usually, this is for a limited period, often six months to a year, but we also have some “Perpetual Deacons” who remain only in that order and permanently. Deacons usually hold full time jobs outside the church as well as performing their ministry.


How is The Episcopal Church governed?

It is administered by Bishops. The chief Bishop of the American Church is the “Presiding Bishop and Primate,” who leads the entire American Church spiritually and is chief administrator of the national church as well. He or she is elected to a nine-year term of office (more in a later FAQ).

Diocesan Bishops are in charge of the individual dioceses around the country. The Diocese is the chief spiritual and administrative unit for each area. Boundaries of dioceses are congruent with state boundaries. Some states have several dioceses like California; other states only one diocese like Nevada. Within each diocese exist the various parish churches, such as St. Stephen’s. We are part of the Diocese of Los Angeles.  Often, larger diocese such as ours have several assisting bishops (usually called Suffragan Bishops) that assist the chief Diocesan Bishop with his or her work.

How are Bishops selected?

Bishops are chosen by the people of the diocese. After a lengthy vetting process, a Diocesan Convention is convened where elected representatives of the people of the diocese (both lay and clerical) vote to select a new bishop to lead them. In fact, our diocese is doing just that right now (2016) and will select and call a new diocesan bishop at its Convention in December, 2016. St. Stephen’s will be represented at Convention and have its say and votes in the final selection.

By the way, the “Presiding Bishop” is elected by the House of Bishops during the General Convention of The Episcopal Church at nine-year intervals.

Episcopal bishops are in “Apostolic Succession”; that is, they were consecrated bishops by predecessor bishops and so forth in an unbroken line stretching back to the original Apostles of Christ.

How are other decisions made?

The national church is governed by the Presiding Bishop with assistance (obviously) from staff. He/she is headquartered in New York City.

Every three years the entire American Church gathers in General Convention (at different locations from convention to convention) to formulate policies for the Church going forward.

General Convention was established all the way back in 1789, the same year the American Republic was. And it was set up to emulate that new federal form of government, as well. Convention has a bicameral legislature consisting of a House of Bishops and a House of Deputies. For a policy to become canon law, both Houses must approve it by majority vote. Bishops belong to their House by virtue of their status as elders in the Church. Deputies (both lay and clerical) are elected by the people of each diocese prior to Convention.

How about decisions at St. Stephen’s?

Like the national church and the dioceses, local parishes are governed by an elected board called the Vestry. Each year, the local parish holds an Annual Meeting where all parish members may vote on selecting new members for this board. Vestry membership at St. Stephen’s is for a three-year term, and we have twelve members total with four being chosen each year while remaining members continue their service. This methodology provides for new members to come on while giving the stability of more seasoned people remaining on the board.

At its first meeting each year, the Vestry elects its officers: Junior Warden, Clerk and Treasurer. The Clerk and Treasurers may, in fact, be appointed by the Vestry from outside its own membership. In addition, the Rector (the priest in charge of the parish) appoints a Senior Warden to the Vestry, either one of the Vestry members or an outsider not elected to the Vestry. This is a vital position since the Senior Warden is second-in-command of the parish and assumes responsibility for its operations in the absence of the Rector (for any reason). The Senior Warden also acts as a liaison between the Rector and the Vestry.

Parish governance is made by vote of the Vestry. However, all spiritual matters (including type of worship) are the exclusive prerogative of the Rector.


How do we choose a new Rector?

Rectors serve as tenured employees. They cannot be removed from office except under very specific conditions, and then only by their Diocesan Bishop. Otherwise, they are entitled to serve until mandatory retirement age (currently 72), unless they choose to leave by their own choice.

In the absence of a rector (for any reason), the Vestry appoints a Search Committee of parish members to work with the diocese to find and call a new rector. This is a lengthy and arduous process, often taking up to two years. In the meantime, the bishop appoints an Interim Rector to lead the parish until a new, permanent Rector is selected by the Vestry. Note that the Vestry alone makes the final decision on calling a new rector for the parish.


Did Henry VIII found the Anglican/Episcopal Church?

No, he did not. The Episcopal Church in America is indeed affiliated with the Church of England. We are an offshoot of that ancient and historic Church. What Henry VIII did in the early 16th Century was to remove the Catholic Church in England from the control of the Pope in Rome. That was all Henry intended to do. He kept Catholic practice (and for the most part Catholic clergy) in place when he left. He simply said that from then on, the Sovereign of England would be the head of the Church in that country and not the Pope.

In fact, the Roman Catholic Church in England traces itself back to St. Augustine of Canterbury, who first came to England and planted the Roman flag there in 497 C.E. And, truthfully, the Christian faith already existed in the British Isles (especially in Ireland) as an independent group of believers well before Augustine’s arrival.  The “Church of England” goes back over a thousand years before Henry arrived on the scene. The American Episcopal Church was founded about the same time as the American Republic was and was and is entirely independent of the English Church, although we do affiliate with it.

Why are there so many worship books in my pew?

It’s not as complicated as it may seem. Actually, Episcopal worship (although varied) is quite structured, and those books form the basis for that structure.

First and foremost is “The Book of Common Prayer,” the standard liturgical guide for Anglican worship since its first version, prepared way back in 1549.

The “Prayer Book” or “BCP” (as we often call it) that rests in your pew dates from 1979 when it was last revised at the direction of General Convention. But although updated and modernized many times over the centuries, it still retains most of the historic liturgies of the Church and even much of the exact phraseology used in the earliest editions.

The BCP is a great unifying element in the worldwide Anglican-affiliated Churches (a.k.a. The Anglican Communion). Every national Church around the globe with ties to the Mother Church in England has its own version of this Book, each one somewhat different yet all similar in content and all tied to the original edition first written under King Edward VI in 1549 by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer.

There are also additional volumes of liturgy (some of which we use at St. Stephen’s) which have been added as supplements to the BCP. These are not found in the pews.

For music, we have three choices: The Hymnal, which contains the bulk of our liturgical music including all the favorite old-time hymns; Wonder, Love & Praise (WLP), containing much contemporary church music; and Lift Every Voice and Sing (LEVAS), an African-American hymnal featuring gospel music.

Almost all our selected songs and hymns will come from these three volumes. Of course, our office makes it easy for the congregant by printing most of the service (both words and music) in a booklet handed out as you enter the church before service.


How does the Episcopal Church view the Sacraments, especially Eucharist?

The Episcopal Church celebrates the same seven sacraments that the Roman Catholic church does but often in slightly different ways. These seven sacraments are: Baptism, Confession, Communion, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders or Ordination, and the Sacrament of the Sick or Holy Unction. Eucharist and Baptism are the two central sacraments as they are the two shared by Jesus during his life on earth.

Sacraments are usually described as “an outward sign of an inward grace” meaning that the symbols used like water, bread and wine or chrism oil are used because we as humans need these symbols. The blessing of God is poured upon us without these outward signs.

We celebrate Eucharist every Sunday remembering the meal of the Last Supper when Jesus instituted the breaking of bread and sharing the common cup. This is very similar to Mass in the Roman Catholic church. One significant difference is that most Episcopalians do not believe in Roman Church’s doctrine of transubstantiation, or the changing of the bread and wine into Christ’s actual/corporeal body and blood. Rather, many (if not most) Episcopalians see the bread and wine as symbols of Christ’s body and blood. However, there are a variety of beliefs on this subject present within our Church.

So, since the Church recognizes that, in the end, a full understanding of this sacrament remains  a mystery to us (and has been debated by theologians for hundreds of years),  Episcopalians tend to view the Eucharist as something in which the body and blood of Christ are really present (“bread and wine made holy”)  by some combination of the words and actions of the consecrating priest plus the belief of the recipient.  And there we leave it.

We do always  treat the consecrated elements with the greatest of reverence.


Does the Episcopal Church honor saints?

Yes, we do. We have “Saints Days” throughout the year designated to honor them. These dates track the traditionally observed dates used by other denominations. What we don’t do is canonize new saints like the Roman Catholic Church does. We do add those we consider “saintly” from modern times to the observance calendar, however. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an example of this practice.

One thing you won’t find around Episcopal parishes are statues of saints, however. We do not “venerate” saints in the manner that the Roman Church does, and so we do not generally display images of them around our grounds. This practice extends to the Virgin Mary, who is highly honored by God and so by us (of course), but not venerated in worship in the manner of the Roman Church. She is, naturally, a “saint” and her “day” is observed on the same day as the Roman Church observes it (August 15th).


What are the most important days on the Episcopal Church Calendar?

Our Major Feast Days are Christmas, The Presentation (a.k.a. Candlemas), Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity, The Transfiguration, and All Saints.


What is a “Narthex?”

It’s all about tradition. The Narthex is the outer entrance hallway of the parish. Other terms we use include:

Nave (where the congregation sits during worship)

Sanctuary (area surrounding the altar)

Sacristy (room off the Sanctuary)

Acolyte (those who assist clergy at the altar during services)

Verger (robed person who carries a club-like “mace” leading the procession)

Crucifer (person who carries the cross leading the procession)

Sexton (person who keeps the parish property clean and ready for use)

Why don’t you call The Eucharist “Mass”?

Actually, many people do, and it’s fine if you want to use that term as well. There was a time when the word “Mass” connoted a Roman Catholic Service, and in previous eras, that term raised the hackles of more “protestant” thinking Episcopalians.  Nowadays, the term is commonly applied without a problem. For that matter, we used to call the service “Holy Communion,” not “Eucharist. These terms are all interchangeable.

The Episcopal (Anglican) Church considers itself “catholic” in keeping with its traditions, sacraments, forms of worship, and its clergy. Our governance, however, is more “protestant” in practice because we have no single clerical leader (pope) and choose all of our leaders by popular election rather than clerical appointment.

In addition, we also ordain both married people and women to every clerical order unlike some other denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church.

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