If you come to the Episcopal Church from another church (as most of us do), you may be surprised at how little information there is on the Internet and elsewhere about what Episcopalians believe. We Episcopalians know that our belief system is quite robust and well-developed, but we make no attempt to tell each other (or anyone else for that matter) what we should believe about this social principle or that political issue. Right here within Epiphany, for example, we have staunchly conservative Episcopalians, wildly liberal Episcopalians, and several gradations in between praying and reading the Bible together, passing God’s peace with and to each other, and feasting on the consecrated host of the Eucharist of our Lord side by side on our knees.
Although we may disagree with each other about this issue or that, we are stitched together with strong thread: namely our shared understanding of who God is, what our relationship is to God and to each other, and how we worship together. About these issues our beliefs are firm, nearly unanimous, and readily accessible, so let’s discuss them in order.
Who God Is
We regularly use two creeds, the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. We recognize two sacraments as essential, baptism and Holy Communion; we usually use the Apostles Creed in connection with Baptism, and the Nicene Creed in connection with the Eucharist. Reading these two creeds is the fastest, simplest way to understand what Episcopalians believe about who God is. You can find the Apostles Creed here and the Nicene Creed here.
We believe in one God who is both all-powerful and perfectly loving, who has created and is creating everything we can see and everything we can’t. We believe that our Lord Jesus Christ is of one substance with God and has always been with God. We believe Christ became human and came to live among us so that we could be saved, that he died a painful human death out of love for us, and that he triumphed over death on our behalf by rising again. We believe that Christ will come again to confirm God’s eternal kingdom.
We believe that the Holy Spirit is the presence of God who lives within each of us now. We believe that the Holy Spirit has been and continues to be active in the lives of great leaders and teenage busboys, comforting, convicting, and loving us through our daily lives.
What Our Relationship Is To God and To Each Other
If God is all-powerful and perfectly loving, both logic and Scripture demand that we have but one response, and that is to love and serve God in return. Oh, if life were only that simple! Unfortunately, for reasons we may one day learn, God who is perfect chose to allow us humans to be imperfect. All too often, we seem to pursue that imperfection with single-minded gusto. When we stray, God lovingly calls us back. On our worst days we ignore God and strike out on our own. On good days, we hear God’s call, embrace the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and seek to do God’s will here on earth. Even on bad days, though, God continues to love us, and here’s the thing: even when we are rebellious, even when we are in the midst of the most vile, evil acts imaginable, God chooses to love us as if we were perfect! We think that’s pretty cool.
We believe that the relationship each of us has with God is inextricably bound to the relationship each of us has with other humans. It is nonsensical, for example, for us to seek God’s forgiveness while holding a grudge against or continuing to oppress another person. So we Episcopalians pay a great deal of attention to issues of peace and justice. Some may think this a distraction from our relationship with God, but we see it simply as the way to open ourselves to God’s love.
How We Worship Together
Ah, now you’re getting to the heart of what it means to be Episcopal. Episcopalians worship using many different styles: traditional, middle of the road, and contemporary. No matter the style, however, we use common prayer. Our worship, whether we’re dressed to the nines or in bathing suits, whether we use guitars and drums or pipe organs, whether we worship in a 100-year-old stone nave or the end zone of a football field, follows a defined rhythm described in our Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. The Book of Common Prayer contemplates and even encourages a surprising variety of prayers and responses, but any Episcopal church that uses it will organize its worship around some key principles that are evident from perusing the BCP:
- Each worship service will include readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Epistles, and the Gospels, and they will follow the lectionary
- The worship will demand that the congregants participate actively in it in the form of singing, prayers, responses, and taking Holy Communion; you won’t be able to just sit back and watch the show
- There will usually be a homily or sermon based on one or more of the Scripture readings, but the homily won’t be the climax of the service; that role is reserved for the Eucharist – Holy Communion
What unites us is not so much a shared belief system but a shared decision to make common prayer the central element of our life of faith. Being Episcopal is doing what the church does, and what the church does is worship God.