What We Believe
Q: What do Episcopalians believe?
A: This is very difficult to summarize in just a few paragraphs, but here goes. First, we Episcopalians believe in God the Holy Trinity, as stated in the two historic creeds (a creed is a summary statement of faith). We accept these creeds as sufficient statements of the Christian faith as it has been received by this Church. The Apostles’ Creed is traditionally associated with Baptism, while the Nicene Creed is used at the Eucharist. Both creeds describe God as Trinity, or “Three in One” – Father (Creator), Son (Redeemer), and Holy Spirit (Sanctifier).
We believe that the Bible is God’s Word, particularly in the sense that God still speaks to us through scripture today. It is in scripture that we read the story of salvation, that is, the story of God’s determination to save his chosen people from sin and death. The promise of salvation was given first to Abraham and his family; affirmed in the Exodus of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt; and fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s only and incarnate Son (incarnate means made flesh).
The first four books of the New Testament (or Christian scriptures) are called gospels (gospel means good news). These books – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are where we find the story of Jesus. Matthew and Luke record Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem. Mark and John begin his story with the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. All four gospels tell of his mighty works of preaching, teaching and healing, and especially of his last week in Jerusalem. It is Jesus’ final week in the Holy City that is the core of the gospel message. Here we learn of Jesus’ last supper with his friends, his institution of the Holy Eucharist (or Holy Communion), his arrest and trial, his execution on a cross, his burial, and finally his resurrection on the first Easter Day. Jesus is both our personal Savior and Savior of the whole world.
We Episcopalians believe that the Christian Church is (to use the Apostle Paul’s wonderful image) the Body of Christ, with Jesus as head and all of us as “members”, i.e., arms, legs, etc. This Body of Christ embraces not only us, but also Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Orthodox, and Christians of every description throughout the world. The Church is traditionally described as One (unified), Holy (sacred, or set apart), Catholic (universal), and Apostolic (an apostle is one who is sent; apostolic means sent to proclaim the good news). As members of the Body, we are called to be Jesus’ companions and co-workers. Like him we are called not to be served, but to serve. This “servant ministry” is a core element of Christian living.
For more on what we believe, see the Catechism, also called An Outline of the Faith, in The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 845-62.
We are a small Church…
The Episcopal Church has long been a study in contrasts. For example, on a Sunday morning during the early years of the 20th century, wealthy Detroit Episcopalians would glide up to the church door in their chauffeur-driven limousines, there to be greeted by ushers in formal dress and white gloves. On that same Sunday morning, up north in the lumber camps, Episcopal missionaries – many of them women, and tough as nails! – would be leading prayer services for the lumberjacks, some of whom had been out much too late the night before.
Such contrasts persist even today. For some, the Episcopal Church is a magnificent gothic church in New York City, where a choir of men and boys sings music you would expect to hear in an English cathedral. For others, it’s a Sunday morning service in a church on the Navaho Reservations of Arizona, New Mexico or Utah. For others, it’s a Sunday afternoon service in a university chapel, with music provided by a jazz quartet. It’s impossible to generalize about Episcopalians. We live in large urban areas, suburbs and small towns; we come from all ethnic groups; some have PhDs, while others never graduated from high school; some of us are quite wealthy, while others struggle from day to day; some of us are theologically conservative, while others are theologically liberal, and many are right in the middle. We are a real cross-section of America.
The Episcopal Church USA is a relatively small denomination of about 2.5 million souls. Compared to the Catholic and Baptist churches, we’re small potatoes. But over the years we’ve made our mark:
■ Remember Paul Revere’s midnight ride? It was from the tower of Boston’s Old North (Episcopal) Church that the lanterns signaled “One if by land, two if by sea”.
■ Remember the Declaration of Independence? Fifteen signers were parishioners at Christ (Episcopal) Church in Philadelphia.
■ Remember George Washington? When the U.S. government made its capital at New York City, the
President worshiped at St. Paul’s (Episcopal) Church, where the large chair he used remains on display today.
■ Remember 9/11? St. Paul’s – the same church where our first President worshiped – was located directly across the street from the World Trade Center. It escaped destruction to become the primary delivery point for ministry with workers at Ground Zero.
■ Remember the State Funerals for Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.? Reagan and Ford are among the dozen Presidents whose funerals have been celebrated at the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, which is an Episcopal house of prayer for the entire nation.
In many ways, St. Michael’s is the Episcopal Church in miniature. That’s one of the reasons we think our parish has a lot to offer!
And we’re lots of fun, too!
First-time visitors may think that we Episcopalians are very subdued when we gather for worship. Compared with members of some evangelical or charismatic churches, we are! Perhaps that explains why there are so few “Episcopal jokes” in circulation!
However, much as we try to keep it a secret, we Episcopalians are actually a rather lively, fun-loving group. For us, faith is a grand adventure in knowing and loving God. For us, life in the Church should provide not only deep spiritual enrichment and a challenge to live faithfully, but also genuine joy. Sometimes it even gives us a few good laughs.
Robin Williams, the noted actor and comedian, is an Episcopalian. In fact, he grew up in Bloomfield Hills. His “Top 10 Reasons to be an Episcopalian” (with explanatory notes added) are worth considering:
10. No snake handling. Episcopalians don’t engage in weird or dangerous worship practices. However, our pot luck dinners may be damaging to your waist line.
9. You can believe in dinosaurs. Most Episcopalians believe in both the Bible and Darwin’s theory of evolution. You don’t have to choose, unless you want to.
8. Male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them. In the Episcopal Church, a woman’s place is at the altar!… or serving on the Vestry!… or ministering with God’s people. Gender bias (as well as bias based on age, race, education, socio-economic status, and other factors) is very un-Episcopalian.
7. You don’t have to check your brains at the door. Most Episcopal churches do not offer theological spoon-feeding, and most Episcopalians do not want it. You and God have to decide what you believe. Warning! This can take a lot of hard work!
6. Pew aerobics. Episcopalians stand, sit and kneel during worship. It is good cardio-vascular, as well as spiritual, exercise! Your doctor will be pleased.
5. The church year is color-coded. We keep the Church’s ancient custom of seasonal colors. For example, during Christmas and Easter the color is white (for purity and life), while feasts of martyrs are red (for blood). These seasonal color changes reminds us that, in this world, the only things that don’t change are usually dead.
4. Free wine on Sunday. Most Episcopalians expect Holy Communion (or Eucharist) as the form of worship on Sundays. We use bread and wine. The wine – only a sip – is free, just like God’s grace.
3. All of the pageantry – none of the guilt. Robin Williams refers to the Episcopal Church as “Catholic Lite”. We Episcopalians love the pageantry of our Catholic heritage – the priest’s fancy uniform, processions, banners, and in some places even incense and bells. But we don’t manipulate people with “guilt trips”. That’s in poor taste.
2. You don’t have to know how to swim to get baptized. For most Episcopalians, a splash is as good as a dip. In Holy Baptism, it’s not the amount of water that matters. Splashed or immersed, God accepts us where we are, regardless of age or defects of character, and gives us the gift of eternal life.
1. And the Number One reason to be an Episcopalian: No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you. Throughout our history, the Episcopal Church USA has been a “big tent” in which millions of Christians have found a spiritual home. This includes conservatives, liberals, and middle-of-the-roaders, both politically and theologically; those who have held the Faith since childhood and those who are just now taking their first steps on the journey of faith; people from all religious backgrounds, or none at all; in short, what the Prayer Book calls “all sorts and conditions” of men and women.
Episcopalians have long considered this diversity to be one of our strengths as a denomination. Of course, such diversity can make life in the Church a bit difficult at times. We have had our share of Hatfield and McCoy family feuds! But in the end, most Episcopalians do not want to be cookie-cutter Christians. As the Apostle Paul urged us, we want to work out our salvation “in fear and trembling”, and in the knowledge that God loves us, Jesus saves us, and the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth. We do this individually, but in a supportive and loving community.
St. Michael’s is part of this “big tent”. So “come as you are”! What we offer is simply “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” If that is what you are looking for, then you have found your church home.