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  • Writer's pictureGrace Episcopal Church

Are Episcopalians Protestants?

By: Deacon Mary Delancey

I’ve been asked this question several times recently. When people first attend a service at Grace, or watch an Episcopal or Anglican service on television they notice similarities to a Roman Catholic service. We even say as part of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds that we believe in “the holy catholic Church.” (More about that at the end of this article.)

So, are we Protestant or Catholic? To answer that question, I reached out to Fr. Tom Rutherford, a priest in our Diocese who has answered that question many times before. Fr. Tom says that the answer to that question depends upon the asker’s definition of “Protestant.” If, by "Protestant," you mean "not Roman Catholic," the answer is, "Yes." If, by "Protestant,” you mean "anti-Roman Catholic," the answer is, "No."

To share the ways we are “Protestant” with other Protestant traditions:

  • Our church teachings are based first on the Bible, and then moderated and interpreted by church Tradition and Reason; Roman Catholicism looks to Tradition first, followed by Reason and the Bible.

  • Our clergy are allowed to marry.

  • We encourage our congregation to read the Bible and think and pray for themselves, rather than telling them what to believe.

  • Scripture is an important part of our worship services. At most services we have three readings from the Bible and a very large part of our liturgy is from Scripture.

  • We talk about a personal relationship with Jesus -- though how much we do that varies from congregation to congregation.

  • We see the Pope as the "Bishop of Rome," and not the "Vicar of Christ" or the "Bridge between God and humanity." And we certainly don't view him as infallible.

  • Parishes select their rectors (senior pastors), instead of the bishop assigning them to parishes.

But Anglicanism, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, deliberately sets itself as the Via Media, the "middle way" between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, and in so doing, we see ourselves as BOTH Protestant AND Catholic. So.... we are BOTH "Protestant" and "Catholic," though not ROMAN Catholic. We have Protestant theology with Catholic worship.

Like the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church:

  • Recognizes 7 sacraments and celebrates Communion every week.

  • Recognizes 4 orders of ministry: laypersons, bishops, priests, and deacons... though we put laypersons FIRST instead of last.

  • We organize ourselves in dioceses, with a bishop as chief pastor and teacher of the diocese, though our bishops do not have all the same authority as Roman bishops.

  • We like our worship and worship spaces "pretty," with art, architecture, vestments, and sensual elements like incense and bells.

  • We follow the ancient order of worship for communion, rather than making it up as we go along.

Fr. Tom ends by saying that in our worship, we look Catholic - but sound Protestant. We embrace a range of expression and call it "comprehensiveness," meaning: if your understanding and belief about any aspect of our relationship with God (things like theology, liturgy, sacraments, the Bible) is SOMEWHERE between full papal Roman Catholicism and extreme Baptist/Presbyterianism, we will still worship and pray together, and attempt to get along. We may discuss, debate, or even argue about our differences, but we try not to call each other names or kick each other out.

Post Note: So why do we say we believe in the holy catholic Church? “Catholic” in this usage is not a word we hear much anymore. It simply means, “universal.” As used in the Creeds "catholic," means throughout all time and places, and points to the essential unity or wholeness of the church in Christ. When the creed states, "I believe in the holy catholic church," we are saying that we believe that, through all time and across all places, there is one Church of all believers.

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