The name Episcopalian seems to conjure up a certain image in most minds nowadays, this is perhaps due to the prolonged effects of liberalism in the Protestant Episcopal Church and the damaging effects of recent schisms from this body. However, for the sake of brevity and avoidance of controversy, one can think of any American Anglican when seeing the word Episcopalian used in this essay.
If one were to ask on the streets, What is the Episcopal Church? Most would probably shrug their shoulders and admit to ignorance of the question. This reflects our own traditions ineffectiveness at preaching the Gospel of our Lord Jesus to the masses, however, besides this point; some may answer with a different sort of response. The most common response one might receive is that the Episcopal Church is some sort of “half-way house” between Catholicism and Protestantism. One might encounter the phrase “Catholic-lite” from some respondents and perhaps from the well-informed participant via media. This reflects the overwhelming effects of a certain great apostasy that occurred in Anglicanism in the 19th century, a complete and whole rejection of our Church’s plain teachings. The rejection of our Church’s teachings by the Anglo-Catholic party of the 19th century has finally colored the perception of our Protestant Episcopal Church (and other Anglican churches) to the point that our own confession is not acknowledged or even known amongst our fellow Protestant Christians.
At this point, I would wish to point out that there is another sort of Episcopalian (or Anglican) out there. This Episcopalian takes seriously his Church’s profession of faith (as found on page 867 of the 1979 service book). This sort of Episcopalian takes seriously the Episcopal Church’s commitment to maintain the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church of England in the United States (pages 9-11 of the same book). By this public declaration, the Protestant Episcopal Church promised to uphold these standards and only on this declaration did the Church of England recognize the nascent body in the aftermath of the American Revolution. This sort of Episcopalian, then, affirms the teaching of his Church and tries to conform his worship to that teaching. Over the course of the years, as the Church has gradually rejected her own doctrine, her worship has reflected less and less her doctrine.
What is the Church’s confession and what is the teaching that it upholds? The Church’s confession, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, commits the Protestant Episcopal Church (and other Anglican churches) to biblical religion, often known as Protestantism, nowadays. This firmly teaches that salvation is had by grace alone through faith alone in Christ’s one atoning sacrifice for sin. It holds that the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith. It is Reformed, and regarded as Reformed by both scholars and other Reformed churches, in that it teaches the doctrines of grace and rejects Roman and Zwinglian teaching on the sacraments.
Some may then say, well this is all well and good but it’s not really all that Anglican. Many accuse the sincere Episcopalian of this sort of not being genuinely Episcopalian or Anglican because of his sincerely held beliefs. The one who denies this sort of Episcopalian at the table has a faulty view of his own Church and needs to take a closer look at his own history. The nature of our Church’s confession can be debated until kingdom come but one cannot deny the fact that a significant portion of Episcopalians in the past and Anglicans currently world-wide do not subscribe to a wishy-washy, Catholic-lite sort of mentality. Moreover, a majority of Anglicans have never prayed to the dead or said a rosary, much less could they tell you what the proper liturgical color is, but they do know their Bibles. To deny that these sorts are not Anglican is to deny what Anglicanism is.
One need only mention the Calvinist consensus of the Church of England from the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign (1558) to the English Civil War in the 1640s to establish the legitimacy of Calvinistic belief in Anglicanism. The “Calvinistic consensus” is recognized by scholars of religion and historians alike as reflecting the near uniformity of belief of the Anglican Church in the Calvinistic tradition, based, of course, upon the official teachings of the Church of England as found in her formularies. However, the foundation for Calvinistic belief in the Anglican tradition is much more firm than just this theological consensus. Calvinistic ministers such as George Whitefield, John Newton, William Grimshaw, William Romaine, and prominent laymen such as William Wilberforce in the Church of England began the Evangelical Revival of the 18th century. In the Colonies (and later Protestant Episcopal Church), Calvinistic ministers, such as Uzal Ogden, Devereux Jarrat, James Milnor, and Joseph Pilmore, and laymen such as Francis Scott Key, carried on the tradition of Evangelicalism on this side of the Atlantic. Whilst the confessional tradition in the Episcopal Church was slow to develop, it eventually did flourish in the 19th century, until the apostasy of the Church beginning in 1833. A number of bishops, such as William Meade, Philander Chase, Richard Moore, Alexander Griswold, Charles Pettit McIlvaine, Manton Eastburn, Benjamin Bosworth Smith, and Leonidas Polk, carried the name of “Evangelical” and fought to preserve the Church in her doctrine throughout the 19th century.