YES. Still confused? You’re not alone. This question has been asked ever since the pope in Rome excommunicated King Henry VIII for divorcing his Queen, Catherine of Aragon, after 24 years of their arranged marriage. Catherine had failed to produce a male heir that survived longer than 50 days.
In order to understand the nature of the churches of the Anglican Communion, of which our Episcopal Church is part, let’s begin by establishing what the words “CATHOLIC’ and “PROTESTANT” might mean to us and what they mean to others. As we will see, it isn’t that simple. Let’s start with the word CATHOLIC, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: (when used as an adjective) – “CATHOLIC – of, relating to, or forming the church universal; b. “Comprehensive, universal, broad in sympathies, tastes or interests.” (when used as a noun)- a. “a person who belongs to the universal Christian church”; b. a member of a CATHOLIC church such as the ROMAN CATHOLIC Church”; (as an adjective) PROTESTANT: “of or relating to PROTESTANTS, their churches, or their religion; (as a noun) “a member of any of several church denominations denying the universal authority of the Pope and affirming the (continental) Reformation principles of justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and the primacy of the Bible as the only source of revealed truth.”
The word CATHOLIC, mistakenly, has come to refer exclusively to the part of the CHURCH UNIVERSAL that exists under the authority of the Pope in Rome. Likewise, PROTESTANT, mistakenly, has come to refer to all other Christian churches that do not recognize the authority of the Pope. In fact, that’s not true. Orthodox Churches broke with Rome and the Pope in the 13th century, as did the Churches of the See of Utrecht, when it severed its ties with the papacy in the 17th century to become the Old Catholic Church. Neither one of those “REFORMED” Christian Communions are considered to be or are referred to as theologically PROTESTANT. As a matter of fact, The Episcopal Church, through General Convention proclaims itself as both CATHOLIC and REFORMED. We can celebrate and be proud of our CATHOLIC heritage and traditions in this unique synthesis as “The Via Media” or “Middle Way” between both.
We are very similar to Roman Catholicism when it comes to core Christian doctrines, beliefs, liturgical practice, and the way we “Order” our clergy: bishops, priests and deacons. We administer the same Sacraments, we celebrate weekly Holy Eucharist as the central act of our Church’s worship. Anglicans/Episcopalians extol the virtues of the lives of saints (we don’t worship saints). Communities of monks and friars and Religious Orders of nuns are active in the Anglican/Episcopal Church in a variety of ministries. Our Sunday Scripture Readings are identical and we celebrate the same major Holy Days in the same Church seasons of Advent, Christmastide, Lent, Easter and Pentecost and the Season that follows. Our bishops and priests wear the same Eucharistic vestments. We celebrate several feast days of the Blessed Virgin Mary during the year.
There are some important differences between our two “communions”. Episcopalians ordain both women and men as bishops, priests and deacons, and our clergy can be married and raise children. The central governing authority for Episcopalians is the elected Bishop of each Diocese. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Spiritual Leader of the Worldwide Anglican Communion, one of the four “Instruments of Communion’, has no over-arching governing authority beyond his own Diocese. He’s not “the Anglican Pope”, and we don’t believe in infallibility. Other ways in which we differ: Lay people play a greater role in the decision making councils of the Church; Sacramental Confession is optional but not mandatory. Married couples are permitted to use responsible means of birth control. Recognizing that when some marriages “die’, dissolving the sacramental bond, our Church doesn’t punish divorced and remarried persons by prohibiting them from receiving the Sacraments of the Church through excommunication. It is the joy and custom of the Episcopal Church to invite ALL BAPTIZED Christians to receive the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, in both species of consecrated bread and wine. Our Book of Common Prayer guides and orders our common life in Christ.
Another glaring difference that distinguishes us from the Roman Catholic Church, “the elephant in the room”, is the widespread and decades long scandal of Priestly Sexual Abuse, Pedophilia and Coverup in the Roman Catholic Church. Its impossible to measure the magnitude to which this SCANDAL has critically destroyed the moral authority of the largest Christian denomination in the world, and the level of corruption that is being uncovered still.
Additionally, by some estimates, the Roman Church has been forced to liquidate millions of dollars of property and has paid out over THREE BILLION DOLLARS, ($3,000.000.000.00) in claims against the Church by its victims. In the United States alone, more than 20 Roman Catholic Dioceses have declared bankruptcy as a result of claims by victims of criminal activity committed by Roman Catholic Priests. The recent Grand Jury report of the Pennsylvania Attorney General on most of the Roman Catholic Dioceses in that state was staggering and shocking, but sadly not surprising. And the scandal has reached the highest offices of the Church, including Cardinals, retired Cardinals and Bishops with accusations reaching to the Vatican. The recent movie Spotlight, is the story of the investigative unit of the Boston Globe that uncovered a widespread history of Priestly Sexual Abuse and Rape in the Archdiocese of Boston, and the conspiracy of cover-ups, obfuscation and lies committed by Bernard Law, the Cardinal- Archbishop of Boston. The movie Spotlight won the Academy Award for BEST MOTION PICTURE that year.
So, you ask: WHAT DO WE BELIEVE?
We profess and are taught to believe the same historic Creeds: the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed, and the other historic creeds as our Roman Catholic neighbors.
Our Doctrine of the Eucharist teaches that we believe in the “Real Presence”. This Doctrine says: the real objective presence of the Body and Blood of Christ that occurs in the Eucharist is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace and a mystery of our faith. This is in contrast to beliefs of some mainline “Protestant” Churches who deny any “change” or transformation of substance in the simple elements of bread and wine, or in some cases, grape juice. The observance of Holy Communion in some Protestant churches is not a weekly practice.
Our Doctrine of the Eucharist is closely aligned to Eucharistic doctrines of the Roman Church. Our two Communions created an organization in 1969 to make ecumenical progress between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. The “Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission”, ARCIC, sought to identify common ground between us. There has been a deeper divergence of views due to the very different positions on issues concerning homosexuality and the ordination of women.
It is our Church’s position and belief that our Bishops share in the unbroken line of “Apostolic Succession” throughout history from Saint Peter and the apostles. Episcopalians recognize that the Sacrament of Baptism, administered with water in the name of the Father , Son and Holy Spirit incorporates one into the Body of Christ as a member of the ONE, HOLY CATHOLIC AND APOSTOLIC CHURCH, and we embrace everyone as a child of God, regardless of sexual orientation into the full life of the Church.
Writing in The Living Church magazine, Anglican Bishop Tony Clavier, states: “Perhaps we are asking the wrong question: “Are we Catholic or Protestant?” Do the terms CATHOLIC and PROTESTANT serve any useful purpose? The are so loaded with polemic freight, as to be a liability in our discussion. In a divided Christendom, we merely claim to be the Church in mission, praying that one day labels will cease and the Church’s unity restored.”