An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church


The term is derived from the Greek word for “city.” In general English usage, polity refers to the form of government in a city or nation and the body of laws which govern a political entity. In ecclesiastical use polity has come to refer also to the form of government for an organized church. In Anglicanism the term “polity” became common through its use by Richard Hooker who wrote Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594). Hooker defended the episcopal government of the Church of England against the Puritans. He argued that the polity of the church and the state should express the rational nature of God as shown in the Natural Law. The church, as a political society, must be governed by law. But the form of polity which operates in the church may change at any given time. Thus Hooker was able to accept the polity of those protestant churches which did not have episcopal government.

Episcopal polity describes a church in which the source of authority is the college of bishops, typically bishops within the historic episcopate. Presbyterian polity describes a church in which the source of authority is considered to be a synod of presbyters. In Anglican churches, bishops share power with presbyters and laity under a constitution. Eastern Orthodox churches exemplify episcopal polity in its purest form because their source of ecclesial power is a synod of bishops.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.