What is the difference between the Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church?

October 21, 2007

Bishop C. Christopher Epting, the presiding bishop's deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations, responds:

The Episcopal Church traces its history back through the Church of England, which broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century over issues both political and theological.

The political issues included the papacy and how the church was to be governed. The theological issues were ones raised during the Reformation by theologians such as Martin Luther and John Calvin: the place of Scripture and tradition; worship in the language of the people; certain sacramental practices and understandings; and mandatory celibacy for priests.

The Episcopal Church is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion (at some 77 million, the third-largest Christian communion in the world). Anglicans consider themselves both Catholic and Protestant. They are Catholic in the sense that they retained much of the liturgical and sacramental understanding of the early church; Protestant in the sense of being a church always open to reformation and renewal.

They believe that baptism with water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit makes one a member of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. While affirming the "real presence" of Christ's body and blood in the eucharistic elements of bread and wine, they have refused overly specific definitions of how this happens such as the Roman Catholic concept of "transubstantiation," which uses medieval philosophical categories to define a holy mystery.

Today the noticeable differences are these: In the Episcopal Church bishops and priests can be married; there is no centralized authority figure like the pope; lay people play a greater role in decision making; sacramental confession is optional not required; married couples are permitted to use responsible means of birth control. Because its national churches are autonomous, yet interdependent, decision-making in the Episcopal Church can appear “messier” than in, say, the centralized Roman Catholic Church. Some would say it also provides room for the fresh winds of the Spirit to cleanse and refresh!

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