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Episcopal Teachings

Does the Episcopal Church teach anything?

By Bruce E. Ford

The Episcopal Church is not a denomination or sect.  It holds no distinctive doctrines.  Furthermore, it allows its members great freedom in the interpretation of its official teaching and is extremely tolerant of deviation from that teaching. Nevertheless, it unequivocally teaches the Catholic Faith—the faith that was generally held throughout the church during the first millennium, before the Great Schism between East and West.

It teaches this faith not in formal statements of doctrine but in its liturgical formularies, particularly in the Book of Common Prayer.  Like the other churches of the Anglican Communion, it lives by a maxim attributed to Prosper of Aquitaine, a fifth-century theologian: Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, that is, Let the law of praying establish the law of believing.

The only formal statements of doctrine adopted by the Episcopal Church in the United States are the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.[1] In the Book of Common Prayer, however, the church affirms other essentials of Catholic doctrine not expressed in the creeds and rejected in whole or in part by Protestants.

The Prayer Book rite for Holy Baptism affirms the doctrine of Baptismal regeneration.  Persons who reject this doctrine cannot honestly pray, “Now sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, that those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior,” or, “…we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace.

The rites for the Holy Eucharist affirm both the sacrificial character of the Eucharist and the objective presence of Christ in the sacrament of his Body and Blood. 

Every Eucharistic Prayer in the Prayer Book includes a verbal offering of the gifts

  • Prayer A : “We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father, in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.  Recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer you these gifts.”

  • Prayer B:  “…we offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to you, O Lord of all, presenting to you, from your creation, this bread and this wine.”

  • Prayer C:  “And so, Father, we who have been redeemed by him and made a new people by water and the Spirit, now bring before you these gifts…”  

  • Prayer D:  “Recalling Christ’s death and his descent among the dead, proclaiming his resurrection and ascension to your right hand, awaiting his coming in glory, and offering to you, from the gifts you have given us, this bread and this cup, we praise you and we bless you.”

  • Prayer I:   “…we thy humble servants do celebrate and make here before thy divine majesty with these thy holy gifts, which we now offer unto thee…”

  • Prayer II:  “we thy people do celebrate and make, with these thy holy gifts which we now offer unto thee, the memorial thy Son hath commanded us to make.

Eucharistic Prayer D and the Roman Missal’s Eucharistic Prayer IV are both based on the Alexandrian version of the Anaphora of St. Basil (4th century).  In the points at which they differ, the Episcopal Church’s version of the Prayer is more faithful to the source.[2]  The Roman Church altered the text to make it express a particular theory of Eucharistic sacrifice that is traceable only to the fourteenth century.  According to this theory--quite foreign to Thomas Aquinas and earlier doctors of the Church--the celebrant first consecrates the gifts to be the Body and Blood of Christ and then offers them—already consecrated—to the Father.  In the Roman form of the prayer the petition for the consecration of the gifts precedes the account of our Lord’s institution of the Eucharist, and the paragraph following the institution narrative includes the words “we offer you his Body and Blood.”  These words are not found in the Roman Canon missae or in any other ancient Eucharistic Prayer.  Early writings equate the consecration of the gifts to be the Body and Blood of Christ with God’s acceptance of the Church’s sacrifice.  Early Eucharistic theology is based on the truth that the Church is the Body of Christ, and that when the Church offers itself to the Father in the signs of bread and wine, Christ, in the very nature of the case, offers himself to the Father.  The Church offers itself through, with, and in Christ to the Father, and Christ offers himself to the Father through, with, and in the Church. Consecration consists in the identification of the Church’s offering with his—the identification of the bread and wine on the altar with his Body and Blood.  The words, “we offer you his Body and Blood,” or others akin to them do not appear in any ancient Eucharistic Prayer because they do not reflect an ancient understanding of Eucharistic sacrifice.[3] 

In contrast to the Eucharistic Prayers of both the Episcopal and Roman churches, Protestant Eucharistic prayers consistently omit all reference to the offering of the gifts because the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers denied that the Eucharist is a God-ward act of sacrificial worship.

The Prayer Book’s most obvious affirmation of the objective presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is a rubric: “If any of the consecrated Bread or Wine remain, apart from any which may be required for the Communion of the sick… the celebrant or deacon, and other communicants reverently eat and drink it, either after Communion of the people or after the Dismissal.”  If the church held that the consecrated bread and wine were mere tokens of Christ’s presence in the consciousness of the communicants, it would have no reason to require that the gifts be reverently consumed. 

Several of the Episcopal Church’s Eucharistic prayers explicitly affirm Christ’s real, objective presence in the sacrament:

  • Prayer A: “sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son…”

  • Prayer C: “Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ our Lord…”

  • Prayer D: “…sanctifying them and showing them to be holy gifts for your holy people, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, the Body and Blood of your Son Jesus Christ.” 

The so-called “Prayer of Humble Access” in Rite I includes the petition, “grant us so to eat the flesh of they dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his Blood that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.”   This petition explicitly affirms that that those who receive the sacrament without the proper interior disposition nevertheless “eat the flesh of…Christ and… drink his Blood” even though their reception of the sacrament does not unite them spiritually with Christ.  Implicitly, therefore, it acknowledges Christ’s objective presence in the sacrament.

The Episcopal Church has maintained the Historic Episcopate and the three-fold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons.  The preface to the Ordinal states, furthermore, that “It is recognized and affirmed that the threefold ministry is not the exclusive property of this portion of Christ’s catholic Church, but is a gift from God for the nurture of his people and the proclamation of his Gospel everywhere.  Accordingly, the manner of ordaining in this Church is to be such as has been, and is, most generally recognized by Christian people as suitable for the conferring of the sacred orders of bishop, priest, and deacon.”

The Church affirms the authority of bishops and priests to pronounce absolution and encourages the practice of auricular confession by providing in the Prayer Book two forms for “Reconciliation of a Penitent”—one based on Eastern models and the other based on Western.

The church also affirms the efficacy of the saints’ intercession in one of the “Additional Prayers” provided at the end of the Burial Office: “O God the King of saints, we praise and magnify thy holy Name for all thy servants who have finished their course in thy faith and fear…and we pray that…aided by their prayers and strengthened by their fellowship, we may be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light…” 

The Episcopal Church unhesitatingly venerates the Blessed Virgin Mary.   Its calendar designates August 15 as a feast in her honor.  It also commemorates her explicitly on three other feasts:  The Annunciation, The Visitation, and the Presentation. 

The creeds, the collect and preface of Christmas, Eucharistic Prayer B, and Eucharistic Prayer D explicitly affirm the virginal conception of Jesus.

Like the rest of the Church until recent times,[4] the Episcopal Church takes no official position of whether Mary was conceived without original sin or whether she was bodily assumed into heaven.

The Episcopal Church requires intercessory prayer for the faithful departed at every celebration of the Eucharist.  Prayer for the dead—a practice traceable to Christian antiquity—is not consonant with the Protestant belief that those who die in Christ enter into the fullness of eternal joy without undergoing any kind of cleansing or sanctification.  Obviously, those who have attained to the fullness of joy in God’s presence have no need for the prayers of those on earth.  Implicitly, therefore, the church teaches that the faithful departed undergo cleansing and sanctification before they fully partake of the beatific vision.  This is not to say that God denies them the fullness of his presence for a time to punish them for their sins.  Rather, it is to say that sin, by its very nature, impedes their communion with God, and that, consequently, they cannot fully enjoy communion with him until they have been cleansed from sin.  The Prayer Book does not use the word “purgatory” to refer to the process by which the faithful departed are cleansed and sanctified because some persons associate the word with the notion of punishment or expiation.  Purgation is not, however, equivalent to punishment or expiation, and the word, of itself, is unobjectionable.

The Book of Common Prayer, which can be changed only by action of two successive General Conventions, reflects the mind of this church.  All Episcopal churches are required to use the Prayer Book, and all who worship according to the Book of Common Prayer give implied assent to the teaching of the church.  Thus the law of praying establishes the law of believing.


[1] The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, which reflect the views of the sixteenth-century English Reformers, have been relegated to an appendix of “Historical Documents” and have long since ceased to be regarded as authoritative. They Church of England never fully embraced the Reformers’ theology.

[2] Thomas J. Talley, “The Windsor Statement and the Eucharistic Prayer,” Worship: Reforming Tradition (Washington D.C.: Pastoral Press, 1990), 38-46

[3] Aidan Kavanaugh and other eminent Roman Catholic liturgists have sharply criticized their own church’s alteration of this ancient prayer. See Talley, op. cit.

[4] The Roman Catholic Church—by papal fiat—proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception only in 1854 and the dogma of the Assumption in 1950. 

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