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What Is Episcopal Theology?

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  • Written By: Dan Harkins
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 30 October 2016
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The Episcopal Church, a blend of Catholic and Protestant traditions, was one of several mainline Protestant movements that formed during the birth of America. During this time, Anglican Christian colonists formed their own reformed versions of Lutheran theology that would not require them to bow to the British monarchy. Episcopal theology forms the faith and beliefs of more than 2,000,000 members at the beginning of the 21st century, making it the fourth-largest mainline denomination behind Methodist, Evangelical and Presbyterian sects. It is widely characterized by its liberal leanings in matters of social justice and non-fundamentalist approach to interpreting Scripture.

The attraction for many congregants is Episcopal theology's interpretational approach of the Old and New Testaments, particularly when recounting the life and times of Jesus Christ. Leaders, called bishops and priests just like in the Catholic faith, preach to accentuate the meaning of scriptural passages as much as, if not more than, pointing out the literal details. For instance, a survey of Episcopal Church members performed by the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) found that proponents of Episcopal theology were 68 percent in agreement that evolution was responsible for the rise of human civilization.

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This lack of fundamentalism is further illustrated by other dichotomies found in the ARDA findings. Congregants were 96.5 percent in agreement about the existence of a universal spirit, or God, and 92 percent agree on whether religion can lead to eternal life. Only 40 percent of those same congregants, however, believed in the existence of an actual place called hell. Further, while 71 percent agree with there being official standards by which to conduct a moral life, just 27 percent would consider themselves conservative.

Episcopal theology began in 1789 and reached its greatest popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. The church had as many as 3,500,000 congregants in 1966, at the height of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. Since 1925, the church has maintained about 7,000 churches within the United States alone, and at least 1,000,000 members. The church's theology also has taken root overseas in places like Nigeria. For decades, Episcopalian congregations have been largely anti-war, Democratic, registered to vote, and community-service oriented.

Widely known for a series of "firsts" in mainline Protestant organizations, Episcopal theology was the first to spur an Anglican religious body to ordain a woman as a priest, in 1976; in 2011, the church is led by a woman, Primate Katharine Schori. It also was among the first to ordain priests who are African American or openly gay as well as to allow priests to perform gay marriages.

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