How Are Roman Catholics and Episcopalians Different in Their Beliefs and Practice?

Question: What is the difference in belief between Roman Catholics and Episcopalians? I was once told, “All the ceremony and half the guilt” but there must be more to it than that.

Washington National Cathedral, a cathedral of the Episcopal Church located in Washington D.C.

Episcopalians are the American branch of the world Anglican Communion. Anglican doctrine weaves together two main strands of Christian doctrine during the English Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first strand comes from the Catholic doctrine taught by the established Church in England in the early 16th century. The second strand represents a range of Protestant teachings brought to England from neighboring countries like Scotland in the same period. Because of such a broad range of diverse practice, Episcopal liturgical styles vary from the simple to the elaborate. A large part of The Episcopal Church in the United States has retained rich and reverent ceremony as part of its Catholic heritage.

There is also a difference in structure and decision-making between Anglicans/Episcopalians and Roman Catholics. The Anglican Communion has no central authority. So, no pope or Vatican-like centralized governing authority. The spiritual head of the Anglican Communion is the Archbishop of Canterbury whose role is strictly symbolic and unifying, and the Communion’s three international bodies are consultative and collaborative. Their resolutions having no legal effect on the independent provinces of the Anglican Communion, like The Episcopal Church.

Belief-wise, Episcopalians (Anglicans) uphold and proclaim the Catholic and Apostolic faith, based on the same creeds and scripture, and interpreted in the light of Christian tradition, scholarship, and reason. They recognize seven sacraments (the same sacraments as the Catholic Church) and hold roughly the same moral values as Catholics with a few exceptions.

For example, with regard to the remarriage of divorced persons, there is presently no unanimity of doctrine or practice. As of 2016, the prominent doctrinal issue being actively debated in Anglican synods and convocations across the world is the place of LGBT people in the life of the church — specifically with respect to same-sex unions and ordination. The 20th century also saw an intense doctrinal debate among Anglicans over the ordination of women, which led to a schism, as well as to the conversion of some Anglican clergy to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Even today, there is no unanimity of doctrine or practice in the Anglican Communion as it relates to women’s ordination. Each national church or province makes its own decision. Needless to say, there is also discussion and a call for further dialogue on these issues within the Catholic Church.

Within the Anglican Communion, however, these subjects have had the further impact of inciting debate over the authority of Episcopal provinces (individual countries) in the absence of international consensus. Some provinces have moved further than others can easily accept. These developments have led some to call for a covenant to delimit the power of provinces to act on controversial issues independently, while others have called for a renewed commitment to comprehensiveness and tolerance of diverse practice.

Updated July 2017

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