Anglicans & Episcopalians:
An Explanation

By Rev. Rebecca

Canterbury Cathedral

Many people are quite confused over the differences and similarities between Anglicans (also called Episcopalians in the US and elsewhere) and Roman Catholics. Here is a very short, succinct explanation!


In the sixth century the Catholic Church arrived in England through missionaries from Rome and Ireland. This church grew and spread and was an integral part of the wider Catholic ("universal") Church. In the sixteenth century during the Reformation, the church in England declared itself independent from Rome under Henry VIII and then in 1570 Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I. The church in England then became "The Church of England," an entirely separate church from Rome, and later was referred to simply as the "Anglican Church" (from the word "Anglo").

Anglicans settled in many countries throughout the world and were among the first to settle in North America shortly after the Puritans arrived. However, when the Revolutionary War occurred in North America, the U.S. declared its independence from England and American Anglicans quickly changed their name to "Episcopalians" in order to avoid persecution and obvious ties to England. "Episcopal" simply means "to have bishops" but Episcopalians remained and still are Anglicans today.

Today the Anglican Communion consists of churches on every continent. In order to be a member of the Anglican Communion, a Church must be in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury in Canterbury, England. There are currently many Anglicans in countries where the British established colonies and focused missionary efforts including Africa (particularly the Sudan and Nigeria), India, and China, but Anglicans can be found in every country today. Anglicanism is the third largest Christian religious body in the world.

Anglicans and Roman Catholics

Many people are confused by the similarities they see between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. Obviously these similarities are due to their common roots and heritage (since they used to be the same church), but Anglicanism was heavily influenced by the Protestant Reformation and this accounts for some significant differences in theology and approach. An Anglican worship service or "mass" is almost identical to a Roman Catholic service except for a few minor differences. The most obvious difference is the fact that Episcopalians ordain women to the Diaconate, Episcopate, and Priesthood, unlike the Roman Catholic Church. But many other differences exist between Roman Catholics and Anglicans as well. For example, Anglicans allow their clergy to marry and celibacy is never mandated for clergy (unless they are under Religious vows as a monk or nun). Most Episcopal Dioceses ordain LGBTQ individuals and bless same-sex unions. While Anglicans respect the Papacy, they are not under Papal authority and take a more democratic approach to church governance. Anglicans allow for family planning among their members and encourage the use of contraceptives. Divorce and remarriage are also allowed in the Episcopal Church, with the counsel and consent of one's priest and Bishop.

Heritage and Tradition

At the same time, Anglicans treasure their heritage and tradition and are very strong believers in maintaining those ancient traditions, particularly in the areas of worship, liturgy, sacraments, architecture, and patristic/matristic theology. Anglicans tend to affirm the idea of the "real presence" of Christ in Communion, although this is not a mandatory understanding and individual beliefs vary. Anglicans do insist on maintaining Apostolic Succession: the direct lineage of ordination that can be traced back to the apostles. (For example, when my Bishop laid hands on me to ordain me, he had the authority to do so because the Bishops who laid hands on him had hands laid on them who were in the direct line of Bishops going back to the apostles.) Anglicans honor and respect the writings and practices of the early, ancient church and seek to find ways to both maintain their heritage while simultaneously moving forward to address current issues and embrace new discoveries, thereby living out the middle way or "via media," which is an Anglican ideal.

Moving Forward

The Episcopal Church in the USA has entered into communion with the ELCA, the Lutheran Church in America and in so doing, we have reversed nearly 500 years of schism between the churches since the Reformation. Anglicans continue to work with other churches and denominations in many ecumenical efforts to bring unity to the world wide Church. Anglicans are also at the forefront of interfaith dialogue and ministry and seek to work together in unity with people of other religions.

Our Beliefs

To get a sense of the basic beliefs of the Episcopal Church, check out our Book of Common Prayer and read our Catechism:

The Catechism

The Book of Common Prayer

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