Glad You Asked: What’s the difference between Episcopalians and Catholics?

On this episode of the podcast, Bryan Cones discusses the origins of the Episcopal Church and how Episcopal practices differ from Catholic ones.

There are certain core beliefs that every Christian denomination shares: the Trinity. The divinity of Jesus. Jesus’ death and resurrection. Some Protestants have little in common with Catholics beyond these and a few other core beliefs, but other denominations seem closely related to Catholicism. The Episcopal Church, for instance, has a lot in common with the Catholic Church, in terms of belief and liturgical practice. Both denominations have priests and bishops, and both recognize the sacraments. So what distinguishes the Catholic faith from the Episcopal faith? What are the significant differences between these two Christian faith traditions? 

On this episode of the podcast, guest Bryan Cones discusses the origins of the Episcopal Church, how Episcopal practices differ from Catholic ones, what the two denominations have in common, and how to understand the different traditions within the Episcopal Church.  

Cones is an Episcopal priest and the pastor at Trinity Episcopal Church in Highland Park, Illinois. He has a doctorate in liturgy and practical theology from Pilgrim Theological College-University of Divinity in Melbourne, Australia and has published seven books and more than a hundred articles on Christian spirituality. He is also a former managing editor at U.S. Catholic. 

You can learn more about this topic, and read some of Cones’ writings, in these links.

The following is a transcript of this episode of Glad You Asked.

Emily Sanna: Bryan, thanks for joining us today.

Bryan Cones: Thank you, I’m looking forward to the conversation.

Emily: What our listeners might not know is that you used to be a managing editor here at U.S. Catholic.

Bryan: I was indeed. Back in the mid-2000s, I think I finished up in about 2012.

Emily: This is actually the season of the previous managing editors. We had Heidi Schlumpf on as our first episode. And then you’re on today. So this has been a lot of fun to get to talk to people who used to work here.

Bryan: Awesome.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss: So yeah, to start, maybe we should discuss what Episcopal even means. What’s the origin of this term and why is it the name of the denomination?

Bryan: So we got that name because basically after the American Revolution, there were Anglicans in the colonies and many of them had been royalists. So if they wanted to make sure that their church continued without any kind of discrimination based on their political identity, they would need a new name. And because the Anglican church, the Church of England, all Anglican churches have bishops that are understood to be in the apostolic succession, at least by Anglicans, the American Anglicans needed a bishop.

So they sent away to Scotland, sent one of the priests away to Scotland to get ordained as a bishop. And then when they created themselves in the United States in the late-18th century, 1789, they decided to choose the name the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States to designate that they were a church with a bishop, but they didn’t want to say Anglican. So in effect, we got that name to avoid being called Anglicans. And then the Episcopal Church is the first church in the Anglican, what is now the Anglican Communion, to be an independent church. So we were the first kind of breakaway basically because of the U.S. Revolution. So we’ve maintained that name now as we’re probably the only member of the Anglican Communion that uses a different name. Yeah, I think that’s it. We don’t use USA anymore because we have provinces in Central America and in the Caribbean. So we’re just the Episcopal Church.

Emily: Catholics often associate the Episcopalians with Henry VIII and him starting the church because he wanted to get divorced, right? And they don’t really know about any of the other history or doctrinal concerns. So can you talk a little bit about how the Episcopal or Anglican church got its start?

Bryan: Sure, so Anglicanism really did start as part of that reformation process. And I think it’s fair to say that the reason the Catholics of England got carved away from communion with Rome was Henry VIII, although he was not Protestant theologically himself. He wrote all kinds of defenses of the Catholic faith, and I think even got a medal from the pope for doing so.

The real founder of Anglicanism though is Elizabeth I. So we call it the Elizabethan settlement. So during that time, there was all kinds of back and forth. Henry VIII kind of separated from Roman Catholicism in a way, but didn’t create a new church necessarily. His daughter Mary eventually becomes queen and she is a Catholic. She restores the Roman Catholic hierarchy. And there was a lot of kind of civil war and conflict going on. So when Elizabeth I gets in power, like any good Monarch, they want peace and one way to do that is through the church. So like Charlemagne and Roman emperors before her, she imposed one. It was called the Elizabethan settlement and it was just a law, an act of parliament that required everyone to attend at least one service on Sunday that was read from the Book of Common Prayer. So the prayer book that was produced beginning in 1549, so this one was in 1552. And so she was the one that actually is the founder of Anglicanism. And I think by then, she becomes the titular head of the Church of England at the time. But then doctrinally, by then they had taken a reformation path in terms of the use of scripture, but had also maintained a certain kind of Catholic path by maintaining the episcopacy, which they understood to be in the apostolic succession. And most of the liturgy, I mean, the patterns of liturgy, especially baptism and Eucharist. But by that time, you would really expect Anglicanism to have been more Protestantist oriented.

But most Anglicans don’t like to be called Protestants because they tend to see themselves as the equivalent of a local Catholic church that is rooted in England and English culture, but kind of in the same way we see Orthodoxy or the Orthodox churches as independent churches, Anglicanism would like to be seen in that light as well.

Emily: So you mentioned that they had a more Protestant orientation when it came to scripture, right? Could you talk about what you meant by that a little bit?

Bryan: Well, so every parish in the Church of England at the time had to have two books. One was the Book of Common Prayer and the other one was the Bible. And so it was actually chained in the parish so no one could take it, right? Those are really expensive things. Over time, the most common celebration of the liturgy in the Church of England was morning prayer, especially on Sunday. And morning prayer includes a whole lot of reading from scripture, long passages from scripture, followed by usually very long sermons. So I was in England in the Church of Ireland, and Jonathan Swift was actually a Church of Ireland priest and he would preach for hours and his pulpit was on wheels so if people fell asleep they could wheel him over there so they could yell at them. So yeah, so the Protestant focus on reading a lot of scripture and then trying to focus all your doctrinal statements rooted in scripture and then that sermon tradition which exists now in Roman Catholicism, but think long sermons, like hours long. So you could expect that during the week there would be morning prayer, midday prayer during the week, and the preacher would be preaching for an hour. Not my thing.

Rebecca: So we have these different names, then from a Catholic standpoint, it can be confusing. We’ve got the Anglican Church, the Church of England. Are those the same things? Are these just different names for the same denomination?

Bryan: Yeah, so we are actually all independent churches. So the Church of England is its own church. And over time, those churches that were founded by Anglicans, usually in places that the British were either in political control or had invaded, those churches all became independent. So we call it the Anglican Communion, but it’s best to think of us as like a loose confederation of sibling or cousin churches. So whereas the Bishop of Rome can directly intervene in the Archdiocese of Chicago, remove the bishop, and place a new one in that bishop’s place, the Archbishop of Canterbury can’t do anything but write us a letter and say, we don’t like something that you’re doing. So we’re really, we use that term autocephalic, so the Orthodox as well, we’re all independent churches and all self -governing. And so our relationship is basically one of fellowship for lack of a better word, communion. We do try to get the bishops of the Anglican churches together about once every 10 years in Lambeth to kind of work out differences. But none of that is enforceable. And in fact, about 15 years ago, there was an attempt to create some kind of universal kind of doctoral declaration that all Anglicans would agree to, and it failed miserably. You can’t get us to agree on anything.

Emily: So can you talk a little bit about any significant doctrinal differences between Catholics and the Episcopal Church?

Bryan: Yeah, well, you know, the biggest doctrinal difference is the amount of doctrine. So in the back of the Book of Common Prayer, there’s about a 20 page catechism, which reads like most catechism, you know, what’s the church, who is God the Father, and so on. And that’s 20 pages long. And you know, the catechism of the Catholic Church is a really thick, thick book of thousands of pages. So what I would say about the Episcopal Church, but Anglicanism in general is that it’s doctrinally minimalist. That is, there’s a base of things that we all agree upon. But to get us to say one thing about any one particular position, it really depends on the church that you’re in. And I mean, congregation by congregation. So in Anglicanism, we have what we call the Chicago Lambeth Quadrilateral, which is just these four things that’s our basis of ecumenical partnerships. So when we dialogue with other churches, these are important things that we care about.

One, that we all celebrate baptism and Eucharist and see them as founded, you know, rooted in Jesus’ own ministries of baptism and Eucharist. That we find the word of God in the Old and New Testaments or the Hebrew Bible and the Christian scriptures, but that’s where we find the word of God in that canon. That we all profess the two historic creeds of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. And the last of which is that we organize ourselves with bishops so that we understand our church to be in succession in that way, though we can organize the ministry of bishop differently to base on the culture, though most places will have diocese with the bishop. So those are the four basic things. So often, because we’re a democratic church, especially in the Episcopal Church, a lot of doctrinal issues are settled in that way through debate and even votes. So if you watch the history of the Episcopal Church dealing with like, social issues like divorce or contraception or same gender marriage, what you’ll find is we meet every three years in general convention, you’ll find resolutions dealing with those topics over and over again until the church comes to some final discernment, which might take 15 or 20 years. The same in the liturgy as well. So that our prayer book, you know, you had to take it to convention and vote on it and they might offer amendments and then the next year vote on it. So it really is a, it’s a much more locally democratic process in that there’s so many more people with voting. And I think because of that, the level of magisterial authority is thinned. So there will be only a few things that we would say are binding on all of us. And those four things that I talked about would probably be it.

Rebecca: So obviously all of the Christian denominations hold certain beliefs in common, otherwise they wouldn’t be Christian. But what are the specific areas of overlap between Catholics and Episcopalians? Especially someone who wanders into an Episcopal Church might think it was a Catholic Church at first because of the similarities.

Bryan: They would unless they were very, very attentive to language. So the things, if you walked into one of our churches and were quite congregational, so congregation by congregation, it could look like a very old fashioned English church, or it could look like a 1990s Roman Catholic church that’s built in the round. So I think Sunday wise, almost no difference. And I would even say up to and including kind of belief in real presence in the Eucharist, the structure of the liturgies is almost identical. Our lectionary is the revised common lectionary but it follows closely the Roman lectionary. And our Eucharistic prayers were produced from the same body of work that produced the original four Eucharistic prayers in the current Roman Missal. We have some further prayers after that, but those basic structures are almost all the same. And that’s just why you wouldn’t notice the difference. The difference you would notice are questions of church order or depending theology. So you’re a theology ordination. So, you know, obviously orders in our church are open to a broader collection of the baptized, without regard to gender or marital status. And so someone walking in noticing that a woman is presiding would be a signal you’re probably not in a Catholic Church. So those kinds of things, but actually there’s broad agreement. I think that the things that separate us the most are these questions of church order or your theology ordination and who can be ordained. And then some questions around like the use of sexuality and gender which for me are different kinds of moral questions, so we can have disagreements about them, but they’re not at the heart of doctrine or dogma. So if you boil it down to those ancient Greeks and stuff, we have great deals of similarity. And then beyond that, I think that there’s a lot of common cause between our church and some of the other churches of the Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church in matters of social justice teaching. That we would, you know, almost simultaneously, we’ve rejected back in the 60s any idea that Christianity replaces Judaism, for example, that we have been working on our own versions of the doctrine of discovery that is theological justifications for enslavement of people or invasion of places. So especially in regard to First Nations and Native peoples. And I think that our common efforts right now in matters of racial justice and economic justice, you would find lots of overlap.

Emily: Can you talk about liturgy for a little bit? Because the first time I went to an Episcopal Church was in grad school and the altar was against the wall. And I was like, are we pre-Vatican II? What just happened? What do I do? So yeah, can you talk a little bit about the liturgy and the variations you see within the denomination, but also how that compares to Catholic liturgy?

Bryan: So the most shocking thing that I discovered when I was worshiping as an Episcopalian is that really from church to church, you will find something different. There was always the same Book of Common Prayer, the same collection of resources, but the way they got enacted were quite different. And that reflects the history of Anglicanism. And the history of Anglicanism is some conflict around those times. So back in the origins, the more Protestant groups of Anglicans would really just do a word service. And there were no vestments or candles and that stuff.

But there was another party that was very Catholic in orientation, and they basically did everything that Catholicism was doing except in English. And that keeps happening over and over again. So the reason you notice that is that, so in the liturgical reform of the Roman Catholic Church, when the 1969 Roman Missal came out, everybody had to use it. And so there was a pretty quick break between what was a liturgy almost always celebrated in Latin, with the east-facing altar, to fairly quickly a transformation where the altars came forward and everything was in English. That happened in about ten years. Anglicanism, and in our case the Episcopal Church, we just tend to stick things on. So rather than get rid of the old liturgy, we just stuck a new liturgy on it. And so in the Book of Common Prayer you’ll have R1, which is still kind of Elizabethan-style language, you know, these and the Kings and all that stuff. And then attached right to which we call contemporary language. And then it’s a little bit different, but then there’s a choice. So many churches have a right one service and a right to service. So more traditional or historic liturgy and something that’s more contemporary. The other thing that’s true is that the Roman Missal really has a lot of rubrics directing how the liturgy is meant to be enacted, especially by the presider. The Book of Common Prayer is almost blank.

So the only things that I’m required to do when I’m presiding is at the words of institution of the Eucharistic prayer to touch or hold the gifts. So to touch the vessel with the bread or to touch the vessel with the wine. I can do anything I want. So, I mean, as long as I do that, the basics, but you will find priests that do high elevations, that use bells, that use an east facing altar. And 

I am a liturgist by training and vocation and sometimes it drives me crazy. But that is the Episcopal way. I mean, you will not find, and especially on that matter, any kind of uniformity. You’ll find some family resemblance and some old-fashioned vestments that no matter where you go, you’ll find those two old-fashioned names and things like that. But that variety is very much a hallmark of the Episcopal Church, which I especially think is funny because we’re so small. There’s only 1.5 million Episcopalians. But from church to church, you’d find a lot of difference.

Emily: So we know that the Catholic Church sees that the Episcopal Church kind of splintered off and did their own thing. What’s the Episcopal Church’s view on the Catholic Church?

Bryan: So from that set of things, we recognize Roman Catholicism as a real church. We’re about to, our bishop’s gonna visit my parish and we’re gonna have confirmations. If you’re a Roman Catholic and we’re confirmed, because we recognize the validity of Roman Catholic orders and the rest, we would not reconfirm you. You are received into the church in the same way you might be received into the Catholic Church, although usually with confirmation. And that is what is the opposite. So, if a Roman Catholic priest wanted to become an Episcopal priest, we would receive their orders. We would not reordain them. If I were to change my mind and say, I’d like to be a Roman Catholic priest, and I went through that whole process, I would be completely reordained. There’s no recognition. And that has to do with a papal judgment in the late-19th century that judged Anglican orders null and void. And the judgment was that the apostolic succession had been broken during the time of the Reformation.

So that’s the biggest difference is that there’s no mutual recognition of orders. We recognize Roman Catholic orders, but the Roman Catholic Church does not recognize any Anglican orders at all. And that there was, we were getting closer to something different in the 1990s, but that was when the Church of England, which up to that time did not ordain women, began ordaining women. So as soon as women began to be ordained, then that ecumenical dialogue about recognizing Anglican orders stopped because that broke the conversation basically.

Rebecca: So how about participation in services? Can a Catholic show up at an Episcopal church and participate just as they would in a Catholic church? Could an Episcopalian do the same in a Catholic church?

Bryan: So for our part, if you came to an Episcopal church and were baptized, then you can participate completely in any way that you would like, up to and including receiving communion. In fact, in some Episcopal churches, the invitation is quite broad, and there’s no concern even about baptism, which is an argument that we’re having right now. But our church law says any baptized Christian can participate fully in the liturgy and receive communion. I think that is not the case in the Roman Catholic Church, which has a higher bar for Eucharistic participation. So many Episcopalians do because their family members go to Roman Catholic churches. And then, you know, many Roman Catholic churches do make it really clear who’s, who is free to receive communion, who is not. And so it depends on the heritage of the people. Episcopalians with Roman Catholic heritage, like myself, often will receive communion because even by canon, they remain Roman Catholics. And it would be hard to say that just worshiping in another church would so break your communion as if a mortal sin that would prevent you from receiving communion. So many Episcopalians of that heritage do continue to receive communion. And I will even say if I am not known in a place to be an Episcopal priest and I’m at a Roman Catholic context, then I will continue to receive communion as a reflection of my continued relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. I wouldn’t do that if I was known to be a priest because that might cause more disruption. So you can edit that out if you want. But I think that that’s a fairly common approach for many Roman Catholics who have found a new place to follow Jesus in Episcopal Church.

But I think for the most part, I will say this is a difficulty for many Episcopalians or other Christians that come to us, is that especially when they go to funerals or more ecumenical events, that it’s painful to be actively disinvited, especially in those times where we’d want to show communion, although granting that we need to, there is a desire to respect Roman Catholic approaches to Eucharistic communion.

Emily: So out of curiosity, you said that all baptized people are invited to take communion in the physical church. Is first communion a thing? Do you do any sort of preparation?

Bryan: So one of the things the Book of Common Prayer said is that baptism is full initiation. So we don’t think of initiation as that kind of baptism, confirmation, Eucharist arc that still exists in Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, which means that progressively we’ve communicated children as soon as they’re able to ask, because we really take that part seriously. If you’re baptized, you’re in, so you can receive communion.

But there is kind of a pastoral desire, especially among some parents, to have a special kind of celebration of First Communion, often of Roman Catholic heritage, but also for an opportunity to help form young people in what communion is and why we do it and that kind of thing. So you will find in many Episcopal churches, especially what we call the Anglo-Catholic variety, that tend to have more, their liturgy looks more Roman Catholic or even, as you say, pre-Vatican II Catholic, they will be celebrating that. So up until the middle of the 20th century in the Church of England, you could not receive communion until you’d been confirmed. And that confirmation might not happen until you were 13 or 14. So it was kind of a reversal in Anglicanism for the Episcopal Church to say, hey, baptism is it. And then once you’re baptized, you can receive.

Rebecca: Thank you so much for answering all of these questions. This has been really fascinating.

Bryan: Thanks very much. Glad You Asked was one of my favorite features of U.S. Catholic. I wrote a bunch of them, but I always thought it was the most helpful. We always got readers telling us how much they liked those. So this is good fun. I’m glad you made it to the podcast. That’s great.

Emily: Yeah. Well, they’re still the most popular pages on the website all of the time. There’s some that are from like 2000 that people are still Googling.

Bryan: Yeah, there’s heaps.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.