What’s the relationship between America’s Episcopal Church and the Church of England?

What’s the relationship between America’s Episcopal Church and the Church of England? February 16, 2017


If Henry VIII founded the Anglican Church, does that mean today’s head of the Episcopal Church is the reigning monarch of England?


No. After the American colonies won independence, Anglican leaders in the new nation met in 1789 to form the “Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America” as a totally separate, self-governing denomination, though with shared heritage, sentiment, and liturgy with the mother church.

The current distinction between these two bodies was dramatized when the Church of England bishops issued a new consensus report upholding “the existing doctrinal position on marriage and sexual relationships” (meaning the tradition that disallows same-sex partners) and supported it by 43-1 at a February 15 General Synod session. In separate votes, lay delegates favored the proposed “take note” motion by 58 percent but clergy delegates killed it with 52 percent opposed. (See www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2017/02/result-of-the-vote-on-the-house-of-bishops-report.aspx).

By contrast, the U.S. Episcopal Church has turned solidly liberal. It endorsed consecration of the first openly gay bishop in 2003, affirmed ordination of priests living in same-sex relationships in 2009, and rewrote the definition of marriage in 2015 to authorize same-sex weddings.

Since King Henry broke from Roman Catholicism in 1534, yes, the reigning monarch has been the head of the Church of England (odd as that seems from the U.S. standpoint). Upon coronation, the king or queen becomes the church’s “supreme governor” and takes a public oath to “maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England.”

Nonetheless, modern-day monarchs are figureheads without any of the religious leverage exercised by Henry and his royal successors. The official explanation of the crown’s status: www.royal.uk/queens-relationship-churches-england-and-scotland-and-other-faiths.

Queen Elizabeth II gives pro forma approval to Parliament’s endorsement of General Synod policies, and she nominally appoints all bishops including the church’s actual leader, the archbishop of Canterbury. In reality she has no power. Bishop candidates are assessed privately by a 16-member Crown Nominations Commission that includes church delegates and the prime minister’s appointments secretary. The commission sends two nominees in order of preference to the prime minister — a politician not necessarily a Church of England member or even a devout Christian — who picks which bishop the queen appoints.

In the U.S. church, bishop candidates are openly named, with elections held by democratic ballot at conventions of a diocese’s clergy and lay delegates.

The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment of 1791 outlaws an “establishment of religion” by the federal government, but would that forbid a president’s personal leadership of a religious body as in England? James Garfield had been an important U.S. House member and a Disciples of Christ preacher, but not a top church leader, when elected president. Utah’s Reed Smoot was one of the 12 reigning apostles of the Mormon church throughout his three decades in the U.S. Senate. But no president has headed a denomination and as a matter of practical politics none ever will.

Ecclesiastical geography:  The U.S. church and the four separate Anglican entities in the United Kingdom (covering England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) are among 44 independent branches of the Anglican Communion, a loose world network of churches with British roots that together claim 85 million adherents. The archbishop of Canterbury is its honorary leader, but has no pope-like authority over the national branches. While the branches in England, Ireland, and Wales bar same-sex marriage, the Scots may give it final approval this year.

Both the English and American branches have experienced serious membership declines even as Anglicanism elsewhere is growing, as analyzed in a new anthology: http://anglicanmainstream.org/growth-and-decline-in-the-anglican-communion. The global Anglican bonds are severely strained due to differences on the gay issue, biblical tradition otherwise, and, to a lesser extent, female clergy.

Some 1,000 conservative congregations have quit the Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada to establish the Anglican Church in North America. There’ve been other, smaller schisms. ACNA is not considered part of the Anglican Communion, yet several branches recognize it and its archbishop was invited to a 2016 meeting of the 44 branches’ heads. All the world’s Anglican bishops will pursue these struggles at their next “Lambeth Conference,” scheduled for 2020.

Sidelights: In 2008, Prince Charles indicated that as king he’d be the “Defender of Faith,” indicating any and all faiths, as opposed to the traditional “Defender of the Faith,” meaning Christianity. In 2011, a committee of Parliament noted an anomalous situation would occur with a future Catholic monarch who’d lack communion with the Church of England he or she heads.

The Church of Ireland covers both the Republic and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland province. The “Scottish Episcopal Church” is Anglican and not to be confused with the “Church of Scotland,” which is Presbyterian in doctrine and governance. Since Scotland’s 1707 union with England, the British monarch has had an honorary role with the latter and vows to “preserve the settlement of the true Protestant religion as established by the laws made in Scotland.”


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