What is tradition? How is it related to the way the Episcopal Church worships?
Tradition includes how we worship, most notably our liturgy the music in our hymnals, and the creeds we say in worship which express our beliefs. The liturgy used in the Episcopal Church, in fact, is largely the same one used in all Western liturgical churches, such as the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches. In fact, tradition is important in all churches whether it is conceded or not.
Tradition is how the wisdom of Christians who went before helps us answer questions today that are not decisively addressed in Scripture. We believe that God is still active in the church and that the Holy Spirit has been promised to guide the church. Important traditions in the Episcopal Church are the use of the Book of Common Prayer, the priesthood, and the sacraments.
The Episcopal Church is descended from the Church of England, and through its bishops, can trace its history all the way back to the earliest Christian communities. The Church of England separated itself from Roman jurisdiction but did not reject its Catholic heritage.
Thus, the Church of England came to be called the via media, or the "middle way," between the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church. In this way, churches in the Anglican Communion are both Protestant and Catholic, and maintain traditions found in both of those branches of Christianity.
The Episcopal Church recognizes itself to be a part of the "one holy and catholic church." It has bishops, priests and deacons, like the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. As well, its liturgy is similar to the Catholic mass.
But its emphasis on Scripture, its willingess to allow clergy to marry, as well as its love of great hymns, establishes some parallels with Protestant traditions as well.
In a sense, therefore, it is both. Mixed marriages, with one partner Roman Catholic and the other from a Protestant tradition, often find in the Episcopal Church a home they can share so that the family is united in the faith.
What is the Book of Common Prayer? Is it as important as the Bible?
The Book of Common Prayer has been called a "masterpiece" even by those outside of the Anglican tradition. Central to the Episcopal tradition is our commitment to common worship. We can disagree about all manner of things, but we agree to meet at the Lord's Table under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and, more pragmatically, the Book of Common Prayer. We believe the Spirit prompts us to prayer as the dominant way of worship. In prayer, we establish intimate communication with God.
It is the book that contains the prayers and liturgies that shape the worship life of the Episcopal Church. The Prayer Book, in fact, binds together all those in the Anglican Communion. The first Prayer Book was written in 1549 by Thomas Cranmer, who translated the mass into the English language and added the best worship resources he could find in the church at large. The first Book of Common Prayer for the new Episcopal Church in the United States was published in 1789.
The Book of Common Prayer is so important because it faithfully and eloquently puts the Bible in liturgical form.
Who are the ministers of the Episcopal Church?
Every baptized person is a minister in the Episcopal church. At Baptism, a person becomes a member of the laity. Lay people have a genuine ministry of carrying faith into the world in order to minister there to God's creation. Beyond the laity, there are three orders of ministry, recognized since the very earliest times of the church, rhat require special education and preparation and for which people are ordained:
-A deacon is a person set aside to do the servant ministry, usually in parishes, on behalf of the bishop. In a word, deacons are the servant hands of the bishop to the local community. Deacons assist in worship, preach, and minister to people wherever they happen to be. Deacons usually retain secular employment and work in a church about 10 hours a week.
-A priest is a person who has been affirmed by the larger community as one designated to convey the means of grace to Christians in the community. Only bishops may ordain priests and deacons. Priests baptize and preside at the Eucharist, preach the Word of God, and hear confessions. It is the priest who pronounces forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ if the bishop is not present.
-Bishops, as "overseers," have special duties of oversight and pastoral care for the clergy and laity who work and worship in their dioceses as well as responsibilities to the national church and the worldwide Anglican Communion.
What are the Sacraments? Do Episcopalians practice private confession?
The sacraments are defined in the Book of Common Prayer as the "outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace." The sacraments are tangible means (water, bread, wine) of God's bestowal of God's grace given to us. The two principal sacraments in the Episcopal Church are the sacrament of Baptism, in which we are marked as a child of God with the sign of the cross in water, and the Eucharist, in which we remember and celebrate Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Along with most Christians, we believe that Christ is truly present at the sacrifice of the altar.
Baptism happens only once since it signifies adoption by God and adoption happens only once. The Eucharist, by contrast, happens weekly in the church since it is the parish Sunday meal commissioned by the Lord. The other traditional rites that are sacramental include confirmation, ordination, marriage, reconciliation (confession and absolution), and the anointing of the sick. They are sacramental because they bestow the grace of God on the recipient.
Episcopalians may make private confessions to a priest and indeed some should, but private confession is not obligatory in the Episcopal Church. A general confession of sins is part of each Eucharist. The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis came to make private confession a part of his Christian life as he grew in his faith. We would do well to follow his lead.
How are deacons and priests discerned and ordained? May they marry?
The ordained ministry is open to all and each diocese of the Episcopal Church has a process, called "discernment," to assist those who feel they may be called to ordination. Ordination to either the diaconate or the priesthood is a recognition by the community that such persons have been called by God to an ordained ministry. Bishops do the ordaining. Ordained clergy may be either men or women, and they may marry and have children.
Is it true that the Episcopal Church makes room for "reason" in matters of faith? Isn't it dangerous to rely on reason in religious matters?
Christianity and reason in the Western world have a long, complicated relationship. The symbol of reason is often taken to be Socrates, the "father of philosophy". In fact, Christianity is not inherently contrary to reason and reason, as many Christian thinkers have argued, and can aid the exploration and expression of faith.
Reasonable people, on the other hand, have lots of points of view--so using reason is no guarantee of truth. But for all the points of view in the Episcopal Church on a wide range of issues, we confess the Nicene Creed together and we gather at the Lord's Table, which is the symbol of the unity we have. In a word, we agree that "the Lord is in our midst" and is sacramentally transforming our lives.
Sometimes the relationship of Scripture, tradition and reason is compared in the Episcopal Church to tricycle, with Scripture being the largest of the three wheels. Since Christian reason is always shaped by Scripture and the experience of the Christian community, it is not dangerous at all. In fact, we believe it to be restored to its proper role when shaped by faith.
You may hear reference to the Lambeth Quadrilateral. This is a four-point expression of the Anglican identity, often referred to as the condensed fundamentals of the Communion's doctrine, and as a reference-point for universal discussion with other Chritian denominations. The four points are:
1) The Holy Scriptures, as containing all things necessary to salvation;
2) The Creeds (specifically, the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds), as the sufficient statement of Christian faith;
3) The Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion;
4) The historic episcopate, locally adapted.