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Behind the Name: Episcopalian
Believe it or not, Anglicans are the largest denomination in the world. In America, Anglicans number around 4 million. Worldwide, Anglicans number around 77 million.
When they first started in the 1500s, Anglicans were known as the Church of England, and the headquarters is still in Canterbury, England. (That is why the head of the Anglicans is called the Archbishop of Canterbury.) In America they are called Episcopalians. It is easy to see how one can go from Church of England to Anglicans (think Anglo-Saxons); but how and when did the name "Episcopalians" come into use? For that, we must go back to colonial America and work our way through the American Revolution and into the 1960s.
As England developed the American colonies, many different English Protestants arrived: Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, and Quakers. Nevertheless, Anglicanism was the dominant faith in the colonies. By the mid-1700s, Anglicanism was the established faith in 5 ½ colonies: Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, South Carolina, Georgia, and the southern part of New York.
But there was no Anglican bishop in the colonies. Why was that a problem? Because
in the Anglican tradition, only a bishop can ordain a priest. So, if you were a colonist and wanted to become an Anglican priest, you had to travel to England, be ordained under a bishop, and then return to America. Not an easy or cheap task.
For that reason, the colonies constantly suffered from too few Anglican priests. but the Anglican churches in the colonies suffered from a greater problem in the eyes of many colonists, especially in the second half of the 1700s: it was connected to England.
In 1775, Paul Revere took his famous ride and the first battle between the colonists and the British occurred at Concord, Massachusetts. The American Revolution began, and people chose sides. And guess who was stuck in the middle? Right, the Anglican churches. Why? The head of these churches is none other than the King of England, the very king who is now your enemy!
Nevertheless, the Anglican churches did not die out because many members were loyal to their local churches, regardless of the leader in England. After America won its freedom, these churches decided that perhaps a name change was in order. Therefore, at a meeting of 3 clergy and 24 lay delegates on November 9, 1780 in Chestertown, Maryland, the decision was made that "the Church formerly known in the Province as the Church of England should now be called the Protestant Episcopal Church."
Why Episcopal you may ask? Because the denomination used bishops, and "Episcopal" is from the Greek (overseer) and Latin (bishop). (Catholics, Orthodox, and Methodists also use bishops, though their names are not based on their church structure.) Why Protestant? Because the Catholic Church used bishops and they wanted to distance themselves from the Catholics. Finally, in 1967, the General Convention decided to delete the word "Protestant" from their title.
And that is how the Episcopal Church gets its name. One further note: not all Episcopal and Anglican churches are part of the 77 million "Anglican communion" linked to Canterbury. Over time, some members have grown dissatisfied with the larger Anglican community and have separated and formed smaller Anglican denominations.
©2005 Mark Nickens
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