Catholics vs. Episcopalians, is there truly a distinction?
When I recollect on my religious tradition, Catholicism, I ponder on just how different it is in practice and theology from that of protestant traditions. When examining I came to compare how deeply Catholics and Episcopalians are divided on questions of political and religious leadership? Through research I have concluded that Catholics and Episcopalians are vastly separated in political and religious leadership and this factor is the foremost distinction between the two traditions.
Since the establishment of the Episcopalian Church we can see the link between the Church of England and further with the Roman Catholic Church as stated, “It was part of the Anglican Communion, formally organized in Philadelphia in 1789 as the successor to the Church of England in the American Colonies. In points of doctrine, worship, and ministerial order, the church descended from and has remained associated with the Church of England. The history of the church began with the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, Va., in 1607.” (Encyclopedia Britannica Online) The establishment of the Episcopalian Church was in fact for political and religious leadership freedom from its ties with The Church of England and in conjunction freedom from the Catholic Church.
The differences in church organization are prevalent and are the main distinction between the two traditions. The Episcopalian organization is described as;
In the organization of the church, each self-supporting congregation (parish) elects its lay governing board (vestry) for temporal affairs and its rector as spiritual leader. Congregations that are not self-supporting (missions) are directed by the bishop of the area. In a given area the parishes and missions make up a diocese, headed by a bishop. All clergy and laity representing all congregations meet annually in convention to conduct the business of the diocese. The convention elects the bishop to serve until death or retirement. The dioceses and mission districts belong to the General Convention, which meets triennially. All bishops are members of the House of Bishops, and the House of Delegates is made up of equal numbers of clergy and laity. The Executive Council, the administrative agency of the General Convention, is headed by the Presiding Bishop (elected by the House of Bishops), who also presides over the House of Bishops. (Encyclopedia Britannica Online)
In contrast the Catholic Church’s political and religious leadership is organized in a manner that follow a distinct order. This order can be grouped by papal authority, the Roman Curia and the college of Cardinals, the college of bishops, ecumenical councils and the priesthood. Catholics also hold the Vatican as the capital for Catholicism and place it as a global leadership source.
The study of these two traditions consisted of two visits to St.John’s Episcopal Church and two visits to St.Thomas Moore Catholic Church. The comparison of these traditions stimulated interest in me due to two factors. First, I am Catholic and have been raised in the Catholic tradition, which stimulates much interest in the Episcopalian tradition. This will allow me to play both roles as an insider when I attend Catholic Church and as an outsider in the Episcopal Church. Secondly, until this religion course I was unaware of the details in the Episcopal Church and wanted to further examine the tradition.
In preparation to visit St.John’s Episcopal Church I felt a discomfort due to unknown rituals, physical appearance of the church and it’s location in the downtown area. I thought a good method of visiting the church would be to invite an Episcopalian friend of mine. He agreed to visit the church with me and addressed the concerns I had in visiting the church. As I soon learned the issues I was concerned about, should not have been a concern at all.
I found that the rituals were almost identical to that of the Roman Catholic faith. Rituals such as spoken prayers, hymns that were sung and receiving communion were done in an almost duplicate manner. I was fortunate enough to visit St.John’s Episcopal Church on two special occasions. On my initial visit they had baptism of newborn infants. This was performed in the same manner as the Catholic method with the exception that Catholics do not perform baptisms during the regular Sunday mass. On my second visit it was Saint’s Sunday in both traditions. This experience almost leads me to conclude that there was no difference in practicing rituals. Both traditions reflected on given Saints during the mass and explained how one should try to follow the examples of these Saints.
The appearance of both churches truly enhanced my experience as a visitor. Visiting these local churches reminded me of the pulchritude I witnessed visiting Catholic churches in Spain this past summer. Both churches are laid out similar in that they are in a “T” shape. The pulpit was located in the middle where everyone is allowed to view the priest at the pulpit, although if you are seating along the sides, you would have a side view of the mass. The method in which the pews, windows and ceiling were constructed were also arranged similarly. The two noticeable differences were the way the choirs were seated and the absence of a statue of Jesus on the cross. The choir in the Episcopal Church was seated to face each other and was significantly larger in quantity than that of the Catholic Church. After researching why the Episcopalian Church does not have a statue of Jesus on the cross, I was unable to determine the reason, however I thought that it is a notable difference.
Being raised in a middle class family, I was accustom to attending church in a casual style wearing jeans and a nice shirt. My expectation of the attire at this particular Episcopal Church followed was correct, formal dress. Everyone in the church was in formal wear, males wore suits, and females wore long dresses. This dress phenomenon I do not believe is linked to a particular faith, more to the social class that makes up the church members.
One aspects that Catholics seem to appraise more than Episcopalians is the Virgin Mary. It is not that Episcopalians do not recognize the Virgin Mary, however they generally do not hold the caliber of importance as Catholics. In my visits to the Catholic Church, I found statues of the Virgin Mary and people praying over her statue.
Other ritual practices which I noted to be different was how Catholics have confession and pray the rosary. Though Episcopalians do not practice confession, it should also be noted that the Catholic Church as changed the magnitude of confession in the late twenty century. I have found that Catholics are adopting the protestant way of belief of forgiveness which has the general idea that God gave us Jesus to have a one-on-one relationship with God through Jesus therefore eliminating the need to confess to a priest. This argument is quite controversial and will continue to be a topic of discussion for decades. When discussing the use of the rosary to a Episcopalian friend of mine he stated that the tradition does not practice the use of a rosary. This coincides with not having confession, since praying the rosary is often something done after confession.
In concluding I would have to say my experience in surveying these different traditions was extremely educational. It is interesting how much one can learn by exposing themselves to other traditions and learning unfamiliar aspects of one’s tradition. The research conducted led me to affirm my statement that there is a strong divison on political and religious leadership between these two traditions. However, I must say what intrigued me the most was how similar a protestant tradition is to the Catholic tradition and the only separation being the leadership and politics.
“Protestant Episcopal Church” Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
[Accessed 15 November 1999]