Posted by: celticanglican | June 18, 2007

Can Episcopalians Believe Anything They Want To?

Can Episcopalians Believe Anything They Want To?
An interesting question came to mind from a person who had inquired about the Episcopal Church and how it differs from other denominations. When I explained that a lot of people call it a non-dogmatic church (not in the sense that there are no essential beliefs, but in the sense that a literalist stance on beliefs is not expected), I was asked “How can a minister deliver an effective sermon if everyone believes differently?”
To clear up any confusion, although no two Episcopalians are in lockstep agreement on everything, most hold the beliefs expressed in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and the Bible about the nature of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and our salvation. However, there is room for different interpretations of Biblical truths. Some of the important aspects of our beliefs are included below:
1. The Holy Bible Episcopalians accept the Bible as the inspired Word of God (II Timothy 13:16-17), “because God inspired the human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 853). There are two ways in which most Christians generally interpret the Bible. One, known as a fundamentalist or literalist approach, means that what is in the Bible is taken at face value. For example, if the Book of Genesis states that God created the world in six days, He must have created it in six 24-hour days. Although there are some Episcopalians who are biblical literalists, most are not. The second approach commonly used by Christians is the contextual approach. In this approach, the Bible is accepted as God’s inspired Word but written by men who wrote according to their own ability and understanding of the world and God. An understanding of the background of the Bible’s human authors, the literary forms used, and the cultural and historical context is seen as helpful in understanding Scripture. For example, a person who takes a contextual approach may conclude that God did create the world as recorded in Genesis, but that each “day” may have lasted for a period of several million or billion years.

The Bible plays a central role in our Church. Most Sunday services have three or four readings, and weekdays prayer services usually have at least two readings. Episcopal churches offer Bible studies on a regular basis. At their ordination, bishops, priests, and deacons state that “I do solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation” (Book of Common Prayer p. 538)

2. All Things Necessary to Salvation In 1801, thirty-nine articles of faith were established at the Episcopal Church’s first General Convention. Although these articles are not considered to be creeds or a confessional, they help to clarify Anglican interpretations of certain beliefs. Article VII states that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation”. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 868). This statement basically means that any doctrine not proven by Scripture will not be a required belief for Episcopalians. Some beliefs held by other churches (such as the Immaculate Conception held by Roman Catholics, the belief of some Pentecostal groups that salvation is evidenced by speaking in tongues, etc.) are seen as being as result of their interpretation of Scripture, but are not held by the majority of other Christians, so such doctrines are not required by the Episcopal Church. Although Episcopalians often differ in belief on issues such as whether Jesus was the only child of Mary and Joseph, or if adult baptism should be the norm rather than infant, or how much of a role women may play in ministry, there is general agreement on the essentials.

3. The Lambeth Conference and General Convention The Episcopal Church takes part in two major conventions. One, the Lambeth Conference, is held once every ten years. Bishops from all the churches in the Anglican Communion worldwide gather, and resolutions on many issues are passed. The most recent conference included resolutions on debt relief, whether the ordination of women must be accepted by all Anglican churches, the need for bishops to respect each others’ boundaries, and human sexuality. The resolutions passed at Lambeth are not binding on all of the churches, as each is self-governing.

Every three years, the Episcopal Church has a General Convention. This is where resolutions are passed on issues concerning Episcopalians in the United States and important decisions about the Church are made. Decisions are voted upon by members of the Convention. The Convention has two Houses: the House of Bishops, and the House of Deputies, which is made up of clergy and lay people elected by their dioceses. In addition, each diocese has its own convention once a year.

The beliefs of Episcopalians are rooted in the Bible, the Tradition of the apostles, and right reason. Although we have church conventions to help define our beliefs on issues, our beliefs still come from this “Three-Legged Stool”. Even though none of our clergy or laypeople are perfect and sometimes make mistakes, God will continue to guide the Church. (Matthew 16:18)

Copyright 2001. May not be reproduced without the permission of the author. Updated on March 11, 2007.

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