How Is The Episcopal Church Different from the Roman Catholic Church?First, a definition of how the term Catholic is commonly used is in order. Just as the word “Orthodox” has different meanings depending on whether it’s spelt with an uppercase or lowercase O, Catholic also has different meanings depending on how it’s used. The term catholic actually means universal. The catechism of the Episcopal church states that the Church is catholic because it “proclaims the whole Faith to all people, to the end of time” (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 854).Over time, this term has most often been used to describe the branch of Christ’s Church that claims the authority of the Pope (the Roman Catholic Church and other churches in full communion with the Vatican). As a result, many believe that the term catholic only applies to that branch of the Church. Some use Catholic with a capital C to refer to all liturgical churches, but this can get a bit confusing! Most commonly, Catholic refers to the Roman Catholic Church and other churches in full communion with the RCC, while catholic refers to the larger group of liturgical churches (Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox). This is the usage I’ll follow here.
The main differences between the Episcopal Church and Roman Catholic Church are:
1. The universal authority of the Pope (Bishop of Rome) is not recognized. To Episcopalians, he is the chief bishop of another branch of Christ’s Church and a successor of St. Peter and the apostles.
2. There are no required beliefs in doctrines that are not proven by Scripture, such as the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, etc. Although some individual Episcopalians may believe these doctrines, they are not considered necessary in order to be a member of the Episcopal Church. Beliefs are based on Scripture, Tradition handed down by Christians throughout all ages, and right Reason, with Scripture being the final authority. This is often called the Three-Legged Stool. The Roman Catholic Church has a similar belief system based on Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Magisterium (the teaching office of the Church).
3. Papal infallability is not taught.
4. Clergy are allowed to marry, although there are orders of monks and nuns.
5. Women are ordained as bishops, priests, and deacons, although some individual dioceses do not accept the ordination of women to the priesthood. The Catholic Church does commission women as lay ministers, but does not ordain women.
6. The Episcopal Church practices a limited open communion policy where the sacrament is open to baptized Christians from other churches. The Catholic Church allows non-Catholics to receive only under certain circumstances.
7. Priests ordained in the Catholic or Orthodox churches are not re-ordained if they become Episcopalian. Also, due to a full communion agreement, Evangelical Lutheran pastors can serve Episcopal parishes in some circumstances. Episcopal priests who have converted to Catholicism have been re-ordained.
Essentially, the Episcopal Church has retained many traditions of the early Church while being influenced by the Reformation.
© 2000. Written November 1, 2000*. These pages may not be reproduced without the author’s consent.
*Some minor revisions were made July 8, 2001. Updated March 11, 2007.