A reader writes in:
Over a number of years, through a number of Episcopalian friends, I've come to learn a fair amount about the Episcopal Church. The most important knowledge of all, however, however, has so far eluded me. I haven't been able to find out the core tenets of the Episcopal faith--those things, in other words, that must be believed by those who call themselves Episcopalians, and that distinguish the Episcopal faith from other faiths.
The answers I've received when I ask my Episcopalian friends about their faith are varied. One friend has told me "The three-legged stool"--which, I understand, is the basis for forming tenets of faith, but not the tenets themselves. Another has said "We aren't a doctrinal faith, since doctrine so often proves a stumbling block." (I don't know if I'm mistaken in receiving the impression that this is tantamount to saying "You can believe pretty much anything you want, so long as you enjoy going to church services together with us.") Still another asserts that "Most of us can recite the Nicene Creed without talking out of the side of our mouths...."
Responses like these have made the Episcopal faith sound like a moving target to me. I'd be glad to know what the faith tenets are that are both essential and unique to Episcopalianism.
It is indeed sometimes confusing for people outside the Episcopal Church to put their finger on who we are. The confusion comes from our self-definition, which is that we are a creedal, rather than a confessional church. What this means is that we do not have foundational doctrinal statements other than the Nicene and Apostles Creeds. Most other Christian denominations have some sort of confessional document, like the Ausburg confession for Lutherans or the Greater Catechism for Roman Catholics, that lays out exactly what the teaching of the church is on most matters. Instead, our central document is the Book of Common Prayer, which defines worship rather than doctrine as a unifying principle. The mark of an Episcopalian is that he or she attends Episcopal services, which includes recitation of the creeds. However, there are no requirements that a layperson believes particular doctrine in order to become an Episcopalian. This is why the friend who says, "You can believe pretty much anything you want, so long as you enjoy going to services together with us" is largely correct. My experience as a priest is that as people participate in the liturgy over the years, the doctrine included in our regular worship becomes part of them by an osmotic process.
So what is it that sets us apart? In some ways, it's the fact that we insist that we are NOT set apart from or superior to other Christians. Episcopalians consider themselves one part of the universal catholic church, of which all baptized Christians are members. We like the way we do things, but do not insist that ours is the only or even the best way. This is why we have been leaders in the Ecumenical movement to reconcile the various denominations of Christianity. At one point in our history, we asked ourselves, "What is the minimum amount of agreement needed in order to re-unify the church?" William Reed Huntington articulated the answer in what we now refer to as the "Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral," which is a basis for ecumenical work:
1. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the revealed Word of God.
2. The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith.
3. The two Sacraments,--Baptism and the Supper of the Lord,--ministered with unfailing use of Christ's words of institution and of the elements ordained by Him.
4. The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.
The Theologian Robert Hughes III has remarked that if we talk in terms of dogma (which are core beliefs that are non-negotiable) as opposed to doctrine (on which different positions may be held) there really are only two for Anglicans: the doctrines of the Trinity, and of the two natures in one person in Christ. All the rest, while important, are not core to Episcopal identity. (Note that other doctrines, such as the Resurrection, are implied by those two.)
Therefore, your observation that our doctrine is a "moving target" is pretty apt. I often say that looking at the Episcopal Church is like looking at the universal church in miniature. There are Episcopalians who believe in Transubstantiation in the eucharist and ones who are Calvinistic. Some of us are more like Eastern Orthodox in our piety and others are more like Presbyterians. We have Anglo-Catholics who sing Latin hymns in worship and charismatics who speak in tongues. We are unified not by doctrinal uniformity, but by the Book of Common Prayer, the creeds, and a common belief that there are many ways to Christ.
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