The fast-growing liberal-conservative rift within the Episcopal Church has dominated the headlines of late, along with the rancorous exchanges between liberal Episcopalians and conservatives in world Anglicanism. But who are the Episcopalians? And why does their Church-of-England tradition matter in America?

To understand Episcopalianism, you need to know that it arose from the Church of England, or Anglicanism. Remember? —that's the church that divided from Roman Catholicism when Henry VIII needed a quickie divorce. OK, but what are they like? How do they worship? What do they believe?

First impressions of this worldwide communion only confuse: Some Anglicans are into "smells and bells"—the whole panoply of high-church worship. Others do without the trappings. Some take their Bibles with a higher-critical grain of salt and focus on social rather than personal modes of ministry. Others are warmly evangelical, kind of like John Wesley and his Methodists (and there were always Anglican members and ministers who were just as evangelical as the Methodists—stay tuned for our Spring 2004 issue on John Newton, the writer of "Amazing Grace"). Apparently, there's a lot of latitude within this world church.

We'll see in a moment how this latitude is rooted in Anglicanism's early history, and how it shaped the Anglican Church in America.

But the question still nags: Why did Anglicans in America insist on calling themselves "Episcopal"? Why didn't they just answer to "the Anglican church in America"—you know, like "the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion)" or "the Church of Ireland—A Province of the Anglican Communion"?

The textbook answer is easily told: Anglicanism entered America as the established (that is, government-mandated and ...

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