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 -supported) church of several colonies, including Virginia (where it was established in the early 1600s), then the lower four counties of New York (1693), North Carolina (1701), Maryland (1702), South Carolina (1706), and Georgia (1758).

From the beginning, however, Anglicanism struggled to maintain anything other than titular power as the official church of these colonies. Why? Because of its character as the English national church. Even through the 1760s and 1770s, America lacked its own bishops, so would-be priests had to travel across the Atlantic to receive ordination. As a result, Anglican priests were too few to serve the vast, wild areas of the colonies claimed by their church.

Also working against American Anglicanism's success as an "English" church was the significant number of American Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and others who remembered with no particular fondness the Anglican Church's repressive treatment of their congregations back in England.

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And despite the apparent fact that nearly half of Anglican clergy in the revolutionary period supported the patriot cause, their whole church inevitably bore the stigma of loyalism. This is easy to understand: when the head of your church is the king against whose (perceivedly) unjust rule you are fighting and spilling your sons' and brothers' blood, your patriot neighbors are going to raise an eyebrow—at the very least.

It was this stigma that finally led to the name change, from Anglican ("England-church") to Episcopal ("bishop-church"). The title "Protestant Episcopal Church" was born at an American Anglican convention in 1780. By 1789 the name had stuck, and it remained until 1967, after which "Protestant" was (generally) deleted.

Since that time, although it is governed by bishops and officially in fellowship with the mother church in England, this American church does not operate as part of a transatlantic hierarchy, as does the Roman Catholic Church. Its kinship remains on the level of faith and worship.

In its early years, the Episcopal Church wielded disproportionate social influence within the United States—because its members included so many politically well-connected families. This was true among the founding fathers, and it is still true today.

However, it was also often perceived by members of such "evangelical" denominations as the Baptists and Methodists—both of which arose out of Anglicanism—as compromised in theology. At first theologically Puritan (that is, Calvinist), American Anglicanism became increasingly Arminian through the eighteenth century (that is, it emphasized the human role in redemption, opposing the Calvinist emphasis on predestination).

Its Arminianism alone did not tarnish the Episcopal Church in the eyes of many evangelicals, who were moving along a similar trajectory. But the American Episcopalians were also following another curve. From the beginning, Anglicans had worked to avoid the kind of religious strife that marred sixteenth-century England (think Bloody Mary) and Europe of its adolescence (think Wars of Religion). It prided itself on being "broad"—accommodating a wide variety of views within its "big tent."

Anglicans believe they represent a "via media"—a middle way between sola scriptura Protestantism and tradition-heavy Catholicism. They find their religious authority in a sort of three-legged stool of Scripture, tradition, and reason.

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Anglicanism's knack for ecclesiological compromise (that is, compromise in the realm of church politics as well as theology) is associated most famously with Elizabeth I , who held together a nation strained to the breaking point by the strife already mentioned. But the Anglican Church opened its doors not only to a range of theological positions, but also to the influences of the larger culture and learning of the European world.

Twentieth-century ethicist and theologian H. Richard Niebuhr characterized this style as "Christ over culture"—a sense that the best of the arts, sciences, and other branches of human knowledge and achievement could be enjoyed and promoted liberally by Christians, with a secure confidence that God Himself had animated these achievements (whether their human originators had professed Christ or not). Of course, Anglicans, along with Catholics who share the same view, would hasten to add that none of these areas of human enterprise can be "complete" without the redemptive influence of Christ.

Given all of these tendencies, we can see why British and American Anglicans gravitated in the eighteenth century to more "reasonable" versions of their faith—including the deist vision of the Watchmaker God. (In such an intentionally broad and accommodating church, the desire naturally arises in our own time to open the ministry to as wide a group of people as possible—hence the current strife over homosexual ordination.)

Also keeping early Anglicans from sharing many of their Christian compatriots' evangelical fervor was the distracting power of wealth and social influence. Indeed, early American Anglicanism seems, for some of its adherents, to have amounted to a sort of counter in the social game—a token of status to be enjoyed, moderately, with others of one's class, as long as it didn't interfere with equally enjoyable pastimes such as horse-racing, dancing, and drinking.

The social differences between the groups are highlighted in the piece of period humor that identified a Methodist as a Baptist with shoes, a Presbyterian as a Methodist with a horse, and an Anglican as a Presbyterian with an estate. (Today it runs, "A Methodist is a Baptist with shoes; a Presbyterian is a Methodist with a car; and an Episcopalian is a Presbyterian with a stock portfolio.")

Niebuhr, in his Social Sources of Denominationalism, traced the movement of many Americans up this ladder of denominational status as their Christian habits of thrift and industry brought them wealth and influence—and the desire to advance that influence by religious as well as worldly means. The Episcopal Church was the final rung—when you got there, you knew you had "arrived."

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But this brings us to the central paradox of Anglicanism in America: The "open" nature of Anglicanism led not to growth and success on the new continent, but rather to eclipse. While attempting to speak to the many, it ended up representing only the few. Why?

In a democratic nation claiming to assign great power to its people (and sometimes actually following up that claim with action), the day belonged to the populist evangelicals. Few in number, high and narrow in social class, and non-evangelistic in practice (though an "Evangelical party" existed within Episcopalianism), no sooner had they changed their denomination's name than Episcopalians found themselves falling behind.

The Episcopalians were swamped in number—and soon after, in influence—by a tidal wave of livelier, less educated, more evangelistic Methodists and Baptists.

Willing to ordain ministers after minimal study, seeking to draw into their churches the lowliest of society (including slaves!), and heaven-bent on converting their nation, these newcomers of the late eighteenth century held that nation's future in their devotionally clasped or revivalistically raised hands. In contrast, Anglicanism's very broadness and reasonableness militated against a strong emphasis on evangelizing unbelievers. And this in turn stunted its growth.

From the long perspective, the Episcopal Church's current battle bears real resemblance to a certain stand of General Custer. Evangelicals may tend to take a kind of perverse pleasure from this: "Those liberal so-and-so's are getting what's coming to them." But given Anglicanism's signature values of moderation in religious conflict, willingness to hear and work within the surrounding culture, and nourishment from the historical tradition of the church, more thoughtful Christian observers may wish to delay the party.

We may want to stop and ask, "What will America lose if this venerable church experiences the kind of violent gutting that now seems all but inevitable?"

Alien though their tradition may seem to many conservative Christians, our Episcopal brothers and sisters are part of the body of Christ. And as a church, they may soon be lying by the side of the road, mortally wounded—like the man waylaid in Christ's parable of the Good Samaritan. God help us not to pass them by with a sneer, but to recognize and act on our common bond in Christ.

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Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine. More Christian History, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.

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Christian History Corner appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:

Breaking Down the Faith/Learning Wall | How the history of Christians in higher education has stacked the deck against Robert Sloan's "new Baylor." (Sept. 19, 2003)
Learning From the Other 9/11 | Words kill. So teachers, watch what you say. (Sept. 11, 2003)
The Lord of the Rings: What Harvest? | A reader's guide to the best of epic fantasy (Sept. 5, 2003)`
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, a Legendary Friendship | A new book reveals how these two famous friends conspired to bring myth and legend—and Truth—to modern readers (Aug. 29, 2003)
The Ten Commandments, How Deep Our Debt | The words of the Decalogue run like a river through not only the church but also English and American history. (August 22, 2003)
Muscular Christianity's Prodigal Son, College Sports | In the wake of a basketball scandal at a prominent Christian university, we take time to remember the Christian roots of college athletics. (August 15, 2003)
Palestinian Christians, Strangers in a Familiar Land | They've called the Holy Land home for centuries, but they've never actually governed themselves. (August 8, 2003)
Liberia's Troubled Past—and Present | The nation's history explains why the current conflict succumbs to, yet simultaneously transcends, the stereotype of African tribal wars. (August 1, 2003)
Medical Missions' African Legacy | For generations, missionary doctors have healed body and soul in Africa. (July 25, 2003)
European Christianity's 'Failure to Thrive' | Why Christendom, born with an imperial bang, is now fading away in an irrelevant whimper. (July 18, 2003)
Where Have All the Classics Gone? | These days it's a triumph when a movie is simply inoffensive. But we can do better than that (July 11, 2003)