The Protestant Episcopal Church is the United States branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, a group of nearly 30 national churches around the world that descends from the Church of England. The Episcopal Church was established in 1785 and grew out of the Anglican churches that spread through the American colonies from the 17th Century on.
The first Anglican service in America took place in Virginia on June 16, 1607, and is celebrated every year in Williamsburg and Jamestown.
Although it shares many elements with the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church does not recognize the primacy of the Pope. The Anglican Church's split from Rome occurred when Tudor King Henry VIII declared himself supreme head of the English church after Pope Clement VII refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. While Henry was still effectively a Catholic, it was his daughter, Queen Elizabeth, who merged the Protestant and Catholic traditions with the creation of the Thirty-Nine Articles. This document remains the official statement of the Episcopal Church's doctrine regarding liturgical acts.
The word episcopal comes from the Greek for bishop and refers to the church's hierarchical structure. The Episcopal Church's policymaking body is the General Convention, which meets every three years. Modeled after the U.S. Congress, it has a House of Bishops and a House of Deputies, made up of priests and members of the laity.
The ministry of the Episcopal Church dates back to the days of Christ in an unbroken line of ordination called the apostolic succession.
The Episcopal Church has a strong tradition of progressive liberal reform. After many years of protest and debate, the priesthood was opened to women in 1976. In 1989, the Church elected its first woman bishop. In 1996, an Episcopal Church court ruled in favor of the ordination of gay men and women who are in a committed relationship.
In 2000, the General Convention approved an historic unity agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Worshippers in both groups can receive communion in each others' churches and can call either an Episcopal priest or a Lutheran minister as their local pastor.
Three percent of Americans nationwide are Episcopalians.
Two-thirds of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Anglicans, later known as Episcopalians. Twelve presidents have been Episcopalians, including George Washington, George Bush and George W. Bush.
A 1990 Gallup poll survey revealed that Episcopalians are "substantially orthodox in religious beliefs," yet "open to change and new expressions of faith."