In these occasional columns, I try to answer questions people have asked me about Christianity in general, and the church I serve in particular. They have to be fairly short answers to often very complicated questions, so taking them with a grain of salt is always good advice. So let’s get on with it.
Many know I’m an Episcopal priest, but it often raises more questions. Are you Christian? How are you different from Catholics? Aren’t you English in some way?
Clergy are called different things in different denominations. Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican (Episcopalian) clergy are called priests. The reasons are ancient, and have to do with their role in officiating at Holy Communion, and in other rites where God’s presence is believed to be present in a unique and imminent way, what we call sacraments.
Other Christian denominations use titles such as pastor (roughly meaning shepherd) or minister, and have different understandings about the role of clergy. It doesn’t make one right and the others wrong. It just means they’re different.
Episcopalians trace their origins to the introduction of Christianity to the Celtic peoples of the British Isles about a hundred years after Jesus. The Catholic Church came to Britain about 475 years later, and in 664 the Celtic Christians of earlier times agreed to merge with them. The union held for nearly 870 years when King Henry VIII engineered the first Brexit, not over theology, but over his desire for a divorce. It was a messy situation too complicated to go into here. Suffice it to say Anglicans (Episcopalians) consider themselves to be a reformed Catholic Church with no pope, no central teaching authority, and priests can be married.
We’re called Episcopalian because after the American Revolution it wasn’t popular, or even safe, to be known as Anglican. Episcopal is an ancient word for bishop, and since we’re a church led by bishops, it seemed like a good name. Besides, Bishopalian just doesn’t cut it.
Other European churches broke away from Rome in the late 1400s and early 1500s as a part of the Reformation started by Martin Luther. Some became Lutherans, another form of reformed catholicism. Others followed Calvin to become Presbyterian, Dutch Reform and such. A third group followed Meno Simons to become Mennonites, Amish, Brethren, etc.
Oddly enough, the Roman Catholic Church had its own reformation about the same time, creating the church as it’s known today. It wasn’t the end. No one knows how many Christian denominations exist today. The last time I tried to count, I gave up after 2,000.
Why so many? All Christians have one thing in common. They believe without doubt that Jesus is the full manifestation of God. To follow him is to be obedient to God’s will for a full, blessed life. It may not be free from difficulty and tragedy, but it begins now and reaches into eternity with God where sorrow and pain are no more.
Denominations have different ways of expressing that faith, and the differences are not insignificant. They involve how each understands authority, scripture, the meaning of sacraments, and what following Jesus means. It shouldn’t be a surprise.
We humans differ from one another in what we look like, how and where we were raised, how we express ourselves, what we know and experience, and all the rest. It adds up to having different ways to honestly and authentically feed our souls as well as our bodies.
Wait a minute, back at the start of this column didn’t I use the word Orthodox? Who are they? At the very end of the ancient Roman Empire, Latin speaking churches in the West went one way, and Greek speaking churches in the East went another.
The descendants of the Eastern Greek speaking churches are called Orthodox, and there are a bunch of them. In some ways they’re like Catholics and Anglicans, but they live by a different calendar, tend to be more mystical, and have tried to maintain ancient forms of worship as unchanged as possible. We have an Orthodox church in the valley, St. Silouan Orthodox Church. Check it out if you like.