EPISCOPALIANISM. The Episcopal Church in the United States of America is part of the international Anglican Communion, which claims some 70 million members in a worldwide fellowship of self-governing churches that trace their roots to the Church of England. This church was founded in 1534 when King Henry VIII (1491-1547) rejected papal authority and declared himself the head of the Church of England. Episcopalians take their name from the Anglican form of church governance, which is episcopal, meaning it includes bishops. Of all the major Protestant denominations, Episcopalianism is closest to Roman Catholic tradition. Like Catholicism, it is liturgical, and its churches generally practice Holy Communion weekly. Also like Catholicism, Episcopalianism vests authority not only in scripture but also in tradition, though, unlike Catholics, Episcopalians add reason to this list of theological authorities.
The Church of England was established in colonial Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland, but it suffered mightily during and after the American Revolution since many of its clergy, particularly in the north, sided with the British. Sill, many of the nation’s founders, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were Anglicans, as were two-thirds of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Today Episcopal churches are suffering through membership declines. In 2000 the Episcopal Church in the USA claimed only 2.5 million members (down from 3.4 million in 1960), and its unity was severely tested in 2003 when the Diocese of Vermont elected Gene Robinson as the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop. But Episcopalianism continues to have influence in corridors of power way out of proportion to its numbers. Roughly one-third of all Supreme Court justices and one-quarter of all US presidents have been Episcopalians, for more than any other denomination. And Episcopalians commanded forty-two seats in the 109th Congress - about thirty-three more than their current share of the US population would warrant.