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Episcopal Polity: How the Anglican Church Takes Care of Business – by Hunter Van Wagenen

Episcopal Polity: How the Anglican Church Takes Care of Business – by Hunter Van Wagenen

This post is a part of Rookie Anglican, a blog dedicated to Making Anglicanism Accessible.

Part 1 of 2.

Authority isn’t a bad word

Protestants, especially Western Protestants from democratic countries, who look at the Anglican Church from the outside will find a method of leadership that is quite foreign and perhaps distasteful. If we have been set free by Christ, they may think, why should we let some man in a pointy hat and fancy robe tell us how to worship? This is a grave misunderstanding of authority in the Christian life.

Christ gave the Apostles authority for the sake of others.

Jesus told them before his Passion, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you shall not be like them. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-26) After his resurrection, he tells them, “As my Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” (John 20:21)

Authority from Christ is always accompanied by service and submission.

Christ gave the Apostles his authority, along with the power of the Holy Spirit, so that they could fulfill his Great Commission. They, in turn, chose leaders among those who came to faith and maturity in their discipleship to continue the work after their deaths. These were the overseers (in Greek, episkopoi – remember that word) such as Timothy and Titus. The overseers in turn chose leaders to replace them, and so on. This heritage led in an unbroken line to the bishops who lead the Church today.

So what does “episcopal polity” even mean?

The Greek word for overseer, episkopos, led to the modern English word for bishop because English is a weird language.

So when you hear phrases like “the Episcopal Church,” “episcopal oversight,” or “episcopal polity,” what you should read is “a church overseen by bishops,” “oversight from a bishop,” and “the method of church governance overseen by a bishop.

Some helpful definitions:

If you don’t get anything else out of this article, I hope the following list will help you know what people are referring to when you hear unfamiliar words used for the people you see up front or on staff at your church. Each definition listed below could easily become its own article, but the descriptions below should help you get started orienting yourself.

Bishop

He is the overseer of a diocese, which is a geographic region that contains several churches. He is invested with the responsibility to give pastoral care to the leaders of the churches in his diocese as well as the authority to discipline ordained leaders who by sin or false teaching fail to live up to the task of caring for their congregation. He is the guardian of orthodox theology within his diocese and the chief representative to other dioceses and the world. (Read Part 2 if you want to know what the Church does when bishops fail to live up to their responsibilities.)

Priest

Remember what I said about English being weird? The word “priest” actually comes from the Greek word for “elder,” presbuteros. (Presbuteros -> presbyter -> proster -> priest, if you were curious.) The priest is the chosen leader of a congregation, vetted by members of the church and approved by them and the bishop for ordination, and is responsible for maintaining orthodoxy in the teaching and overseeing the proper celebration of the sacraments within his parish. He might also be called, appropriately, pastor (shepherd), since he is responsible for caring for the spiritual needs of the members of his church. The priest celebrates Communion each week, baptizes those who desire it, marries couples, and proclaims God’s forgiveness and absolution of the people’s sin after they confess either in the service or in private.

Deacon

This word comes from the Greek for slave, diakonos. The deacon is responsible for helping serve Communion during worship, but also for leading the congregation in serving the poor, hungry, and needy both inside and outside the church. A deacon can be either transitional, which means he seeks to be ordained as a priest, or vocational, which means he intends to remain a deacon.

These three orders of ministry build on one another in the Anglican Church: anyone who wishes to be a priest must first serve as a deacon so that the servant role will carry over into his ministry as a priest. Any priest who is consecrated as a bishop also carries the responsibilities of both priest and deacon with him into his new role.

Primate

Also called archbishops, the primates are considered the first among equals in a large geographic region, usually a country made up of several dioceses. A Primate represents his province of the Anglican Communion to the other Primates whenever they gather. (More on that in Part 2.)

Rector

A rector is the chief ordained leader of a church.

Canon

A canon is a priest appointed by the bishop to oversee a specific ministry within the diocese. So within a diocese you may have a canon of missions or a canon of clergy care, among others.

Vicar

This word refers to a priest or deacon who is responsible for a chapel (not a full church) and is therefore dependent on a larger parish. In common use, it is pretty much interchangeable with priest.

Curate

A curate is usually a deacon or priest who assists a rector. Today curates are often priests-in-training, serving under an experienced priest for a season before being recommended to the bishop for ordination.

Layperson

Laypeople or laity refers to members of the church who are not ordained. Laity may be leaders, readers, singers, teachers, preachers, or pastors within their church, but it is the responsibility of the priest to ensure they are equipped and gifted for their ministry.

Vestry

The vestry of an Anglican church is made up of laypeople elected by their congregation to oversee the business and financial matters of a church. A vestry always has a senior and junior warden (who act as spokespeople for the whole church), a secretary, and a treasurer among its members.

Tune in soon for Part 2, “Schism, Revival, and Alphabet Soup: The Anglican Communion Today”!


Hunter Van Wagenen is a graduate of Beeson Divinity School. He serves as a transitional deacon and curate at Church of the Redeemer in Greensboro, NC. After he completes his curacy he will, Lord willing, move to Spain with his bride Stephie to do evangelistic work.

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