Episcopal Polity - Overview of Episcopal Churches

Overview of Episcopal Churches

The definition of the word episcopal has variation among Christian traditions. There are subtle differences in governmental principles among episcopal churches at the present time. To some extent the separation of episcopal churches can be traced to these differences in ecclesiology, that is, their theological understanding of church and church governance. For some, "episcopal churches" are churches that use a hierarchy of bishops that regard themselves as being in an unbroken, personal Apostolic succession.

Episcopal is also commonly used to distinguish between the various organizational structures of denominations. For instance, the word presbyterian (Greek: 'πρεσβύτης, presbítes) is used to describe a church governed by a hierarchy of assemblies of elected elders, referred to as Presbyterian. Similarly, episcopal is used to describe a church governed by bishops. Self-governed local congregations, governed neither by elders nor bishops, are usually referred to as Congregational.

More specifically, the title Episcopal (capitalized in this instance) is applied to several churches historically based within Anglicanism (Episcopalianism) including those still in communion with the Church of England.

Using these definitions, examples of specific episcopal churches include:

  • The Roman Catholic Church
  • The Eastern Orthodox Church
  • The Oriental Orthodox churches
  • The Assyrian Church of the East
  • The Churches of the Anglican Communion
  • The Old Catholic churches
  • Numerous smaller Catholic churches
  • Certain national churches of the Lutheran confession
  • The African Methodist Episcopal Church
  • The United Methodist Church

Some Lutheran churches practice congregational polity or a form of presbyterian polity. Others, including the Church of Sweden, practice episcopal polity; the Church of Sweden also counts its bishops among the historic episcopate as do some American Lutheran churches like the Anglo-Lutheran Catholic Church, Lutheran Orthodox Church, Lutheran Church-International, and the Lutheran Episcopal Communion.

Many Methodist churches (see The United Methodist Church, among others) retain the form and function of episcopal polity, although in a modified form, called connexionalism. Since all trace their ordinations to an Anglican priest, John Wesley, it is generally considered that their bishops do not share in apostolic succession, though United Methodists still affirm that their bishops share in the historic episcopate.

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