Episcopalians believe in a Trinitarian God, a God of creation, redemption, and constant presence and love. This belief is stated in forms called Creeds that are said together at worship services.
We believe that the church is Christ living and visible in the world. This does not mean that any group is perfect. In fact, belonging to a church is an exercise in patience, forbearance, and love. But at every baptism, all the people are asked again to renew their own baptismal covenant. One of the questions is "Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?" We respond with a heart-felt "We will!" because we believe that we are called to continue practices that date back to Jesus and his disciples.
Episcopalians are "liturgical", meaning we worship using a set of texts, which are found in the Book of Common Prayer. (The first Book of Common Prayer was developed by order of King Edward VI - but it's been updated since then!) Not only will you know pretty much what to expect when you go to any Episcopal service, the words for that service are in the hands of the people. The word "liturgy" means "work of the people".
These services tell a story and act it out. For instance, at every Eucharist celebration the people act out the Gospel story of the Last Supper, eating a piece of bread and taking a sip of wine because Jesus told us to do so, in remembrance of him. ("Eucharist" comes from the Latin eucharistia, "showing or giving thanks"). Similarly, the baptism of Jesus began for Christians a rite of acceptance that makes use of the symbolism of water.
Because the liturgy draws us into the story through the use of all senses, services are beautiful, dignified, and yet, invariably human. Do not be afraid of "making a mistake" at an Episcopal service. The Prayer Book or service bulletin provides the words you will need, and the small print gives instructions about standing and kneeling. But even these customs vary in different congregations. You will notice that there are different practices even in the same church, and someone is always at hand to help you through the service if you encounter difficulty.
"The Church" is not a building. "The Church" is the people gathered. Episcopalians gather in communities, most of which are called parishes. A geographic grouping of communities is called a diocese, each of which is led by a bishop - episcopus in Latin, which gives us our name. In the American Episcopal Church there are over 100 dioceses. Grace Church is a member of the Diocese of Northern California, headquartered at Trinity Cathedral in Sacramento, comprising over 70 parishes and missions. Our bishop is the Right Reverend Barry L. Beisner.
The Episcopal Church in the United States is a part of the Anglican Church throughout the world, called the Anglican Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury - Justin Wilby - is the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion. However, there is no central administration of the Anglican Communion. There is no Pope or President or chief executive. There are nearly 40 national expressions of the Episcopal or Anglican Church. All are independent, and none has authority over any other. The Anglican Communion is instead unified by tradition, belief, and agreement.
Every Anglican bishop has been consecrated by other bishops, who were in turn consecrated by other bishops before them. This process forms a chain that, according to legend, leads back to the 12 apostles, who were the first bishops. There is no historical proof of this, nor does our faith depend on it. Historians have traced the succession of bishops, however, back to the early 2nd century AD. Worldwide there are some 900 living Anglican bishops.
In America, the Presiding Bishop, as the name implies, presides over the entire Episcopal Church of the United States. Our current Presiding Bishop is the Most Reverend Michael Curry.
The organization and governing principles of the Episcopal Church are patterned on the principles of representative government, separation of authority, and balance of power that guided the formation of American civil government at the time the Episcopal Church of the United States of America was first founded. The Book of Common Prayer of the American Episcopal Church was ratified in 1789, and is therefore a contemporary of the Constitution of the United States.
Within the Episcopal Church all people are ministers. We believe in "the priesthood of all believers". Some are called into special ministry positions to which they are "ordained". These are deacons, priests, and bishops who are together called "clergy". All others are called "lay people" (from the Greek laikos, "of the people"). All participate in the work of the church, and all participate in its governance.
Most parishes have a variety of ministries that depend upon and promote the involvement of all members of the congregation. There are opportunities to serve the people of the parish through committees and workgroups that concentrate on such ministries as worship, education, outreach, fellowship, music, administration, maintenance and upkeep, seasonal programs.
The Vestry of a parish is a body of lay people elected by the congregation to function as the board of directors of their church. The Vestry works with the parish priest (also known as the "Rector") to promote spiritual growth and community outreach, and to manage the budget, education ministries, facility upkeep, support staff, and all the business of the church and corporation. The Senior Warden is the president of the Vestry, and the vice president is called the Junior Warden.