Question: "What is the Episcopal Church, and what do Episcopalians believe?"
Answer: The Episcopal Church, USA (ECUSA) is the official organization of the Anglican Communion in the United States. Most of the earliest Colonists to America were Anglican Puritans, and the Anglican Church became the established church of Virginia, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia during the Colonial Period. After the American Revolution, the Anglican Church in America formed an independent body in 1789 and called itself the Protestant Episcopal Church. On their website, the ECUSA is described as a “middle way between Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions.” Like the Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church upholds the sacraments as essential to salvation, and like Protestant churches, it denies the supremacy of the Pope as the Vicar of Christ on earth.
The word Episcopal comes from the Greek word that is usually translated “bishop” and points to the church's understanding that a bishop is the primary ruler of the church. Under the episcopal form of government, the bishop's authority is equal to that of the apostles and follows a line of succession by the laying on of hands in ordination. Priests come under the authority of the bishops and are responsible for the teaching and administration of the local churches. Throughout the history of the ECUSA, their doctrine and practice have been generally in line with that of the Anglican Church.
Over the years, the Episcopal Church has gradually accepted changes that have strained its ties with the Anglican Communion and have even resulted in schisms. In 1873, the Reformed Episcopal Church was formed over disagreements about the freedom to worship with non-Anglicans. In 2006, Jefferts Schori was elected as the Presiding Bishop of the ECUSA, the first woman to hold that office. That election strained ties with the Anglican Communion, as no other church body recognizes the ordination of women as bishops. Bishop Schori has made history in other ways, as well. While the Bishop of Nevada, she allowed for the blessing of same-sex unions in her diocese. When openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson was examined for qualification to continue in ministry, Bishop Schori voted to confirm him. At the 2009 meeting of the House of Bishops, over which Schori presided, that body voted that “any ordained ministry” should be open to gay and lesbian members as long as they were in a committed relationship. As a result of these positions on homosexuals in the church, nearly 700 dissenting parishes have formed the Anglican Church in North America, which has been recognized in full communion by the Anglican Churches of Nigeria and Uganda, which represent about 1/3 of all Anglicans worldwide. Several dioceses have also severed ties or threatened to sever ties with the ECUSA over that same issue.
Though there may be genuine disciples of Christ within the Episcopal Church, it seems that the general characteristic of the church is like the people that Ezekiel ministered to: “My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice. With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice” (Ezekiel 33:31-32).