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The Episcopal Church

S. Stephen’s is a parish of the Episcopal Church, which belongs to the Anglican Communion, the worldwide fellowship of national and regional Churches in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. The Anglican Communion is the third largest body of Christians in the world, after the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.

The Episcopal Church got its start during the British colonization of North America – beginning in Jamestown, Virginia – when English colonists brought the Anglican Church with them. After the American Revolution, congregations and clergy formerly belonging to the Church of England reorganized themselves as an independent and self-governing American Church, with its own Prayer Book, bishops, dioceses, and administrative structures.


A distinctive feature of the Episcopal Church and other Churches in the Anglican Communion is public worship according to an authorized Prayer Book – in our case, the Book of Common Prayer, 1979. Rather than making up the services themselves, our clergy are expected to read the texts and follow the directions (rubrics) found in the Prayer Book. This tradition of “common prayer” helps ensure that our worship faithfully expresses the Church’s doctrines and teachings, and that church members know what to expect when they come to our services.


The Episcopal Church, like the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, is composed of multiple geographical units, each called a "diocese," presided over by a bishop. S. Stephen's is part of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, and our bishop is the Rt. Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely. At the parish level, the clergy are responsible for matters pertaining to doctrine, worship, and morals, while the Vestry is in charge of finances and the upkeep of buildings and property.

The Anglo-Catholic Tradition

"Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity in itself. For thither the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord: to testify unto Israel, to give thanks unto the Name of the Lord."


Psalm 122


Saint Stephen’s stands in the “Anglo-Catholic” tradition within Anglicanism. After the Church of England separated from the Church of Rome in the sixteenth century, some Church members wanted to follow the direction taken by the Protestant Reformation on the European Continent, entailing sweeping changes in worship, teaching, and organization. Others wanted to preserve the greatest possible continuity with the life and worship of the medieval English Church. The “Anglican Settlement” wisely sought to encompass a broad diversity of religious opinions in the context of a national church with a fixed liturgy (found in The Book of Common Prayer) and a traditional system of church government by bishops. 


From the very beginning, this approach of “Anglican comprehensiveness” allowed different movements within the Church of England to  emphasize different  aspects of  Anglican

identity. A “Low Church” party pointed to the Protestant or Reformed character of the Church of England, emphasizing the authority of Scripture, preaching, and individual conversion. Meanwhile, a “High Church” party pointed to the Catholic character of the Church of England, emphasizing order and beauty in worship, the Sacraments as means of grace, and the theological tradition of the early Church as a sure guide to the right interpretation of Scripture.


The High Church movement took different forms at different times in history. In the sixteenth century, the theologians Richard Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes articulated some of its basic positions. In the first half of the seventeenth century, the school known as the “Caroline divines” developed its teachings in what is sometimes called “the Anglican Counter-Reformation” – a movement tragically cut short by the English Civil War. Despite such setbacks, a small but vigorous High Church party persevered through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth.


In the early-to-mid nineteenth century, the great renewal of the High Church tradition occurred in what is variously known as “the Oxford Movement,” “Tractarianism,” and eventually, “Anglo-Catholicism.” The beginning of the movement is usually dated to a sermon preached in Oxford by John Keble on July 14, 1833 condemning Parliament's interference in the Church’s internal affairs. His sermon rallied minds and pens across the country to rekindle the flame of traditional faith in England.  Keble and his Oxford colleagues Edward Bouverie Pusey and John Henry Newman wrote a series of "Tracts for the Times," expounding ancient Christian doctrine for a contemporary audience. These Tracts captured hearts, minds, and imaginations all over England, and began a movement in the Church with wide-ranging effects.


From England, the teachings of the Oxford Movement made their way across the Atlantic and into the Episcopal Church. Soon after its foundation in 1837, S. Stephen’s became identified as a Tractarian parish, and by the end of the nineteenth century was widely known as one of the bastions of Anglo-Catholicism in the Episcopal Church. We continue today to cherish our Anglo-Catholic heritage, seeking to preserve and develop its teachings and traditions for the contemporary world.


Some further writings on Anglo-Catholicism can be found here.


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