The Episcopal Church (TEC) has roots in the Church of England (sometimes called the Anglican Church). TEC is a member of the Anglican Communion, bonded by ties of "mutual affection" to congregations in 165 nations who are recognized by the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC) as being "in communion" with the Archbishop.
The Anglican Church herself emerged from the Church of Rome. The Church of England split from the Roman Church in the mid-16th century when Henry VIII wanted the church's vast income, then channeled back to Rome, to remain in England's hands. A devout Roman Catholic, named "Defender of the Faith" by Pope Leo X, Henry didn't intend to create a new denomination, he intended to change England's relationship to Rome so he would have more money to fund his campaign of empire-building.
Although the break from Rome took place in the drama and intrigue of Henry's court and obsession with a male heir, it wasn't until the reign of his successor, Edward VI, that the more Protestant-leaning ministers in the court were able to exert significant influence and began to shape the worship (and hence the theology) of this Church of England. And it was still later, well into Queen Elizabeth's reign (1558-1603) that the Church of England settled itself into its via media role, a "middle way" between the Roman Church and the Reformers.
Most Anglicans who migrated to the colonies in the Americas in the next centuries remained loyal to the monarch. But after the American Revolution, Anglicans on these shores had to redefine themselves—and The Episcopal Church was born.
In the Northern colonies, she tended to be a clericalized (clergy-led) "high church," while in the Southern colonies she was inclined more toward lay (non-clerical) leadership and lay-led "low church" worship.
So from the outset the Episcopal Church has been a "broad church" or a "big tent" church—roomy enough to accommodate diversity—and she remains so today. When the Confederacy broke from the Union, many denominations (e.g., Baptists and Methodists) which, like Episcopalians, had hearty membership on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, spilt as the nation divided. The Episcopal Church did not.
Viewed through our 21st Century lens, the Episcopal Church has an inconsistent record on human rights and civil rights. For generations, like virtually all Western Christians, most Episcopalians supported The Doctrine of Discovery, chattel slavery, and "Manifest Destiny" which exploited, oppressed, and killed millions. The church was divided on many other issues such as industrialization, child labor, the rise of labor unions, women's suffrage, war, and the Civil Rights movement.
And in internal matters there have been splits over revisions of the Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal, the ordination of women, and more recently over the role of LGBT persons in the church. The church has never been of a single mind—but she has continued to worship together around the Eucharistic Table of Jesus Christ; there she finds her true identity in welcoming all to the table.
With the other congregations in the 180 million member Anglican Communion (including the Church of England and those "local" churches that arose in the post-Imperial years), TEC is guided in its mission and service by the Five Marks of Mission. The Churches that comprise the Anglican Communion are not bound by formal agreement but by "bonds of affection." As the Episcopal Church has affirmed its inclusivity over the years, not all members of the Anglican Communion have done so. Some senior bishops (called "Primates") from around the Communion, in January 2016, sanctioned TEC by restricting TEC's members' participation in some meetings. You can hear our Presiding Bishop's response to that action here. You can read an opinion here on the ongoing conversation in the Anglican Consultative Council re: "dissenting" TEC bishops and LGBT victims of persecution.
Under the leadership of The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori (the 26th Presiding Bishop of TEC) much work was done between 2006 and 2015 to re-establish TEC as a body of deep prayer and reconciliation grounded in ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue. She also worked to stabilize and revitalize dioceses fractured by schismatic bishops.
At the end of her term, and with the Installation of our new Presiding Bishop on Nov. 1, 2015, we begin—it appears—a decade of remembering we are "the Episcopal Church branch of the Jesus Movement" and restoring an emphasis on the work of healing the world (as our Jewish sisters and brothers might say, tikkun olam). Jefferts Schori was the first woman to serve as Presiding Bishop; Curry is the first African-American.
Here's a link to an interview with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (about 8 minutes) from PBS, about who Episcopalians are and the role of The Episcopal Church in our current landscape. And here's an older interview with him from the New York Times.
Bishop Curry continues to call the church to engagement in issues outside the doors of its buildings. He visited the site of the water protectors at Standing Rock and called Episcopalians to stand with those engaged in this action.
"God didn’t make anybody to be a second-class citizen. Of this country, or the human family. I believe it because I believe that’s what the Scripture teaches. And that is clearly what Jesus teaches. He says, come unto me all of you. He didn’t limit love. The dude, he got it."
~ Presiding Bishop Michael Curry
The Episcopal Church is governed by its General Convention, a bi-cameral body that meets triennially (it next meets in 2018 in Austin); the House of Bishops is comprised of all Bishops in TEC (about 250), and the House of Deputies seats elected clergy and lay people—four of each order from every Diocese—about 1000 deputies.
The body considers resolutions which affect every aspect of TEC's common life and sets the tone and boundaries for each congregation's corporate faith expression. St. Mark's Rector, The Rev. Robin Biffle, was one of four clergy Deputies from the Diocese of Spokane in 2012 and 2015, and has been elected to serve again in 2018..
Among resolutions was one authorizing for trial use a rite for marriage of same-sex couples. In the making for more than six years, the release of the rite came just days after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage throughout the U.S. You can read more about the church's view of marriage here, in an article by Bishop Pierre Whalon.
Our House of Bishops has revised and released a collection of essays, "Re-membering and Re-imagining the Episcopal Church," which engages in some detail (fairly readable, if wordy) matters of ecclesiology (the theology of being Church) and polity (organization and structure—how we live our ecclesiology). View an introduction to "Re-membering and Re-imagining" in the video below.
To paraphrase the Beloved Apostle, there are more stories about the church than will fit on this page. Come and hear some more. Come.