What’s in a Name?

By all accounts the Communiqué from the March 2007 meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion seems to have been a patch job, consisting of some materials that were boilerplate, some that were produced out of the good work of various commissions and committees and some that grew from the haste of last minute pressures. In the process several ideas of dubious value got into the document.


The Primates Communiqué states in a footnote, (5) "The Episcopal Church is the name adopted by the Church formerly known as the Episcopal Church (USA). The Province operates across a number of nations, and decided that it was more true to its international nature not to use the designation USA. It should not be confused with those other Provinces and Churches of the Anglican Communion which share the name 'Episcopal Church'."

The Communiqué's take on the use of the name "The Episcopal Church" is about half right – it is right on the rationale for the push at the last General Convention to use that name rather than to any that referenced the United States of America. The desire was to underline the international character of The Episcopal Church. The Communique is wrong on this business of its "formerly known" name. The alternative "real name" found in the Constitution and Canons and in the Book of Common Prayer is the rather long one – The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. It was often abbreviated as PECUSA.

For several reasons, including the fact that the title "Protestant" didn't seem as informative as in the past, dropping the "P" was easy. PECUSA became in common parlance, ECUSA. We may have been "formerly" known as ECUSA or "The Episcopal Church (USA)," but that was never what we were "formally" know as.

Indeed the real operant word in the longer title, one conveniently dropped in the abbreviation, is the word "in." In its longer form, the name of this Church at least acknowledged that The Episcopal Church was "in" the United States of America, but that did not preclude it being elsewhere. "In" does not mean "of." So the long form of the church's name established that we were Episcopal and in the United States. The short official form names us as Episcopal, period. We might note that the Anglican Communion website retains "in" where its speaks of "The Episcopal Church in the USA" But we have never been The Episcopal Church, (USA).

The designation "USA" may have been part of the abbreviation ECUSA, but that abbreviation was always a folk reference, never a formal title. So on the surface, the note in the Communiqué is simply incorrect. It got its incorrect notation from, among other places, The Windsor Report itself, which incorrectly referred to "The Episcopal Church (USA)."

The wonderfully unhelpful note, "It should not be confused with those other Provinces and Churches of the Anglican Communion which share the name 'Episcopal Church,'" only compounds problem. It is true that The Episcopal Church is the only entity in the Anglican Communion that uses this title without other descriptors – the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church in the Philippines, Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil, the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, L'Eglise Episcopal au Rwanda and The Episcopal Church of the Sudan all have histories in which their designations arose. That we do not have additional descriptors does indeed present both a problem and suggests a potential for arrogance. But it does not on the face of it mean that TEC claims to be the "only" Episcopal Church.

The designation "The Episcopal Church" arose in the wave of efforts to align the "markers" of this church to the rest of the communion. The period from the late '50's to the late 60's saw the introduction of a longer descriptive preamble to the Constitution, the addition of titles or descriptive names for the Presiding Bishop, and the parallel use of the phrases "The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America" and "The Episcopal Church." All of these were efforts to align our ecclesial language to the rest of the communion.


Not many care about such trivia, but this particular tasty bit of misinformation is part of a larger quite important range of questions that need clarification. A non-exhaustive list of these includes the following:

  1. There are those who saw plots and conspiracies in the deliberate inclusion of many flags on the podium at the 2006 General Convention and the President of the House of Deputies' wish to have this church referred to as "The Episcopal Church" in matters coming to the House.Some have since suggested that this was all part of a sign that The Episcopal Church was set to become its own "Anglican Communion." Conspiracy theories are always fascinating.
  2. There are those who have charged that this is just one more example of the imperialism of the US, reflected in the American Church, in which a name or title used by many is co-opted by Americans without any sensitivity to others.
  3. If we take seriously that The Episcopal Church is indeed a multi-cultural, multi-national church, then what are we to make of the differential treatment and support of US clergy and clergy in other countries part of The Episcopal Church?
  4. If we are an international church then to what extent are we willing to look again at what it means to be "in" and not "of" the United States of America?
What are our intentions?

All of these and other questions arise out of the simple question of intent: What do we intend when we use "The Episcopal Church" as a title? So let us look at these four questions from this standpoint – what is the intent of the use of the name "The Episcopal Church"?

  • Concerning plots and conspiracies about The Episcopal Church and an "Episcopal Communion" {(I) above} : The conspiracy theory is an impossible reach. People grasping at that need to get a life. On the other hand, the day may indeed come when we will be forced to list, as does the Church of England, those churches with which we are in Communion. Our list already looks different from theirs, although not in reference to churches in the Anglican Communion, which the CofE canons list in detail. If we had such a list – of Churches with which we shared full communion – it might one day constitute a group significantly different from a list titled, "The Churches of the Anglican Communion." But this is far from either wishing or acting to establish a separate "Communion."
  • The charge that our taking "Episcopal" as our own is imperialistic {(ii) above} is different. My sense is that, given the current state of affairs in the Anglican World and the world in general, we might well have been more sensitive to some need to tweak the title a bit. I'm not sure how, but something might help.
Perhaps a title using "Episcopal" and a descriptor that points to something about our polity (governance). Perhaps (with apologies to the precursor to the United States of America) "The Confederated Episcopal Church." No… that would immediately be mistaken as a play on the Confederacy. Perhaps "The Conventional Episcopal Church," referencing the fact that we are Episcopal and ordered in Convention. But no… that would simply prove how dull we are. "Conventional" is not a great seller, but the initials would roll off the tongue – TCEC. What about "The Church of Episcopal Koinonia," which would carry the sense of church, bishops, and community all at once – TCEK.But that sounds terrible.

Well, you see the problem. It only gets worse. The problem is, it is hard to be multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-national and have a name that makes sense in a Communion where on the whole the names are identified with nation states, or in some cases, with specific areas of the world. And, of course, there is no reason to really worry about it except that there is no right choice, there are only choices that will tick off someone who belongs to this Church or to some other church. Because the United States of America has an itch for imperial presence in the world it is not wonder that folk look askance at our naming ourselves The Episcopal Church. It invariably sounds like THE Episcopal Church.
  • The third item on the list – the differential treatment of clergy in The Episcopal Church – is a criticism of the reality of our being "The Episcopal Church" as opposed to EC (USA) and others joined for awhile to us. It also raises issues in the present that constitute a scandal.
At various times in the past all clergy of overseas dioceses, where the work of those dioceses was underwritten by funding from the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS) of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, were considered missionaries of the Society. That meant, for example, that we had in China several hundred missionaries, most of whom were Chinese. The Appointed Missionaries of the Society in China, much fewer in number, went with different support and with assumptions about health and retirement benefits that were not available to "in country" missionaries. But all were individually missionaries.

Following the Second World War, there were increasing efforts to establish indigenous leadership for the overseas jurisdictions of The Episcopal Church and the grants for the work became diocesan grants to local bishops and councils for the work they did. Those grants often included the salaries previously earmarked for specific "in country" missionaries, now made available for clergy support in general. What was lost in that process was any sense that the specific clergy in country were missionaries of The Episcopal Church. They ceased to be the direct responsibility of the DFMS.

"In Country" clergy were often paid less than DFMS missionaries and various efforts were made to rectify this, including restrictions on fundraising by appointed missionaries and limits on support "in country" to something like support offered for local clergy. But several differences grew markedly larger. DFMS missionaries received health and pension coverage based on US needs, and clergy in overseas jurisdictions did not. There have been various efforts to address those differentials. None have been satisfactory.

The scandal of the moment is that IF "The Episcopal Church" claims to be international in character, it needs to address the fact that some of its clergy – particularly those working in overseas dioceses – do not have health benefits, often in active service, but certainly in retirement, that mirror, in any way that promotes just and equitable treatment, those available to US clergy.

The Church Pension Fund is set up to "establish and administer the clergy pension system, including life, accident and health benefits, of this Church, substantially in accordance with the principles adopted by the General Convention of 1913 and approved thereafter by the several Dioceses, with the view to providing pensions and related benefits for the Clergy who reach normal age of retirement, for the Clergy disabled by age or infirmity, and for the surviving spouses and minor children of deceased Clergy." (Canons, Title I.8.1) It does so, and I am a grateful recipient of its good offices. But I have become increasingly aware that some of its benefits are simply not available to retired clergy in overseas jurisdictions, if not because of Church Pension Fund rulings then because of inadequate funding of overseas dioceses. Either we underfund missionary activity in overseas dioceses in ways that produce the inequities in retirement – by not considering in country clergy missionaries of TEC, or we do not press for reasonable equality in health benefits for clergy working in TEC dioceses outside the US. Either way we fall short of the call to be an international church.

  • It is of course the last of these questions, that of being "in" and not "of" the United States of America, that is the most difficult to approach. If we are an international church we need to come to grips with the core criticism of many in the communion – that we are arrogantly "American." We too often seem to be both IN and OF the United States.
Whatever the merits of the charge of arrogance, it is certainly true that The Episcopal Church comes across as precisely an American church institution even while claiming to be international in scope. If we are in the US, well and good, but when we act if we are "of" the US we do our international image a disservice. How well, for example, does it serve our international character to have the Cathedral in Washington called "The National Cathedral"? Is social critique from dioceses part of this church but outside the US really sought or considered? Are we willing to have persons not of the US act on our behalf in criticizing actions of the US Government?

Our claim to be an international church is quite appropriate, but only to the extent that we take seriously the breadth of engagement possible in such a church. To be an international church beyond the edges of colonial or neo-colonial realities would be an amazing statement of life together in a church larger than a nation. But it will not be an easy task.

But it will be fine practice for the day when we take seriously mutual responsibility and interdependence on a larger scale, something which almost no one in the Anglican Communion seems prepared to live out at present.


  1. Asking Brits to accept this argument about "Episcopal" tout court is just like asking Americans to accept the British argument about the "appointment" of bishops being a generic term including elections.

  2. Simon...I have to agree, mostly because, as I suggested, there is indeed an arrogance in the whole thing, intentional or not.

    I'd love to say the American Episcopal Church just as the Scots do about the SEC, but then the Canadians and Mexicans who rightly point out that they are America too might get ticked.

    I don't think there is an easy politically correct win on all this. I suppose that is because in TEC the elephant in the room is indeed the Episcopal dioceses in the USA.

    Wouldn't it be wonderful to have inventive names? The Messy Episcopal Church in but not of the United States of America (MECxUSA) or whatever.

    Is "appointment" generic in the same way that "he" is relative to gender of bishops, priests and deacons in the ordination service? If so I take back all my mutterings about the word in the past.

    Thanks for writing.

  3. Quoting you:

    "...[The Church] needs to address the fact that some of its clergy – particularly those working in overseas dioceses – do not have health benefits, often in active service, but certainly in retirement, that mirror, in any way that promotes just and equitable treatment, those available to US clergy."

    I know of the rector of one Episcopal parish here in the Philippines, an American, who cannot vote in our diocesan convention as he is still technically a priest of The Episcopal Church and he receives the benefits accruing therefrom. If he is no longer a priest in TEC, he will lose the Church Pension Fund benefits, I believe. He is a wonderful pastor who can contribute to the liturgical and spiritual life of our diocese, but this problem, as you mentioned, is hindering that. (He does have a voice in convention, though.)

    I know of another Episcopal priest, however, who decided to transfer his jurisdiction to the local church--even if he loses his Church Pension Fund benefit--in protest against TEC stances on human sexuality. Which is another case entirely.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with comment moderation but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.