The Episcopal Church is an indirect offspring of The Church of England and is the American member of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The denomination is essentially a hybrid of the church's Roman Catholic heritage mixed with Protestant-inspired teaching. When you step inside an Episcopal church, you can sense its Catholic background through the liturgies and surrounding architecture. The two main giveaways that it's not Roman Catholic are the red Books of Common Prayer in the pews and the congregant identified as the minister's spouse.
There is evidence of marital relations among clergy in the Early Christian Church. New Testament scripture refers to Peter the Apostle's mother-in-law and it's fairly clear from accepted church histories that married clergy were not uncommon. The Greek wing of the church had no problem with married clergy while the Latin (Roman) side eventually forbade it; however, that prohibition was probably the most violated rule of the Roman church in its day. It was not until the 12th century that the Roman church officially lowered the boom on married clergy for good.
The English church broke away from Roman influence over a roughly 30-year span of time in the middle of the 16th century. Official doctrine and policy were written and rewritten during that time as the new Anglican wing of Christianity began to figure out who it was and what it believed in. One of those doctrines, the Six Articles issued in 1539, reaffirmed the traditional Catholic stance that ministers of the church must be celibate. The stand would not last long, but it would take the influence of the German Protestant revolution and the complicated political and religious shifts that make up 16th-century British history to change it. The Six Articles were repealed after King Henry VIII's death in 1547, technically freeing English clergy to marry. Many of them do, but Mary Tudor came onto the throne in 1553 and attempted to bring back Roman Catholic norms. Mary dies a few years later, allowing Elizabeth I to bring back a revamped Protestant theology and the clergy free to marry at will.
Episcopal Church clergy have been allowed to marry since Anglicans came over to the New World. Clerical marriage is quite common and was considered the norm until recent times. The spouses of Episcopal clergy, most often females, have traditionally been partners in local ministry doing many of the unsung, unpaid and often unfair duties expected of a pastor's spouse. The only exception to this policy involves members of certain Anglican religious orders where a vow of celibacy is required.
The debate today is not whether clergy may marry, it's whom they may marry. The ordainment of openly gay and lesbian people to Episcopal orders has forced Episcopalians of all stripes to reconsider old attitudes concerning same-sex marriage and the church. The issue is passionately debated on both sides and has led individual parishes and dioceses to leave the Episcopal Church in favor of new Anglican bodies supporting a traditionalist stance.
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images