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What are the differences and similarities between the Methodist and Episcopalian denominations?
Written by Tom Ehrich

Both Methodism and Anglicanism were born in England. Both are expressions of Reformation Protestantism.

The Church of England came first, when King Henry VIII broke away from Rome's authority and established a new national church, under the Crown's authority, to serve the English. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer supported the King, joined his new effort, and led the writing of a new worship manual called the Book of Common Prayer. It combined several Roman Catholic manuals and used the common tongue, rather than Latin. The Bible was used in English translation, as well. Warfare between Catholics and Protestants dominated British history for many years.

In the 18th Century, a movement that came to be called “Methodism” began within the Church of England, led by discontented Anglican priests who believed the Church of England had become corrupt, effete, and too focused on the needs of the aristocracy. Methodism cast its lot with the working class, especially with the new industrial poor. Worship was simplified, new hymns were written, certain forms of abstinence became mandatory, and styles such as clergy vestments became less extravagant.

Both movements came to the American colonies and eventually became competing denominations within a religious environment that now has more than 300 separate denominations. As I perceive it, Methodist worship uses many prayers from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and, depending on the tastes of the local parish, can seem remarkably similar to “low church” Anglican worship. Some Methodist congregations make more of remaining simple and non-liturgical (not guided by standard liturgical forms). Some Episcopal parishes move in the opposite direction with “high church” styles such as incense.

For a time, the socioeconomic profiles of Methodists and Episcopalians seemed different. The old saw was that Methodist missionaries went west first and on horseback, and that Episcopal missionaries came later by Pullman car. Probably never true, but symptomatic of perceived differences. For many years now, however, the two denominations have seemed indistinguishable in terms of political views, socioeconomic profiles, location and theology. People seem to flow easily back and forth between the two denominations.

The United Methodist Church is substantially larger than the Episcopal Church, equally open to certain expressions of modernism such as women in leadership, but perhaps not as open to affirming gays and lesbians in leadership.