Christian Education in The Episcopal Church: A Brief History

EpiscopalSSPinThe following is an entry I contributed to “The Encyclopedia of Christian Education” ed. George Thomas Kurian and Mark A. Lamport (Rowman & LIttlefield) that was published in 2015. This three volume set is a comprehensive resource of 1,200 entries by 400 contributors that most likely can be found in a theological library or institution. I also wrote entries for “Fund for Theological Education,” “Denominational Publishing,” “Ecumenical Publishing,” and “Division of Christian Education for the National Council of Churches.” My hope is that this gives those of you who work in Christian educational ministries in the Episcopal Church some context into the roots and history of education from our denomination.

The Episcopal Church is rooted in a history of preparing individuals for proclaiming the gospel locally and internationally since it was established in 1789 as an American denomination. The creation of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society in 1835 had led to the establishment of a Board of Missions and then, later in the century, A General Board of Religious Education and a Joint Commission on Social Service. In 1919, the General Convention directed the Presiding Bishop and Council to administer and carry on the missionary, education, and social work of the Church, building upon the corporate model of business that much of America was following.

In 1934, the Forward Movement was inaugurated to stimulate the spiritual life of the church. It proposed a disciple’s rule of life: Turn – Follow – Learn – Pray – Serve – Worship – Share. It continues to publish devotional and educational booklets. The Church Hymnal Society (today Church Publishing Incorporated) was established to publish liturgical resources for the church.

The Church’s Teaching series, six basic volumes, each with one or more guides for leaders of adult group discussions on topics regarding scripture, church history, worship and mission were published by Seabury Press from 1949 – 1958, emphasizing adult education as well as classes for parents and godparents. The creation of The Seabury Series was the only curriculum ever produced under a national church mandate. At the time it was the most professional, skillfully designed Christian education curriculum. The major emphasis of this “new program” for children and youth was the curriculum prepared for use in closely graded church schools. Begun in 1955, the last revision appeared in 1969, when the courses for K – Grade 8 had been revised twice, with Nursery and Grades 9 and 10 having been revised once.

As financial resources for Christian education began to be withdrawn after 1967, issues and questions were beginning to surface in terms of their implications for Christian education, leading to a resolution in 1985 of the 68th General Convention calling for the appointment of a task force to “study the history and present state of Christian education and recommend actions to strengthen the Church’s educational ministry.” This pattern repeated itself numerous times in subsequent General Conventions, with task forces created for studies and national education staff positions eliminated including funding for national initiatives, reverting back to local and diocesan initiatives.

Called to Teach and Learn was published by DFMS in 1994 following the work of one such task force. A seminal document, it articulated the understanding of Christian education as primarily Sunday School and Bible study to Christian formation as catechesis, the ancient model of formation in which the Church seeks to equip the whole person for his or her life in Christ. It called the church to focus beyond the imparting of knowledge in particular discrete subjects to look holistically on how all ages are equipped to be followers of Christ. Within this perspective, education remains a major and critical piece of formation but not its sole component. However, many continue to prefer “Christian education” to uphold the importance of the pedagogical dimension of learning.

Christian education in The Episcopal Church has flourished best on the grassroots level, with locally created programs bubbling up to national popularity. The first lectionary-based curriculum, Living the Good News was created by a partnership of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Colorado in the early 1980s. Other models include Godly Play, a Montessori-approach of catechesis for children developed by Jerome Berryman in 1990 (Houston, Texas), the Journey to Adulthood youth program by David Crean and Amanda Hughes (Durham, North Carolina in 1993), and Education for Ministry (EfM), a four-year course of theological education and reflection for the laity on the local level developed and administered by the School of Theology at the University of the South, Sewanee since 1975.

In 1997, The Children’s Charter for the Church was developed by a grassroots movement of educators who wanted to highlight the recognition of children as full members of the Church. It reflected a deep commitment to include children and youth in the life of the church, recognizing the ministry of, by, and for children. Its aim was to help churches to affirm the practice of integrating the lives of children into the church, and to integrate the church into the lives of the children. This reflected a commitment to Christian formation as a cradle-to-grave enterprise involving both lifelong and daylong learning, which continues today.

At the 76th General Convention (2009) the Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation was adopted as a model for education for all. It defined lifelong Christian formation in The Episcopal Church as the growth in the knowledge, service, and love of God as followers of Christ that is informed by Scripture, Tradition and Reason. It involves a prayerful life of worship, continuous learning, intentional outreach, advocacy, and service. The study of scripture, mindful of the context of our societies and cultures, calls Episcopalians to seek truth anew while remaining fully present in the community of faith. It calls the church to develop new learning experiences and equip disciples for life in a world of secular challenges while carefully listening for the words of modern sages who embody the teachings of Christ. Lifelong Christian formation in The Episcopal Church is a journey with Christ, in Christ, and to Christ.

Today, Christian education is seen as part of a holistic view of Christian formation, centered in Baptism and shaped by the Holy Eucharist. Whether in a classroom setting, intergenerational gathering or worship, the themes of gathering, story, prayer, sharing, and going out form the basis of education. Each congregation discerns what curricula and program best suits its context and need for educating all ages, with the Baptismal Covenant a model for learning and living out one’s faith in daily life. Education for all ages is grounded in scripture, tradition, and reason.


Bernardin, J. B. An Introduction to the Episcopal Church (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1983).

The Children’s Charter for the Church

The Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation

Hunter, Carman St. J. Christian Education in the Episcopal Church 1940s to 1970s (New York, NY: The Episcopal Church Center, 1987)

Gillespie, Joanna B. “What We Taught: Christian Education in The American Episcopal Church, 1920-1980” Anglican and Episcopal History, Vol. LVI, No (March 1987).

Pearson, Sharon Ely, editor. Lessons, Legacies, and Lifelines: The Past, Present, and Future of Theological Education & Christian Formation in the Episcopal Church 1967-2008. (New York: NY. Report to Executive Council from “Proclaiming Education for All” –PEALL – Task Force as presented for the General Convention, 2006.

Pritchard, Robert. A History of the Episcopal Church, 2nd edition (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2003).

Sibley, Lois, editor. Called to Teach and Learn: A Catechetical Guide for the Episcopal Church (New York, NY: The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, 1994).

Webber, Christopher L. Welcome to the Episcopal Church: An Introduction to Its History, Faith, and Worship (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1999).

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