An episcopal polity is a hierarchical form of church governance ("ecclesiastical polity") in which the chief local authorities are called bishops. (The word "bishop" derives, via the British Latin and Vulgar Latin term ''
*biscopus'', from the Ancient Greek ''epískopos'' meaning "overseer".) It is the structure used by many of the major Christian Churches and denominations, such as Catholic, Eastern (e.g. Eastern Orthodox), Anglican and Lutheran churches or denominations, and other churches founded independently from these lineages.
Churches with an episcopal polity are governed by bishops, practicing their authorities in the dioceses and conferences or synods. Their leadership is both sacramental and constitutional; as well as performing ordinations, confirmations, and consecrations, the bishop supervises the clergy within a local jurisdiction and is the representative both to secular structures and within the hierarchy of the church. Bishops are considered to derive their authority from an unbroken, personal apostolic succession from the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. Bishops with such authority are known as the historical episcopate. Churches with this type of government usually believe that the Church requires episcopal government as described in the New Testament.〔The first descriptions of the bishop (episcopus) () and of ordination by apostolic succession are in the New Testament ()〕 In some systems, bishops may be subject to higher-ranking bishops (variously called archbishops, metropolitans, and/or patriarchs, depending upon the tradition). They also meet in councils or synods. These gatherings, subject to presidency by higher ranking bishops, usually make important decisions, though the synod or council may also be purely advisory.
For much of the written history of institutional Christianity, episcopal government was the only known form of church organization. This changed at the Reformation. Many Protestant churches are now organized by either congregational or presbyterian church polities, both descended from the writings of John Calvin, a Protestant reformer working and writing independently following the break with the Roman Catholic Church precipitated by The Ninety-Five Theses of Martin Luther.
==Overview of episcopal churches==
The definition of the word ''episcopal'' has variation among Christian traditions. There are subtle differences in governmental principles among episcopal churches at the present time. To some extent the separation of episcopal churches can be traced to these differences in ecclesiology, that is, their theological understanding of church and church governance. For some, "episcopal churches" are churches that use a hierarchy of bishops that regard themselves as being in an unbroken, personal apostolic succession.
Episcopal is also commonly used to distinguish between the various organizational structures of denominations. For instance, the word ''presbyterian'' ((ギリシア語:'πρεσβύτης), presbítes) is used to describe a church governed by a hierarchy of assemblies of elected elders, referred to as Presbyterian. Similarly, ''episcopal'' is used to describe a church governed by bishops. Self-governed local congregations, governed neither by elders nor bishops, are usually referred to as ''Congregational''.
More specifically, the title ''Episcopal'' (capitalized in this instance) is applied to several churches historically based within Anglicanism (''Episcopalianism'') including those still in communion with the Church of England.
Using these definitions, examples of specific episcopal churches include:
* The Roman Catholic Church
* The Eastern Orthodox Church
* The Oriental Orthodox churches
* The Assyrian Church of the East
* The Churches of the Anglican Communion
* The Old Catholic churches
* Numerous smaller Catholic churches
* Certain national churches of the Lutheran confession
* The African Methodist Episcopal Church
* The United Methodist Church
Some Lutheran churches practice congregational polity or a form of presbyterian polity.〔Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor (Lutheranism ) Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary. Retrieved on September 4, 2006.〕 Others, including the Church of Sweden, practice episcopal polity; the Church of Sweden also counts its bishops among the historic episcopate as do some American Lutheran churches like the Anglo-Lutheran Catholic Church, Lutheran Orthodox Church, Lutheran Church-International, and the Lutheran Episcopal Communion.
Many Methodist churches (see The United Methodist Church, among others) retain the form and function of episcopal polity, although in a modified form, called connexionalism. Since all trace their ordinations to an Anglican priest, John Wesley, it is generally considered that their bishops do not share in apostolic succession, though United Methodists still affirm that their bishops share in the historic episcopate.
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