February 25, 2013

“Episcopal” vs. “Episcopalian”

I recently put a note on my Facebook page referring readers to a Grammarist blog post on the words “preventive” and “preventative.” I had thought of writing such a post myself, but I decided I couldn’t do a better job than had already been done.

In response to my Facebook remark, however, a friend recommend that I write about the words “Episcopal” and “Episcopalian.” Such a post is probably not needed for Episcopalians themselves, but I have seen reporters making such mistakes as referring to members of an Episcopal Church parish as “Episcopals.” That is pretty jarring.

A quick Google search finds many Web pages that offer a straightforward rule to follow: “Episcopal” is an adjective, and “Episcopalian” is a noun. This works most of the time. We speak of an Episcopal church, an Episcopal bishop, or an episcopal election. Moreover, we speak of a gathering of Episcopalians.

The root meaning of “episcopal” is “relating to a bishop.” Thus, an episcopal election is an election of a person to be a bishop and an episcopal church would be a church in which bishops play a significant role in governance. The word is capitalized when it relates to the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (The Episcopal Church) or, possibly, to a similarly named church (e.g., the Scottish Episcopal Church). Thus, at least in the United States, an Episcopal bishop is a bishop of The Episcopal Church. (If you think about it too much, “Episcopal bishop” seems redundant, but, of course, it really isn’t.) Occasionally, the word “episcopally” shows up, as in the phrase “episcopally led.” I cannot imagine a proper use of “episcopal,” capitalized or not, as a noun.

“Episcopalian,” on the other hand, is almost always a noun, usually meaning “one who is a member of The Episcopal Church” In its lowercase form, the word can refer to someone who favors an episcopal form of church governance. “Episcopalian” can also be an adjective, however. A singer who is an Episcopalian might be called an Episcopalian soprano, though, depending on context, she could be an Episcopal soprano. She could not be an episcopal soprano unless she is a bishop. “Episcopalian” as an adjective is more likely to be used in speech. A meeting of Episcopalian laypeople might be described as an Episcopalian gathering, since, in speech, we cannot distinguish between “Episcopal gathering” and “episcopal gathering,” the latter being a meeting of bishops, something quite different.


  1. Also in ecumenical context---where there may be bishops of several traditions present---you can use Episcopalian as an adjective.

  2. I have always assumed that this common mistake is the result of the Episcopal Church being the only mainline denomination I can think of whose noun and adjective are different from one another.
    Members of the Catholic Church are called Catholics.
    Members of the Lutheran Church are called Lutherans.
    Members of the Methodist Church are called Methodists.
    Members of the Presbyterian Church are called Presbyterians.
    It therefore desn't seem irrational to me that the uninitiated would assume that members of the Episcopal Church are called Episcopals.


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