The history of the Episcopal Church is long, complicated, and not without intrigue! To get there, we need to begin in England in the middle of the first century. The entirety of Christianity was, at that time, under papal authority; that is, under the authority of the Pope and the Church of the Roman Empire. St. Augustine is credited with bringing Christianity to England in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Within a century of his arrival, nearly all of the kingdoms of England had accepted Christianity as their own religion.
The next 800 years or so were relatively peaceful in regards to the church, and it wasn’t until the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, as Rome and the papacy exerted more and more influence over the churches that unrest rose, as it always will. In the 16th century England began to seek separation from Rome (and not just because Henry VIII wanted a divorce, though that is certainly part of it), Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses exposing the shadowy side of the Roman church, and the Protestant Reformation was underway. Henry VIII declared separation (though not total) from Rome and established himself as head of the Church in England in 1534. Full separation from Rome would not come for another 25 years.
The next quarter century saw much back and forthing as various Catholic and Protestant monarchs held the throne, but it wasn’t until Queen Elizabeth I was crowned in 1558 that an independent Church of England was established and remains to this day. The first Book of Common Prayer was written in 1549 by Thomas Cranmer and, many revisions later, is still in use today in both the Church of England, The Episcopal Church, and other member churches of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The Book of Common Prayer united the fledgling church in liturgy, doctrine, and worship. It still does so today in many languages.
As British colonies were established all over the world, including in the newly discovered Americas, the Church of England came along as the established church. The first recorded celebration of the Eucharist (Holy Communion, Lord’s Supper) in this country according to the Church of England form was in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.
The American Revolution caused deep divisions in the American Church mostly concerning allegiance to the monarchy whose crowned head, as you recall, was the spiritual head of the Church of England. There was a lot of discussion and action concerning creating a line of bishops (episcopate) solely for the church in The United States and even an irregular consecration. When the dust settled in 1790 with the consecration of Thomas Claggett by both the Church of England and the irregular Church in America, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America was born. The first American Book of Common Prayer, Canons and Constitution were written in 1789.
The Episcopal Church has now spread to 109 dioceses across 17 nations and three regional areas and is a member church of the worldwide Anglican Communion.