The character of the Episcopal church was influenced during its early years by the struggle between the Low church party, led by William White, the first bishop of Pennsylvania, and a High church party, led by Samuel Seabury, bishop of Connecticut. Seeking to resolve the struggle, the Episcopal church established a polity in which a democratic, lay dominated church structure was set in tension with the aristocratic, episcopally dominated government structure. A general convention was established, composed of a house of bishops and a house of clerical and lay deputies, and chartered to meet triennially. Further tension was to exist between this national convention and the local dioceses and missionary districts, which resisted interference by the national body. Unity has been maintained by commonly held traditions embodied in a constitution and canon law, the Book of Common Prayer, and the threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons, as well as through a common agreement to coexist.
The subsequent history of the Episcopal church is largely that of its expansion with the growth of the United States in territory and population, and of revisions of polity, laws, and liturgy. The church’s missionary commitments led to the founding of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society in 1821. Its president was the senior and presiding bishop of the house of bishops. This marked the beginning of a permanent national executive for the church. In 1919 the general convention created the national council, later called the executive council, which absorbed the missionary society and other societies for education and social concerns. In 1976 the general convention approved both a revision of the Book of Common Prayer (previously revised in 1892 and 1928) and the admission of women to the ordained ministry. These actions provoked widespread contention, causing some church members to leave for other churches or to establish a new church, the Anglican Church of North America. The consecration of Barbara Harris as the first woman bishop in 1989 provoked the formation of the Episcopal Synod of America, a dissenting group supported by several Episcopal bishops.
The Episcopal church has been actively engaged in the Ecumenical Movement, largely through the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches. It has participated in conversations with other churches, chiefly the Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran churches.