"Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God."
Going to an Episcopal Church (or any church at all for the first time) may feel a little strange and intimidating. We want you to be able to relax and feel welcome and able to participate as you choose. Here is a guide to some of what you might expect if you attend a worship service at an Episcopal Church.
Worship in the Episcopal Church is said to be “liturgical,” meaning that the congregation follows service forms and prays from texts that don’t change greatly from week to week during a season of the year. This sameness from week to week gives worship a rhythm that becomes comforting and familiar to the worshipers.
(Getting there, getting settled, getting ready for church)
It’s a good idea to arrive a few minutes before the service so you can get yourself settled. There will be ushers or greeters who will give you a bulletin/service leaflet/ program, which will guide you through the service. Like most churches, we have pews (long benches) as well as (in our Main Sanctuary) rows of chairs. You can sit anywhere you like. In addition to the service leaflet there will often be various books in racks in front of you or in the pews. You will see red or black copies of the Book of Common Prayer, sometimes called simply “the prayer book “or the BCP. For convenience sake, our bulletin reprints all the sections of the BCP you will be needing. You will also see a dark blue book called “The Hymnal 1982” which has most of the hymns we sing during church. Other hymns, from supplemental music books, are printed in your leaflet.
A few minutes before the service there will be some music called the Prelude. It is meant to help us gather ourselves and prepare for the service. Sometimes the prelude is instrumental and other times it is sung.
Most services start with a song that everyone sings while standing. There’s almost always a simple procession of liturgical ministers -- people who have specific jobs to do during the service. Usually the procession is led by the cross and you may see people bowing to the cross as it passes by as a gesture of respect. Once the song is over, the presider (the priest leading the service) and the assembly (everyone else) say the Opening Acclamation, which is a formal way of greeting one another. Then there may be a short piece of music praising God or asking for God’s mercy. Then the presider will say a prayer called a “collect” which is meant to collect us and our thoughts together as the concluding piece of our gathering.
THE LITURGY OF THE WORD
(Readings, sermon, statements of faith, prayers of the community)
We sit to hear readings. Most of the time there is a reading from the Old Testament; sometimes there is a psalm and another reading from the New Testament. There is always a reading from the Gospels. These readings are part of a set “lectionary” which assigns readings for every Sunday on a three year cycle. Members of the church usually read the first reading(s).
Because the Gospel -- the stories of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection -- are central to our faith, that reading gets “special treatment.” Normally a song or hymn welcoming the Gospel is sung and the Gospel is read by either a deacon or a priest. Everyone stands for this reading.
Following the Gospel a sermon is preached, usually by a priest (but on occasion it might be a lay person). The sermon is meant to take what we have heard in the readings and apply that wisdom to our everyday lives.
After the sermon, the next several pieces of the service provide a way for us to respond to what we have heard. Because we are actively responding we stand up at this point. We say the Nicene Creed, an ancient (4th century) statement of faith used by most Christian churches which binds us together with Christians of all generations. We then pray the Prayers of the People. These prayers are a series of petitions led by various persons in the congregation, with a response by the entire assembly at the end of each one. The petitions include prayers for the Church, the world, the nation, those who are sick and those who have died. The presider concludes these prayers with a collect, once again “collecting” our prayers.
After the prayers during most of the year we say the Confession (the confession is sometimes omitted during very celebratory seasons of the year like Easter season). The confession is an opportunity to confess together the ways we have not loved God or others. Sometimes people kneel for the confession as a sign of their penitence. At the conclusion of the confession, the presider says the absolution, words reminding us that God forgives our sins.
The presider then bids “The Peace.” This can be a somewhat awkward moment for people who are newcomers or visitors -- especially in churches such as ours which have a relatively exuberant exchange of the Peace. What we are doing is ritually enacting our need to be in right relationship with one another before we go to communion. We do that by saying “Peace be with you” to one another. People may shake hands, either with those right around them, or leaving their seats, with more people. We sometimes forget we are enacting a ritual and engage in more casual greetings and other conversation -- not because we’re being irreverent, but because so many of our parishioners are authentically glad to see one another.
The Peace is followed by announcements. This is not a formal part of the ritual but is a chance to let people know what is going on in the faith community and how to get involved.
The LITURGY OF THE TABLE
(collecting gifts, getting our meal ready and praying over it, sharing bread and wine)
A collection of money is taken at this point. Often music is sung or played while the offering is being received. Our offerings symbolize both our bringing of ourselves to worship and our support of the life of the community. It is fine for you to put whatever amount of money in, or to put in nothing at all. (You may see some people putting in laminated cards: that’s an option for those church members who make financial contributions in ways other than putting cash or checks in the offertory plate, i.e. through credit card donations.) If you’re a newcomer and want more information about the church, this is a good time to fill out a visitor’s card and then place it in the offertory plate. During a singing of a “presentation hymn,” the bread and wine we use for communion and the money that has been offered are brought to the Altar Table and presented to God by the liturgical ministers, who then set the Table for Communion.
The presider prays an extended prayer. It starts with a dialogue between the presider and assembly called the Sursum Corda (literally “lift up your hearts”). The presider then praises God for God’s action in our lives. This initial section can in some cases be specific to the season we are in. This selection concludes with the Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy”,) a response normally sung by the entire assembly. The prayer continues with a retelling of the story of the Last Supper and the presider asking the Holy Spirit to come into the bread and wine and into us. At the end of the prayer we all say Amen, which our way of assenting to the prayer.
At the end of the Eucharistic Prayer everyone prays the Lord’s Prayer. Then the presider breaks a piece of the bread, symbolizing Christ’s body being broken for us. After this symbolic breaking, some more practical preparations are made which include pouring additional chalices of wine, breaking the bread into pieces for distribution, etc. Words, called the Fraction Anthem, are either spoken or sung at this point that reflect the actions taking place. Once the bread and wine are ready the presider invites people to the meal.
At the time of receiving communion, people come forward either to a communion station or to the altar rail; ushers will guide you. At the altar rail, standing or kneeling is appropriate. All baptized persons, regardless of background or denomination or age, are not only welcome but encouraged to receive communion.
If you don’t wish to receive communion, that is totally fine. You can remain in your seat, or you can also come forward and cross your arms over your chest. The priest will offer you a blessing instead of communion.
If you do want to receive, hold out your hands and the priest will put a wafer/piece of bread in your hand. Then another liturgical minister will come with the cup of wine (and it is wine!). There are few choices here. You can eat the bread when it is put in your hand and then take a sip of wine from the cup. It is okay and actually helpful for you to touch the cup and help guide it to your mouth. If you don’t want to drink from the cup you can receive both the bread and the wine together by “intinction” -- leave the bread in your hand and lightly dip the bread in the wine and then place it in your mouth. It is also perfectly acceptable to receive only the bread or only the wine. Gluten-free wafers are available on request. There are many reasons people might want to receive only one so don’t feel self-conscious about that. Once you have received, simply return to your seat. Often music is sung during or near the end of communion.
(giving thanks, being sent into the world)
After everyone has received communion we stand and say a prayer which your service leaflet will have printed out. The priest then asks God to bless us. Another song or hymn is usually sung by everyone at this point during which the liturgical ministers may process out. At the very end we are dismissed by a deacon or priest, sent out into the world to do the work we have been called to do.
Often there is an instrumental postlude played. It is fine to stand up and leave your seat at this point or you may want to remain and listen to the music.
Once the service is concluded people usually spend some time talking with each other over a cup of coffee and refreshments: please do make a point to come to our coffee hour!
WANT MORE INFORMATION?
Here is an excellent F.A.Q. -- questions and answers about The Episcopal Church written by the Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, missioner for Asiamerica Ministries in The Episcopal Church.