What to Expect When You Visit – Worship in the Episcopal Church

The congregation worships

Sunday is traditionally when Episcopalians gather for worship. In most Episcopal churches, at least one of the Sunday worship services includes the singing of hymns and in some churches much of the service is sung.

For the first-time visitor, the structure of the service may be exhilarating…or confusing.  Services usually involve standing, sitting, and kneeling; both sung and spoken responses; all of which may seem challenging for the first-time visitor. However, liturgical worship is a lot like a dance – once you learn the steps, you begin to appreciate the rhythm, and it becomes satisfying to dance, again and again, as the music changes.

Because most of our worship follows a structured format and prays from texts that don’t change greatly from week to week during a season of the year, it is said to be “liturgical.”  This means that the worship is the ‘work’ of the congregation rather than of the worship leaders.  We find that the regularity of our pattern from week to week gives worship a rhythm that is comforting and familiar and allows us to focus on the presence of God.

Episcopalians worship in many different styles, ranging from very formal, ancient, and multi-sensory services with lots of singing, music, fancy clothes (called vestments), and incense, to informal services with contemporary music. Yet all worship in the Episcopal Church is based in the Book of Common Prayer, which gives worship a familiar feel, no matter where you go.

Our principal weekly worship service is Holy Communion, also known as the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper. In spite of the diversity of worship styles in the Episcopal Church, Holy Communion always has the same components and the same shape.  We begin by praising God through song and prayer, and then listen to as many as four readings from the Bible – usually one from the Old Testament, a Psalm, something from the Epistles, and (always) a reading from the Gospels. The psalm is usually sung or recited by the congregation.

Next, a sermon is preached interpreting the readings appointed for the day and applying them to the events of our daily lives.  The congregation then recites the Nicene Creed (our statement of what we believe) written in the Fourth Century.  Next, we pray together – for the Church, the world, and those in need. We pray for the sick, thank God for all the good things in our lives, and finally, we pray for the dead. The person leading the service (usually a priest or bishop) concludes with a prayer that gathers the petitions into a communal offering of intercession.  We conclude this time of prayer by formally confessing our sins with a corporate statement of what we have done and what we have left undone.  The priest or bishop then makes a pronouncement of absolution.  In the pronouncement of absolution, the congregation is assured that God is always ready to forgive our sins.  Having made our peace with God, we then greet one another with a hug or handshake as a sign of our wish for God’s peace for all those around us.

The priest then stands at the table, which has been set with a cup of wine and a plate of bread or wafers, raises his or her hands, and greets the congregation again, saying “The Lord be With You.”  He or she then begins the Eucharistic Prayer, which tells the story of our faith, from the beginning of Creation, through the choosing of Israel to be God’s people, our continual turning away from God, to God’s calling us to return. Finally, the priest tells the story of the coming of Jesus Christ, and about the night before his death, on which he instituted the Eucharistic meal (communion) as a continual remembrance of him.

The priest asks God’s blessing on the bread and wine, and the congregation recites the Lord’s Prayer. Finally, the priest breaks the bread and offers it to the congregation, as the “gifts of God for the People of God.” The congregation then shares the consecrated bread and the wine. Sometimes the people all come forward to receive the bread and wine; sometimes they pass them around in other ways.

All baptized Christians—no matter age or denomination—are welcome to “receive communion.” Episcopalians invite all baptized people to receive, not because we take the Eucharist lightly, but because we take our baptism so seriously.  Visitors who are not baptized Christians are welcome to come forward during the Communion to receive a blessing from the priest.  At the end of the Eucharist, the congregation prays once more in thanksgiving, and then is dismissed to continue a life of service to God and to the World.