Colorado is a large state with an wide range of different people and cultures. This is reflected not only in the membership of our churches, but in the richly diverse ways in which those members worship each Sunday and on special occasions throughout the year.
At the heart of all Episcopal worship is the Book of Common Prayer, and within it the principal weekly service is the Holy Eucharist—also known as Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper or the Mass.
For each Christian season, the Book of Common Prayer lays out the form that the service should take, and provides the text for most of the prayers. A calendar of readings from the Scriptures, called the “Lectionary,” lays out which biblical passages should be read each day. Typical services will mix readings, prayers, hymns and a sermon. In every case, while a priest leads the service, the congregation participates extensively—singing hymns and speaking or singing prayers, the creed (statements of our beliefs), responses and psalms (sacred poems).
Exactly what one does when—should you be kneeling, sitting, or standing? Should you sing or speak the responses? When do you say “Amen”? —can be a bit of a puzzle to a newcomer (and sometimes even for Episcopalians visiting a different church), but it should not be intimidating and there is freedom to do what is most comfortable for you. In any event, because the essential form of the service remains the same from one Sunday to the next, you soon get used to the practices of the congregation you choose to attend—and after that you will begin to experience what Episcopalians find so satisfying: the mental space that the familiar rhythm opens up to commune more profoundly with God.
The Book of Common Prayer provides a fixed framework, but not a rigid one. The details vary from church to church and are a matter of tradition and taste. One church may begin with a more or less elaborate procession of priest(s), acolytes and choir, and in another with the priest standing on the steps in front of the altar. Even within a congregation, worship services can be offered in a range of styles from contemporary to more traditional. Come join us, won’t you?
I want to come to an Episcopal Church. What can I expect?
What do I wear?
People come to church dressed in whatever way helps them honor God and their community. That can be casual, or Sunday best, and often you will see both sitting right next to each other in the pew in front of you. Come with gratitude and thanksgiving on your mind and dress for that.
Will there be candles and incense and priests dressed up in special outfits?
In the Episcopal Church you get variety. Worship can take place anywhere, but often you will find symbols, smells, and vestments (the outfits priests wear) that make the experience special and set apart from everyday life. There may be music, candles, and yes, priests in robes. This is to make holy the place and your experience.
What’s going to happen?
There are several parts to a typical Sunday morning service and they are put together, much like a play would be, to bring you through an experience. In this case it is the experience of worship in community to feel the presence of God.
There is a lot of standing, sitting, and kneeling in an Episcopal service. Do not let this confuse you. People who have been attending Episcopal Church all their lives often have to look around to see what they are doing at that moment. So do what the people around you are doing – if it is comfortable to you – and enjoy.
The general rule is we stand to praise and pray, sit to listen, kneel to pray and confess. If any of these are uncomfortable to you and your body, sitting is always an option. The point is to fully engage in the service, not as a member of an audience, but as a full participant. The audience is God. You are part of the community.
If the church has a choir, they may walk into the church from the back singing a hymn, with the priests and other participants in the service following. Enjoy this, it is the prelude to the service and is intended to bring you into a worshipful or contemplative state of mind.
Liturgy of the word
The first part of the service is the Liturgy of the Word, which begins with ancient hymns of praise, often the Kyrie or the Gloria. This sets the stage for what we are doing. We are all working together to remind ourselves of who we are, who God is, and what our relationship is to each other. We want to be empowered by this experience of worship to live and act as God desires – who we are at our best, not just here on a Sunday morning, but all the time.
Usually, there will be four readings, though one of them may be sung, and there may not actually be four. But if there are, they will be a portion of the Old Testament, a Psalm sung or read, a New Testament reading, and then the Gospel reading. Congregations stand for the Gospel reading.
This section of the service is created to make you think. Often the readings apply to our lives, or to questions we have, or they may make you uncomfortable, or you may even disagree. The point is to get your mind involved in worship.
Somewhere in this section there will be a sermon devised to keep you thinking about the readings, yourself, and the world around you.
We pray Prayers of the People centering on the concerns of our lives, communal and individual. This happens in different ways in different congregations. And then we confess our sins in order to remind ourselves that we want to be living our full potential as the people of God, but we often fail. The Absolution comes after the confession of sins, the sign of forgiveness and grace from God for our missed marks and mistakes.
Passing the Peace or exchanging the Peace comes next and this brings us back to our place in community as welcoming and loving people. This will look and feel different depending on where you are, but you will generally shake hands and say “The Peace of the Lord be with you,” or “God’s Peace,” or just “Peace,” to your neighbors. It is a chance to meet the people with whom you are sharing this time of worship.
People often know the Eucharist as Communion, and either way it means “thanksgiving.” We are called to offer our thanks for God’s gifts to us, and are given by God’s grace the inspiration to serve as God’s hands and heart in the world with unity, constancy, and peace.
This is the time when we give to the church and its activities, but there is a deeper meaning. We give of our time, energy, and money; the choir often gives us music and beauty; and we are preparing for the ultimate offering of the bread and wine. Churches will sometimes put in the bulletin what the money is being collected for that week, so you know.
The Great Thanksgiving
Remembering that the Episcopal Church roots go all the way back to the first centuries of the Church, the opening lines of the Great Thanksgiving are the same dialogue used by Christians in the early Church.
The Eucharist culminates in the congregation coming forward to take Communion. There are many different expressions of Eucharist in the Episcopal Church. If you have questions about it, ask one of the ushers or greeters at the church you attend.
As we receive communion we are taking in the presence and inspiration of Jesus Christ and we become members of the Body of Christ. We receive grace, forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life.
What if I don’t want to take communion?
You are free to stay in your seat and watch. You can also go to the altar to be blessed without taking communion.
What if I don’t drink wine?
It is fine to take the bread and not the wine. There are many people for whom the wine is not appropriate and they receive communion without it. It is still a full communion.
Some people drink and some dip?
That’s right. There are many ways to take communion. With or without wine, by sipping or dipping. Do what feels comfortable to you. There is precedent for all of it.
There is a short closing prayer and a blessing, and then the congregation is sent forth to love and serve the Lord, full of the experience of God’s grace and strength.