What to Expect When You Visit an Episcopal Church
Going to any church for the first time may feel a little strange. We invite you to relax and feel welcome to participate as you choose. Here is a guide to some of what you might expect if you go to a worship service at an Episcopal Church.
Gathering (Getting there, getting settled, getting ready for church)
It’s good 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, which will contain the liturgy and will guide you to the pages in the hymnal. You can sit anywhere you would like. Sometimes new people will sit in the back just to check things out. Those of us who are short may like to sit nearer to the front so we can see! In addition to the service leaflet there will be various books in racks in front of you or in the pews. You will see red copies of the Book of Common Prayer, sometimes called the Prayerbook or the BCP. This book has various portions of the service in it. Your bulletin will give you page numbers to find those sections. You will also see a dark blue book called “The Hymnal 1982.” Many churches have other supplemental music books as well.
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 it is instrumental and other times it is sung.
Most services start with a song that everyone sings while standing. In many churches there will be a procession of liturgical ministers, people who have specific jobs to do during the service. Sometimes a 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) says 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. (Music like this which is a piece of the service is sometimes found in the front of the Hymnal in a section where all the number are preceded by “S-“ which stands for Service Music.” Then the presider will say a prayer called a collect, which is meant to collect our thoughts and us as the concluding piece of our gathering.
The Liturgy of the Word (Readings, sermon, creedal statements, prayers of the people)
We all sit down to hear readings. Most of the time there is a reading
from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament); a psalm; readings from
the Christian Scriptures (New Testament), consisting of Letters (The
Epistle) and 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 assembly usually read the first
two readings. The psalm is said or sung. Your bulletin will either
have the psalm printed in it or tell you where to find it in the
Prayerbook or songbook.
Because the Gospel, the stories of Jesus’ life and death, are central
to our faith, that reading gets “special treatment.” Normally an alleluia,
or some song welcoming the Gospel is sung and the Gospel book is
brought into the middle of the assembly and read by either a deacon
or a priest. Everyone stands for this reading and turns and faces the
Following the Gospel a sermon is preached, usually by a priest, on occasion it might be a layperson. The sermon is meant to take what we have heard in the readings and engage the content in our current 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 a Creed, an ancient statement of faith used by most Christian churches, which binds us together with Christians of all generations. We pray the Prayers of the People. These prayers are a series of petitions led by a member of the assembly 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. These prayers conclude with a collect, once again “collecting” our prayers.
After the prayers during most of the year, we say a Confession (the confession is sometimes omitted during very celebratory seasons of the year). The confession is an opportunity to say together the ways we have not loved God or others. Some people kneel for the confession as a sign of their penitence, others stand; either is appropriate. At the conclusion of the confession, the presider says the absolution, words reminding us that God forgives us.
The presider then bids “The Peace.” This can be a particularly awkward moment for people who are newcomers or visitors. 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” or just, “Peace” to one another. People may shake hands or embrace each other. You can greet the people right around you. In some places, the Peace is a little more exuberant and people will actually leave their seats to exchange the Peace with more people. We sometimes forget the ritual we are enacting and devolve into more casual greetings and other conversation because we are so glad to see each other!
In many churches, the Peace is followed by announcements. This is a chance to let people know what is going on in the 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 a piece of music is sung or played while the collection is being taken. 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 in whatever amount of money or to put in nothing at all. (You may wonder why so many people don’t put anything in. There are many reasons, of course, but one big one is that many church members make their financial contributions in ways other than putting it in the plate, i.e. through credit card deductions, monthly checks, etc.) The liturgical ministers set the Table and the bread and wine for communion with the money that has been collected are offered at the Altar.
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’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 say Amen, which is our way of assenting to the prayer. We stand at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer. After the Sanctus, you may kneel or continue standing. Different communities have different sensibilities around this; in some places most people stand, in others, most people kneel. Either one is totally fine.
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 might 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.
People generally come forward and stand or kneel at the altar to receive communion. Most places have ushers to help guide you; if there are no ushers, this is a good time to watch what others are doing and follow their example.
It is totally fine if you don’t want to receive communion. You may remain in your seat, or you may also come forward and cross your arms over your chest. The priest will offer you a blessing.
If you do want to receive, hold out your hands and the priest will put a 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 helpful for you to touch and help guide the cup to your mouth. It is also totally fine to receive only the bread or only the wine; either is considered a full receiving of communion. 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 communion.
After Communion (giving thanks, being sent forth)
After everyone has received communion we stand and say a prayer which your service leaflet will either have printed or tell you where to find it. The priest then asks God to bless us. Another song 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, to be sent out into the world.
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 can spend some time talking with each other. Often there is coffee to be enjoyed! People leaving customarily greet the priest at the door and you might want to introduce yourself as a newcomer.