Sunday is traditionally when Episcopalians gather for worship. The principal weekly worship service is the Holy Eucharist, also known as: the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, or Mass. In most Episcopal churches, worship follows a form found in the Book of Common Prayer. Overall, there is a sameness from week to week that gives worship a rhythm that becomes comforting and familiar to the worshipers.
For the first-time visitor, liturgy (the service) may be confusing. Services may involve standing, sitting, kneeling, sung or spoken responses, and other participatory elements that may provide a challenge for the first-time visitor. However, liturgical worship can be compared with a dance: once you learn the steps, you come to appreciate the rhythm, and it becomes satisfying to dance, again and again, as the music changes.
The Holy Eucharist
In spite of the diversity of worship styles in the Episcopal Church, Holy Eucharist always has the same components and the same shape.
The Liturgy of the Word
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.
The congregation then recites the Nicene Creed, written in the Fourth Century and the Church’s statement of what we believe ever since.
Next, the congregation prays 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 presider (e.g. priest, bishop, lay minister) concludes with a prayer that gathers the petitions into a communal offering of intercession.
In certain seasons of the Church year, the congregation formally confesses their sins before God and one another. This is a corporate statement of what we have done and what we have left undone, followed by a pronouncement of absolution. In pronouncing absolution, the presider assures the congregation that God is always ready to forgive our sins.
The congregation then greets one another with a sign of peace. At Christ Church this time of greeting may take a few minutes as members are eager to greet new comers, and offer the peace to one another. A simple handshake followed by “Peace be with you” is the usual greeting. Don’t be surprised if you see hugs or an occasional kiss of peace. Some congregations are quite reserved and quietly nod to one another or greet only those around them. Each parish has its own style.
Each week an offering is taken by the ushers. This is an opportunity to return your thanks to God for your gifts. The offering is carried to the altar and the priest presents it to God, by elevating it as the people sing the Doxology…”Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”
The Liturgy of the Table
Next, the priest 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. Now begins the Eucharistic Prayer, in which the presider tells the story of our faith, from the beginning of Creation, through the choosing of Israel to be God’s people, through our continual turning away from God, and God’s calling us to return. Finally, the presider 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 presider blesses the bread and wine, and the congregation recites the Lord’s Prayer. Finally, the presider 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. The people all come forward and kneel or stand at the altar rail to receive the bread and wine. Elements are taken by the priest or deacon and a lay person to those unable to come to the altar. At the altar lay your open hands across one another. The priest or deacon will place a small round wafer on your palm. You may eat the wafer or hold on it and dip it in the wine (yes, it’s wine). After all are served a wafer, a priest, deacon or lay person will serve you a sip of wine, or you may dip your wafer. This is called “intinction”. You may hear people say Amen after they receive the wafer or wine. Once you have received your wafer and wine, you return to your seat. You will see others, sitting or kneeling in prayer, thanking God for the communion and the sense of God’s presence.
All Are Welcome
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 asked to come forward during the Communion to receive a blessing from the presider.
At the end of the Eucharist, the congregation prays once more in thanksgiving, and then is dismissed by a deacon or priest to continue the life of service to God and to the World.
Coffee and conversation follow the service. More than likely someone will ask you to join them. It is simply a time to talk, you may be asked for your email address, but there are no expectations for any kind of follow up. You are a welcome guest, not a prospective member until you make that choice.
On Wednesday night, members of the congregation gather at 6 pm for Evening Prayer, another service from the Book of Common Prayer. After the evening office we share a pot luck supper and engage in some form of study and conversation. The evening ends at 8 pm.