At first glance, Episcopal worship might seem strange to those who are unfamiliar with our liturgical tradition. You will notice the congregation sitting, standing, or kneeling at various times, and some who cross themselves or genuflect toward the altar. There are many who don’t. At All Saints’, whether you sit, stand, or cross yourself is a matter of personal preference, and there is no right or wrong way to worship God. We want you to be comfortable during your personal act of worship.
It is important to know that Episcopal worship is deeply rooted in our belief that God became human – in Jesus Christ – and continues to dwell among us in the life of the Church. Our worship, therefore, strives to incorporate the whole person: heart, mind, soul and body. Our liturgy (the order of service) comes from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. We are also a liturgical church in the sense that we closely follow the Christian calendar. Thus, our worship observes certain seasons and feast days including: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.
Episcopalians worship in many different styles, ranging from very formal, ancient, and multi-sensory rites 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.
Before and After
It is the custom upon entering church to kneel in one’s pew for a prayer of personal preparation for worship. In many churches it is also the custom to bow to the altar on entering and leaving the church as an act of reverence for Christ.
Episcopalians are encouraged not to talk in church before a service, instead using the time for personal meditation and devotions. At the end of the service some kneel for a private prayer before leaving. Others sometimes sit to listen to the organ postlude.
Liturgy and Ritual
Worship in the Episcopal Church is “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 gives worship a rhythm that becomes comforting and familiar to the worshipers.
For the first-time visitor, liturgy may be exhilarating … or confusing. Stand. Sit. Kneel. Stand. Sit (or is it kneel?). Participatory elements may provide a challenge for those unfamiliar with the service. Don’t worry. 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, the 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.
Next, a sermon interpreting the readings appointed for the day is preached. The congregation then recites the Nicene Creed, an ancient affirmation of faith written in the Fourth Century and the church’s statement of belief 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 confession of what we have done and what we have left undone, followed by an assurance of forgiveness spoken by the presider. With these words, the presider assures the congregation that God is always ready to forgive us.
The congregation then greets one another with a sign of peace.
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.” After the prayers have been said, please come forward, if you wish, to receive the bread and the wine, symbols of Christ’s presence with us.
All Are Welcome
At All Saints’ we practice guest communion. All baptized Christians—no matter age or denomination—are welcome at God’s table. 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 presider.
Going Into the World
At the end of the Eucharist, the congregation prays once more in thanksgiving, and then is dismissed to continue the life of service to God and to the World.
[The above content is adapted from The Episcopal Church USA.]