Think of this page as your 'First-Time Guide to Visiting an Episcopal Church'. Most important, remember this: You're welcome here. We extend a cordial welcome to you to worship with us, and offer this document as a brief introduction to the Episcopal Church and its ways.
What To Expect in Worship
The Place of Worship
As you enter, you will notice an atmosphere of worship and reverence. Episcopal churches are built in many architectural styles; but whether the church be small or large, elaborate or plain, your eye is carried to the altar, or holy table, and to the cross. So our thoughts are taken at once to Christ and to God whose house the church is.On or near the altar there are candles to remind us that Christ is the "Light of the world'' (John 8:12). Often there are flowers, to beautify God's house and to recall the resurrection of Jesus. On one side at the front of the church, there may be a lectern-pulpit, or stand, for the proclamation of the Word; here the Scriptures are read and the sermon is preached. In many other churches, however, the lectern is separate from the pulpit and stands on the opposite side of the church.
The Act of Worship
Episcopal church services are congregational. In the pews you will find the Book of Common Prayer, though some countries use supplementary prayer books (Canada, for instance, uses the Book of Alternative Services regularly). This enables the congregation to share fully in every service. In the Book of Common Prayer, the large print is the actual service. The smaller print gives directions to ministers and people for conduct of the service. You may wonder when to stand or kneel. Practices vary---even church to church. The general rule is to stand to sing---hymns (found in the Hymnal in the pews) and other songs (many of them from the Holy Bible) called canticles or chants and printed as part of the service. We stand, too, to say our affirmation of faith, the Creed; and for the reading of the Gospel in the Holy Eucharist. Psalms are sung or said sitting or standing. We sit during readings from the Old Testament or New Testament Letters, the sermon, and the choir anthems. We stand or kneel for prayer to show our gratefulness to God for accepting us as children or as an act of humility before God.
The Regular Services
The principal service is the Holy Eucharist (Holy Communion). In some Episcopal churches it is celebrated quite simply, without music, early on Sunday morning. Weekday celebrations also are frequently without music, and without sermon. When celebrated at a later hour on Sundays, or on other great Christian days such as Christmas, music and a sermon are customary. Another service is Morning Prayer. The parallel evening service is Evening Prayer. These services consist of psalms, Bible readings, and prayers; and may include a sermon. They may be with or without music. While some parts of the services are always the same, others change. At the Holy Eucharist, for example, two or three Bible selections are read. These change each Sunday. So do the psalms. Certain of the prayers also change, in order to provide variety. Page numbers for parts of the service printed elsewhere in the Book are usually announced or given in the service bulletin. But do not be embarrassed to ask your neighbor for the page number. You will find the services of the Episcopal Church beautiful in their ordered dignity, God-centred, and yet mindful of the nature and needs of human beings.
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. Most people do not talk in church before a service, but use this time for personal meditation and devotions. At the end of the service some persons kneel for a private prayer before leaving. Others sometimes sit to listen to the organ postlude.
Coming and Going
Our ushers and greeters will welcome you, and may escort you to a pew. If you desire, they will answer your questions about the service. Pews are unreserved in Episcopal churches. Following the service the pastor greets the people as they leave.
What Clergy Wear
To add to the beauty and festivity of the services, and to signify their special ministries, the clergy and other ministers customarily wear vestments. Choir vestments usually consist of an undergown called a cassock (usually black) and a white, gathered over-gown called a surplice. The clergy may also wear cassock and surplice. Another familiar vestment is the alb, a white tunic with sleeves that covers the body from neck to ankles. Over it (or over the surplice) ordained ministers wear a stole, a narrow band of coloured fabric. Deacons wear the stole over one shoulder, priests and bishops over both shoulders. At the Holy Eucharist a bishop or priest frequently wears a chasuble (a circular garment that envelops the body) over the alb and stole. The deacon's corresponding vestment has sleeves and is called a dalmatic. Bishops sometimes wear a special head covering called a mitre. Stoles, chasubles, and dalmatics, as well as altar coverings, are usually made of rich fabrics. Their colour changes with the seasons and holy days of the Church Year. The most frequently used colours are white, red, violet, and green.
The Church Year
The Episcopal Church observes the traditional Christian calendar. The season of Advent, during which we prepare for Christmas, begins on the Sunday closest to November 30. Christmas itself lasts twelve days, after which we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. Lent, the forty days of preparation for Easter, begins on Ash Wednesday. Easter season lasts fifty days, concluding on the feast of Pentecost. During these times the Bible readings are chosen for their appropriateness to the season. During the rest of the year--the season after Epiphany and the long season after Pentecost (except for a few special Sundays)--the New Testament is read sequentially from Sunday to Sunday. The Old Testament lesson corresponds in theme with one of the New Testament readings.
You Will Not be Embarrassed
When you visit an Episcopal church, you will be our respected and welcome guest. You will not be singled out, nor asked to stand before the congregation nor to come forward. You will worship God with us. Should you wish to know more about the Episcopal Church or how one becomes an Episcopalian, the priest, greeters, or Vergers will gladly answer your questions and let you know about our Inquirers Class (2 informal Q&A sessions), or the Belonging Class (4 classes with greater depth and insight into the Church and our church).
Glossary of Terms You'll Find in the Bulletin
Prayer Book – The Book of Common Prayer for prayer and worship together. ‘Prayer Book’ will always be followed by a page number.
Collect – The short prayer read at the beginning of the service, signifying the collecting, or coming together, of our selves, our thoughts and prayers.
Homily – The homily "breaks open" the Word of God and proclaims the gospel in the context of the readings from scripture, the liturgical occasion, and the congregation gathered.
Nicene Creed — Dating to around AD 325, this is a foundational statement of our faith. It affirms our faith in the one God who created us, redeemed us, and sanctifies us.
Prayers of the People — The Prayer Book uses the title "Prayers of the People.” Such prayers have a long and venerable history in the church. We pray together giving voice to our congregation as a community.
Confession — A confession of sins during the liturgy made by all the people, followed by a declaration of forgiveness.
Offertory — The part of a Eucharistic service when the bread and wine for use in the service are ceremonially placed on the altar, and we give back a portion of what he has given to us.
Eucharist — The term is from the Greek, “thanksgiving.” Jesus instituted the eucharist “on the night when he was betrayed.” We bless bread and wine in commemoration of the last supper, then consumed during Communion.
Sanctus — From the Latin for "holy," a spoken or sung hymn of adoration and praise during Eucharist preparations.
Fraction Anthem — A text spoken or sung during the Eucharist, at the point when the celebrant breaks the consecrated bread.