What to expect when you visit The Episcopal Church
The following was produced with the assistance of the Office of Communication, The Episcopal Church Center.
We extend a cordial welcome to you to worship with us. We offer this document as a brief introduction to the Episcopal Church and its ways.
The Place of Worship
As you enter, you will notice an atmosphere of worship and reverence.
Episcopal churches are built in many architectural styles. Whether the church is 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 edifice is.
On the altar there are candles to remind us that Christ is the “Light of the world” (John 8:12). There are flowers on both sides of the altar to beautify God’s house and to recall the resurrection of Jesus.
On one side at the front of the church, there is a lectern, for the proclamation of the Word. Here the Scriptures are read.
The Act of Worship
Episcopal church services are congregational. In the pews, you will find the Book of Common Prayer, the use of which enables the congregation to share fully in every service. The large print is the actual service. The print in italics (rubrics) provide directions to ministers and people for conduct of the service. Page numbers for parts of the service that are printed elsewhere are announced or given in the service leaflet. But do not be embarrassed to ask your neighbor for the page number.
You may wonder when to stand or kneel. Practices vary — even among individual Episcopalians within the congregation.
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 to listen during readings from the Old Testament or New Testament, the sermon, and other presentations. Prayer is done standing or kneeling 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. On some occasions it is celebrated quite simply, without music. 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, and may be conducted by a layperson instead of a priest.
While some parts of the services are always the same, others vary. At the Holy Eucharist, for example, two or three Bible selections are read. These change each Sunday. So do the psalms. Certain prayers also change, in order to provide variety.
You will find the services of the Episcopal Church beautiful in their ordered dignity, God-centered, and yet mindful of the nature and needs of human beings.
Before and After Services
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 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.
To add to the beauty and festivity of the services, and to signify their special ministries, the clergy and other ministers wear vestments. Lay readers’ vestments usually consist of an 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 colored fabric. Deacons wear the stole over one shoulder, priests and bishops over both shoulders.
Another vestment sometimes worn is an under-gown called a cassock (usually black) and a white, gathered, over-gown called a surplice. This may be worn by clergy or laity.
While celebrating the Holy Eucharist, a bishop or priest frequently wears a chasuble (a circular garment that envelopes 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 color changes with the seasons and holy days of the Church Year. The most frequently used colors 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 (January 6).
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. (See the The Lectionary Page.)
Coming and Going
If there are ushers they will greet you. If you desire, they will answer your questions about the service. Pews are not reserved in Episcopal churches, except for some special services where large family blocks are present — like weddings, baptisms, and funerals.
Following the service the pastor greets the people as they leave.
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 in an embarrassing way, nor forced to stand before the congregation or to come forward. You will simply worship God with us.
Should you wish to know more about the Episcopal Church or how one becomes an Episcopalian, the pastor will gladly answer your questions and suggest the way to membership.