All Episcopal services whatever their style—and they vary from simple spoken ceremonies to elaborate sung ones—follow those laid out in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It ultimately traces its history back to the first Prayer Book of the English church, produced in 1549, following its split with Rome.
Services involve participation from the congregation and follow almost exactly the same essential forms. This means that on any given Sunday an Episcopalian can walk into any Episcopal church (and with small local variations, any Anglican church in the world) and take part in a familiar worship service.
In our worship service, we celebrate God with us through water, bread and wine. Jesus shared bread and wine with his first followers and is with us today in this family meal we call Holy Communion. Through it we receive the forgiveness of our sins and a strengthening of our union with God and one another as we remember Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
For each Christian season, the Book of Common Prayer lays out the form that the service should take, and provides the text for most of the prayers. A calendar of readings from the Scriptures, called the “Revised Common Lectionary,” lays out which biblical passages should be read each day. Typical services will mix readings, prayers, hymns and a sermon. In every case, while a priest leads the service, the congregation participates extensively—singing hymns and speaking or singing prayers, the creed (statements of our beliefs), responses and psalms (sacred poems).
Exactly what one does when—should you be kneeling, sitting or standing? Should you sing or speak the responses? When do you say “Amen”? —can be a bit of a puzzle to a newcomer (and sometimes Episcopalians visiting a different church), but it should not be intimidating. In any event, because the essential form of the service remains the same from one Sunday to the next, you soon get used to it—and after that you will begin to experience what Episcopalians find so satisfying: the mental space that the familiar rhythm opens up to commune more profoundly with God.
The Book of Common Prayer provides a fixed framework, but not a rigid one. The details vary from church to church and are a matter of tradition and taste. One church may begin with a more or less elaborate procession of priest(s), acolytes and choir, and in another with the priest standing on the steps in front of the altar. Episcopalians infuse their services with their own traditions from around the world and give each of them a unique character. They lift up their voices to the Lord in many languages from Spanish and English, to Ibo and Portuguese, and in a multitude of rhythms from jazz to those of traditional choirs.
An individual becomes part of the Church through the sacrament of baptism by water. Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us that through baptism we are united with God. The Episcopal Church believes that through baptism—in any Christian denomination—we become brothers and sisters in God’s family. Episcopalians therefore welcome and encourage all those who have been baptized, in whatever church to join us in taking communion.
Even within a congregation, worship services can be offered in a range of styles from contemporary to more traditional. Come join us.