What to Expect When You Visit our Church
Going to an Episcopal Church or any church at all for the first time may feel a little strange and intimidating. We want you to be able to relax and feel welcome and able to participate in our worship as you choose. Here is a guide to some of what you might expect when you come to worship with us.
Gathering (Getting there, getting settled, getting ready for church)
When you arrive, we will give you a bulletin/service program which essentially contains the words and songs for our service. Most churches have pews (long benches), but we have rows of chairs. You can sit anywhere you would like. Sometimes new people will sit in the back just to check things out. And that’s fine too! But you are invited to sit nearer to the front so you can see what’s happening in the service. In addition to the service bulletin, there will often be various books under the chairs in front of you. You will find a red book – that’s the Book of Common Prayer, sometimes called the Prayerbook or the BCP. This book has various portions of the service in it. Your bulletin will give you page numbers to find those sections, if you’d rather use the Book of Common Prayer to follow the service. You will also probably see a dark blue book called “The Hymnal 1982” which has lots of music in it. We use other supplemental music too, and the words to the such songs will be found in your bulletin. We like our services to have a blended feel of both modern songs and traditional hymns.
A few minutes before the service, our pianist may start to play some music. It is meant to help us gather ourselves and prepare for the service. Our service will start with a song that everyone sings while standing. As it is in many Episcopal congregations, there will be a procession of liturgical ministers, who have specific jobs to do during the service. Usually the procession is led by the cross and you may see people bowing to the cross as it passes by as a gesture of respect.
Once the song is over, the celebrant (the priest leading the service) and the assembly (everyone else) say the Opening Acclamation which is a formal way of greeting one another. Then there may be a short piece of music praising God. The celebrant will then say a prayer called a collect which is meant to collect our thoughts together as the concluding piece of our gathering. We will also say the collect for Holy Presence to ask the Lord to keep us united as one Body of Christ in our worship and in our mission.
The Liturgy of the Word (Readings, sermon, statements of faith, prayers of the community)
We all sit down to hear the Scriptures read. Most of the time there is a reading from the Old Testament; a psalm; a reading from New Testament and a reading from the Gospels. These readings are part of a set “lectionary” and are assigned readings for every Sunday on a three year cycle. A member from the assembly will usually read the first two readings. The psalm is normally said or sung by everyone. Your bulletin will have all of the readings printed in it. Because the Gospel, the stories of Jesus’ life and death, are central to our faith, that reading gets “special treatment.” Normally some song welcoming the Gospel is sung and the Gospel book is brought into the middle of the assembly and read by the priest. Everyone stands for this reading and turns and faces the Gospel Book.
Following the Gospel, a sermon is preached, usually by the priest (but on occasion it might be a lay person). The sermon is meant to take what we have heard in the readings and engage those learnings with our current lives.
After the sermon, the next several pieces of the service provide a way for us to respond to what we have heard. Because we are actively responding we stand up at this point. We say the Nicene Creed, an ancient statement of faith used by most Christian churches which binds us together with Christians of all generations. A lot of people from other Christian denominations stumble on the words “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”, thinking we are referring to the Roman Catholic church. But please note that the word catholic is a lower case c. Here, the word catholic comes from the Greek word meaning “universal”, as there is really only One Body of Christ that encompasses all Christians denominations.
After the creed, we pray the Prayers of the People, and you are invited to take a posture most comfortable for prayer. These prayers are a series of petitions led by a member of the assembly with a response by the entire assembly at the end of each one. The petitions include prayers for the Church, the world, the nation, those who are sick and those who have died.
Following the prayers, we say the Confession. The confession is an opportunity to confess together the ways in which we have not loved God or others as we should. At the conclusion of the confession, the celebrant says the absolution, with words reminding us that God forgives our sins.
The celebrant then bids “The Peace.” This can be a particularly awkward moment for people who are newcomers or visitors. What we are doing is ritually enacting our need to be in right relationship with one another before we go to communion. We do that by saying “Peace be with you” to one another. People may shake hands or embrace each other. You can greet the people right around you, but we tend to leave our seats to greet each other, in an effort to greet as many as we can. At Holy Presence, we are Huggarites – we love to hug! We sometimes can forget the ritual we are enacting and devolve into more casual greetings and other conversation because we are so glad to see each other! But don’t worry, the celebrant will bring us back into order.
The Liturgy of the Table (collecting gifts, getting our meal ready and praying over it, sharing bread and wine)
After the peace, we move to the offertory. A collection of money is taken at this point. A song is sung while the collection is being taken. Our offerings symbolize both our bringing of ourselves to worship and our support of the life of the community. Offering envelopes are found at the entrance of the church. It is fine for you to put whatever amount of money in the plate or to put in nothing at all. (You may wonder why so many people don’t put anything in. There are many reasons, of course, but one big one is that many church members make their financial contributions in ways other than putting it in the plate, i.e. through, monthly checks, etc. ) Music is played during offertory, and the liturgical ministers will set the Table for Communion during the music. Then, the money that has been collected is brought to the Altar Table and we all stand and offer our offerings to God, singing the Doxology, praising God.
The Euchairst (Thanksgiving) starts with an extended prayer. It starts with a dialogue between the celebrant and assembly called the Sursum Corda (literally “lift up your hearts”). The celebrant then praises God for God’s action in our lives. This initial section can in some cases be specific to the season we are in. This selection concludes with the Sanctus “Holy, holy, holy”, a response normally sung by the entire assembly. The prayer continues with a retelling of the story of the Last Supper and the celebrant asking the Holy Spirit to come into the bread and wine and into us. At the end of the prayer we all say Amen, which is our way of assenting to the prayer.
At the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, everyone prays the Lord’s Prayer. Some people in our congregation hold hands, and you are welcome to join us. Then the celebrant breaks a piece of the bread, symbolizing Christ’s body being broken for us. After this symbolic breaking, some more practical preparations are made for distribution. Words, called the Fraction Anthem, are said at this point that reflect the actions taking place. Once the bread and wine are ready, the celebrant invites the people to the meal.
People generally come forward and stand or kneel at the altar to receive communion. The official policy of the Episcopal Church is that all baptized people, regardless of the Christian denominations in which the person is baptized, may receive communion. If you do not wish to receive communion that is totally fine too. You can remain in your seat, or you can also come forward and cross your arms over your chest to indicate that you want a blessing. If you cross your arms, the priest will offer you a blessing instead of communion.
If you do want to receive communion, hold out your hands and the priest will put a piece of bread in your hand. Then another liturgical minister will come with the cup of wine (and yes, it is wine!). There are few choices here. You can eat the bread when it is put in your hand and then take a sip of wine from the cup. It is okay and actually helpful for you to touch the cup and help guide it to your mouth. If you don’t want to drink from the cup you can also leave the bread in your hand and dip a portion of the bread in the wine. It is also totally fine to receive only the bread or only the wine; either is considered a full receiving of communion.
There are many reasons people might want to receive only one so don’t feel self-conscious about that, but if it is because you are in need of gluten free wafers, we have gluten free wafers too! If you would let us know before the service starts, we’d be happy to accommodate you with gluten free wafers. Once you have received communion, simply return to your seat. We will sing hymns and praise songs during communion and at the end of communion.
After Communion (giving thanks, being sent forth)
After everyone had received communion we say a prayer which you will find in the bulletin. The priest then asks God to bless us. In our congregation, the announcement follows the Blessing. This is not a formal part of the ritual but is a chance to let people know what is going on in the community and how to get involved.
A hymn is sung by everyone at this point during which the liturgical ministers will process out. At the very end we are dismissed by the priest, and sent into the world.
Once the service is concluded people are invited to join us in the fellowship hall for fellowship. On most Sundays, there is a hot lunch there for you to enjoy. Please feel free to join us. It is customarily to greet the priest at the door as you leave. And we truly hope you will feel welcomed and will return again and again!