Who We Are
Episcopalians are followers of Jesus Christ. We say that God was uniquely present in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. One word we use to describe this belief is that God was “incarnate” in Jesus, that is, God’s own self was present in Jesus’ very body. Following his death, his disciples found that Christ still lived in their midst. Thus, they found themselves connected to God as they discovered themselves to be part of Christ’s resurrected body. And that is still the case today.
We Episcopalians say that human beings are united to God through Christ. We take that relationship seriously. When we worship, we are called to see the risen Christ in the persons around us. In our daily lives we are called to see the risen Christ in family, acquaintances, and co-workers. Ultimately, we are called to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.
Our church is not a community of like-minded people. We do not exist for ourselves alone. Instead, we are a people set apart to be the personal presence and witness of God to the world. We struggle with many issues and we disagree with one another, but we still gather each week to hear the story of God’s love for us, to ask for forgiveness from one another and God, and to offer our lives up to God. In our teaching, we learn the grace to live with questions that cannot be answered with certainty.
In our worship we are nourished for life’s journey. In our faith we trust that God is working through every one of us, and that one day God’s very self will be evident in all creation. This is the good news that we proclaim, and we believe that it is the good news that will lead us to lives of peace, self-control, and hope for the future. We invite everyone to join us in that journey.
The Episcopal Church is a member of the Anglican Communion.
Learn more at The Episcopal Church website.
What to Expect
Episcopalians worship in many different styles, ranging from very formal, with 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.
Worship in the Episcopal Church is “liturgical.” The congregation follows service forms and prayers that don’t change greatly from week to week. This gives worship a rhythm that becomes comforting and familiar to the worshipers.
For the first-time visitor, liturgy may be exhilarating or confusing. Services may involve standing, sitting and kneeling, as well as sung or spoken responses, that may provide a challenge for the first-time visitor. Here’s what to expect.
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, one from the Psalms, one from the Epistles, and always a reading from the Gospels. The psalm is usually sung or recited by the congregation.
After the sermon, the congregation recites the Nicene Creed. Written in the 4th Century, it is the Church’s statement of what we believe.
Prayers of the People
Next, the congregation prays together—for the Church, the world, and those in need. We pray for the sick and for those who have died, and thank God for all the good things in our lives.
The congregation formally confesses their sins before God and one another. This is a corporate statement of what we have done and what we have left undone, followed by a pronouncement of absolution. In pronouncing absolution, the presider assures the congregation that God is always ready to forgive our sins.
The congregation then greet one another, usually with a handshake and a message of “Peace” or “Peace be with you.”
In the Episcopal Church, the entire service is referred to as the Holy Eucharist. The actual taking of bread and wine is the central focus of the service.
The priest stands at the altar, which has been set with a cup of wine and a plate of bread or wafers, and begins the Eucharistic Prayer. The priest blesses the bread and wine, and the congregation recites the Lord’s Prayer. The bread is broken and offered to the congregation, as the “gifts of God for the People of God.”
All baptized Christians‚ regardless of age or denomination‚ are welcome to receive communion. Episcopalians invite all baptized people to receive, not because we take the Eucharist lightly, but because we take our baptism so seriously.
To receive communion, follow others to the altar and kneel or stand in an open spot at the communion rail. A minister with bread will come around first. Simply hold your open hands out in front of you, one on top of the other. The minister will place a small wafer in your hand and say, “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.”
You may eat the bread then or hold it until the wine comes. A minister with a chalice of wine will stop in front of you and say, “The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” You may either drink directly from the chalice or, if you saved your bread, simply dip it into the wine and consume both together. When you have received both bread and wine, you can stand and return to your seat.
Visitors who are not baptized Christians are welcome to come forward during the Communion to receive a blessing from the priest. If you wish to receive a blessing, instead of holding your hands out to receive the bread, simply cross your arms over your chest. The priest will take it from there.
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.
Episcopal means “bishop” in Greek, and the Episcopal Church is governed in part by its bishops. The Episcopal Church is divided into dioceses, each diocese being an area encompassing a reasonable number of Episcopalians. Each diocese is presided over by a diocesan bishop. A cathedral is a church that contains the bishop’s seat, or cathedra. A cathedral is the symbolic center of a diocese.
The bishop ordains priests and deacons to serve in each parish, or congregation, which carries out the ministry of the diocese in its local communities. A priest (or priests) leads the parish in worship, makes decisions related to the sacramental life of the parish, and in general, supports the ministry of the worshiping Christians there. A rector is simply the priest in charge of a parish; a vicar is a priest who leads a mission congregation.
Deacons have a long tradition in the church, extending back to the New Testament. In the Episcopal church, deacons maintain their traditional role to serve the poor and less fortunate. They also assist in many facets of the Holy Eucharist.
Each church also has a vestry, or group of elected representatives that select and support the rector, articulate and support the church’s mission, plan and organize, and manage finances. The vestry usually has two wardens—the senior warden, who is a support person for the rector, and the junior warden, who oversees care of the church and property.
Episcopal worship services are liturgical, derived from liturgy, which refers to the texts that make up the rites, prayers and services of the church.
The Book of Common Prayer is the official source of liturgy for the Episcopal Church. First written in 1549 and revised last in 1979, it contains the liturgy for regular services and many special services, such as baptism, marriage, and burial.
Most services will follow one of two liturgies—either Rite One or Rite Two. The language for Rite One services and prayers hews more closely to traditional Elizabethan English, while Rite Two is written in more contemporary language.
There are two main creeds, or statements of faith, that you will hear in the Episcopal Church: the Nicene Creed and the even more ancient Apostles’ Creed.
Eucharist, literally “thanksgiving” in Greek, is the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, sometimes called Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper. In the Episcopal church, the eucharist is the main focus of the service, the high point; in fact, the entire service is officially called the Holy Eucharist.
Advent is a season of solemn preparation before Christmas, beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The season is a time for remembering Christ’s incarnation and also his promise to return. The color of the season is purple.
Christmas is the celebration of Christ’s birth and incarnation. It begins on December 25 and continues for 12 days, ending on January 5, the eve of the Feast of Epiphany.
Epiphany begins on January 6 with the feast and continues until Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. It marks the appearance of Jesus to the wise men, signaling that he is a savior of all peoples.
The Easter cycle encompasses Lent and Holy Week and continues until Pentecost.
Lent is the season leading up to Easter and is a time of penitence and prayer. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and last 40 days, excluding Sundays, until Easter. Lent is a more somber time in the church; “alleluia” is not spoken, and the liturgical decorations are more austere.
Holy Week is the most significant week of the church year. It begins on Palm Sunday and ends with the celebration of the Easter Vigil. The week, which includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, marks the final days of Jesus’ life, from the time he entered Jerusalem, through his trial, crucifixion and death. Easter is the church’s most important feast, marking the resurrection of Christ.
The Feast of Pentecost, a remembrance of the Holy Spirit descending on the apostles, begins a new season, which runs until the first Sunday of Advent. This season after Pentecost is sometimes referred to as Ordinary Time.