Liturgy and Ritual
Worship in the Episcopal Church is “liturgical,” meaning that the service follows forms and prayers from texts that don’t change greatly from week to week during a season of the year. This sameness from week to week gives worship a rhythm that becomes comforting and familiar for many people.
The first time you come, the liturgy may be exhilarating or confusing - or both! Services may involve standing, sitting, kneeling,
sung or spoken responses, and other participatory elements that may seem strange. However, it's like a dance: once you learn the steps, it becomes fun to dance,
again and again, even as the music changes.
At St. Stephen's, we have a bulletin that provides all the words, which makes it easier to participate even when you're new. But you are very welcome to just sit, watch, and listen the first several times you come. If you want to participate more fully, you'll always find people who are happy to help. Many of us came from other denominations or no church at all, too, so we know how strange it seems at first. But almost all of us stayed in part because of the liturgy. We hope you'll feel the same way.
The Holy Eucharist
While there is diversity of worship styles in the Episcopal Church, the Holy Eucharist always has the same components and the same shape:
Next, we Pray Together—for the Church, the World, and those in need. We pray for the sick, thank God for all the good things in our lives, and finally, we pray for the dead. The priest concludes with a prayer that gathers the petitions into a communal offering of intercession. Typically, we formally confess our sins before God and one another at this point. This is a statement of what we have done and what we have left undone, followed by a pronouncement of absolution by the priest. In pronouncing absolution, the priest assures us that God is always ready to forgive our sins. (At certain times of the year, we may omit the confession or have it in a different place.)
We then Greet One Another with a Sign of Peace. What this means at St. Stephen's is that everyone gets up and walks around to shake hands with and greet everyone else, saying "Peace be with you." When it is mutually agreeable to both people, hugs are exchanged, too.
Then, we Make the Eucharist, which in the Episcopal Church is always a festive community event. The priest stands at the table, which has been set with a cup of wine and a plate of bread or wafers, raises her hands, and greets the congregation again, saying “The Lord be with you.” Now begins the Eucharistic Prayer, in which the priest tells the story of our faith, from the beginning of Creation, through the sometimes stormy relationship between God and God's people as told in the Hebrew Scriptures, through our continual turning away from God, and to God’s calling us to return. Finally, the priest tells the story of the coming of Jesus Christ, and about the night before his death, on which he instituted the Eucharistic meal (communion) as a continual remembrance of him. Don't worry - it doesn't take as long as it might sound! This part of the service is only about 5 minutes long.
The priest blesses the bread and wine, and we recite the Lord’s Prayer. Finally, the priest breaks the bread and offers it to the congregation, as "the gifts of God for the People of God.”
We then share the consecrated bread and the wine. The people come forward. The priest and lay ministers distribute the bread and wine, saying short prayers as they do so. The priest and lay minister then bring the bread and wine to those who are not able to come forward to receive them. The bread is given first. To receive it, put your right hand over your left in a cup shape and lift up your hands to the priest. Most people say "amen" after receiving the bread. The wine comes next. Some people chose to drink from the cup, and others prefer to have the person carrying the chalice dip their bread into the cup. (If you prefer to drink from the cup, you should eat the bread before taking a drink of the wine.) Most people say "amen" after receiving the wine. We do use real wine. After everyone has received the bread and wine, we say a short prayer of thanksgiving.
The Sending Forth
At the end of the Eucharist, we are Sent into the World to continue the life of service to God and to the World. We sing a closing hymn as the priest and lay ministers walk out in procession.
Some Sundays, we celebrate Morning Prayer instead of the Holy Eucharist. (You can check the calendar to see which service is scheduled for any Sunday.) Our priest is part-time, which means that she has one Sunday off in months with five Sundays, and she also has vacation time. On some of these occasions, we engage supply priests to help us celebrate the Eucharist. On others, one of our trained lay worship leaders presides at Morning Prayer. You can find the Morning Prayer liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer. One key difference is that there is no Communion. Many Episcopalians pray Morning Prayer every day, as part of their daily devotions.
(Adapted from The Episcopal Church website.)