“What’s an Episcopalian? We follow Jesus with our souls, minds, and arms open wide, ready to love God, our neighbors, and the world.
Jesus Christ was (and is) both/and, drawing together human and divine. We hope to become both/and Christians, drawing together and embracing ancient traditions and the wisdom just over the horizon, reason and mystery, beauty and justice, catholic and Protestant, discipline and freedom, body and Spirit, deep faith and probing questions, the cross and the resurrection.
This is The Episcopal Way of following Jesus. Let’s walk.”
̶ from The Episcopal Way by Eric Law and Stephanie Spellers
What to Expect When You Visit Trinity Episcopal 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 as you choose. Here is a guide to what you might expect if you go to a 9:30 am Holy Eucharist worship service at Trinity Episcopal Church.
Gathering: getting there, getting settled, getting ready for church
It’s good to arrive a few minutes before the service so you can get yourself settled. There will be ushers and greeters who will give you a bulletin which will guide you through the service. You may sit anywhere you would like. Sometimes new people will sit in the back just to check things out. Those of us who are short may like to sit nearer to the front so we can see! In addition to the bulletin, there will be various books in racks in front of you and in the pews. You will see copies of the red Book of Common Prayer, sometimes called the Prayerbook. This book has various portions of the service in it. Your bulletin will give you page numbers to find those sections. You will also see a blue book called The Hymnal 1982, which has a lot of hymns in it and an additional music book entitled Lift Every Voice and Sing.
A few minutes before the service there will be some music called the Prelude. It is meant to help us gather ourselves and prepare for the service. It is usually instrumental.
Just before the opening hymn, a lector will read a short Commentary, introducing the theme of the scripture readings for that Sunday.
The service starts with a Processional Hymn which everyone sings while standing. During this, there will be a procession of the choir, Eucharistic ministers, and the priest, people who have specific jobs to do during the service. 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 congregation (everyone else) say the Opening Acclamation (Greeting and Response), which is a formal way of greeting one another. The celebrant then reads the Collect for Purity. After this collect, there will be a piece of music praising God or asking for God’s mercy. (Music like this, which is a piece of the service, will either be found in the front of The Hymnal 1982 in a section where all the numbers are preceded by an “S-” which stands for Service Music, or in booklets in your pew). The celebrant will say a prayer called the Collect of the Day, which is a means to collect us and our thoughts together as the concluding piece of our gathering.
The Liturgy of the Word: readings, sermon, statements of faith, prayers of the people
We all sit down to hear readings. Most of the time there is a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament); a psalm; a reading from the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) and a reading from the Gospels. These readings are part of a set “lectionary” which assigns readings for every Sunday on a three year cycle. Members of the congregation usually read the first two readings. The psalm is normally said by everyone. Sometimes the psalm is chanted by a cantor, with the congregation joining on a refrain. Your bulletin will have the psalm printed in it.
Because the Gospel, the stories of Jesus’ life and death, are central to our faith, that reading gets ‘special treatment.’ Normally a hymn, called a Sequence Hymn, is sung to welcome the Gospel 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. The sermon is meant to take what we have heard in the readings and engage those teachings 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. We pray the Prayers of the People. These prayers are a series of petitions led by a member of the congregation 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. The celebrant concludes these prayers with a collect, once again ‘collecting’ our prayers.
After the prayers, we say the Confession. The confession is an opportunity to confess together the ways we have not loved God or others. Sometimes people kneel for the confession as a sign of their penitence. At the conclusion of the confession, the celebrant says the absolution, pronouncing God’s forgiveness of 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 greeting each other and saying “Peace be with you” or “The Peace of the Lord”. People may shake hands or embrace each other. You can greet the people right around you. Here at Trinity, the Peace is a little more exuberant and people will actually leave their seats to exchange the Peace with more people. We sometimes forget the ritual we are enacting and devolve into more casual greetings and other conversation because we are so glad to see each other!
The Holy Communion: collecting gifts, praying over them, sharing bread and wine
The bread and wine we will use for communion are brought to the Altar by the designated Gifts Bearers. Then a collection of money is taken. There will be an Offertory Hymn sung, either by the choir or by the congregation as a whole 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. It is fine for you to put whatever amount of money in 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 collection plate on a weekly basis.) Our offerings are then brought forward by the ushers as we sing a short piece called The Doxology.
The celebrant prays 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 sung by the entire assembly. The prayer continues with a retelling of the story of the Last Supper, consecrating the bread and wine which we believe to be the Body and Blood of Jesus. The celebrant then asks the Holy Spirit to come upon the bread and wine and into us. You may hear Sanctus Bells chimed at different points during this prayer. At the end of the prayer we all say “Amen”, which is our way of assenting to the prayer. We stand at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer. After the Sanctus, you may kneel or continue standing.
At the end of the Eucharistic Prayer everyone prays the Lord’s Prayer. 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 which might include pouring additional chalices of wine, breaking the bread into pieces for distribution, etc. Words, called the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”), are either spoken or sung at this point that reflect the actions taking place. Once the bread and wine are ready the celebrant invites people to the meal.
People generally come forward and stand to receive communion. Just watch what others are doing and follow their example. The official policy of the Episcopal Church is that all baptized people may receive communion. If you don’t want to receive communion that is totally fine. You can remain in your seat, or you can also come forward and cross your arms over your chest. The priest will offer you a blessing instead of communion.
If you do want to receive, hold out your hands and the priest will put a piece of bread in your hand. Then you step to the Eucharistic Ministers who hold chalices of wine (and it is wine!). There are a few choices here. You can eat the bread when it is put in your hand and then take a sip of wine from the Chalice. 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 take your piece of bread and dip it in the wine and then eat it. 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. Once you have received, simply return to your seat. Normally music is sung during communion.
After Communion: giving thanks and being sent forth
After everyone has received communion we all stand and say a prayer which the bulletin will tell you where to find. The priest then blesses the people in the name of the Trinity. At this time, we have announcements and thanksgivings. Then the closing hymn is sung by everyone during which the liturgical ministers and choir will process out, again led by the cross. At the very end we are dismissed by the priest, sent out into the world to continue God’s work.
Often there is an instrumental postlude played. It is fine to stand up and leave your seat at this point or you may want to remain and listen to the music. Once the service is concluded people can spend some time talking with each other. Often there is coffee to be enjoyed! People leaving customarily greet the priest at the door and you might want to introduce yourself as a newcomer.
Every church is a little different, but this reflects what happens here at Trinity. We hope you will feel comfortable enough to try it out.
To learn more about our services, the liturgy, and general information about Trinity and The Episcopal Church, check out our study guide, The Ways of Our Church, by R.K. Baltzell, available for download on our Christian Education page.