This article was originally written as a guide for visitors to
You may be reading this booklet because you just attended a service at St. John’s for the first time and you have some questions. Here are some of the things you may have noticed, especially if you are not familiar with services like ours:
These are observations frequently made by our guests. This little booklet may answer some of your first questions about our services. In addition to reading this booklet, please feel free to talk to us at any time; any of our clergy and members will be happy to try to answer your questions. Twice a year, we give Inquirer’s Forums for people like yourself who have questions about the Episcopal Church. Call the Parish Office for more information.
It is a central tenet of our worship that there are no spectators; all are participants. Different people have different roles, but all roles are equally important. The people in the congregation are no less participants in our worship than those with different functions who sit in the front.
We refer to our services as liturgy, which means the official corporate worship of the Church (corporate being what we do together as a body, as opposed to what we do as individuals). The word liturgy comes from the Greek meaning “a work done by the people.”
For our services, we provide a leaflet to assist you in using the Prayer Book (red) and the Hymnal (blue). The leaflet tells you all the page numbers and other directions you need. However, we recognize that our liturgy is complex, and can be somewhat confusing the first few times. Indeed, many of us remember when we were newcomers, and are sympathetic to your initial confusion. No one expects you to say every word of the service the first few times you try.
The first time or two, it is perfectly acceptable to simply let the sights and sounds of the liturgy wash over you, and worry less about page numbers than about opening your heart, mind and senses to the experience of worship. Then you can begin to learn to participate more actively in the service, using the Prayer Book, the Hymnal, and the leaflet. Don’t be shy about asking those around you for assistance; we are happy to help you.
Soon, you will find that much of the music and the words of the service will begin to print themselves upon your memory, and you will be able to follow the service with only occasional references to the books. Then you will be free to participate in a more relaxed way, because the liturgy will have become internalized. It will, indeed, be your own prayer, not prayers from a book. The books are tools to use toward an end — not an end in themselves.
When the Anglican church was established in the 16th century, forms for worship were set out in a Book of Common Prayer to be used by all churches in England. The services in the Book of Common Prayer were essentially those that had historically been used in the church, but with an important change: they were now designed for greater understanding and participation by ordinary members of the congregation.
Today, the member churches of the Anglican Communion reach around the world, but all share the heritage of the Book of Common Prayer. Although international provinces have their own prayer books, all seek to continue the ancient forms of worship handed down to us from the time of Christ, and the spirit and principles embodied in the first Prayer Book. As times change, the Prayer Book is updated so that ordinary members of congregations can continue to understand and participate in liturgy, but changes are made with great care and only after thorough study and dialogue.
The forms of worship we use in the Episcopal Church are set out in the Book of Common Prayer. All Episcopal churches in the United States use this same Book of Common Prayer for their worship services. The forms of worship in the Prayer Book may seem unfamiliar the first time you encounter them; but as our members will tell you, they are well worth any effort to explore their depths, being time-tested for almost two thousand years by millions of Christians.
Our principal liturgy is called the Eucharist. It is a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” The basic pattern of the Eucharistic liturgy goes back to the earliest years of the Christian Church. What we do at this time, therefore, ties us together with all those who have come before us, and since it is unlikely that the Church will ever cease to celebrate the Eucharist, this celebration ties us together with those who will come after us.
The drama of the Eucharist has always been the central event in historic Christian worship, and the pattern for all Christian life. The Eucharist was given to us by Jesus himself, who commanded us to continue it, as Christians have ever since.
We believe that when we celebrate the Eucharist, Jesus is made present with us; we call him into our presence and we are united with him. This is why the Eucharist is so important and central to us. We do it just as Christians have done for almost two thousand years, because Jesus commanded us to do it.
The service in general has two sections, reflecting our Christian understanding that God communicates with us both through WORD and through ACTION. The beginning of the Eucharistic liturgy is centered on the Bible, and is based on forms of synagogue worship familiar to the first Christians. The Word of God is read from the Bible, and proclaimed by the preacher. Then the community responds to what they have heard by proclaiming their faith, and with their prayers.
But the Word of God is not just a book, but the person of Jesus Christ himself. The second half of the service is centered around the altar, the table upon which the Eucharistic meal is prepared and celebrated, and Christ is made present with us. We believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the consecrated bread. The Eucharist is a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.
A word or two about the particular style of worship in this church. Christians throughout the world worship in many different ways. Individuals often come to prefer a particular style of worship that speaks to them in a significant way.
The style of worship here at St. John’s is called anglo-catholic: “anglo” meaning that it developed in England, and “catholic” meaning that it embraces the heritage of the ancient catholic tradition. Although some anglo-catholic parishes are very traditional, you will find our worship is simplified and inclusive. Not only do we use modern language, and more streamlined ceremonial, but roles of leadership in worship are shared among women and men, clergy and lay persons.
We engage our spirits in worship by two means: by worshiping with the mind, as we hear, contemplate and proclaim God’s word; but also, worshiping with the wholeness of our body — and this is the hallmark of anglo-catholic worship. We believe that the human body is a good thing. God declared the human body holy by coming to earth and having one himself. So in our worship, we use our bodies as well as our minds. Instead of just sitting, we move about. We use all our five senses in our worship: seeing color, light and movement; hearing music and silence and the rhythm of words; smelling the unique fragrance of incense; touching by clasping a hand or embracing at the Peace, touching holy water, or in the laying on of hands; tasting bread and the wine.
As you worship, continually offer to God not just an intellectual corner of your mind, but the wholeness of your being: your mind, and your spirit, and your body.
Using your body in worship is a primary means of participating in this service, which is, after all, a work of the people, your work. The Eucharist is not just a drama or entertainment put on by those in front, but an action in which we all take part. One way of participating in worship is by standing, sitting, kneeling, bowing and walking. People have differing customs, but in general, because this is corporate worship and not private worship, we try to use the same movements together, as we are able, as an expression of our oneness as the body of Christ.
Here at St. John’s, our general custom is to sit to listen, to stand for prayer and praise, and to kneel for confession. Standing is the ancient posture for prayer, and indicative that, as a result of God’s forgiveness, we need not cower but can stand before him without shame or fear.
There are also a number of personal actions you may notice from time to time among members of the congregation. They are used by those who find them helpful for engaging their hearts and minds in the meaning of the liturgy. They are optional, and not rules; they are intended as helps, to be used if you wish. It is a way of further engaging your mind and spirit in worship.
We may bow slightly in reverence to Our Lord, such as when the processional cross passes by, at the mention of the name of Jesus, or at the mention of the mystery of the Incarnation.
We may make the sign of the cross as a reminder of God’s saving grace, such as when a blessing is said, when we remember those who have died in Christ, at mention of the Trinity, and before receiving the consecrated bread and wine at Communion.
You will notice that from time to time in the liturgy, silence is kept. The first time you encounter such a silence, it may seem awkward, because you might not know how to use it. The key is to let God use it. You may reflect on the reading or sermon you have just heard, but most of all, try to still your mind and listen. For us to hear God speak, we must be quiet and listen.
When you pray, in the silence and elsewhere, bring all of your self and your concerns before God: joy, brokenness, hope, despair, worry, doubt, anger, mirth, love. Allow all these things to come into God’s presence, and then, ask God to use his power to transform them. Remember: prayer doesn’t change God, it changes you. Real worship begins when we stop telling God what to do, and begin to listen to God. This often involves silence and waiting.
Open your mind and heart to God, and with deepening quiet may come an inner awakening to the presence of God within, and the tuning of your spirit’s ear to hear his voice in the mystery of the liturgy.
One of the keys to our worship is the understanding that our liturgy functions on many levels of awareness. There is an intellectual component as we study the Scripture and contemplate our relationship with God. There is an emotional component as we express our love and our sorrow and all our other feelings which find a place in the liturgy. And, in the Eucharist, God also speaks to us in ways for which there are no words, to parts of our soul beyond the reach of our conscious mind.
Music is an important tool which assists our worship on all these levels. Speaking to our intellect, music effectively amplifies the words we sing, and the words we hear, words of Scripture and the deep and striking poetry of hymns and choral music. Emotionally, a poignant musical phrase, with or without words, might connect with our feelings, helping us express them more fully. And finally, forms of sacred music such as Gregorian chant are specially designed to reach past our conscious awareness, amplifying the alpha rhythms of liturgy.
Sacred music is a spiritually-centered art form that is designed to fulfill specific functions in liturgy. Sacred music sounds different from popular music, and even from classical concert music, because it has an entirely different function. It is not primarily intended as entertainment. Sacred music is a form of prayer. The language of prayer is different from the language of entertainment. In every religion, it is known that music enables us to express that which is otherwise inexpressible. It enables us to touch the central depth of our humanness. It opens a door and enables us to know the presence of God.
When you sing a hymn, and when you listen to the choir sing, always pay attention to and contemplate the text, and allow God to use the music to speak to you. In its purest expression, church music can be wordless prayer. Keep your mind and your heart open for something you may not have heard before.
As Episcopalians, we have a musical heritage that is one of the world’s richest and most deeply spiritual. For 1500 years, Anglican church music has sought to tell the Christian faith in authenticity and truth. Our music is not a homogenous product, but an extremely diverse and multi-layered art form that celebrates and encompasses many different traditions. You might be interested, when singing hymns, to read the small print below each one and note the many and varied sources of the poetry and the music.
Most people are surprised the first time they smell the unusual fragrance of church incense. It is a scent you are unlikely to encounter anywhere else except in church. That is actually one of the reasons we use it. Our sense of smell is a powerful memory trigger, and as soon as you smell incense, you know where you are, and can more rapidly focus your attention for worship.
Incense has been a part of worship in many cultures for thousands of years. It is mentioned in the book of Exodus and it was used copiously in the dedication of Solomon’s Temple about 900 B.C. In ancient days, it may have had a practical, fumigatory purpose, and as such tends to be used as a symbol of purification. But as people saw the rising smoke, they also felt it symbolized their prayers rising to heaven, and the Hebrew people especially felt that the billowing smoke of incense represented the glory of God filling the house.
In our liturgy, we use incense primarily to focus our attention, by symbolically purifying our intentions and our space. People, places and objects are “censed” to call attention to the importance of their upcoming function in the liturgy. We use it sparingly, and the thurible is always brought into the church only long enough for its use, then immediately taken out.
Very few people are medically allergic to church incense. Any complaints are usually a response of surprise to such an unfamiliar fragrance. Over time, one grows accustomed to it, and then begins to find it a help in worship, as we do. In the meantime, if the incense bothers you, you may wish to find a spot in the church farthest away from the thurible and sit there, hoping that the incense will drift away before you must.
If you attended a Solemn Eucharist such as Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m., you may have been surprised when a few drops of water seemed to fly out of nowhere and splash you gently. This was the asperges, meaning “wash.” It is a reminder of your baptism in which God cleansed you, and of the relationship between you and God which was sealed in your baptism. We do this at the beginning of the Eucharist, to remind you that because of your baptism, you are in relationship with God.
Water is an important symbol in Christian worship. You probably noticed the baptismal font, just as you came in the door — symbolically the best place for it, since you first enter into life with Christ by passing through the water of baptism. The font contains water which has been blessed. Many people, upon entering the church, like to touch the holy water in the font and make the sign of the cross, as a reminder of the promises of their baptism.
The climax of the Eucharistic liturgy is when we come to the altar and receive the bread and wine which has become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ, thus uniting us to him and receiving him into ourselves, that we may be transformed, as the bread and wine has been transformed. Most visitors who are not Episcopalians wonder whether it is permitted to join us at the altar for this sacrament.
All baptized Christians are welcome to come to the altar and receive the body and blood of Christ at communion. It is not required that you be an Episcopalian, or that you be a member of St. John’s. If you accept the real presence of Jesus Christ in the consecrated bread and wine, you are most certainly welcome to receive him in this way here at St. John’s. All of our baptized members do so, from infancy onward.
To receive communion, come forward with the people at the words, “The gifts of God for the people of God.” Stand at the sanctuary step, anywhere on any of the three sides. Hold out your hands with the palms upward, right on top of left. When the priest places the bread on your palm, eat it with reverence. When the chalice bearer comes to you with the wine, gently take hold of the cup at the base and guide it to your mouth. As you receive the sacrament, you might pray silently something like, “Whatever you give me, Lord, I humbly receive, and I offer you all that I am and all that I have.”
If you prefer, you may receive the wine “by intinction.” To do this, when the priest places the bread on your palm, leave it there. When the chalice bearer comes to you, he or she will pick up the bread from your palm, touch it to the surface of the wine, and place it in your mouth.
It is not necessary to receive wine at communion, if it would not be appropriate. Some of our members who do not wish to receive wine fold their arms across their chest after receiving the bread. Seeing this, the chalice bearer will simply hold the cup before them, where they may look upon it with reverence.
If you have not yet been baptized, or if you are uncertain about receiving the bread and wine, you are welcome to come to the altar anyway for a simple blessing. Some people do this who wish to be part of the community, but who for whatever reason do not wish to receive bread and wine at this time. To signify to the priest that you do not wish to receive communion, fold your arms across your chest in an X. This is a universal signal understood in all Episcopal churches. The priest will lay his or her hand on your head gently, and quietly ask God to bless you.
It is highly likely that you have more questions about the Eucharistic liturgy and the meaning of communion; all newcomers do, and we all spend our lives continuing to deepen our understanding of this sacrament. Please feel free to speak with one of our priests with your questions; any of them will be happy to talk with you. You may also wish to consider attending an Inquirer’s Forum, a series of meetings where you may ask all your questions (and probably discover others who have the same questions) and learn more about the Episcopal Church, without any obligation. Inquirer’s Forums are held in the fall and spring. Call the Parish Office to find out when the next series is scheduled.
Coming soon: A Liturgical Lexicon: easy explanations of “church words”
© 2002 Martha Ainsworth. All rights reserved.