If you come to Epiphany from another protestant denomination, the first thing you’re likely to notice about our worship service is that the time before worship seems quieter. We love to visit with each other, but we usually refrain from visiting in the nave (our word for the room where we worship) before the worship service. Most of us like to use that time before worship for quiet prayer and contemplation. Some of us kneel on the kneelers available, and some of us just sit in the pew. For some of us, that quiet time before worship is just a time to unwind, and that’s okay too.
Our worship follows a consistent pattern set out in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Another characteristic of our worship service that sets us apart from those in many protestant services is the consistency of our worship liturgy each week. We find that consistency life-giving, because it frees us up to concentrate on the teachings God longs to share with us in the scriptures, prayers, music, homily, and Eucharist. We also come to that weekly consistency with a great deal of humility, understanding as we do that the rhythm of our weekly worship is set not by God but by mortal humans seeking to know God better. Our worship is not consistent because it’s right; it’s right for us because it’s consistent.
Our worship service begins with three rings of the bell just outside the nave door, reminding us of the Christian Trinity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We then sing a processional hymn together (here’s more about music at Epiphany), during which a lay person (called a Lay Eucharistic Minister) carries the cross and the priest follows, walking from the rear of the nave to the chancel (the area in the front of the nave). As the cross passes us, some of us choose to bow briefly and gently as a gesture of respect.
We share an opening prayer and then four scripture readings drawn from the Revised Common Lectionary. Each week a different lay reader leads us in the first three readings; our priest leads us in the fourth. This fourth reading is from one of the gospels. Because the gospel reading is always about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, our Savior, we accord it an extra measure of respect and dignity. Before the priest reads it, we repeat together the phrase “Glory to you, Lord Christ,” and some us choose to bow in respect. At the end of the gospel lesson, we repeat the phrase “Praise to you, Lord Christ,” and some of us choose to bow in respect again.
The priest then offers a sermon, or homily, almost always drawn from the Lectionary. When the homily is finished, we stand and recite the Nicene Creed together, we share in prayer together led by the Lay Reader, and we confess our sins as a group. During the confession, some of us kneel, some of us stand, and some of us remain seated. After the confession, the priest blesses us and assures us of God’s forgiveness. This is a climactic moment in our worship, so climactic that some of us choose to mark it by making the sign of the cross on ourselves. The priest then passes God’s peace to us, and we pass it to each other in a time of mutual greeting. During this passing of the peace, some of us choose to visit informally, and some of us use the simple greeting “God’s peace,” or “the peace of the Lord.” Sometimes we have an informal time for announcements at the end of the passing of the peace, followed by the collection of the offering.
While the ushers are collecting the offering, the priest, the acolyte, and the Lay Eucharistic Minister are preparing to serve Holy Communion, or the Eucharist (pronounced “YOU ku rist”). We sing, and the ushers bring the offering forward to be placed on the altar. As we kneel, stand, or sit according to our preference, we and the priest join together in recalling the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples and sanctifying the elements of Holy Communion. We then pray the Lord’s Prayer together before the priest breaks the bread in a ceremonial act of sharing, and then the priest invites us to come forward and share it.
We Episcopalians believe that the table at which we share the elements of Holy Communion belongs to God, not to any church or any denomination. Consequently, the table and the elements are available to all persons regardless of faith or denomination. If there are those worshiping who have physical limitations that make it difficult for them to come to the table, the priest and the Lay Eucharistic Minister will bring the elements of the communion to them. The moment when each congregant actually receives the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist – this moment of intense intimacy with Christ – is another climactic moment in our worship service. Because of this, many of us choose to pause in thanksgiving and to cross ourselves after receiving these elements.
After everyone has received the Eucharist, we join in prayer, thanking God for feeding us with the spiritual food of Holy Communion and asking God to send us into the world in peace and service to the world. A final recessional hymn marks the conclusion of our worship. After the worship service, many of us adjourn to the parish hall for light refreshments and informal fellowship.
What does “casual dress” mean? Some of the men in our worship service wear jeans, or during the summer, shorts. Most of the men wear slacks. Almost everyone wears some kind of open-neck shirt, or sometimes a t-shirt. There are a couple of us who like to wear a coat and tie to church. A couple of the ladies wear jeans and most wear pants or a casual skirt. Almost no one wears hose. At Epiphany, we’re much more interested in what’s in your heart than what’s on your back.