Anglican/Episcopal Beliefs and Services
Anglicans across the world worship in many different languages, and use many different words and musical styles. Nevertheless, the shape of our liturgy and the components of our Holy Eucharist are the same, and this is what binds us all together. “Anglican” just means “of England” — the Episcopal Church in the United States, like all Anglican churches worldwide, descend from the Church of the English Reformation, whether through colonial histories or missionary activity. The word “Episcopal” just points to the fact that we have bishops (the Greek “episcopos” which means “overseer/bishop”). If you’ve been to a Roman Catholic or a Lutheran Church, our services will feel pretty familiar. In fact, we’re in “full communion” with the ELCA Lutherans, which means we get to share liturgies and clergy as each community desires.
Like all Anglican churches, the Episcopal Church is distinguished by the following:
Protestant, Yet Catholic
Anglicanism stands squarely in the Reformed tradition, yet considers itself just as directly descended from the Early Church as the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches. In Greek, the word “Catholic” means “universal.” “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi,” which in Latin means, “the rule of prayer is the rule of belief.” We find our unity in common prayer, not conformity to a certain set of doctrines. We articulate our faith in the historic Nicene Creed each Sunday, but there are many ways to understand the Christian faith as it is presented in that text.
The Book of Common Prayer
Unique to Anglicanism is the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), the collection of worship services that Anglican churches use. It’s called “common prayer” because we all pray it together, around the world. The first one was compiled in English by Thomas Cranmer in the 16th century, and since then has undergone many revisions for different times and places. The Episcopal Liturgy that we use today was adopted in 1979, after a long study process that led to the revision of the former (1928) edition. The ’79 book uses more contemporary language and reinstates the early church practice of celebrating the Eucharist every Sunday. We use many other worship resources and prayers to enrich our worship, but the BCP is the baseline. At Christ Church, our liturgy is printed in our worship leaflet, but it still comes from the BCP.
Worship in one’s first language
Latin and Greek were the two early “official” languages of Christianity. Episcopalians, however, believe that Christians should be able to worship God and read the Bible in their first language. For many Episcopalians that language is English, but the Book of Common Prayer has been translated as well. Some churches have taken the concept of “worshipping in one’s own language” even further by adapting their worship style to the overall culture of the community. There have been hip hop masses, techno masses, and (perhaps regrettably) clown masses. Put simply, Episcopalians believe God comes to us in many different ways, not only in “thees” and “thys” (though some folks do prefer such traditional language and its accompanying worship style).
Scripture, Tradition, and Reason
Sixteenth Century theologian Richard Hooker coined the handy expression “three legged stool” to describe the Anglican approach. The three “legs” in his analogy are Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, each of which plays a critical part in maintaining the structure’s integrity. We place great importance on the Bible (the Scripture), which we regard as the Word of God. We also rely on church Tradition to connect all generations of believers and provide a starting point for applying the Word of God to our own lives. The Church, as a worshiping body of faithful people, has for two thousand years encountered God in many different ways, and we believe that understanding how God’s Word has guided and shaped the lives of those who have gone before us is critical to understanding how it can guide and shape our own. Part of our vision for Christ Church is to be “grounded in tradition, yet open to the world.”
Additionally, we rely on Reason to help us understand the teachings of the Bible both within their original historical context and in the context of our lives today. At the time the Bible was written, for example, much of the information we now have about gender and sexuality was not available. We use Reason to determine the extent to which what the Bible says on this topic should be regarded as a timeless absolute, versus as a product of its time that needs to be reevaluated in light of current knowledge and experience. We also need to use our reason to examine how Scripture can help us with contemporary issues; climate change wasn’t an issue when Genesis was written, but God’s call to be stewards of the earth is a timeless charge. Many Episcopalians today — and indeed Christians more generally — rely on science to help us understand the “what” of the natural world yet turn to Scripture to help us understand the “why.”
The service breaks into two parts:
The Liturgy of the Word
We begin our liturgy by praising God through song and prayer, followed by readings from the Bible. These readings usually include a passage from the Old Testament and an excerpt from the Epistles, and always include a reading from the Gospels. The psalm is recited by the people together.
Next, a sermon interpreting the appointed readings for the day is preached. At Christ Church on the first Sunday of each month, the children of the congregation are invited for a conversation with the preacher instead of a traditional sermon. Their questions teach us all! The congregation then recites the Nicene Creed, a document which was written in the 4th Century and remains today the Church’s articulation of faith.
Following the Nicene Creed, the congregation prays together – for the Church, the world, and for 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 presider (e.g. priest, bishop, lay minister) concludes with a prayer that gathers the petitions into a communal offering of intercession.
In most seasons of the Church year (except for the fifty days of Easter), the congregation formally confesses their sins before God and one another. In the Episcopal Church you can do the sacrament of Reconciliation (sometimes called “Confession”) one-on-one with a priest, but it is never mandatory. The forgiveness we find together on Sunday mornings is sufficient. The Confession is a corporate statement of what we have done and what we have left undone, followed by a pronouncement of absolution by the presider. In pronouncing absolution, the presider assures the congregation that God is always ready to forgive our sins. The members of the congregation then greet one another in God’s name with a sign of “peace,” by either shaking hands or giving hugs as they so feel moved. Feel free to leave your seat!
The Liturgy of the Table
Upon the conclusion of “The Peace,” the priest stands at the altar set with a cup of wine and a plate of bread or wafers; raises his or her hands; and greets the congregation again, saying “The Lord be with You.” Now begins the Eucharistic Prayer, in which the presider tells the story of our faith — from the beginning of Creation, to the choosing of Israel to be God’s people, to our continual turning away from God, to God’s calling us to return. Finally, the presider tells the story of the coming of Jesus Christ, and of the night before his death on which he instituted the Eucharistic meal (communion) as a continual remembrance of him.
The presider blesses the bread and wine, and the congregation recites the Lord’s Prayer. Finally, the presider breaks the bread and offers it to the congregation, as the “gifts of God for the people of God.”
The congregation then shares the consecrated bread and wine, which we gather around the altar to receive. Everyone is welcome to receive the sacrament at Christ Church, including young children.