Why Do Episcopalians Do That?

If you weren’t raised Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, the first time you visit an Episcopal worship service it can be daunting! Why do we stand when we do? Why do we kneel when we do? And what are all these signs we’re making with our hands? In what follows I’ll try to provide some brief answers to these important questions.

Before we Episcopalians enter the pew of the church, we bow to the altar. Generally speaking, we bow when we pass before the tabernacle or aumbry in which we reserve the sacrament — that is, the consecrated bread and wine representing the Body and Blood of Jesus. We also bow when entering or leaving our pews.

However, there’s another time you’ll notice the priests at the altar bowing. Why? The Bible tells us to! The second chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is one of the most beautiful passages in all of scripture. In verses 9-11 of that chapter Paul writes:

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

During the celebration of The Lord’s Supper the priests simply bow whenever the name of Jesus is uttered.

We Episcopalians also cross ourselves from time to time during the service. Crossing is an ancient Christian gesture in which one touches his forehead, heart, left shoulder and right shoulder. When we teach children what the gesture means, we tell them that we’re asking God to be “in our heads” (when we touch our foreheads), “in our hearts” (when we touch our hearts), “and in all of me” (when we touch our shoulders). Paul writes, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1st Corinthians 1:18) Crossing oneself simply reminds us of the sacrifice Jesus made for us and of the power God demonstrated in Jesus’ sacrifice. While making the sign of the cross it is common to add an expression of faith in the Trinity (certainly an appropriate thing to do in our parish!): “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

When do we cross ourselves? Local custom will vary, but generally Episcopalians cross themselves whenever the priest blesses them — for example, after the Confession of Sin during the Eucharist (cf., The Book of Common Prayer, p. 360).

On page 845 of The Book of Common Prayer (or BCP) you’ll find An Outline of the Faith that briefly summarizes the basic teachings of the Episcopal Church in simple question and answer form. In response to the question, “What is corporate worship?” we receive the answer: “In corporate worship we unite ourselves with others to acknowledge the holiness of God, to hear God’s Word, to offer prayer, and to celebrate the sacraments.” (p. 857)

The first thing to note about our worship is that it is common — that is, it is public, something we Christians share together. We are guided in our corporate worship by The Book of Common Prayer. (It’s called common precisely because it’s meant to be used by a gathered congregation, though it can be used to great effect by an individual alone.)

The second thing we’re told in the definition of corporate worship is that in it we gather to hear God’s Word. On pages 323 and 355 (where our services begin) note that the first part of the service is called The Word of God. In this first part of the service we hear readings from the Bible. At least two readings are required, one of which must be from the Gospels.

Before the Gospel is read, the Gospel Book is carried from the altar to the middle of the nave (the part of the church where the congregation sits) and read by the Deacon, if present. The Deacon will say “The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to (whichever Gospel is being read).” As he says these words many Episcopalians choose to make the sign of the cross on their foreheads, on their lips, and over their hearts. This signifies that we hope God will be on our minds, on our lips, and in our hearts.

The readings for Sunday Eucharist are determined by the Lectionary that you’ll find in the back of the Prayer Book (p. 889). Over the course of three years virtually every passage of The Holy Bible is read in Episcopal worship. Ours is a very biblical service!

Following the reading of the Scriptures a sermon is preached. The main task of the preacher is to explicate the texts just read. If a priest is faithful to this challenge, he or she will never run out of things to preach about! What’s more, the congregation will hear sermons on virtually every part of the Bible.

Following the sermon, we recite the Nicene Creed. What is a creed? The word “creed” comes from the Latin credo which means simply, “I believe.” A creed is a statement of our basic beliefs about God. The Nicene Creed is the creed of the universal Church and is used at the Eucharist.

The Creed is followed by The Prayers of the People and The Confession of Sin. During the Confession we kneel to signify our sorrow for our sins and as a sign of respect before God.

We then pass the Peace. Having heard the Word of God proclaimed, having stated our basic beliefs, and having confessed our sins to God, we are at peace with God and each other. The Passing of the Peace takes its origin from the Kiss of Peace so often mentioned by the Apostle Paul (cf., Romans 16:16).

After the Passing of the Peace we proceed immediately to The Holy Communion. The Holy Communion is also called The Lord’s Supper or The Holy Eucharist. The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word for giving thanks. Notice that the central part of The Holy Communion is called The Great Thanksgiving.

For Episcopalians the Holy Eucharist is a sacrament. This is very important for ours is a sacramental tradition. In response to the question, “What are the sacraments?” our Prayer Book tells us that “the sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” (BCP, p. 857) With Holy Baptism, the Holy Eucharist is one of the two great sacraments given by Christ to his Church. Arguments once raged in the church about whether and, if so, how Jesus is present in the Eucharist. Such arguments are unnecessary. But know this: We Episcopalians acknowledge that in the Eucharist Jesus is truly present with us in a unique fashion. The meal truly is a meal with the Lord! And it is one of our grandest privileges to be invited to sup with the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of the universe.

The Very Rev. Doug Travis, Former Trinity Rector