Christian religious services over the centuries have varied from the six-hour long sermons by Puritan preachers, with the congregation taking notes, to the Eastern Orthodox Churches' beautiful liturgies full of incense, flags, and congregational activity of all sorts, which provide a general theatrical performance. I am thankful that we do not go to either extreme.
When evaluating different religious services, it is helpful to compare them with music. Some music, for example, just seems to fit me better than others, but it is still possible to recognize, enjoy, and respects other people's different musical preferences. The following is why I find the Episcopal services a good fit, and I suspect that several readers, but not all, will join with me.
St. Augustine argued that a functioning person has three dimensions or capacities: thought, word, and actions or deeds. "Thought, word, and deed" are the very words we recite before God when confessing. That we have these three dimensions is quite commonsensical: thinking is the source or origin for our engaging others and the world around us; speaking and words are used to express our thoughts; and activity or deeds, however trivial, flow from what we have thought and said. It makes sense, accordingly, to create a religious service that engages these three dimensions of our personhood.
We are inaugurated into the service by the priest announcing the presence of God ("Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit") and by the first words of the congregation: "blessed be his Kingdom, now and for ever." These words are a foretaste of what will happen to us as we enter the service.
The thought dimension of our self is engaged in many places: the sermon, the readings from Scripture, and the prayers of the people, most obviously. The word dimension of our self is engaged most clearly when we confess, say the Lord's Prayer, the Nicene Creed, and the prayer of Humble Access. The action or deed dimension is the Eucharist itself: "eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us." The Puritan service of old clearly stressed the thought dimension almost exclusively for its congregation. In contrast, the Eastern Orthodox service engages the congregation with the two dimensions of words and actions much like a theatrical performance. The Episcopal liturgy engages all three dimensions, and the balance seems to be about right.
But, a mere description of the Episcopal liturgy leaves out the heart of the service: the experiences engendered. We have, to name only a few, joy in singing, awe and humility in confession, glory in praising, love and hope in prayers, and a community sense in our congregational responses. During the service these experiences have become our dwelling place, and, as a result, our whole selves have been renewed. The service finishes by referring again to our first words, "the Kingdom of God," that inaugurated the liturgy. But, now there is an understanding, however dimly, of those first words and recognition of what all we have just experienced. As our final prayer summarizes, "we are heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom."
It is thus not surprising--given all we have thought, said and done, and all we have experienced--that before we depart from the sanctuary, we say, "Thanks be to God. Alleluia, alleluia!" Rightly so.