Sunday Mornings at St. Theodore's
Going to an Episcopal Church (or any church) for the first time may feel a little strange and intimidating. If you're visiting St. Theodore's for the first time, we want you to be able to relax, feel welcome and participate as you choose.
What to Expect: The short version
Here's a condensed version of what to expect on Sunday morning:
- Welcome! We're glad you're here.
- Come on in, get a bulletin from an usher or greeter, and have a seat anywhere.
- The entire service is printed in your bulletin. Just follow along. It's easy!
- Relax and enjoy the service. Participate as much or as little as you'd like.
- Please introduce yourself after the service.
- Feel free to ask lots of questions and get to know us.
- We hope you enjoyed your time with us, and look forward to seeing you next Sunday!
What to Expect: The long version
If you'd like a play-by-play guide of what to expect at our Episcopal worship service, read on.
You may want to arrive a few minutes before the service so you can get yourself settled. There will be ushers and greeters who will hand you a bulletin, which will guide you through our service. Head on into the sanctuary and feel free to sit anywhere you like. Sometimes new people prefer to sit in the back and quietly check things out. That's fine with us. Just sit wherever you're comfortable.
In addition to the service bulletin there will be various books in the racks in front of you in the pews. The red book is the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). This book has various portions of the service in it. The entire service is printed in the bulletin for you, so there's no need to look anything up in the BCP (unless you want to). The dark blue book is the Hymnal. We typically sing four hymns during the service. The hymn numbers are listed on boards at the front of the sanctuary, on either side of the altar. You will also see some shorter songs (Service Music) printed in your bulletin that we sing at various parts of the service.
A few minutes before the service our organist, Annette, will start playing some beautiful music (the Prelude). It is meant to help us prepare our hearts and minds for the service.
Our service will start with the Processional Hymn, which everyone sings while standing. While we are all singing, there will be a Procession, which is typically made up of the folks who assist with the service called Liturgical Ministers. The person at the front of the Procession will be holding the cross.
Once we're done singing, the Celebrant (typically our Rector, Fr. Will) says a prayer called a Collect. The Collect is meant to help us collect our thoughts and prepare to listen to the service.
The service itself is divided into two parts: the Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Table.
The Liturgy of the Word
We all sit down to hear readings from the Bible. Most of the time there is a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament); a psalm; a reading from the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) and a reading from the Gospels. These readings are part of a set “lectionary” which assigns readings for every Sunday on a three year cycle. Your bulletin will tell you who reads what; all you need to do is follow along.
Because the Gospel, the stories of Jesus’ life and death, are central to our faith, that reading gets special treatment. The Gospel book is brought into the middle of the congregation and read by either our Rector or Deacon. Everyone stands for this reading and turns and faces the Gospel Book.
Following the Gospel a sermon is preached, usually by our Rector, Fr. Will (but on occasion by our Deacon, John Reese, or a visiting member of the clergy). The sermon is meant to take what we have heard in the readings and engage those learnings with our current lives.
After the sermon, the next several pieces of the service provide a way for us to respond to what we have heard. Because we are actively responding we stand up at this point. We say the Nicene Creed, an ancient statement of faith used by most Christian churches which binds us together with Christians of all generations. We pray the Prayers of the People. These prayers are a series of petitions led by a member of the congregation with a response by the people at the end of each one. The petitions include prayers for the Church, the world, the nation, those who are sick and those who have died. Fr. Will concludes these prayers with a Collect, once again “collecting” our prayers.
After the prayers we say the Confession (the confession is sometimes omitted during celebratory seasons of the year). The confession is an opportunity to confess together the ways we have not loved God or others. We typically kneel for the confession as a sign of penitence. At the conclusion of the confession, Fr. Will says the Absolution: words reminding us that God forgives our sins.
The Celebrant then bids the Peace. This can be a particularly awkward moment for people who are newcomers or visitors. What we are doing is ritually enacting our need to be in right relationship with one another before we go to Communion. We do that by saying “peace be with you” (or simply "peace") to one another. People may shake hands or embrace each other. Most Sundays the Peace is a little more exuberant, with people actually leaving their seats to exchange the Peace with more people. Don't feel pressured! You can just greet the people sitting near you.
The Peace is followed by Blessings for birthdays and anniversaries, and parish announcements.
The Liturgy of the Table
A collection of money is taken at this point. Often a piece of music is sung or played while the collection is being taken. Our offerings symbolize both our bringing of ourselves to worship and our support of the life of the community. It is fine for you to put whatever amount of money in or to put in nothing at all. The bread and wine we will use for Communion and the money that has been collected are brought to the Altar Table and the liturgical ministers set the Table for Communion.
Fr. Will prays an extended prayer. It starts with a dialogue between him and the congregation called the Sursum Corda (literally “lift up your hearts”). The prayer continues with a retelling of the story of the Last Supper and asking the Holy Spirit to come into the bread and wine, and into us.
At the end of the Eucharistic Prayer everyone prays the Lord’s Prayer. Then Fr. Will breaks a piece of the bread, symbolizing Christ’s body being broken for us. After this symbolic breaking, some more practical preparations are made which might include pouring additional chalices of wine, breaking the bread into pieces for distribution, etc. Once the bread and wine are ready, Fr. Will invites people to the meal.
The congregation comes forward and kneels at the altar to receive communion. The ushers will help guide you. The official policy of the Episcopal Church is that all baptized people may receive Communion. We have broadened that policy to invite anyone who is seeking God to receive.
If you don’t want to receive Communion that is totally fine. You can remain in your seat, or you can also come forward and cross your arms over your chest to receive a blessing instead of Communion.
If you do want to receive Communion, hold out your hands to receive a piece of bread from Fr. Will. Another liturgical minister will come with the cup of wine (and it is wine!). There are a few choices here. You can eat the bread when it is put in your hand and then take a sip of wine from the cup. It is okay and actually helpful for you to touch the cup and help guide it to your mouth. If you don’t want to drink from the cup you can also leave the bread in your hand and dip it in the wine, then place the bread in your mouth. It is also totally fine to receive only the bread or only the wine; either is considered a full receiving of Communion. There are many reasons people might want to receive only one so don’t feel self-conscious about that. Once you have received, simply return to your seat.
After everyone has received Communion we all say a prayer which is printed in the bulletin. Fr. Will then asks God to bless us. We sing one more hymn, during which the liturgical ministers in the Procession at the start of the service process out (the Recessional). At the very end we are dismissed by Fr. Will and sent out into the world.
Annette will start playing her fabulous organ music again. At this point it is fine to stand up and leave your seat, or you may want to remain and listen to the music. Some of us form a line down the middle of the sanctuary and greet Fr. Will one-by-one as we leave. Feel free to join the line and introduce yourself as a newcomer.
Once the service is concluded we head to the gathering area off the narthex for coffee, light refreshments and fellowship. Please feel free to join us!
Every Episcopal church is a little different, but this is what happens at St. Theodore's on most Sunday mornings. We hope you will visit us soon!