FAQs About The Episcopal Church
You may have heard of the Episcopal Church or driven by a church in your area. But what goes on there? What’s it like inside? What makes the Episcopal Church different? How do ordinary people participate in the life of the church? Here are answers to these and other common questions.
What is an Episcopalian?
A person who belongs to the Episcopal Church is called an “Episcopalian.” The word “Episcopal” means a church governed by bishops. We call our local churches “parishes,” which are governed by an elected “vestry” of ordinary people who help lead the church and make important day-to-day decisions. The pastor of an Episcopal church is usually called a “priest.” In the Episcopal Church, priests are allowed to marry and women may also serve as priests.
Do you have to be an Episcopalian to go to an Episcopal Church?
No. All people are welcome here, regardless of background. Many of our members come to us from other faith traditions and denominations. You’ll find a friendly community of people united by their faith in God and eagerness to serve others.
Will they tell me how to think, how to act, or how to vote?
Absolutely not. In the Episcopal Church, we know that every journey toward God is unique and highly personal. You won’t be forced to think a certain way or “get in line” with everyone else. In fact, you’re welcome to bring your questions, doubts, hopes, and dreams with you. You’ll be encouraged to think for yourself and seek guidance from God through prayer, worship, meditation, reading, and any other method that works for you. Each one of us is precious to God and we all find God in different ways.
Where did the Episcopal Church come from?
The Episcopal Church is a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion; derived from the Church of England and sharing with it traditions of faith and order as set forth in its Book of Common Prayer. Before the American Revolution, we were known as the Church of England in America. After the Revolution, we became the Episcopal Church – a self-governing faith community affiliated with the worldwide Anglican tradition. The word “Anglican” means in the tradition of the Church of England. Today, more than 80 million people around the world are part of the Anglican faith tradition: every continent except Antarctica has Anglican churches today. For example, if you travel to Australia or Argentina, you’ll find Anglican churches that worship in the same style as the Episcopal Church in America.
What’s an Episcopal Church service like?
All Episcopal churches follow a relatively common order of service. Being with a community of believers inspires us, nurtures us, encourages us, and comforts us. Our Sunday services throughout the year usually include an opening procession, Bible readings, prayers for ourselves and others, time for meditation, a sermon or pastoral message, and Communion (Holy Eucharist) where we share bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus Christ and the Last Supper. All people are welcome to approach the front of the church during the Communion portion of the service, even if you’re not an Episcopalian. Anyone who has been baptized (in any tradition) is invited to share in the bread and wine. Unbaptized persons are welcome to come forward for a special blessing.
We use three central texts during our services:
- The Bible
- The Book of Common Prayer (contains a calendar of Church year, order of Bible readings, orders of services, and some of the most beautiful prayers ever written)
- The Hymnal at the 10:30 Sunday service. Our 8:30 service is a quiet service with no music.
What if I don’t know what to do during a service?
Don’t worry. You won’t be embarrassed or singled out. We provide a “service bulletin” during each Sunday service. It guides you through the service and provides basic instructions for participation. Once you’ve been to a few services, it will seem like second nature to you. The Book of Common Prayer can also serve as a guide to our Sunday worship service (sometimes called our “liturgy”), as well as a wide range of other services for everything from baptism to funerals. Many people, even those outside the Anglican tradition, consider the Book of Common prayer to be one of the most beautiful collections of prayers and meditations in the English language.
What can I expect when I show up for an Episcopal worship service?
The Place of Worship
As you enter, you will notice an atmosphere of worship and reverence. Episcopal churches are built in many architectural styles; but whether the church be small or large, elaborate or plain, your eye is carried to the altar, or holy table, and to the cross. So our thoughts are taken at once to Christ and to God whose house the church is. On or near the altar there are candles to remind us that Christ is the ``Light of the world’’ (John 8:12). Often there are flowers, to beautify God’s house and to recall the resurrection of Jesus. On one side at the front of the church, there may be a lectern, pulpit, or stand, for the proclamation of the Word; here the Scriptures are read and the sermon is preached. In many churches, however, the lectern is separate from the pulpit and stands on the opposite side of the church.
The Act of Worship
In the pews you will find the Book of Common Prayer, the use of which enables the congregation to share fully in every service. The large print is the actual service. The smaller print gives directions to ministers and people for conduct of the service. You may wonder when to stand or kneel. Practices vary - even among individual Episcopalians. The general rule is to stand to sing - hymns (found in the Hymnal in the pews) and other songs (many of them from the Holy Bible) called canticles or chants and printed as part of the service. We stand, too, to say our affirmation of faith, the Creed; and for the reading of the Gospel in the Holy Eucharist. Psalms are sung or said sitting or standing. We sit during readings from the Old Testament or New Testament Letters, the sermon, and the choir anthems. We stand or kneel for prayer to show our gratefulness to God for accepting us as children or as an act of humility before God.
Before and After Services
It is the custom upon entering church to kneel in one’s pew for a prayer of personal preparation for worship. In many churches it is also the custom to bow to the altar on entering and leaving the church as an act of reverence for Christ. Episcopalians do not talk in church before a service but use this time for personal meditation and devotions. At the end of the service some persons kneel for a private prayer before leaving. Others sometimes sit to listen to the organ postlude.
Vestments (Liturgical Clothing)
To add to the beauty and festivity of the services, and to signify their special ministries, the clergy and other ministers wear vestments. Choir vestments usually consist of an undergown called a cassock (usually black or red) and a white, gathered overgown called a surplice. The clergy may also wear cassock and surplice. Another familiar vestment is the alb, a white tunic with sleeves that covers the body from neck to ankles. Over it (or over the surplice) ordained ministers wear a stole, a narrow band of colored fabric. At the Holy Eucharist a bishop or priest frequently wears a chasuble (a circular garment that envelops the body) over the alb and stole. Bishops sometimes wear a special head covering called a mitre. Vestment colors change with the seasons and holy days of the Church Year. The most frequently used colors are white, red, violet, and green.
The Church Year
The Episcopal Church observes the traditional Christian calendar. The season of Advent, during which we prepare for Christmas, begins on the Sunday closest to November 30. Christmas itself lasts twelve days, after which we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany (January 6). Lent, the forty days of preparation for Easter, begins on Ash Wednesday. Easter season lasts fifty days, concluding on the feast of Pentecost. During these times the Bible readings are chosen for their appropriateness to the season. During the rest of the year - the season after Epiphany and the long season after Pentecost (except for a few special Sundays) - the New Testament is read sequentially from Sunday to Sunday. The Old Testament lesson corresponds in theme with one of the New Testament readings.
Is real wine used during the Communion part of the service?
Yes. We use consecrated wine in remembrance of Christ’s instructions during the Last Supper.
Is The Episcopal Church Protestant or Catholic?
Yes. Both. Neither. All of the above. In the Episcopal Church (Anglican tradition), we embrace aspects of both the Protestant and Catholic traditions, in terms of worship styles, beliefs and actions. Some people refer to the Anglican tradition as a “bridge” between Protestants and Catholics. We are independent of the Catholic hierarchy and we don’t report to the Pope, or anyone else in Rome. At the same time, we share a liturgical and Apostolic tradition with the Catholic Church. As you’ll read below, the Episcopal Church’s beliefs are also rooted in many Protestant traditions. This explains why so many people from different faith backgrounds feel comfortable worshipping in the Episcopal Church today.
Are women allowed to serve as priests in the Episcopal Church?
Yes. Women can serve as priests, deacons, bishops and many other positions in the Episcopal Church today.
Are Episcopal priests allowed to marry and have children?
Yes. Absolutely. It’s a personal decision on their part.
Does the Episcopal Church allow gay men and lesbians to participate?
Yes. All of God’s children are welcome to participate in the Episcopal Church and answer God’s call to service in a wide variety of roles and missions. Gay men and lesbians are warmly welcome here, along with everyone else.
What is the Episcopal Church’s position on “hot topics” such as abortion, gay rights and political affiliation?
Episcopalians are diverse in their personal beliefs. Members are encouraged to pray, meditate, read and discuss – and then, with help from the Holy Spirit, make informed decisions for themselves. The Episcopal Church as a whole does take positions on certain topics through decisions of General Convention and Executive Council. General Convention, which meets every three years, discerns how The Episcopal Church will speak to issues of the day. Executive Council carries out the work of The Episcopal Church between General Convention sessions.
What do Episcopalians believe?
There are three basic sources of Episcopal Church beliefs:
1. Scripture (the primary source)
The Old and New Testaments contain the essence of Christian doctrine. They reveal God to humankind, and tell of our response to God in history. The Bible helps us to know God’s will to heal all creation. The Scriptures are the word of God, pointing to the Word of God revealed in Jesus the Christ.
2. Tradition (wisdom of generations past)
Through its continuity and consistency, tradition helps preserve essential truths.
3. Reason (gifts of the Holy Spirit)
Episcopalians are encouraged to use reason to explore and comprehend God’s works, to study the Scriptures, and to make responsible moral decisions under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.