“A lot of us have burned out on our faith at some point—or been cast out. Maybe... someone’s gender or some other part of their identity excluded them from service. Maybe we were told we had to choose between science and faith. Or maybe we were just beaten down by the relentless drum of condemnation.
"The Episcopal Church is a refuge, a respite, a place where we can come as we are and learn to receive grace again.” - Ben Irwin
I’ve never been in an Episcopal church. What should I expect?
First off, you should expect a warm welcome. But why? Is that just because church people are obliged to be nice, even if being nice is difficult, or worse, a smarmy and insincere performance? Not at all. You should expect a warm welcome because the newcomer and the stranger have a special place in our beliefs. We believe that a church is not an enclosure designed for an exclusive group, but rather a radically open space in which all, literally all, are welcome. We believe that each stranger and newcomer brings news of another part of God’s creation. Radical openness also means that a church is not a place where we can go to display our virtue, our piety, our rectitude, or sanctimony. The church welcomes us as we are, where we are, the good and the bad, those parts of ourselves we are happy about and those we can’t even bear to acknowledge. God extends that radical welcome to each one of us (and here comes the important part) whether or not we are Episcopalian, whether or not we are Christian, whether or not we are religious or spiritual, whether or not we believe we believe in God.
On a more practical level, when you arrive in an Episcopal Church for a regular Sunday service, you’ll see a lot of different things happening: singing, praying, reading, speaking, sitting, standing, and maybe even some kneeling. There may be a period where one (or both) of the rectors speaks for a while. The choir may sing an anthem. There will be another period where people come forward to receive communion, the sacrament of bread and wine, the act of worship which is the center and the keystone of the whole service.
All this can seem hectic at first, particularly if you are not used to a liturgical church, that is, a church which shapes its worship around established, sometimes ancient forms. What to do? The first thing to do is to remind yourself that you cannot make a mistake. Really. If you get lost, or don’t know what is happening, ask a person sitting near you, and they will help you out. In order to let people know what’s going on and what’s going to happen next, we print and distribute a bulletin, which says where to find the hymns and prayers.
The service is divided into two parts; the first is the Liturgy of the Word, which centers on appointed readings from Hebrew and Christian Scripture, and second is the Liturgy of the Table, which centers on Communion, the act of joining with God and each other at the altar, where we receive the bread and wine.
All are welcome to come forward at communion time to receive the bread and wine, or a blessing with the laying on of hands if you prefer. A gluten-free wafer is available upon request. (Does "all" include children? Yes! Click here and scroll down to "Children and Communion.")
We give great thanks to Christ Church, Oberlin, Ohio, for permission to reproduce this article with minor changes.
More really useful information about the Episcopal Church from Christ Church, Oberlin.