How Episcopalians Worship

Understanding Our Common Worship

Welcome to St. Michael's Episcopal Church. This page is designed to help familiarize you with worship in the Episcopal Church. The goal is to help you understand the customs and traditions of our common worship. If you are a visitor, you are most welcome. We understand that our liturgical practices may be unfamiliar to visitors so please feel free to participate in whatever way you feel comfortable. If you have any questions, please ask one of the clergy, one of the ushers, or any of our regular members.

In the Episcopal Church, people have various traditions for how to prepare themselves to worship. You will most likely find people kneeling in prayer or sitting quietly. Whatever your personal practice is, the goal is to prepare ourselves to come into the presence of God. 

The Episcopal Church worships the Lord in both word and sacrament. Therefore, our service is divided into two parts beginning with The Liturgy of the Word and culminating in The Holy Communion.

The Entrance Hymn and Procession
In The Episcopal Church, the service usually begins with a hymn during which the sacred ministers process into the church. The procession signifies the journey of the soul to God for “they will climb from height to height, and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion” (Psalm 84:6). The Procession is often led by a cross. Some people choose to follow the custom of bowing as the cross passes by their pew. The cross leads the procession because it is the symbol of the triumph of the Church and because we follow Jesus who, “went forth bearing His Cross” (John 19:7). The cross is often flanked by two torches for those who go with Christ, “shall not walk in darkness” (John 8:12).

The Collect for Purity
A collect is a prayer. This opening prayer is one in which the priest, on behalf of the congregation, asks God to cleanse them and prepare them for worship.

The Song of Praise
The Gloria, also known as the Angelic Hymn, or Great Doxology, is one of the most ancient hymns in the church. The First sentence are the words the angelic choir sang to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus. The remaining words were written by St. Hilary of Poicters around the year 350 AD. Sometimes this hymn is replaced by a similar song of praise.

The Collect of the Day
A prayer is dedicated to every Sunday of the liturgical year. These prayers can be found on pages 159-261 of the Book of Common Prayer.

The Lessons and Psalm
The lessons and psalm read during the service come from a lectionary designed to coordinate with the church year. The lectionary is called the Revised Common Lectionary. This lectionary is shared by a number of Christian denominations including: The Lutheran Church, The Presbyterian Church, The Catholic Church, The United Methodist Church, The American Baptist Church, and The Church of England.

The Gospel Reading
To read the gospel is to proclaim the words of Christ.  When used in this way, the gospel is only to be read by a deacon or priest. This is the high point of The Liturgy of the Word.

The Sermon
The sermon or homily is common to most Christian services. In the Episcopal Church the sermon is typically shorter than in most protestant services as we believe it should not overshadow the Holy Communion, which is the pinnacle of the worship service.

The Nicene Creed
Developed by the entire Christian church in the year 325 A.D. the Nicene Creed spells the basic beliefs of the Christian faith. For this reason it is recited on Sundays and on other major celebrations.

Prayers of the People
During the Prayers of the People we lift our prayers to God as a congregation. The forms we use for prayer are found on pages 383-395 of the Book of Common Prayer.

The Confession
The General Confession usually follows the Prayers of the People. The confession is a time for us to reflect on our own sin and ask for God’s forgiveness. It is placed here before the Holy Communion so that each person may examine themselves before participating.

The Absolution
In general, Episcopalians hold that one may receive absolution of one’s sins both through the pardon of a priest (who is Christ’s representative) or through repentance confessed to God alone. However, in order to ensure the believer receives the sacrament in a worthy manor (1 Cor. 11:28-29), the absolution is given to all assembled.

The Peace
The passing of the peace is also a sign of obedience to Jesus’ words that we make peace with one another before offering our gifts at the altar (Matt. 5:23-24). It is also a custom that dates back to the earliest liturgies of the church and can be found in the writings of Justin Martyr (140 A.D.) who indicates that during the second century, the peace took place before the presentation of the gifts at the Eucharist.

Announcements about any activities or upcoming events at St. Michael's generally occur at this point in the service; between the Liturgy of the Word and The Holy Communion.


The Holy Communion, The Holy Eucharist, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, or The Lord’s Supper are all terms for the part of the service of worship in which Christians are following the command of Christ given at the Last Supper to eat and drink of His body and blood. Whenever Christians eat of the bread and drink of the cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (See: Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, John 13, and 1 Corinthians 11.)  

The Offertory
The Offertory is the rite by which the bread and wine are presented (offered) to God before they are consecrated. As the altar is being set, a hymn or anthem is generally sung by the choir. During this time the alms basin is passed and the congregation places their monetary offering in it to be presented to the church.

The Sursum Corda
This section of the liturgy covers the introductory words of the Eucharist found on page 361 of the Book of Common Prayer.

The Proper Preface
After the introductory words the celebrant continues with the words at the bottom of page 361 by inserting a Proper Preface. The words change depending on the liturgical season or type of service. They can be found on pages 377-382 of the Book of Common Prayer.

The Sanctus and Benediction
Sanctus is the Latin word for Holy. These words, found in the second paragraph on page 362, are often said but may be sung as well.  The first two sentences are the Sanctus and are adapted from Isaiah 6:3, which describes the prophet Isaiah's vision of the throne of God surrounded by six-winged, ministering seraphim. A similar representation may be found in Revelation 4:8. The last sentence is the Benediction. The text is taken from Matthew 21:9 which describes Jesus' Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem.

Understanding Communion
While Eucharistic theology can be very complicated, the easiest way of understanding Communion is that the Eucharist is celebrated as a way of giving thanksgiving and praise to God. This is the primary definition of the term "Eucharist." We praise and thank God for His great love for us manifested in many ways, but especially in the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. 

Eucharist is also a reliving of the Last Supper where Jesus established a new covenant with His church. In all versions of the Eucharist we recall the exact words Christ spoke during this event (1 Cor. 11). In this memorial we remember and proclaim Jesus' sacrifice for our sins including His death, burial, and resurrection from the dead.

The Eucharist is also the way in which Christ's sacrifice is made present for us. It is not another sacrifice, but a reliving of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. It is as if the barriers of space and time are removed and we are present at His once for all sacrifice on Calvary. In this sacrifice of praise, we are united with Christ and offer ourselves to God, being made holy and acceptable by Christ's grace. In this, we are all united with one another in Christ.

The Eucharist is also a means by which Christ is made present to us. God is omnipresent, meaning He is present everywhere and at all times, but He is especially present in the person of Jesus Christ through the Eucharist. In Communion, Christ’s body and blood are present in the bread and wine through a divine mystery.

The results of the Eucharist are many. Through it, we are strengthened in our union with Christ and His church. As food nourishes our physical body, the Eucharist nourishes our soul. It enables us to grow in faith and overcome sin. It strengthens our heart to love our neighbor and our enemy. The Eucharist is a foretaste of the great marriage supper of the Lamb foretold in the New Testament book of Revelation, when we will see Christ face to face.        

The Lord’s Prayer
The Lord's Prayer, also known as the Our Father or Pater Noster, is probably the best-known prayer in Christianity. Two versions of it occur in the New Testament; one in the Gospel of Matthew 6:9–13, as a section of the Sermon on the Mount, and the other in the Gospel of Luke 11:2–4. The prayer is particularly fitting at this point in the Eucharist as it allows us to pray in the words our Lord taught us, asking Him for our daily bread, which we are about to receive, and again asking for forgiveness of our sins before partaking of this Holy Sacrament.

The Fraction
The Fraction is the ceremonial act of breaking the consecrated bread. It is a direct connection to the action of Jesus breaking the bread in the Last Supper. Some ancient biblical manuscripts use the words, “This is my body which was ‘broken’ for you,” as opposed to “given for you” (1Cor. 11:24). This suggests the breaking of the bread can be seen as a symbol for Christ’s body being ‘broken’ on the cross. However, this action should only be seen as symbolic of Jesus’ suffering since the Gospels stress the point that none of Christ’s bones were literally broken during his crucifixion.

How to Receive Communion
Before we receive communion it is appropriate to prepare ourselves by confessing our sin and receiving absolution as was done either in the confession and absolution or just previously in the Lord’s Prayer. Regardless we should always be mindful of the Apostle Paul’s words that, “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor. 11: 28-29). If you would like to come to the altar to receive communion, simply follow the usher’s instructions. They will instruct you when it is time to go forward. In general, you simply approach the altar and kneel (or stand if you are unable to kneel) at the altar rail when it is your turn.

Once you are at the altar, you should then indicate to the ministers whether you would like to receive the bread, the wine, or simply a blessing. To receive the bread, place one hand on top of the other. The priest will place the bread on your palm. You may then consume it or wait to dip it in the wine. To receive the wine simply help the chalice bearer guide the chalice to your lips and sip the wine. If you are going to dip the bread into the wine, do so at this point and then immediately consume it.

     If you would prefer to only receive a blessing and not the bread or wine simply cross your arms when you first kneel at the rail. If you would like to only receive the bread and not the wine, make this gesture for the chalice bearer as well and they will pass you by.

Post Communion Prayer
We partake in the Eucharist and are spiritually nourished, but it is not for our benefit alone. Communion enables us to return to the world with renewed vigor for proclaiming the Gospel in our words and in our lives. In the Eucharist, Christ’s presence both nourishes us and challenges us. The Eucharist is therefore not an exclusive gathering that separates us from the world, but a challenge to reach out beyond our own church to the world around us. In this prayer, we are reminding ourselves of this fact and asking God for His help to do these things.

The Blessing
At the conclusion of the Eucharist the priest blesses the congregation. This gesture did not come into practice in the church until the late Middle Ages. However, blessings are common in all parts of the Bible as the authoritative announcement of God’s favor. Since we have just partaken of the body and blood of Christ, it seems an appropriate place for the priest to bless the congregation. 

The Closing Hymn
At the end of the service a closing hymn is sung during which the minister(s) process to the rear of the nave.        

The Dismissal

The last words of the service are pronounced by a member of the clergy. There are a variety of dismissals and they can be found on page 366 of The Book of Common Prayer. All of them remind us to take what we have gained in the worship of our Lord into the world.        

After the Dismissal
After the dismissal some people choose to kneel in silence or say a final prayer before departing. An example of such a prayer can be found on page 834 of The Book of Common Prayer. This practice varies widely among the parishioners of St. Michael's.        

After the Service
After the service there is a reception with coffee and refreshments hosted by one of the families of our church. This takes place in our parish hall. It is a wonderful way to enjoy the fellowship of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. After the reception there is often an Adult Forum and a time for Children's Sunday School.

What is the Book of Common Prayer?

The Book of Common Prayer contains the ceremonies and rites of the Episcopal Church by which we structure our worship. The Book of Common Prayer has been revised multiple times over the last several hundred years. It is based on the original Prayer Book crafted by Thomas Cranmer in 1549 which used the ancient traditions of the Church and the monastic offices as its source. Most of the language of the current Prayer Book comes from Holy Scripture or is derived from prayers which date to some of the earliest days of the church.

Why do the clergy wear different color vestments from one Sunday to the next?

         The color of the vestments of the clergy, the frontal on the altar, and the lectern hangings change depending on the seasons of the church.    

Advent = Purple (or blue)            Purple = Penitence
Christmas = White or Gold            White or Gold = Joy
Ordinary Time = Green                Green = Hope
Lent = Purple   Red = The Fire of the Holy Spirit or the Blood of the Martyrs
Easter = White or Gold
Pentecost and Holy Week = Red

Why is there an altar?

The altar, or holy table, is the central focus of the worship space and serves as a reminder that Christ’s death on the cross was a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. It also represents Mount Calvary, where Our Lord was offered for the sins of the world. The altar also serves as an appropriate place for us to offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving as we participate with the one true sacrifice of Christ on the cross.        

Why are there candles?

Traditionally, candles were used simply for the practical illumination of the areas which are used in the service. Today, with the use of electric lights, their meaning is more symbolic as they are used to illuminate those objects which are considered holy. In some churchs you will see six candles behind the altar. These six “Standard Lights” symbolize that our Lord is the light of the word. The two larger ones on the altar or “Eucharistic Lights” represent Christ’s divine and human natures. A beautiful meaning attached to the candles in general when used in worship is that the wax, which comes from the virgin bee, symbolizes our Lord’s body born from the Virgin Mary, the wick His soul, the flame His divinity; thus setting forth the Mystery of the Incarnation.

Why are there flowers?

 The flowers are used to honor our Lord and symbolically show that he is “The Rose of Sharon and The Lili of the Valley” (Song of Solomon 2:1).

Why is incense used sometimes?

Incense typifies the Merits of Christ and the Prayers of the Saints (Revelation 5). It is of divine authority and has always been associated with the worship of both the Jewish and Christian Church. The Bible says, “In every place incense shall be offered unto my name and a pure offering” (Malachi 1:11).

When do I stand / sit / kneel?

While these customs have changed over the years and vary from service to service, typically one stands to praise, sits to learn, and kneels to pray. Just watch the people around you and follow their cues. The clergy may also indicate when you are to stand, sit, or kneel.        

What is baptism?
Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as His children and makes us members of Christ’s body, the Church, and inheritors of the Kingdom of God. In Baptism our sins are forgiven, we receive the Holy Spirit, and are grafted into the Church.

Why are infants baptized?

Infants are baptized so they can share citizenship in the Covenant, membership in Christ, and redemption by God.


As you participate in the service you may notice people making various religious gestures or movements at certain points in the service. In general, these are simply expressions of reverence based on custom; similar to the tradition of placing your hand over your heart during the singing of the national anthem. You may choose to do some, all, or none of them based on your personal piety and level of comfort. Below is an explanation of the most common of these practices.

Bowing for the Processional Cross
As the processional cross passes, many people choose to bow as a sign of reverence. This gesture derives from the manors of the medieval court where one would bow as a member of the royal family passes. Here we are bowing to our true Lord, Christ the King.

Bowing Before the Altar
In a similar way, just as one would bow before the throne of a monarch, many choose to bow to the altar as they enter and leave the church and/or each time they pass before it.

The Reserved Sacrament
A portion of the consecrated bread and wine is reserved in a small box behind the altar. It should only be accessed by ordained clergy and is a reminder that Christ is always present in the sanctuary. A white candle is also kept burning so that the people will be reminded of the presence of the consecrated bread and wine. The only time the candle is not burning and the body and blood of Christ are absent is the time from the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday until the Easter Vigil.

Crossing One’s Self
The sign of the cross is a liturgical gesture because the cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith. To make the sign of the cross is to recall the salvation that God made available through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of His Son, Jesus Christ. It is therefore both a reminder to ourselves and a proclamation to others of the divine love which is not only found in a past event but continues to be with us.

In general, people cross themselves when they are blessed, or when the Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) is invoked. The gesture may also be made at other points during the service.

To cross yourself you use your right hand and place your thumb and first two fingers together (symbolizing the Trinity) and touch your head, abdomen, left shoulder, then right shoulder.

Crossing During the Gospel

When the priest says the introductory sentence before the gospel reading many people choose to make a small cross with their thumb on their forehead, lips, and heart. This is a reminder to us to keep the gospel in our mind, on our lips, and in our heart.

Some people choose to genuflect (bow on one knee) before going to the altar during communion. Although personal customs vary widely, in general, one genuflects on their right knee when the consecrated bread and wine are exposed, and on their left knee when receiving a blessing from a bishop.

Bowing at the Name of Jesus
Philippians 2:10 says, “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth.” From this verse comes a somewhat less common custom of bowing at the waist or nodding one’s head every time Jesus’ name is mentioned in the service.

Bowing During the Nicene Creed
Since the twelfth century there has been the custom to genuflect or bow at the waist during the mention of the Incarnation in the Nicene Creed. This was most likely in response to certain heresies at the time that were denying the divinity of Christ. The custom is less common today but still a wonderful way of remembering the sacred mystery of Christ’s birth.

About the Daily Office

At its earliest age, Christians began to keep regular forms of daily prayer in both the morning and the evening. Later, in the monasteries of the medieval church, these forms of worship became more complex and increased in frequency to include seven different services: Matins, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. The point of this devotion was to grow in holiness by being present with God and to sanctify time, which belongs to God, by keeping these services at specific hours of the day. After the Protestant Reformation, these daily offices were condensed back to two services; Morning and Evening Prayer. With the publication of the most current prayer book in 1979 the services of Sext (Noonday Prayer) and Compline were restored for optional use.        

Many people choose to keep the Daily Office privately as a spiritual discipline. When you do so, you are joining in with the corporate prayers of Christians all over the world who are praying at the same moment. If you would like to keep the Daily Office you have a few options. First, set apart a time (or times) of day for God. Once you have done this, you can use your Prayer Book and a Bible to keep Morning and/or Evening Prayer. Simply follow the services in the Prayer Book paying attention to the rubrics (instructions) in italicized words. The lectionary for the Daily Office can be found in the back of the Prayer Book on pages 933-1001. Beginning in Advent (Nov. 30th) we will be in Year One.        

Since the lectionary can be a bit of a challenge, you may want to pick up a copy of Forward Day by Day which gives you the readings for the day along with a reflection on these passages. This publication is free for parishioners and can be found just outside the parish offices. Also, for those who are more computer-minded, you can go to the Mission St. Clare web site at:  This web-site will walk you through the service of Morning or Evening Prayer (depending on what time of day you log on) and even provide the appropriate readings and collects. May God bless you as you draw closer to Him in prayer.