Getting to Know Us
What Episcopalians Believe
The Nicene Creed
Every Sunday, the congregation stands and repeats—in unison—the Nicene Creed. When we do this, we're affirming that faith is not a solitary act; it's the belief we hold as a body together. The Nicene Creed has been around since the year 325, and when we say that's what we believe, we're saying that we are in unison with "that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by everyone" (to steal a quote from Vincent of Lérins, who died in 445).
Eucharist, also called Holy Communion, is a central feature of every Sunday morning worship service. If you are aware of church history, you know that (unfortunately) Christians have fought bitter battles about this central sacrament—which was supposed to be a sign of our unity.
The Bible is foundational to our church, as it is to all Episcopal churches. You might be surprised at how much time we spend on a Sunday morning listening to the Scriptures being read—and not just a verse or two either. Every Sunday:
- We hear a reading from the Old Testament.
- We read one of the Psalms together.
- We hear a reading from the New Testament (usually a section of one of the letters or Acts).
- We stand and listen to a reading from one of the four Gospels.
These aren't just the preacher's favorite sections either. We're following a reading plan (called a lectionary) that gets us through the whole Bible. We want to be affected by the whole counsel of God.
By the way—the King James Version did originate with our ancestors in England. We have a long tradition of getting the Bible into the hands of believers.
The Three-Legged Stool
We Episcopalians sometimes interpret the Bible differently, yet we find common ground in our belief that Holy Scripture is the Word of God. Using the text of the Bible itself and the tradition of what Christians have taught us about it through the ages, we believe that we must come to an understanding of it as it relates to our own lives. To do this work we use our reason (our God-given intelligence) and our experiences. Some people refer to this as our three-legged stool of Scripture, tradition and reason.
About Your Webmaster
I came to the Episcopal Church somewhat late, after a journey that began on the East Coast (Presbyterian Church), a campus ministry group in college, a degree from a Presbyterian seminary, and a long time in a very informal church. Much of the tradition of the Episcopal Church is new to me, so I'll try to help you figure it out too.
I still pause and say to myself, "Well yes, I guess I really am an Episcopalian!" As a boy, I loved the Washington National Cathedral (that's ours, you know!) and my early spiritual formation came from an organization with deep roots in the Church of England (Inter-Varsity), but I never really picked up on the details or the reasons behind them until very recently. On Sunday morning, I'm still paying at least a little attention to the people around me, wondering if it's time to sit, stand, or kneel. I had to use the Internet to find out how to cross myself. C.S. Lewis had a profound influence on me, yet somehow I avoided the church that formed his thinking.
When I mentioned to a teenage friend that I was joining the Episcopal Church, his reaction was, "Oh! They're the ones who do calisthenics!" My secretary said, "They're the ones who are almost Catholic, right?"
I needed a crash course on not feeling like a misfit or making a fool of myself. So these visitors' pages are going to be about the journey I'm taking, and I hope you will profit too—and not feel like a misfit when you visit St. Matthew's.
How Episcopalians Worship
If you're from some other Christian tradition, you might get distracted by all of the action on a Sunday morning. Robin Williams (an Episcopalian you might have heard of) says one of the best things about our church is pew aerobics. So we'll begin there.
Rule number one: Your prayers will work, even if you don't do them right. The worst that can happen is that someone will see you're a little lost and offer some help. That's not too bad, after all.
"Liturgical" doesn't mean what you thought
The word comes from a Greek word that means "the work of the people." In a liturgical church like ours, Sunday worship is not a spectator sport. The priest says something and we respond. There's a constant give-and-take between the leaders and the rest of us. It's a community activity that takes in your body and your mind—which explains why it's so difficult to fall asleep in our church. There's always something for us to do. We're definitely not passive here.
Stand up, sit down, kneel, cross yourself.
All of the gestures actually have reasons, and in most cases someone has actually thought out what the reasons are. For example, when the priest comes down into the middle of the church to read the gospel, the point is that the gospel is for all of us, and when we all stand to listen, it's because these words are supremely important, probably the most important words we'll hear. And if you want to know why your neighbors are doing this or that, simply ask.
I felt a whole lot better about crossing myself when I learned the concept of "body prayer." For most of my life, my personal praying was totally silent, inside my head. But that left out a whole lot of me. When I make a point of kneeling or crossing myself, I'm getting the rest of my body praying along with my mind.
I've found the best strategy is to position myself where I can see someone who seems to know when it's time to stand up or whatever—and sometimes I have to tell myself, "Stop! Focus! The scriptures and the prayers are the important part! Listen to them!"
Eucharist, Communion, Lord's Supper
This is pretty much an every-Sunday event. For us, the meaning is much deeper than simply remembering what Jesus did, and so we never want to get too far from the intense intimacy with Christ that's the center of this event.
You're welcome to join in.
I didn't believe this at first. I was sort of waiting for someone to give me a multiple-choice test on theology or something, but the invitation is genuine. If you are a believer in Christ, your place is at the altar rail. And if you don't know how to do it "right" just watch the person next to you.
What's in that cup?
Yes, it's actually wine, not grape juice. Don't panic. If sipping wine from a common cup is a problem for you (and believe me, you're not alone if it troubles you), you have several options:
- When you receive the bread, simply hold on to it and dip it in the cup when the wine is offered to you. (This is an extremely popular choice during cold-and-flu season.)
- After you receive and eat the bread, simply cross your arms across your chest. The chalice-bearer will say the words of administration, but will not press the issue.
- Some people, as a gesture of reverence and devotion, choose to kiss the cup, but not drink.
Only two or three people will have any idea that you have done something a bit different from the common practice, and nobody will ask any questions. (To tell the truth, most of us are so busy with our own thoughts and prayers at this point that we are not paying any attention to you anyhow.)
All those books
Yes, it's confusing, even though the church program and the priest will give you help. My first few Sundays, I simply abandoned the Prayer Book so I could watch and listen. That seemed the most important anyhow. And even now, if I'm quite literally not on the same page as everyone else, nothing bad happens. Here are a few reasons for all the books:
- The Prayer Book: Some churches have an intricate, detailed statement of what they believe. We have a Prayer Book. Our unity and our system of belief are rooted in the experience of what we're saying to God.
- We figure out our prayers in advance ... (If you were going to present a request or comment to the head of our country, you would want to get it right, not leaving anything out or saying anything inappropriate. Why not give God the same respect?)
- ... and then someone reads them aloud ... (If you're going to join in with someone's prayer, it's very helpful to know what that person is saying. And when you consider that thousands of people worldwide are praying along with you, using the same words, the concept of "the body of Christ" gains a whole new flavor.)
- ... and they are the same prayers people have used for a very long time. (If there really is a "church invisible" that's composed of an enormous number of saints who have gone before us, it makes sense to pray in cooperation with them too.)
- The Hymnal: We have a rich musical tradition that reaches back hundreds of years. Some of the things we want to sing about are just too intricate for a quick, easily memorized chorus.
- A couple of other songbooks: Episcopalians are not the only ones who sing Christian songs, so sometimes we will use songs from one of our other songbooks. Often they are newer songs or songs that are outside our cultural tradition.
The other six days
If you see the whole world being full of little pointers to God, almost sacraments in themselves, your whole attitude begins to shift. You don't kick dogs. You recycle aluminum cans. You give a pleasant greeting to the supermarket cashier. This is what Barbara Brown Taylor means when she says that the world is full of little altars.
And a personal note from your webmaster
For me, the biggest surprise when I got to know the Episcopal Church was how dynamic and involving Sunday worship is. Sure, I juggle the Prayer Book and other stuff and occasionally get lost, but all of me gets involved. Sights, sounds, body movements, and even smells are part of worship. And when we break for coffee afterward, I feel that the congregation has actually done something together.
Books About the Episcopal Church
On Buying Books
I'm an English teacher, so my usual strategy when I don't understand something is to find a way to read about it. The books below are available through the usual big-box and online bookstores. I bought several of them at the National Cathedral Bookstore (perhaps a little more expensive, but the profit went to a good cause). If you have to order anyhow, why not find a local, independent bookstore and order there. The price will be the same, you will support a local business, and you might end up having an interesting conversation with the owner.
The books below are arranged in the order I read them myself
The Episcopal Handbook (Morehouse, 2008)
- If you are unfamiliar with churches in general or uneasy with a liturgical church, you will appreciate this book.
This tiny handbook has dozens of two-page chapters that cover everything from surviving a baptism to bringing the right food to a potluck. It tells you how to receive communion and how to shake hands during the peace. It first caught my attention with the comment that "miters go on top of bishops," then explained that the pointy hats are supposed to remind us of the tongues of fire that descended on the apostles in the book of Acts. Fun to read, informative, and a great introduction to the Episcopal church.
Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church
by Robert Webber (Morehouse, 1985)
- I appreciated this book because I had a long history in the Evangelical church; Webber helped me to put words to some of my longings and to feel that a change of direction might be God's will for me.
Webber was a highly respected professor at Wheaton College (and a graduate of my seminary) when he began looking for something deeper in worship. First he started a house church, but eventually gravitated to the Episcopal Church. His academic specialty was worship, and the worship forms of our church attracted him very much. The book is quite autobiographical, and would be most interesting to people who are more familiar with non-liturgical churches.
Welcome to the Episcopal Church: An Introduction to Its History, Faith, and Worship
by Christopher L. Webber and Frank Griswold (Morehouse, 1999)
- I read this book when I was ready for the history lesson. It gets complicated, but this book is a great help in sorting things out.
This is a more in-depth look at the history and beliefs. It had never dawned on me that when the Plymouth Colony was established in 1620, the ancestors of the modern Episcopal Church had been worshiping in Jamestown, Virginia, for thirteen years. It's a bit out of date now, but most of the material ages well. The book is unaware of the disputes concerning gay clergy, for example, but its discussion of female clergy really does cover some of the same ground.
An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
by Barbara Brown Taylor (HarperCollins, 2009)
- Taylor isn't a teacher or preacher so much as a companion. I'm reading this one chapter by chapter at bedtime, almost like a devotional.
I would place this book in the Episcopalian DNA category. It's very autobiographical, very personal. Taylor writes to those who count themselves as "spiritual, but not religious." Here's the central idea that she teases out, chapter by chapter: If God really did create everything, then anything can serve as sort of a signpost pointing to him. Whether she's meditating on the lack of body hair in a stained glass picture of Jesus or on getting whacked in the head by a tree branch, Taylor continually finds fingerprints of God all over her world.
Something like 70% of the Episcopal Church came from somewhere else—we're not all "cradle Episcopalians." So if you're a visitor and uncertain about what's going on, rejoice! You're in the majority. The point of this page is to help you with some of the strangeness and help you get to know us.
The Episcopal Handbook wonders whether coffee is the third sacrament. It's not, but the coffee hour after church is very important to us. You should remember two rules:
- We really do want you to stay and have something to eat.
- It doesn't matter that you didn't bring anything to share with us. You're our guest. We were planning on your visit.
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This page was revised 7/14/17.