The Episcopal Church is a liturgical church which means that we share in a tradition of Christian worship which goes back to the early days of Christianity. Liturgy (from a Greek word meaning "the work of the people") is not an end in itself but is important because it focuses our attention on God. In liturgical worship "we unite ourselves with others to acknowledge the holiness of God, to hear God's Word, to offer prayer, and to celebrate the sacraments" (from "The Outline of Faith", in The Book of Common Prayer, p. 857).
We understand the worship of God to be not a time of entertainment or socializing but a time during which we come together to pray as God's people. This is the meaning of common prayer; in worship we pray together as a Christian community. Here common means "together" not ordinary. For us, the whole worship service is an act of prayer. We offer to God our adoration, praise, and thanksgiving. We pray for the forgiveness of our sins. And we offer to God ourselves and the fruit of our labor as well as our intercessions for ourselves, the Church, and the world. In the context of common prayer we also hear the Word of God in Holy Scripture read and proclaimed.
Characteristics of Anglican Worship
While styles of worship vary from parish to parish, Anglican (Episcopal) worship has some readily identifiable characteristics:
Our worship is grounded in Scripture: The Episcopal Church follows three year lectionary, a three year cycle of appointed readings from Scripture (one from the Old Testament, one from a New Testament epistle, one from one of the four Gospels, and a psalm) assigned for each Sunday of the year. The purpose of the lectionary is to make sure that over a three year period about 75% of the whole Bible is read publicly in worship. What we hear read and proclaimed is not simply the priest's favorite texts but a large portion of Scripture.
The reading and proclaiming of God's Word in Scripture holds a central place in our worship. The Preface to The Book of Common Prayer of 1549 declared that "the people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church) should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion." We not only read and preach Scripture but we also get a great deal of our liturgy from Scripture.
Our worship is sacramental: The sacraments are "outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace" ("The Outline of Faith" in The Book of Common Prayer, p. 857). We celebrate the two principle sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Holy Baptism. We also celebrate and recognize five other sacramental rites: Confirmation, Ordination, Holy Matrimony, Reconciliation of a Penitent (Confession), and Unction (anointing of the sick). We believe that in these seven sacraments the grace of God is given to us through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. We understand the sacraments not simply to be rituals but actions of God in his Church.
The Book of Common Prayer indicates that the Holy Eucharist is "the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord's Day" (p. 13) and many parishes celebrate this sacrament every Sunday. The celebration of the Eucharist is the summit to which our worship leads. Having heard the written Word of God read in Scripture and having encountered the living Word of God in the sermon, we now receive the incarnate Word of God in the Body and Blood of Christ.
Our worship is participatory: Worship in the Episcopal Church is not a spectator sport; there is no "audience". Because liturgy is "the work of the people", the congregation is always involved in praying, listening, singing, or meditating. Worship is not a show put on by the choir and clergy but a common effort in which choir, clergy, and congregation combine to praise, thank, and glorify God. We call this time of worship a worship service because all engage in the shared service of God. The Book of Common Prayer exists to facilitate this shared service. It contains the liturgies most commonly used for public worship and is placed in the pews to be available to all. There are no secret liturgies or code languages available only to "insiders". Those unfamiliar with participatory worship might find it at first to be difficult but it needs to be remembered that learning to worship God is like learning a foreign language -- it takes practice and finally after much practice it becomes natural.
Our worship is central and centering: Worship is absolutely central to the Episcopal Church in that who we are is largely defined by the way in which we worship. It is in the liturgy of the Church that our fundamental beliefs are expressed. The whole life of a parish should be an outgrowth of its worship life, the continual gathering to hear the Word of God read and proclaimed, to intercede for the world, and to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Worship is not simply a matter of forms and words but a matter of being drawn into a more faithful relationship with God. Worship in the Episcopal Church is also centering; it aims at focusing our lives on God. For this reason offer worship services (such as Morning or Evening Prayer and Holy Eucharist) not only on Sundays but during the week as well. For us, worship is a discipline through which we continually center our lives on God.
The Book of Common Prayer
The Book of Common Prayer governs the liturgical life of the Episcopal Church. Each national church in the Anglican Communion (seventy million Christians in 163 countries) has its own Book of Common Prayer which is a descendent of the first Prayer Book produced by the Church of England in 1549.
The first Book of Common Prayer was compiled by Thomas Cranmer, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1532. Cranmer intended to produce a form of Christian worship which was in keeping with the tradition of the Church, was grounded in Scripture, and which was in English. The Book of Common Prayer of 1549 was the first complete set of Christian liturgies in the English language. Cranmer's primary source was the Sarum Rite, the Latin liturgy used by the diocese of Salisbury, but he also drew upon liturgies from continental Protestant churches and the Orthodox Church. Cranmer produced a second Book of Common Prayer in 1552. There were three successors to Cranmer's second Prayer Book, the Prayer Books of 1559, 1604, and 1662. The Book of Common Prayer of 1662 is still the official Prayer Book of the Church of England.
The first American Prayer Book was produced in 1789 as a revision of the 1662 English Prayer Book. This Book of Common Prayer has had three successors, the Prayer Books of 1892, 1928, and 1979. While each Prayer Book has had its own character, there are definite lines of continuity between them. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer is an example of this continuity. It contains two different sets of liturgies for the Holy Eucharist and for Morning and Evening Prayer. Rite I uses the traditional sixteenth century language of the first Prayer Book while Rite II uses contemporary English (but is itself not simply a contemporary product, having its roots in an ancient order).
What does the Prayer Book contain?
The Book of Common Prayer contains four categories of liturgies:
Regular services: The Prayer Book contains the regular services of the Church, Holy Eucharist, Rite I (traditional language) and Holy Eucharist, Rite II (contemporary language). These liturgies are intended to be used each Sunday and on holy days. The Book of Common Prayer also contains the Daily Office, Morning Prayer (or Matins), Rites I and II and Evening Prayer (or Evensong), Rites I and II, which are intended to be used each day of the week. Use of these services varies. In some parishes Holy Eucharist alternates with Morning Prayer on successive Sundays. I n some parishes Morning or Evening Prayer is said each day of the week; sometimes both are said daily. Whatever the pattern, these are the basic services of a parish church, the ones most frequently encountered.
The Book of Common Prayer also contains liturgies which can be used regularly but in most cases are not. There is a liturgy for Noonday Prayer, for the (early) Evening, late evening (Compline) as well as Devotions for Individuals and Families.
In addition, the Prayer Book contains collects or thematic prayers for each Sunday of the Church year and for holy days in both traditional and contemporary language.
Liturgies for special days: The Book of Common Prayer contains liturgies for special days in the Church's calendar. There are liturgies for Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), Palm Sunday (the last Sunday of Lent and the first day of Holy Week), Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday on which Jesus's institution of the Holy Eucharist is celebrated), Good Friday (the day on which Jesus was crucified) and the Great Vigil of Easter (the first Eucharist of Easter on Easter Eve and one of four days especially appropriate for the sacrament of Holy Baptism).
Liturgies for cardinal points on the Christian journey: One of the purposes of liturgy is to remind us of the presence of God's grace at each stage of our lives. The Prayer Book contains liturgies for the cardinal points along the Christian journey such as Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Matrimony, the birth or adoption of a child, Reconciliation of a Penitent (confession) and the anointing of the sick. The Burial of the Dead, in both traditional and contemporary language, marks the conclusion of the Christian journey.
Episcopal services: A fourth category is those services intended to be celebrated by a bishop. This includes services of ordination for bishops, priests, and deacons, Celebration of a New Ministry (installation of a new rector) and the Consecration of a Church or Chapel.
In addition to these liturgies, The Book of Common Prayer also contains the Church's calendar of feast and saints days, a three year lectionary appointing Scripture readings for each Sunday and each day of the week. There is also the Catechism or "Outline of Faith" which is a "commentary on the creeds" (Book of Common Prayer, p. 844) and serves as a model for teaching the faith.
The Church Year
The Church year is outlined on pages 31-32 of The Book of Common Prayer. The Church has its own calendar and seasons which means that our time as Christians is never simply secular time -- we live in God's time. The Church's calendar keeps us focused on the life of Christ and each season has a particular theme and liturgical color.
Advent: The Church year begins in Advent which is always the four Sundays prior to Christmas Day. Advent has a dual purpose. During this season we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ and to prepare for Christ's return to judge the world. Advent looks both back to the historical event of Jesus's birth and forward to his return in glory. Liturgical color: purple or blue.
Christmas: In the Church, Christmas is not simply a day but a season (the "twelve days of Christmas"). The season begins with the first Eucharist of Christmas on Christmas Eve (December 24) and usually lasts for the two Sundays following Christmas Day. Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation and the Prayer Book refers to it as the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Liturgical color: white or gold.
Epiphany: The Feast of the Epiphany is always celebrated on January 6. On this day we remember the manifestation (or epiphany) of Jesus to the Gentiles as the Messiah. A variable number of Sundays (as many as eight) follows the Epiphany and are referred to as Sundays after the Epiphany. The First Sunday After the Epiphany is referred to as the Baptism of the Lord and remembers Jesus's baptism in the Jordan by John.
Lent: Lent is a forty day (not counting Sundays) which serves as preparation for the celebration of Easter. It is always six weeks in length and is understood to be a reliving of Jesus's forty day fast in the wilderness prior to his ministry and following his baptism. Lent is generally a sober time of reflection and self-denial. The final week of Lent is called Holy Week and it recalls to mind the final events of Jesus's life, his final entrance into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), his last meal with his disciples (Maundy Thursday), and his crucifixion (Good Friday). Liturgical color: purple.
Easter: The date of Easter is not fixed and varies from year to year. Like Christmas it is not simply a day but a season. This season celebrates the resurrection of Jesus and God's great act of deliverance. The season always lasts for seven Sundays (including Easter Day). The Feast of the Ascension, which celebrates Jesus's ascension into heaven, is always celebrated forty days after Easter Day and always occurs on a Thursday. The Sunday following this day, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, is called the Sunday After the Ascension. Liturgical color: white.
Pentecost: The Feast of Pentecost is always fifty days after Easter Day (as its name indicates). This feast celebrates the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Church to empower it to serve in the world. The Sunday immediately following this feast is Trinity Sunday (also called Whitsunday) and celebrates the revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The following Sundays until the first Sunday of Advent are referred to as Sundays after Pentecost. The last Sunday after Pentecost, the Sunday before the first Sunday of Advent, is celebrated as the feast of Christ the King. Liturgical color: red. All other seasons, the liturgical color is green.