Here are church customs and manners every Episcopalian should know:

  1. When we enter the church it is customary to kneel immediately after entering the pew, thanking    God for the privilege of worshiping in his church, praying for the church, the service that is to follow, and adding other timely prayers.  It is an act which reminds us that we are in God’s presence and in his house.
  2. In the period before the service we commend the keeping of silence.  In the midst of our busy lives we have all too little time for silence.  “It is seldom.” writes one Christian, “that God finds a soul quiet enough to speak to.” The silence before the service can be used as a time for quiet preparation. Read thoughtfully the words of the opening hymn, so that when you join in the singing of it, it may mean more to you. Think of the holiness and power of God into whose presence we should only with humility and reverence. “Be still, and know that I am God.”
  3. The prayer book services are services of common prayer. The prayer book was written so that all might join in the acts of corporate worship, and all people should therefore say the responses and the creed, sing the canticles and hymns heartily, and say the amens at the end of the prayers. The failure of some members of congregations to do this defeats the purpose for which the prayer book was written, and gives the stranger the cold impression that the clergy and choir praise God while the congregation watches. Every worshiper should lift up his or her heart and voice.
  4. It is the custom in many of our churches for people to:
  1. Bow their heads to the altar on entering and leaving the church;
  2. Bow their heads as the processional cross passes the pew in which they are standing:
  3. Bow their heads at the name of Jesus Christ in the creed;
  4. Make the sign of the cross or genuflect when going to receive communion or at other times.

These are acts of respect, as natural as removing one’s hat as the flag passes by, It is good to remember, in the training of children that  not only are they taught to show respect by such acts of courtesy, but that they also learn respect in doing them. Some people do not follow these customs and, since ours is a free tradition, no criticism should be leveled against anyone either for doing these things or for not doing them.

  1. Visitors sometimes remark that worshipers in an Episcopal Church are “always getting up and down.” Actually the basic principle-there are variations-is very simple: we kneel or stand for prayer, stand to sing our praise and recite our creed, and sit for instruction.
  2. At the end of every prayer there occurs the word “amen,” which should be said by every member of the congregation. It means “so be it,” and in the saying of it the worshipers make the prayer their own. We do not just permit the minister to pray while we watch and listen. Rather, we pray with the one who leads the congregation, and then add our own “so be it.” It is another means of expressing the fact that we are engaged not in private but corporate worship.
  3. Clergy, choirs and acolytes usually wear vestments. It is a church custom for two reasons:
  1. The white of the vestment is a symbol of the fact that people must purify themselves when they come into the presence of God, and it reveals also, as over against a black gown, that it is a joyful thing to come into the Lord’s house. Every church season also has its own color, with its own meaning, and the priest’s colored vestments, plus the altar hangings, teach us to follow the church year not only with our ears but also with our eyes.
  2. The vestments help to insure that things will be done decently and in order. Our attention is not caught by a new dress or a poor dress worn by a woman choir ember, nor by an acolyte’s slacks in need of pressing. Vested choir members’, acolytes’ and other ministers’ personalities and clothing are, in effect, submerged so the congregation is not distracted in worship but is focused on God.
  1. The Episcopal Church is a Bible church. In services of the Holy Eucharist or Morning Prayer two or three selections of Holy Scripture are read besides the Psalms, and in the burial service, to take one other example, as many as three portions of scripture are read. All this reading of scripture is in a language understood by the people. There are portions of scripture in many of the canticles, and in the language of many prayers.  All Episcopal clergy when ordained take as their chief authority the teachings of the Bible. In the back of the prayer book there is a lectionary (p. 934) to guide people in day by day reading from the Bible.
  2. Unlike some protestant churches which make the pulpit the focus of attention, the Episcopal Church places the alter in the central position because it is the symbol of the presence of the living God in his house.  This teaches us that we do not come to church primarily to hear scripture, a sermon or the singing of the choir, but to hear these in order that they may help us come close to the living God. God is the end; these things and all we do in church, noble as they are, are means to make ourselves present to God.
  3. We kneel or stand in prayer because we believe these to be appropriate positions in which to approach God. Both are traditional, humble positions of the creature before the Creator, the sinner before his God, the child before her heavenly Father.
  4. At the Peace “the Ministers and people may greet one another in the name of the Lord.” Usually this is done with a handshake or a hug, exchanged with those in the immediate vicinity.  The Peace is a preparation for Holy Communion, and so is placed after the Confession of Sin and before the Great Thanksgiving. It is a sign and acknowledgment of our oneness in the Holy Spirit. At the same time it demonstrates our willingness to make peace with any form whom we are estranged before we approach the altar to make our offering.
  5. Any worshiper who does not know where and how to find the proper page in thee prayer book at a church service should seek information from an informed member or attend an inquirers’ class, in which the use of the prayer book is explained. If you, as a regular worshiper, are seated near a stranger who seems unfamiliar with the prayer book, kindness may well prompt you to offer him or her a book opened to the proper page. People have been won into full church membership by such thoughtful courtesies or by a friendly greeting following the service.
  6. Before leaving the church it is customary and fitting to kneel for a moment in prayer to God, asking that after we have left his house his light may shine forth in our lives and the lives of our fellow worshipers.


20 Questions about the Episcopal Church

  • What is the Episcopal Church?

It is the continuance of the Church of England, brought to these shores by the first settlers and reorganized as The Episcopal Church in 1785 after the Revolution by which the colonies in America won their independence from the mother county. After the Revolution it became self-governing and self-sustaining. Today it is know as the Episcopal Church.

  • Is that when the Episcopal Church began?

No, it did not begin then.  It took its new title at that time; but it was the same church that had been here from the founding of the American Colonies in the seventeenth century. Those colonist who were members of the Church of England brought their church with them.  Our church is a daughter church of the Church of England.  We are a part of the Anglican Communion.

  • Was the Church of England founded by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century?

No, it was not.  The Church of England has a long history.  It was part of the Church Catholic before there were any divisions in the church at all.  For several  centuries after 664 A.D. it did, in common with all western Christendom, recognize the Pope as chief bishop; but at the Reformation it rejected the claims of the Pope to singular, universal authority.  It did not, however, in doing this, reject the Catholic and Apostolic faith which it had always held.  It kept the historic Catholic creeds and the three-fold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons.  The reason our church is called Episcopal is that it maintains the ancient episcopal order in its ministry. “Episcopal” comes from a Greek word episcopos, meaning bishop.

  • But how can you be both catholic and protestant?

“Protestant” was used in 1785 to distinguish our church from the Church of Rome, because it had taken part in the reformation in the sixteenth century. Yet this does not mean that we are simply one of the many protestant churches deriving from the Reformation.  Those made a greater break with the past than our church did.  “Protestant” is not opposed to “catholic.”  The word “catholic” really means “universal,” and we are certainly part of the universal church.  It also has reference to the ancient Catholic faith as expressed in the creeds-and we hold that.  So we rightly claim to be Catholic.

  • What is the Anglican Communion?

This is the name given to all the churches throughout the world descended from the English church and that are still in communion with it and each other.  As the British Empire spread, so did the Church of England, the established church of the realm.  Other churches overseas were begun by missionaries of daughter churches such as the Episcopal Church.  Today the Anglican Communion consists of some 80 million members of 32 national churches like our own.  It is found on all the continents with particular strength in Africa.  Members of these churches are know either as Episcopalians or as Anglicans because of their common origin and common heritage.  Each national church or province is self-governing.  International communications are maintained through the Anglican Consultative Council with offices in London, and through a once-a-decade meeting of bishops known as the Lambeth Conference.

  • How is the Episcopal Church governed?

There are three principal levels of organization or expressions of church’s life: the local congregation or parish; the diocese, consisting of many parishes in an area under the supervision of a bishop; the national church.  In each case government is a mixture of hierarchy and democracy, with distinct roles an privileges for clergy and a strong voice for lay persons, both men and women. At the national level, the chief priest and pastor is the Presiding Bishop.  The highest governing body is the General Convention of the church which meets every three years to deal with the business of the church and to make its laws or canons.  This convention is composed of two houses, one of bishops, the other of elected clerical and lay deputies; and legislation has to be passed in both house.  For carrying on the work between conventions, and Executive Council is elected which is representative of the whole church, and of which the Presiding Bishop is chair.  Additionally, each bishop has an annual diocesan convention or council with the clergy and elected lay deputies from the congregations for carrying on the work of the church on the local, diocesan level.  The rector of the parish is chosen by the vestry for the people, with the approval of the bishop; and rector and vestry together are responsible for the work of the parish subject to the constitution and canons of the diocese and national church.

  • Is a bishop’s function simply administrative?

By no means.  The bishop ordains men and women to ministry, confirms, and is pastor to all clergy and people.  This is the primary work; all the rest is involved in the oversight of the diocese.

  • What are the roles of the laity and other ministers?

The Episcopal Church teaches that lay members are also ministers called to share in the ministry of Christ in the world.  Those ordained or set aside for special ministries in and on behalf of the church include bishops, priests and deacons.  Priests usually are spiritual leaders of local congregations.  The word priest comes from presbyter, meaning elder.  Deacons usually assist priests and have a special ministry to the poor and the sick.  The word deacon means servant.

  • What are the doctrines of the Episcopal Church?

The main doctrines of the Episcopal Church are contained in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.  These creeds were specified in the days of the undivided church, and the Nicene Creed has been the standard confession of catholic faith ever since.  Beside the beliefs expressed in the creeds, the Episcopal Church holds to other catholic beliefs and practices, and these are embodied in The Book of Common Prayer, in fact, that give the authoritative doctrinal standards of the Episcopal Church.  See, for example, An Outline of the Faith, beginning on page 843 of the prayer book.

  • What are the sacraments?

“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.”  Episcopalians believe there are two sacraments given and directed by Christ, Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.  We celebrate and administer other sacraments grounded in the Bible.  They are Confirmation, which comes after Baptism; Matrimony, in which woman and man are united in marriage; Unction, the sacrament of healing; Penance, in which the assurance of God’s forgiveness is given; and Holy Orders in which bishops, priest and deacons are ordained.  Baptism and Holy Eucharist are considered necessary for all Christians.  Confirmation is a normal part of church life.  Not everyone participates in the other sacraments.

  • What is Baptism?

Baptism is the sacrament of initiation membership into the Body of Christ, the church.  The outward sign is the pouring on of water or immersion in the name of the Trinity.  The inward grace is new life, death to sin and rising with Christ.  Baptism is birth into eternal life.  Episcopalians baptize infants, as did the early church.  The church is the family of God, and as in an earthly family, parents and other family members see to a child’s raising until the child is old enough to accept responsibility.  The Episcopal Church recognizes any Baptism with water in the name of the Trinity.  We do not practice re-baptism.  All baptized persons are entitled to receive Holy Communion.

  • What is Confirmation?

In the early church the bishop baptized and laid hands on the new members and prayed for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, that they might be equipped by God to live the life of a Christian.  When the multitudes began to come to join the church, bishops allowed priest to baptize but reserved the laying on of hands-confirmation-for themselves.  It is expected in the Episcopal Church that members at some time will stand before the bishop, to declare intention to live as a Christian and to receive at the bishop’s hands the traditional blessing.

  • What is the Holy Eucharist?

The same sacrament may also be called the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper or the Mass.  The outward and visible sign is the bread and wine.  The inward and spiritual grace is the Body and Blood of Christ.  At the last supper Jesus said that when we eat the bread and drink the wine together we should do it for his remembrance.  The word we translate “remembrance” is the Greek anamnesis, which means much more than to remember; it means “to make present.”  Episcopalians do not try to explain philosophically how the Real Presence of Christ occurs in the eucharist.  It is a great, sacred mystery.  Yet for 2,000 years Christians have met week-by-week, believing that in sharing the blessed sacrament they are in communion with Christ, with God and with all other Christians of all times and places.

  • What is the difference between High Church and Low Church?

Local congregations and clergy may develop different style of worship and ceremonial emphasis in teaching and understanding of the church’s mission.  The Episcopal Church is proud of the freedom which allows such variations within the same fellowship and grateful for the movements which, in each generation, seek renewal of the church’s spiritual life.  The terms High Church or Anglo-Catholic and Low Church or Evangelical are not widely used as they once were.  They refer to two movements that have always been part of the Anglican tradition, one seeking to preserve catholic faith and practice, the other seeking to affirm and maintain protestant emphasis such as the centrality of the Bible and preaching.  Today differences and tensions in the church do not center so much on liturgical or ceremonial matters as on different interpretations of mission and evangelism.

  • Why do your clergy say the prayers in church out of a book?

Prayers in church have been said “out of a book” from very early times, and the Episcopal Church is following ancient and historical practice.  The Book of Common Prayer is a compilation from many old and some comparatively modern sources, and it is universally acknowledged to be the first prayer book in the English language.  Our clergy are not so tied to it that they can never use any other prayers or say and extemporary one if they desire to do so.  Yet, the use of the prayer book does protect us from the vagaries of a disordered service and provides for the full participation of the congregation in the act of worship.  No other church afford this so completely as the Episcopal Church does.  Hence the name-The Book of Common Prayer.

  • What is the meaning of the different colors used in the Episcopal Church?

Each color symbolizes the main idea of the season or Holy Day on which it is used.  White signifies purity and joy, and is used at Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Trinity, all Saints’ Day, and on other joyful occasions such as weddings. Red typifies fire and is used at Pentecost (Whitsuntide) and at ordinations-as symbolic of the Holy Spirit.  It also typifies blood, and is therefore used on the festivals of martyrs. Purple (or violet) is for penitence, and is used during Advent and Lent, although blue is used in Advent in some parishes. Green signifies hope and growth, and is used through the weeks after Epiphany and Pentecost.Black is used in many churches on Good Friday.

  • What place do you give to the Bible in the Episcopal Church?

The Bible is given a primary place.  Take a look at the prayer book and see how much of the Bible there is in it! The canticles are from the Bible; so are the psalms.  Two or three passage from the Bible are read at every celebration of Holy Communion, and lessons from the Old and New Testaments at Morning and Evening Prayer. The prayer book, in fact, is the Bible in some form or another from beginning to end.  The very prayers, in many instances, are paraphrases of scripture.  Not only that, the church’s standard of faith is the Bible, and nothing in  belief is required from its members that cannot be proved from, or is not agreeable to, the teaching of Holy Scripture.

  • Is the Episcopal Church the church of the rich and powerful?

Many rich and powerful people have been Episcopalians, and many of our national leaders have been members. But Episcopalians come from every economic level, every ethnic background, every race.  Episcopalians traditionally are in the forefront of movements for human right, of struggles against oppression.  The Episcopal Church welcomes all people.

  • Do Episcopalians drink alcoholic beverages?

There are many jokes about Episcopalians and drinking.  The truth is that moderate drinking is not discouraged.  Jesus certainly didn’t condemn it; wine was a part of daily life in Palestine.  At the same time we teach the danger of alcohol abuse and lead in ministry to alcoholics.  Alcoholics Anonymous has its roots in the Episcopal Church and many churches make a place for AA meetings.

  • How does a person become a member?

Talk to the priest in charge of the congregation.  He or she will guide you from there.  Probably there will be classes to attend, teaching more about Christianity and the Episcopal Church.  If you have been baptized, normally at some time you will be presented for confirmation or, if you were confirmed in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox communions, received by the bishop.  Any baptized person whose baptism is registered in an Episcopal parish is consider to be a member of the Episcopal Church.


The History of the Episcopal Shield

The red cross on a white field is the St. George Cross, an indicator of our link to the Church of England, the mother church of the Anglican Communion. The miniature crosses in the blue quadrant symbolize the nine original American dioceses that met in Philadelphia in 1789 to adopt the constitution of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.The outline of the miniature crosses is in the form of St. Andrew’s Cross in tribute to the Scottish church’s role in ordaining the first American bishop, Samuel Seabury, in 1784. The colors red, white and blue symbolize, respectfully, the sacrifice of Christ and Christian martyrs, the purity of the Christian faith, and the humanity of Christ received from the Virgin Mary. In duplicating the colors of the American flag, they also represent the Episcopal Church’s standing as the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion.