I would like to share a recent experience I had attending an Episcopal church.
My wife and I have been church exiles (self-imposed) for several years. Recently we started attending an Episcopal church here in Bellingham. The Episcopal Church is a branch of the Anglican communion world-wide, having split off from Anglicanism as a result of the American revolution, but remaining very much Anglican in theology and practice.
I had never attended an Episcopal Church, nor did I know much about them. Nonetheless I came with some expectations. I expected to encounter a liturgical church service relatively devoid of life and energy. I also expected to find something theologically liberal. These expectations, of course, reflected my lack of knowledge and experience. The Sunday morning services we have attended so far were indeed highly structured and liturgical, most everything coming out of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. There as also a certain lack of spontaneity; predictability being the operative word.
But it was far from devoid of life and energy. The back and forth between the leaders (definitely a leadership team model) and the congregants was filled with life and energy. We were unfamiliar with the liturgy, but it was easy to fall into the flow as we moved through the several distinct phases of the worship service. We were given a pamphlet that contained most of the service’s content: (1) We Gather In God’s Name (processional and greeting); (2) We Hear God’s Word (scripture readings); (3) We Respond In Faith (recitation of the Nicene Creed); (4) We Offer Ourselves To God (Offering); (5) We Receive the Gift of God (Holy Eucharist); (6) We Go In the Strength of God (dismissal).
Trueda and I have attended only three services so far, but already some unexpected things have emerged.
My first observation is that I don’t believe I have ever attended a church service so immersed in scripture. There were readings from the Old Testament and from the New Testament Epistles. Each ended with the reader saying, “The Word of the Lord” and the congregants responding with, “Thanks be to God.” That sounds simple enough, but I surprised by how powerful it was.
The reading from the Gospel was especially interesting. A chime sounded several times as one of the priests, accompanied by several others, lifted a gold-plated book over his head and walked down the center aisle to about the half-way point, putting him in the middle of the congregation. Everyone stood. He chanted, “The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew” (this was Easter Sunday). The congregants responded with a chant, “Glory to you, Lord Christ.” The priest read the Gospel passage for the day, ending with “The Gospel of the Lord.” To which the congregants responded, “Praise to you, Lord Christ.” It was a dramatic and powerful moment, full of symbolism.
My second observation is that the morning offering was treated more as an offering of ourselves to God than as a collection of money, with an extended back and forth between the presider and the people. On Easter Sunday, the entire collection was divided between (1) the church’s Alms Ministry, and (2) a program for feeding some 200 people five days a week in Seattle, carried on by a small Episcopal church there. In other words, they gave away the year’s single biggest offering collection. I was impressed.
My third observation is that their treatment of the Holy Eucharist, which is part of every service, was profoundly moving. We made our way up to the altar, kneeled at a low railing, and received the bread and the wine from the priests and their assistants, who also gave each of us a blessing. Afterward, they prayed for a team of people who would take the bread and wine to people who could not attend (home bound, hospital, whatever). Here’s the prayer:
“In the name of this congregation, we send you forth bearing these holy gifts, that those to whom you go may share with us in the communion of Christ’s body and blood. We who are many are one body, because we all share on bread, one cup. Amen.”
The service had several prayers like this. They are not literal scripture, but they are about as scriptural as you can get without literally quoting scripture.
Why am I sharing this? I am sharing this because attending the church that lies outside my conservative evangelical experience challenged me to rethink some of my assumptions about “mainline” churches. I suspect that if we continue attending this church, we will find that they tilt to the left, both theologically and politically. But I saw none of that in their Sunday morning worship service. What I saw instead was a church deeply embedded in the Holy Scriptures and in the two-thousand year history and traditions of the Church.
My wife and I have also talked about trying out an Eastern Orthodox church, which represents a church tradition as old as that in the West, but which has held more firmly to ancient traditions than the churches of Roman Catholicism and of the Protestant Reformation.
Perhaps the most important lesson I take away from all this is that the Church of Jesus Christ takes on many forms across space and time, but remains the Church of Jesus Christ precisely because it is His church.