My wife and I have been church exiles (self-imposed) for several years. Recently we began attending St. Paul’s 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 before, nor did I know much about Episcopalians. I did, however, come with some expectations. In particular, I expected to encounter a liturgical church service relatively devoid of life and energy, and something theologically liberal.
These expectations, of course, reflected my lack of knowledge and experience. The Sunday morning services we have attended so far are indeed highly structured and liturgical, most everything coming out of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. There was 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 team leadership model) and the congregants was full of 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 a few services so far, but already some unexpected things have emerged.
My first observation is that I have never 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, and clearly highlighting the centrality of the Gospels to the life of the church.
All the scripture readings were printed in the order of service so that everyone could follow along. I was impressed with how well the lay people read the scripture readings. I asked about this and was told that scripture readers receive training on how to read scripture well.
The scripture readings come out of the Book of Common Prayer and specify three readings for each Sunday of the year; one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testaments Epistles, and one from the Gospels. They have obviously been selected in such a way that a single theme emerges each Sunday. The homily (a brief sermon) reflects the same theme.
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 later told that they also do that with the Christmas Day offering.
My third observation is that their treatment of the Holy Eucharist (The Lord’s Supper), 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. After everyone had returned to their seats, one of the priests and assistants brought the bread and wine to a few people in the congregation who were unable to walk to the later, and served them in their seats.
Afterward, they prayed for a team of people who would be taking 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 a church that lies outside my conservative evangelical experience challenged me to rethink some of my assumptions about “mainline” churches. I suspect that if Trueda and I continue attending this church, we will find that they tilt to the left, both theologically and politically. But I saw none of that on display 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.
Perhaps the most important lesson I have taken away from this is that the Church of Jesus Christ takes many forms across space and time, but remains the Church of Jesus Christ precisely because it is His church.