Anglican worship may have several facets that are new to you. Please know that you are not obligated to participate in anything you witness the congregation doing during worship – all aspects of worship are completely between you and God, who honors the heart above all else.
The overall structure of the worship service is based on the First Century Jewish synagogue service combined with Holy Communion (originally the Love Feast – or Agape Meal – celebrated weekly by the first disciples). This structure has been followed by several groups of Christians (Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans, among others) since that time.
The following is a concise list of different aspects of our worship services that may not be familiar or may need explanation. This is not exhaustive, so please feel free to ask us about anything you have questions about.
Setting apart certain days and seasons for special reasons is a practice that began in the Old Testament with the recognition of the Sabbath day; Passover; the Day of Atonement; the Festival of Unleavened Bread; and others. The first Jewish Christians carried on this practice with the celebration of Pentecost (as noted in 1 Corinthians 16:8) and commemorations of Good Friday and Easter. Holy Week was soon added, and the majority of the other days and seasons were also included very early on in Church history.
Liturgy in Worship
We follow liturgy in worship because the Jewish people used liturgy; the first Church used liturgy; and most Christians throughout the history of the Church used liturgy. The word literally means “work of the people,” and liturgical worship is an active worship which requires the participation of the congregation in action, song, prayer, and response. Liturgy facilitates the entire church to engage in worship rather than passively sit and receive; it helps emphasize God’s holiness and ensure that worship is orderly as instructed by Paul (1 Corinthians 14:40); and it invites us to holistically worship God through body, mind, and spirit.
Our liturgy is in the older “King James Version” style English. This is not out of necessity but is maintained for several reasons: it is the original language of the Anglican Church in which the original Book of Common Prayer was written (ours is the 1928 edition); there are several words and phrases that lose a good deal of their meaning when translated into our contemporary vernacular because we no longer have a common tongue that expresses these ideas in the same manner; and the “higher” nature of the language assists in some degree to evoking the holiness and “otherness” of worship as something special and unique apart from our everyday experiences.
A procession is a royal entry and a recession an exit, not necessarily limited to a physically-present person: the Ark of the Covenant was a focus (as representative of God) of processions in the Old Testament. In worship, the cross is lifted high and always leads an opening procession and closing recession in order to laud Jesus Christ as King.
Kneeling is a sign of humble submission. People throughout Scripture have knelt before God in worship and prayer (1 Kings 8:54; Psalm 95:6; Matthew 20:20; Ephesians 3:14). What we do with our bodies helps condition our hearts and minds, so kneeling is a helpful practice for cultivating a humble spirit. There are typically two moments during the service in which kneeling occurs: during the opening prayer and during the prayers leading up to Holy Communion.
Making the sign of the cross as a regular habit of worship dates at least to 220 A.D. and is likely even older. It is not a superstition but is a reminder of the power of the cross and is used as a form of blessing. It is a testimony to Christ’s sacrificial love (Philippians 2:8); a sign that we have been crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20); and a reminder that we are commanded both to take up our cross daily and to crucify the flesh (Matthew 16:24; Galatians 5:24).
We typically cross ourselves by holding the thumb, index and middle fingers together as a symbol of the Trinity, holding the ring and pinky fingers to our palms to symbolize Christ’s dual nature (fully God and fully man). The cross is formed by first touching the forehead, the middle of the chest, the left shoulder, the right shoulder, and then the middle of the chest again. We cross ourselves at various times during worship, most commonly at the naming of the Trinity (“the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”). Before the reading of the Gospel we use our thumbs to make small crosses on our foreheads, mouth, and chest to symbolize Christ inhabiting our minds, words and hearts.
Bowing is a sign of reverance, submission, respect, humility and obedience. It is a physical act that aids our hearts in learning these attributes. We bow at the mention of the name of Jesus in liturgical prayer (when not kneeling) and the recitation of the creeds, and we bow before approaching the altar to receive Holy Communion.
The different robes worn by the priests, deacons and acolytes are called vestments. There are several sources that contribute to this tradition.
God first commanded the wearing of sacred garments during worship rituals in the Book of Exodus. Later, the priests in the Temple wore ornate vestments. During the New Testament period, vestments were a part of synagogue worship, which was part of the worship pattern adopted by Christians (vestment styles were likely later adapted to the attire of Roman government officials as the Church became more influential, though each item of clothing has a Christian meaning symbolically attached to it). Lastly, the Book of Revelation presents the picture of all the saints clothed in robes of white as they worship God.
The altar at the front of the church is both altar and feast table as it represents the cross; empty tomb; Christ’s presence with us; His sacrifice; and the place where we join with Him in Holy Communion and make our offerings to Him.
Candles and lamps were important in the worship of Israel. They represent many things for the Christian – the presence of the Holy Spirit; Jesus as the light of the world; and the illumination provided by the Epistles and the Gospels.
Historically, bells have been used in worship to call attention to important moments. Bells highlight significant parts of the worship service and can help to refocus us if our attention has wandered. Bells are typically used at the beginning of the service; during the singing of the Sanctus in preparation for Holy Communion; and during the moments of consecration of the elements for Communion. The use of bells originates in the worship of the early Christians, who needed the audible cues because they were worshiping secretly in the dark catacombs and couldn’t see what was going on.
What is it?
Holy Communion was instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper, where He and His disciples shared the Passover Feast (Luke 22:7-38). Jesus had spoken previously of the importance of eating His flesh and drinking His blood in order to inherit eternal life (John 6:51-66), a teaching Scripture tells us caused many of His followers to leave Him. At the Last Supper, Jesus instructed His disciples to eat the bread and drink the wine He prayed over as a sharing in His body and blood. Paul likewise describes Communion as a participation in Christ’s body and blood (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
The intricacies and specifics of this sacrament are mysterious. There is not a physical change of the bread and wine, but Christ’s Body and Blood become truly present in a spiritual fashion.
Holy Communion is the central aspect of the worship service, as worship serves as a meeting between God and humanity, and it is through Communion that there is a tangible interaction. In the Gospels, Jesus was made known to the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus (after His resurrection) in the breaking of the bread at their meal. At Communion, He is made known to us, as well, in a unique way: time intersects, where we remember the past and Jesus’ one and only sacrifice for us; the present, where Jesus is made tangibly real to us through the elements; and the future, where we will sit at God’s table and commune with Him when Heaven permanently comes together with Earth. Holy Communion is all these things – a taste of our glorious future in Christ and spiritual food for our present journey.
We partake of Holy Communion every week for several reasons: all the benefits mentioned in the section above; Scripture and tradition inform us it is what the first Christians did whenever they gathered for worship; it has been the continual focal point of regular worship for most Christians throughout the history of the Church.
To consecrate means to “set apart.” In this case, ordinary bread and wine are set apart to be part of the holy meal Jesus instituted. There are several aspects to this, but the essential act of consecration occurs in the recitation of the words of institution over the elements by a priest. These are the words spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper as stated in the Book of Common Prayer:
“For in the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread; and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. Likewise, after supper, he took the cup; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink ye all of this; for this is my Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins. Do this, as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me.”