Anglican Worship & The Liturgy

This paper is based upon the text “What is Episcopal Worship About?” by Corinne Ware, D.Min.

This paper is for two kinds of people. First, it is for newcomers from other denominations who are interested in Anglican worship but cannot figure out what we are doing half the time. It is also for “cradle Anglicans” who have discovered that often during the worship service they have gone into “automatic pilot.” You may have worshipped in an Anglican church one or two times, or you could have attended for many years, but nobody ever really explained to you what some of the most familiar things mean.

Every church intends that its liturgical acts will have meaning for the worshipper. What does it mean that we read our prayers? What is a “collect?” What do the candles mean, and which comes first, Epiphany or Lent? The more you know, the more meaning the activities and actions will have for you. Then perhaps the liturgy will begin to speak to you in a new and deeper way.

In this series there are twelve topics discussed in all. Enter each aspect of worship as it is brought to your attention. I hope that you maybe unable to say, “I just didn’t get anything out of the service today.” You may find that there are unexplained riches hidden within the framework of the liturgy, riches that reveal themselves at many levels, unfolding in new and vital ways that deepen your spiritual life.


“What is Anglican Worship About?”

The word liturgy means the prescribed form for a public religious service, that is, the ritual patterns that a church uses. It comes from the word “work” so liturgy is the work of the people when they gather. The texts for the liturgical work done by our Anglican Church are found in a book called “A Prayer Book for Australia”. Its roots are in the Church of England but the prayers go back much further to the beginnings of Christianity. We use Scripture from the Bible as part of every worship service. As you read it, you will find services and prayers for every sort of occasion.

Many congregations have a pattern of worship that is less formal and more spontaneous. If you have been in such a service, you may have appreciated and enjoyed the freedom and spiritual quality of this less structured form of corporate worship. The traditional Anglican liturgy, on the other hand, is more structured. It provides the worshipper with a link to the great prayers of the past; prayed by thousands of believers who came before us, and written in a literary style that calls forth our highest feelings. It also enables the worshipper to use his or her body in a worshipful way. This is done through kneeling, bowing, making the sign of the cross, eating, drinking, standing, speaking together, and carrying the light of candles and Scripture in procession to the altar. Liturgy has the power to bring us to a place where we can hear God in the depth of our being.

The Anglican service has two main parts: the Service of the Word and the Holy Eucharist. The service of the Word focuses on Bible readings and comments about those readings. The second part, the Holy Eucharist, is the central event in Anglican worship. Think of it as a meal to which you have been invited. Do not worry if your mind strays from time to time. The pattern for the service will “pick you up” in a few moments. The liturgy is there to “hold” you while you rest in God, and respond to God. Enjoy!


“The Prayer Book”

How can you tell it is an Anglican Church? If they are using “The Book of Common Prayer, An Australian Prayer Book, or A Prayer Book for Australia”, it is! There is no other feature that so marks Anglican worship as does these remarkable books of services, prayers, and Scripture. The word “amnesia” means to forget. The authorised books of Common Prayer are an “anamnesis,” that is, a remembering. The Christian message will be faithfully remembered and preserved, so long as they are used in services of private and public worship. Through the years, the Book of Common Prayer has been revised in order to be flexible to changing language and culture, but the core message it contains has remained consistently intact.

Why is so lovely and literary a collection of prayers and Scripture called “common?” The word common was once used to mean “regular, or in cycles.” “Common” also means that everybody does something together, or in common. The book we use in the Parish of Epping is designed for the regular, week-to-week services and events of a worshipping community. It may be used for personal devotion, and often is in the form of the Daily Office, but its chief use is for all the people when they are gathered together for worshipping.

The “A Prayer Book for Australia” continues to speak to us about the changeless, however it does so in the changing local language adapted to our time and place. The formation of “A Prayer Book for Australia” is the story of our own history as a church. It is also the expression of a type of spirituality that is down-to-earth, inclusive of others, and deeply responsive to the Holy.


“The Sacrament of Baptism”

A sacrament is an outward way in which we show what is happening to us inwardly. It is a drama that acts out the story of what cannot be easily described in words. Among the seven sacraments of the Church, the two most important are the Dominical Sacraments, Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. They are call Dominical because we have been told by the Lord Jesus to celebrate them regularly. (On page 817 of “A Prayer Book for Australia, you can find out more about what the Anglican Church says about the two Dominical Sacraments.)

Baptism is the doorway into the Christian community. Think of your baptism as signing adoption papers so that you become the permanent member of a family. Because Jesus was baptised, we too are baptised, and in this way we become a part of Jesus’ life. We share in Jesus’ death and resurrection and we have God’s spirit active in us. It is a way in which we dramatise our acceptance of Jesus Christ, but it is more than simply a drama. Baptism has a way of changing us so that we become more fully God’s people.

Some groups immerse, that is, plunge the candidate underneath water. Others pour water over the candidate’s head. Anglicans may do both (APBA Page 82). Both methods use water. Water recalls the Hebrew Scripture accounts of the Flood and the passage through the Red Sea. We are also reminded of the way on which we ourselves use water to clean away the dirt so that we are refreshed and renewed. Water is for cleansing.

In an Anglican church building, one often sees a pedestal called a “font” placed close to the front entrance of the sanctuary. Each time you pass it and enter the community of worship you can be reminded of your own entrance into the Christian church. Each time you see a person becoming a member of the community of faith through their baptism you can recall your own, or remember those persons who stood by you at the time. We will take the Eucharistic meal many times, just as we regularly eat other meals, but we are baptised only once. On that one occasion we “put on Christ” and become a part of the community that is also “in Christ.” In some Churches there is a stoop filled with water, in which all baptised persons are invited to dip their fingers and to make the sign of the cross to remind them of their baptism.


“The Church Year”

Church time and the world’s time are different, or had you noticed? Most authors of books will sign the Preface with a name and a date, such as January 6, 1995. The writer of religious books may sign the Preface with the same dates, but it will read, Feast of the Epiphany, 1995. The church has its own calendar that is tied to events reported in the life of Jesus and in the life of the church. Learning to follow church time will take us through the history of our own faith story.

The most important celebration in the church year is Easter Day. The Paschal cycle begins with the season of Lent during which we prepare ourselves for the coming events of Jesus’ passion. On the Sunday before Easter, we observe Passion (Palm) Sunday and remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The name given to the days between that Palm Sunday and including Holy Saturday are called Holy Week. Maundy Thursday celebrates the institution of the Eucharist, and we often observe the washing of feet at this time. Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion. Holy Saturday services are followed by the Great Vigil, held late in the evening, or in our case early on the morning of Easter Day. Sorrow and sympathy mark the days of Holy Week, with Easter morning being the joyous time of resurrection, celebration, song, and a profusion of flowers in the sanctuary and the rest of the church. The gift of the Holy Spirit is remembered during Pentecost the season that follows Easter.

The Paschal cycle is preceded by the Incarnation cycle. This begins in spring with Advent, a season during which we wait. This time however, we anticipate Jesus’ birth that we celebrate on Christmas day. After Christmas, there is the Feast of Epiphany, which means “showing forth” the gospel meant for the whole world. The Epiphany season is from January 6th until Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

Sprinkled throughout these two great cycles of the church year are many feast days, holy days, and days of particular observance. If you pay close attention to the Scriptures assigned to each celebration, you will hear and live out the story of Jesus’ life. The church year is a way in which we also learn to live our own lives, month to month, alongside that of one who serves as our ideal model.


“The Lessons”

The Scripture passages read in the early part of the worship service are called “The Lessons.” The first selection will be from the Old Testament. The second from the Psalms this are either said as poetry-prayer or sung by the people. The third from the Epistles (The New Testament letters), and the last, a passage from the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John).

These are actually not “lessons,” as we use the word today, but are Scripture selections from which, it is hoped, we will learn a lesson. If we pay close attention, we will notice that the selections have a common theme. Most often, the sermon will expand on the theme.

This custom of reading Scripture passages comes to us from the early Christians who used as their pattern the services of the Jewish. Gradually, as they added readings from the Christian writings to those from Hebrew Scripture, they began to make what they called “lectionaries,” that is, schedules that provided systematic patterns for the readings.

If the “A Prayer Book for Australia” (Page 464), you will see that the Sunday Scripture selections are arranged in three year cycles. There is a two-year cycle for the daily office, Morning and Evening Prayer. An enormous amount of biblical text is read and heard over this period. When others boast that they are ‘Bible Churches,’ Anglicans can note the sheer amount of Scripture used within a single service.

The question often arises as to which is better, a spontaneous selection, or using fixed, pre-selected readings. Each group will point to their way as being best, but the truth is that both ways have advantages. In the free selection of Scripture, a service can reflect the immediate interests of minister and people. The Anglican sermon has some flexibility in being able to comment on any theme found within the selected passages. A lectionary has the advantage of discipline and direction. Over a period, we will hear all of God’s word in its full richness and disturbing diversity. We will not become stuck on a small number of topics.


“Kneeling, Sitting, and Standing”

The Greeks taught that we could and should separate the spirit from the body in order to achieve holiness. The Hebrews disagreed. The Bible sees persons as whole beings: body, mind, and soul. An Anglican worship service acknowledges this by making ways for worshippers to express devotion, not only by listening, but also by engaging in physical participation. This moment can be for us an entry into the experience of worship

We are fortunate to be able to participate so much in worship. We do so by listening, of course, but we also speak in unison as a response to the prayers, psalms, and greetings. When we hear, “The Lord be with you,” we reply, “and also with you.”

We are able to show our reverence by either bowing or kneeling at those times we feel are especially sacred moments, such as the receiving of the Eucharist or praying in silence.

We sit to hear the lessons, but when the Gospel is introduced there is a procession to honour it, and we rise to stand as it is read. All of these movements allow us to express many things that words alone not convey. It is a wonderful thing to do it all together, as one person.

Different feelings accompany different postures and actions. Kneeling evokes a quiet, reverent humility. Sitting prepares us to listen with attention. Standing enables us to show honour and give dignity to that for which we stand. Speaking gives the congregation a voice and engages the worshipper in prayers, affirmations, and Scripture reading. We smell the incense and take in the mystery of a particular moment. We even open and close our eyes as ways of including or of silencing our thoughts as we focus on the activity that surrounds us.


“Signing the Cross”

There are several “kinds” of Anglicans, and the differences were once of much greater importance than they are today. One of the ways in which Anglicans differed was in whether they made the sign of the cross or not. Those known as “High Church” were more prone to sign than those who were “Low Church.” Today we make the sign of the cross, not as a mark of our church politics, but as a sign of our devotion to the person of Christ.

From the early second century writers testify to the use of the ‘sign of the Lord.’ The signing used by early Christians was a way to sanctify every action in daily life from rising in the morning to retiring at night. It is no wonder that such a gesture would be constant encouragement to those whose faith made their lives uncertain, even dangerous. Often signing the cross became to be a sign of recognition. It allowed Christians to communicate their faith without speaking.

The sign was also used in Baptism and in Confirmation, and later as a liturgical blessing of persons and things. In early centuries, the sign was drawn upon the forehead by the thumb of the right hand. This is called “signation.” If you were confirmed as an adult, you may remember that this was done to you.

Later, people started making the sign of the cross on themselves by drawing the right hand from the forehead to breast, and then from shoulder to shoulder, returning to the centre. It is usual for the Western church to make the cross-stroke from left to right. In the Eastern church the gesture is from the right to left.

There are no rules about when to sign the cross during worship. Some make the sign at the mention of the name of the Trinity, or of Jesus or his resurrection. Others sign when prayers concerning the faithful departed are said, when absolution is pronounced, or when Eucharist is taken. Still others sign three small crosses on the head, lips, and heart when the Gospel is read. Sign the cross at those times when it is most meaningful to you or when you wish to join your faith with that of others.


“Vestments, Candles, and Incense”

Why do priests wear special clothing? Why do I feel worshipful when they light the candles, and why use incense? When one worships in a church that stresses liturgy and sacrament the symbols have an important meaning which we need to understand.

The priest’s robes and other special clothing are called “vestments.” Throughout history, people have worn special clothing for formal and public ceremonies. Did you wear a black robe when you graduated? Vestments have two main purposes. First, they are uniforms that explain the role of the person within the worship drama, and second, they underline the solemn importance of our religious feelings during the moment of worship. They say to us, “I am not Jane or Joseph, the person you see everyday. I am the gospel reader, and the important thing to notice is the gospel, not me.”

We make several associations with the lighting of candles. The candle-led processional indicates that a solemn service of worship has begun or has ended. John calls Jesus “the light of the world” in his gospel. We also associate light with enlightenment, and darkness with confusion and ignorance. Psychologically, we know how a flame can focus our full attention.

The use of incense has roots in Judaism as well as in other Mediterranean cultures. It was used to show honour to the bishop, and was an offering to God when spread about the altar. Today we think of the thing that is sensed as being made holy to God. Every gesture in the service will have a meaning for us if we enter into it and become active in participating in worship.


“What is the Eucharist?”

While Baptism is the initiation of a Christian into Christ and the church community, Eucharist is the nurturing of that Christ as a person remains within the church community and grows toward God.

The word Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” Some worshippers call the activity Communion or The Lord’s Supper. Some believe that the bread and wine actually becomes Christ’s body in a mystical way. Others think of the bread and wine as symbols of Christ’s sacrificed body. There are many shades of belief, about exactly what the wine and wafer are and what they become when they are blessed and eaten, is what you make it. Jesus simply asked that we remember him when we eat his “supper.”

One of the characteristics of the Anglican Church is that you are free to make your own interpretation about the details of the Eucharist. There are probably as many beliefs about the bread and wine as there are communicants at the altar. There is one thing, however, that all of these interpretations have in common. We associate the food with Jesus’ death on the cross (his body and blood), and we do two things about that. First, we give thanks for Jesus’ sacrifice, since it has personal meaning for each of us. Second, we expect some sort of transformation to happen to us.

You may be among those who feel transformation to be almost physical, as you take the food into your own body. Alternatively, you may believe that just the symbolic reminder of Jesus’ life and death is the thing that makes for transformation. Whatever you think and feel it is clear that a change of some sort has happened. The change has to do with our becoming more like Jesus in his life and in his love for God. By our weekly participation in this ritual, we become more “Christ-like.”

As you chew the bread and wafer, and as you taste the wine, think about Jesus’ presence with you in this moment. Is this Jesus a person whom you would like to incorporate into your own self?


“Collects and Prayers”

In many different ways, prayer is possible. You can pray in silence, as the Quakers do, with actions, or with words. Churches typically choose to use words in two ways. Some pray extemporaneously, choosing words that occur in the moment. Most praying in an Anglican service is characterised by prescribed, written prayers read from “A Prayer Book for Australia”.

Each kind of praying has an important place. When we pray extemporaneously, we value the way in which our prayer is able to address the circumstances of the moment. A written prayer has its own value and is an important part of corporate worship. First, everyone can say the prayer together, this serves to heighten the sense of community. We are even conscious that persons within the Anglican Communion are praying these same prayers all over the world. It is said that our praying shapes our believing, and this is especially true of the prayers we say from “A Prayer Book for Australia”. A third advantage of written prayers is that they express for us in beautiful words and literary phrases those thoughts and feelings we often struggle to say. When we say the lovely Ash Wednesday prayer written by Thomas Cranmer in 1549, we join our voices to those of almost five hundred years of praying Christians. (APBA Page 481)

As the worship service begins, we hear the priest say “The Prayer of Preparation” which contains the words, “…to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden. (APBA Page 119). A collect is a particular kind of written prayer. It is structured in three parts: it addresses God, it asks for something from God, and it closes with naming Jesus and describing God’s glory (a doxology). Although the word is pronounced “collect,” it does actually mean to collect, or to sum up the prayers of all the individuals who have come to worship.

As you hear the opening words of the “The Prayer of Preparation”, quieten yourself inwardly and focus your thoughts on becoming ready for what is to come. In this moment, one can travel from outer movements of the processional and the music to an inner silence of the inmost heart.


“The Eucharistic Words and Actions

Sunday after Sunday, we notice that there is a definite pattern to the celebration of the Eucharist. The words may change, depending on which “Order” is chosen from “A Prayer Book for Australia”, but in each of several choices certain actions remain the same. Just as Jesus did at the Last Supper, we always take (Offertory), bless (Great Thanksgiving), break (Fraction), and give (Communion).

The Holy Eucharist has a number of names. The Mass, the Lord’s Supper or the Holy Communion. Each in its own way encapsulates some of the meaning of what we believe Jesus said at the Last Supper. What we do is our response to Jesus’ request that we remember him when we eat bread and drink wine together. In order to remember him we must know the meaning of life. One of the most important things in the Eucharist, and something that does not ever change, is the telling of the story. Listen for it as you watch the blessing of bread and wine.

The first Christians living in Jerusalem apparently used the familiar ritual patterns of Judaism, eventually adapting them to fit the gospel message. Gradually, people began to write down what they did. The earliest record we have of instructions for a Christian liturgy is from the second century. In those instructions the president was told to give thanks for the wine and then for the broken bread. The reader was also told that the only persons who could eat and drink were those who had been baptised in the name of the Lord. Sound familiar?

The celebration of the Eucharist is like walking into history and joining with Christians from the earliest times in our remembering Jesus’ life and death on the cross, and giving thanks to God for God’s gifts. It is also an immediate and contemporary experience for transformation as we become increasingly like the person whom the ritual celebrates. The liturgy may change in its language and in the articles that are used, but the story will always be told each time the Eucharist is celebrated, and our thanks will again be given to God.


“What are we doing in the Liturgy?”

During this study, we have asked questions about the prayer book, about written prayers, gestures such as kneeling and signing the cross, and questions about the Eucharist and the church year. All of it has been for the purpose of better understanding what it is that we do on Sunday, and other times, as we come together for worship. Understanding the separate moments of worship enriches our spiritual experience and deepens our ability to listen to God.

Once we truly engage in it, the structure we use each week has the power to bring us to a place where we can hear God in the depth of our being. We can “rest” in the liturgy, so to speak, not worrying about someone’s performance, but only about our own thoughts and intentions to God. We may think of it as a framework, a container, or a safety net. It sets us free within the framework, guiding worshippers to new spiritual insights.

Gradually, and over a lifetime, we enact repeatedly the symbols of that event which called the community into being so that the event is present now with power. With each service we hear the Scripture, drink the cup, and “think on these things.” It shapes our lives in a profound and permanent way. We do more than just learn about God’s gifts. We have the immediate experience of receiving God’s gifts.

There are as many ways to worship as there are congregations of worshippers. An Anglican service is one of the ways. So long as people gather to worship in this particular way, the gospel message will never go untold, and repentance, celebration and gratitude will always be a part of the lives of its members.