The Episcopal Church Welcomes You
This essay is meant especially for certain people, those meeting one of the following criteria:
Perhaps you have never been a churchgoer, weren’t brought up in any religious tradition or taken to Sunday school, never felt any interest in religion.
And perhaps now you’ve gotten curious, or perhaps you feel the need of a spiritual dimension in your life, but you’re not sure where to start.
Or perhaps you were brought up by churchgoing parents, were taken to Sunday school as a child and forced to go to church as a teenager. Perhaps you were delighted to get away from home so you could skip church and sleep late on Sunday morning.
And perhaps now you feel the need to return to your spiritual roots, perhaps you’re ready to explore religion again as an adult, but you’re not sure where to start.
Or perhaps you’re a regular or semiregular churchgoer but have been feeling unhappy with your spiritual situation. Perhaps you feel that the church you’re attending isn’t meeting your spiritual needs. Perhaps you don’t feel an affinity with your fellow congregants. Perhaps the minister seems uncongenial and his or her sermons irrelevant.
Perhaps you would like to search for a more congenial spiritual home, but you’re not sure where to start.
Or perhaps you just want to see where I’m going with this.
If one of these paragraphs describes you, read on.
The official motto of the Episcopal church is, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” This isn’t, or shouldn’t be, just an idle saying; it reflects, or should reflect, a deeply felt and prayerfully lived ideology.
The great strength of the Episcopal church, and of the Anglican Communion1 in general, has always been its tolerance and acceptance of varied and sometimes divergent beliefs and points of view and its ability to lovingly embrace, and to forge a unity among, the holders of these varied and divergent beliefs and viewpoints.
I realize, believe me, that all churches are human institutions and thus subject to the problems that all human institutions suffer. I realize that there are plenty of Episcopal churches that don’t live up to their own motto—I’ve been in more than one like that. What I’m going to describe is an ideal Episcopal church, and I hope and pray that the one you walk into comes as close as possible to that ideal.
If you should decide to attend a service at an Episcopal church, you will absolutely not, ever, at any time be required to bow, genuflect, cross yourself, kiss someone’s ring or any other object, or even kneel.
You do not have to do what “everyone else” is doing. You really don’t.
You don’t have to “dress up,” although it would be nice if you were clean and tidy. Some churches and some services are more formal and old-fashioned than others, but it really does not matter whether you wear shorts and sandals, or workout gear, or jeans, or whatever else you feel comfortable in. If you are made to feel uncomfortable, you are not in an ideal Episcopal church, and I apologize in advance for the congregants making you feel that way. You are right and they are wrong, and I urge you to try somewhere else.
If you choose to sit when others are kneeling, they will think (if they even notice) that you don’t believe in kneeling (which they will accept with a shrug) or that you have arthritis or some other problem that makes kneeling difficult, painful, or impossible for you. There are plenty of people who don’t kneel.
The same holds true if you choose to sit when “everyone else” is standing. There are plenty of people who can’t or don’t want to and therefore don’t stand. If you should want to stand when it would be considered most conventional and “polite” to do so, then stand during the Gospel and the Creed.
You do not have to join in anything the congregation is saying. No one will notice. It would be advisable to hold the service book open to the correct page, however; otherwise people may “helpfully” try to point out the correct page to you. If you sit with the book open to the right page, they will assume (if they even notice) that not joining in is your personal spiritual choice.
You do not have to sing along with the hymns or canticles or other sung material (and you can remain seated). No one will notice. Again, it would be advisable to have the hymnal open to the correct page, because then people will assume (if they even notice) that you are tone deaf or have laryngitis or can’t read music or don’t know the tune or don’t like the hymn.
You do not have to put money in the offering plate when “everyone else” is doing so. “Everyone else” is almost certainly not doing so, because they are putting in an offering envelope or a check, or because they make their offering by automatic bank transfer, or because they can’t afford to or don’t wish to.
You do not have to pass the Peace. This will be harder to avoid, because “everyone” will be eager to shake your hand and make you feel welcome. If you wish to avoid it, remain seated with your hands in your lap and your head bowed. Closing your eyes would be the finishing touch.
If you don’t feel strongly about avoiding it, just shake hands with the hands that are offered. You do not need to say “Peace,” if you don’t want to. You do not need to say anything. If you feel like it, nodding and smiling would be a perfectly acceptable alternative.
You do not have to go up to the altar if it is a healing service, or a communion service, or another service at which “everyone else” goes up to the altar. This will (if it is even noticed) again be assumed to be your personal spiritual choice.
If you should choose to go up to the altar at any service, you need not kneel. It will be assumed that kneeling is difficult, painful, or impossible for you or that you don’t believe in it. And there are plenty of other people who stand at the altar.
If you should choose to go up to the altar at a communion service, you are (or should be) welcome to receive communion. There is no membership requirement and no belief requirement.
You hold out your hand for the bread or wafer and eat it in any way you like (i.e. chewing is permitted).
You can refuse the chalice. Simply shake your head “no,” and it will be assumed (if it is even noticed) that you don’t like wine or are a recovering alcoholic or don’t believe in taking the wine.
Or you can keep the bread and dip it into the chalice (this is called “intinction” and is perfectly acceptable even though in some churches “everyone else” may be drinking from the chalice).
Or you can of course drink from the chalice if you wish.
You do not need to stay until the end of the service. If you leave early, it will be assumed (if it is even noticed) that you have another engagement or are feeling unwell or simply never stay beyond the sermon or whatever. If you plan to slip out, it would of course be thoughtful to sit where you can do so unobtrusively.
The Episcopal Church Welcomes You, whatever your background, whatever your beliefs, whatever your level of spiritual development. If the church you attend is in any way uncongenial, again I apologize and urge you to try another.
At the right one you will be warmly welcomed and will find knowlegeable and loving clergy and laypeople who will, if you wish, befriend you and aid you on your spiritual journey.
I wish you Godspeed.
1 From the Columbia Encyclopedia: “the body of churches in all parts of the world that are in communion with the Church of England …. The communion is composed of regional churches, provinces, and separate dioceses bound together by mutual loyalty.”