The Order of Service Explained

a guided tour through the Episcopal service of Holy Eucharist

As Christians have done since the beginning, we worship God through the celebration of the Eucharistic feast. Known by many names – Holy Communion, the Holy Mass, the Lord’s Supper, and the Divine Liturgy – the Holy Eucharist is celebrated in one way or another among all Christian traditions and remains the principal act of worship in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions.

In the Book of Common Prayer, the official name of the rite is The Holy Eucharist, the Liturgy for the Proclamation of the Word of God and Celebration of the Holy Communion. By its very name, the celebration reflects something “holy,” meaning that it is set apart. In this case, it is set apart for the special purpose of thanksgiving by and for the people. It is, ultimately, the “work of the people” done as a mutual and active response to God which fashions the body of Christ and grows the kingdom of God.

The Episcopal form of the celebration of Holy Eucharist follows The Book of Common Prayer. The common words, gestures, and movements of our prayer express our most deeply held beliefs and keep us connected to the timeless elements of Christian tradition. They demand participation and allow us all to be active players in the unfolding drama.

The full service of Holy Eucharist is a drama that brings together past, present, and future as we remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ and await his coming in glory. There are has two main acts to the drama:

1. Gathering Rites (BCP, 355)

The service of Holy Eucharist begins with the “Gathering Rites” through which the community of faith gathers together in the place of worship. On the one hand, these Rites affirm our place as children of God and recognize the presence of God in the midst of the gathered people. The Rites aim to center the intentions of the assembly on the coming actions and prayers that they will undertake. With the Gathering Rites we foster in ourselves an experience of being the one Body of Christ.

As a demonstration of our coming together in body, mind, and spirit, we remain standing for the whole of the Gathering Rite. On a typical Sunday, there are five parts to the Gathering Rites: the Procession & Hymn, the Acclamation, the Collect of Purity, the Hymn of Praise, and the Collect of the Day (BCP, 211).

 

2. The Word of God 

The service continues with the proclamation of sacred Scripture. Proclaiming and commenting on scripture goes back to the earliest days of Christianity, which itself followed the pattern of the Jewish synagogue. In this action, the community hears the story of God’s unbridled love for all the people and the marvelous way that God has demonstrated that love in the world. Through our hearing and subsequent response, we give our ascent to that story and claim our own place within it.

a. The Proclamation of the Word (BCP, 357)

The selections from sacred scripture follow a fixed system or pattern called a lectionary. There are two appointed lessons each week coming from among the stories of the Old Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Epistles. There is, additionally, one appointed lesson from the Psalms or other biblical canticles and one from the Gospels.

The Lessons are proclaimed by a lector with the people seated, a posture for learning.

The Psalm is prayed by the entire congregation, either in unison or as a response between leader and people.

The Gospel is proclaimed by the Deacon of Priest with the people standing as a sign of respect and honor. The Book of Gospels is processed, as the people sing an appropriate hymn, from the altar among the people as a symbol of Christ’s presence in the believing community.

The Sermon or Homily concludes the proclamation of the word by exploring how God is acting in a particular time and place in light of the biblical record and the tradition of the church. The people are again seated.

b. Communal Response to the Word 

After the proclamation of sacred Scripture, the community responds. There are four parts to the response: Creed, Prayers, Confession, and Peace. The congregation remains standing for the whole of the response as a sign of honor, except during the confession and absolution which requires kneeling as a sign of penitence.

The Nicene Creed (BCP, 358) is the church’s profession of faith. Its four basic affirmations, each beginning with “We believe,” should not be understood as individual assents nor should they be used as a manifesto or a loyalty test. The statements are, rather, products of the church’s experience with God, which uses the language of metaphor to express the lived story of the Church.

The Prayers of the People (BCP, 383) are intercessions “for the whole state of Christ’s Church and the world.” The Prayers are an exercise of the baptismal priesthood of all believers, an offering made by the gathered body for the whole created order. They involve prayers of need as well as blessings for the congregation.

The Confession (BCP, 359) is the acknowledgement of the individual and communal failure to be God’s agent of love in the world. The priest, as ordained minister and sacrament of Christ’s headship, pronounces the general absolution, a clear and public recognition of divine forgiveness.

The Peace (BCP, 360) is the indication of the intention to form lasting, peaceful, forgiving, and loving relationships with others just as God has done so with us.

 

3. THE HOLY COMMUNION

The service continues with the Holy Communion, also called the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Here, Christ welcomes the church into communion with himself even as the members are united in a profoundly intimate way with one another. It is called Eucharist (a Greek word meaning “to give thanks”) because it is here that the community is offereing its thanks and praise for the loving actions of God in history and especially for what God accomplished in Jesus.

In the Holy Communion, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, the means by which Jesus becomes tangibly present to the assembly. The Anglican-Episcopal tradition recognizes the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, as the ordinary elements of bread and wine become an outward sign of inward grace, a sacrament of the presence of God. And while the bread and wine remain bread and wine, the inward reality of those gifts is the real presence of Jesus – the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. Moreover, in partaking of these gifts, those who have gathered are made to be Christ’s Body, sent to the world today to serve the world and proclaim the Good news.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist consists of four parts: the Offertory, the Great Thanksgiving, the Breaking of the Bread, and the Administration of Communion.

a. The Offertory (BCP, 361)

The Offertory is the ritual act of giving back – the representation our life, labor, and love for one anohter, the fruits of our spirit shared in the community of faith. The act reminds those present that God is creator and that we are the stewards of that creation. The tangible gifts offered at the altar include the bread and wine (the elements of the sacrament) as well as our financial gift to sustain the mission of the church.

b. The Great Thanksgiving (BCP, 361)

The Great Thanksgiving is the heart of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The prayer is the great act of remembrance by which the whole assembly participates in the drama of God’s gracious love, of Jesus self-offering, and God’s faithfulness in the resurrection.

The Great Thanksgiving includes:

Sursum Corda literally means “hearts lifted up” and, together with the Preface, acknowledges that we enter the Eucharistic feast intent on lifting up ourselves to the realm of the Saints where we will join in their hymn of praise.

Sanctus, based on the words of Isaiah’s celestial vision in Isaiah 6 and on the heralding of the Messiah’s triumph in Psalm 118, places the gathered assembly among the whole community of heaven and earth.

The Institution Narrative is rooted in the actions and words of Jesus at the Last Supper, when he took bread, gave thanks, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples. The Institution Narrative recalls the wondrous love of God, remembring the very mystery of the faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

The Epiclesis is the calling of the Holy Spirit to bless and sanctify the elements of bread and wine as well as the people gathered together. The prayer expresses an understanding that the Holy Spirit is the active agent in transforming the elements of bread and wine as well as the gathered assembly.

The Amen follows the Epiclesis as a final, cumulative affirmation of  thanksgiving.

The Lord’s Prayer concludes the Great Thanksgiving as an affirmation of inheritance as the baptized daughters and sons of God.

c. The Fraction (BCP, 364)

The Breaking of the Bread (also called the Fraction) is the symbolic reminder of the breaking of Christ’s body on the cross. The call and response anthem tells us that if God has so wonderfully spread a feast of Christ’s own body and blood for us—a feast that cost God everything in love—then we praise God (alleluia!) and gratefully and humbly receive the gift that is given.

d. The Administration of Communion (BCP, 365)

The celebrant invites the assembly to receive communion.

All those seeking the deeper presence of God are welcome at to Lord’s Table. We receive, not because we have achieved some kind of worthiness by our own merits, but because God is generous. That generosity extends to all who will come and to all who seek God.

As a sign of common unity, or communion, it is fitting that the whole assembly join in a Communion hymn.

 

4. The Concluding (Sending) Rites (BCP, 365)

The Concluding or Sending Rites prepare the community to go into the world. The prayers, actions, and hymns of the Concluding Rites affirm that we have heard God through the Scriptures, and been given strength by communion. Now, the community asks God to send it into the world that it might share the same story, the same food, and the same joy with others.

As a demonstration of its readiness to go, the congregation stands for the Concluding Rites. On a typical Sunday, there are four parts to the Concluding Rites: the Prayer after Communion, the Blessing, the Processiona & Hymn, and the Dismissal.