Visiting any church for the first time is intimidating. I’ve been doing it all my life, and I still get nervous (and visiting alone is even harder). Sometimes I think Episcopal churches can be especially hard to try for the first time—it seems like everyone else knows what to do when and how to find all the right places in all the books. The first time is the worst, though—it only gets easier. (Shoutout to Sarah Moon, who plans on first-time-attending a whole variety of churches, and who recently wrote up her experience visiting an episcotheque.)
There are plenty of results that pop up in an Internet search for “Attending Episcopal church first time.” Some of the books I mentioned here have sections about services. Christopher Webber’s Welcome to Sunday is entirely about the worship service from start to finish. The book resources are great, because they explain why things are done.
I can’t give you all that—I mean, I just have a blog post and my limited knowledge. I was a first-timer not too long ago, though, so I’m going to include a few pointers (in roughly chronological order) that I think are important, in hopes of making your first visit a little easier. Fellow Episco-readers, add your own hints and tips in the comments section!
Do your research. Figure out when the services are and which you’ll attend. Figure out where the church is and how you’re going to get there. If you’re driving, make sure you’ll be able to find parking. If you require an accessible entrance, note where it’s located. Also check out the church’s website (if it has one). You can often learn a lot about a church by what it chooses to publish online, and you can see if there are any programs that might interest you (children’s programs, young adult groups, adult education, etc.).
Dress comfortably. You’re going to feel a little nervous anyway, at least if you’re like me, so wear something you know you like. The dress code varies from church to church. No one’s going to chastise you for wearing the wrong thing. If you want to dress up—go for it. If you want to wear jeans—go for it. If you want something more prescriptive than that, the safest option is probably a skirt or slacks and nice shirt for women and dress pants and collared shirt for men. Casual dress.
Arrive on time. Most Episcopal services begin with a procession, and it’s awkward getting tangled up in that. The time before the service is actually a really lovely time to sit or kneel silently (save socialization for coffee hour) and center/settle yourself before worship.
Take a bulletin. There might be ushers handing these out, or they might be set out somewhere. Some churches print the whole liturgy inside so that you don’t even need to use the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), but either way, this is your key to what you’re doing when.
Sit in the back. This can change as you grow more comfortable with the service and congregation, but for newcomers, this is an ideal spot. Not because it allows you to hide from the priest and congregants, but because it gives you the perfect opportunity to observe and follow what everyone else is doing—when they stand, sit, kneel, shake hands, go forward for Communion, etc. You by no means have to copy everything—do what you feel comfortable doing—but having experienced people to follow makes everything easier.
Follow along. The bulletin will list page numbers in the Book of Common Prayer (black) and hymn numbers in the hymnal (blue or red)—note that numbers beginning with “S” mean “service music,” which is the first section, so the S-numbers come first, and then the plain numbers start over. It can be helpful to look ahead; some parts of the service go really quickly and can leave you fumbling with the books in your pew.
Receive Communion (if you’re baptized). This is the center of the Sunday Eucharist service; what everything is leading toward. Official policy in TEC is to extend Communion to all baptized Christians, though some parishes are a bit less… stringent about this invitation. Anyone can come forward to receive a blessing (cross your arms over your chest to show that this is your intention). Follow the other people in your row to the altar (or remain seated if you wish), and kneel or stand. Hold out your hands to receive the bread/wafer (which you may eat immediately); help the minister guide the chalice to your mouth. If you’re sick or don’t want to partake of the wine, you can cross your arms over your chest after receiving the bread. Some people prefer to intinct (dip) their bread/wafer in the wine rather than drinking—if this is you, hold on to the bread/wafer until the chalice comes around. If you have accessibility questions, ask an usher before the service and s/he will be happy to help.
Relax. Nobody’s watching and judging. If you lose your place in the BCP, don’t worry about it. You don’t have to say every word every time. If you can’t find the service music, don’t fret. The choir has you covered. Never chanted a Psalm? Sit and listen. You’ll catch on. As intimidating as it can sometimes feel, this service isn’t about blending in and making all the right motions. It’s about worshiping God; about gathering the people, telling the stories, and breaking the bread.
Go to the coffee hour. Seriously. You might not feel like hanging out with so many strangers, especially if you’re an introvert like me, but if you don’t meet people in the church, you’re never going to feel at home there. The clergy and members of the congregation should be eager to meet and welcome you, and ideally some of them will do this before you even leave the nave (where you’ve been sitting). Sometimes they forget that they’re supposed to do this, though, or rush off to complete important tasks, take care of children, catch up with friends they only see once a week, and imbibe copious amounts of coffee. So go to where the coffee is. If no one strikes up a conversation (shame on them!), walk up to someone friendly-looking (those with clerical collars or nametags are great options) and say hello. You’ll be glad you did. (Sometimes you even get presents. Not that this should be a motivation.)