Episcopal means “bishop” in Greek, and the Episcopal Church is governed in part by its bishops. The Episcopal Church is divided into dioceses, each diocese being an area encompassing a reasonable number of Episcopalians. Each diocese is presided over by a diocesan bishop. A cathedral is a church that contains the bishop’s seat, or cathedra. A cathedral is the symbolic center of a diocese.
The bishop ordains priests and deacons to serve in each parish, or congregation, which carries out the ministry of the diocese in its local communities. A priest (or priests) leads the parish in worship, makes decisions related to the sacramental life of the parish, and in general, supports the ministry of the worshiping Christians there. A rector is simply the priest in charge of a parish; a vicar is a priest who leads a mission congregation.
Deacons have a long tradition in the church, extending back to the New Testament. In the Episcopal church, deacons maintain their traditional role to serve the poor and less fortunate. They also assist in many facets of the Holy Eucharist.
Each church also has a vestry, or group of elected representatives that select and support the rector, articulate and support the church’s mission, plan and organize, and manage finances. The vestry usually has two wardens—the senior warden, who is a support person for the rector, and the junior warden, who oversees care of the church and property.
Episcopalian worship services are liturgical, derived from liturgy, which refers to the texts that make up the rites, prayers and services of the church.
The Book of Common Prayer is the official source of liturgy for the Episcopal Church. First written in 1549 and revised last in 1979, it contains the liturgy for regular services and many special services, such as baptism, marriage, and burial.
Most services will follow one of two liturgies—either Rite One or Rite Two. The language for Rite One services and prayers hews more closely to traditional Elizabethan English, while Rite Two is written in more contemporary language.
There are two main creeds, or statements of faith, that you will hear in the Episcopal Church: the Nicene Creed and the even more ancient Apostles’ Creed.
Eucharist, literally “thanksgiving” in Greek, is the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, sometimes called Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper. In the Episcopal church, the eucharist is the main focus of the service, the high point; in fact, the entire service is officially called the Holy Eucharist.
Advent is a season of solemn preparation before Christmas, beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The season is a time for remembering Christ’s incarnation and also his promise to return. The color of the season is purple.
Christmas is the celebration of Christ’s birth and incarnation. It begins on December 25 and continues for 12 days, ending on January 5, the eve of the Feast of Epiphany.
Epiphany begins on January 6 with the feast and continues until Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. It marks the appearance of Jesus to the wise men, signaling that he is a savior of all peoples.
The Easter season encompasses Lent and Holy Week and continues until Pentecost.
Lent is the season leading up to Easter and is a time of penitence and prayer. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and last 40 days until Easter. Lent is a more somber time in the church; “alleluia” is not spoken, and the liturgical decorations are more austere.
Holy Week is the most significant week of the church year. It begins on Palm Sunday and ends on Easter Sunday. The week, which includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, marks the final days of Jesus’ life, from the time he entered Jerusalem, through his trial, crucifixion and death. Easter is the church’s most important feast, marking the resurrection of Christ.
Pentecost begins with the Feast of Pentecost—a remembrance of the Holy Spirit descending on the apostles—and runs until the first Sunday of Advent. This season is sometimes referred to as Ordinary Time.