Why We Do What We Do

Episcopal worship is rich in scriptural references, tradition, symbolism, and ceremony. Still, we recognize that it can sometimes be daunting! When and why do we stand or kneel when we do? When and why do we bow or genuflect when we do? Why are the clergy dressed as they are? Hopefully what follows will begin to answer some of your questions and enrich your worship of the Living God.

Sit, Stand or Kneel

Generally, we sit to listen and learn the Word of God: when it is read from the Old Testament, the Epistles and during the sermon. We stand while listening as the Gospel lesson is read and while singing. We kneel to show humility and during the consecration of the bread and wine. 

Manual Acts

Genuflecting, bowing, and making the sign of the cross are known as “manual acts.” Simply stated, these are ways to show reverence to God with more than words alone. Some will choose to engage these customs, others will not. If you feel moved to use these outward gestures, fine! If you choose not to use them, fine! Please understand that these are just customs and their use is never to be seen as a hard and fast rule.

Genuflecting is bending so that the right knee touches the ground (or as close as you can get!), and then standing up again. The word genuflect comes from the Latin word meaning “to bend the knee.” From very early times, Christians have bowed at the mention of Jesus’ name (see Philippians 2:10). Generally speaking, we may choose to bow or genuflect several times during the service:

  • Before we enter or leave the pew.
  • When we pass the tabernacle or ambry (the silver box behind the altar in which we reserve the blessed bread and wine).
  • When we say, “Glory to you, Lord Christ” during the Gospel reading.


During the service, you’ll notice that from time to time, persons will “cross themselves.” This gesture is used as a personal “Amen” or affirmation of certain prayers and invokes our saying to ourselves, “I do this in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We make the sign of the cross by touching the forehead, the center of our chest, the left shoulder, and the right shoulder, in that order. Another form of the sign of the cross is made by tracing a cross on the forehead, lips, and heart with the nail-side of the right thumb. This usually occurs when the Gospel lesson is about to be read. Making the sign of the cross in this manner is a way of praying that the Gospel of the Lord “be in my mind, on my lips, and in my heart.”

Again, there are no hard and fast rules about crossing ourselves, but generally, we do it when the celebrant makes the sign of the cross over us. For example, during the Absolution (the announcement of God’s constantly available forgiveness) after the Confession; during the blessing at the end of the service; some also find this sign meaningful before and/or after receiving the bread and the wine at communion.

Vestments Explained

Vestments are special items of clothing worn by the clergy and lay servers in the conduct of the worship service. Our choir members wear a long blue “cassock,” covered by a shorter white robe called a “cotta.” The clergy and acolytes wear long white robes called “albs.” These garments date from the very early church when the newly baptized were immediately clothed in fresh new cloth as a sign of their new life in Christ. The clergy wear a “stole” over their albs, a long, narrow strip of material, often embellished with religious symbols. The stole also has origins in the early church and symbolizes the yoke of Christ (see Matthew 11:29-30).

During the celebration of Holy Communion, the priest also wears an outer garment called a “chasuble.” The chasuble is usually oval-shaped with an opening in the center for the celebrant’s head. It slips over the head like a poncho so that it drapes over the arms, chest, and back. The different colors of the stoles worn vary according to the seasons of the church year. Each color reminds us of a moment or period in the life of Jesus:

  • White is used at festive times such as Christmas, Easter, at Baptism, marriage, and the burial service, when we celebrate eternal life.
  • Green is used during the days and weeks following both the Feast of the Epiphany and the days of Pentecost, symbolizing the growth and renewal of the soul.
  • Purple is used in Advent to symbolize royalty. Purple is used in Lent to symbolize sorrow and the royalty of Christ.
  • Red is used in Holy Week to symbolize Our Lord’s sacrifice and suffering. Red is also used on the Day of Pentecost and at ordinations to symbolize the Holy Spirit.

The readings for each Sunday are determined by the Lectionary, a careful listing of a variety of readings that enable us in a three year period to hear and study much of the most important parts of the Biblical narrative. The Lectionary begins on page 889 of the BCP. Following the sermon, we recite the Nicene Creed. The word “creed” comes from the Latin credo which means simply, “I believe.” A creed is the statement of our basic beliefs about what we understand to be the true nature of the God we worship.

The Creed is followed by the “Prayers of the People” and the “Confession of Sin.” During the Confession of Sin, we kneel to signify our sorrow for our sins and as a sign of reverence before God. Episcopal worship emphasizes confession as a whole (although private confession may be arranged with a Priest) and the congregation is led in confession by the Priest or Deacon.

After the Confession of Sin and Absolution comes the passing of “The Peace.” Having heard the Word of God proclaimed, having stated our basic beliefs, and having confessed our sins to God, we are at peace with God and each other. The passing of The Peace takes its origin from the Kiss of Peace so often mentioned by the Apostle Paul (see Romans 16:16 and I Corinthians 16:20). It involves members of the congregation greeting each other individually. This ancient custom is often demonstrated by a handshake, handclasp, or embrace, and the spoken greeting of “The peace of the Lord be with you” or “God’s peace,” or some other appropriate greeting.

The exchange of The Peace is usually followed by announcements from the Priest. After the announcements we proceed immediately to the second part of the worship service, The Holy Communion. While the Priest and servers are preparing the altar for celebration of Holy Communion, the ushers will pass the offering plate.

Holy Communion

The Holy Communion, also called The Lord’s Supper, The Holy Eucharist, or the Mass, is the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day. The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word, “Eucharistia,” or giving thanks. Note that the central part of the Holy Communion is called the “Great Thanksgiving.” It is the sacrament of Christ’s resurrection and his ongoing presence at work among us.

All baptized Christians are most warmly welcome to receive the Holy. In the Holy Eucharist, we feel we meet Jesus, are spiritually nourished by him, and are sent out again into the world to do his work.

Coming forward to receive the bread and wine

The usher will indicate that it is time for those sitting in your pew to receive. Upon coming out of the pew, you may choose to genuflect or bow or not. (Please remember, we Episcopalians have lots of customs and we are each free to decide which ones we will use and which we will not!) After coming out of your pew, proceed to the altar rail at the front of the church and kneel. If for any reason you have problem kneeling, it is certainly okay to stand. Christians really did not start to kneel until the Middle Ages.

Place your elbows on the altar rail and place your right hand atop your left hand, palms up. The priest will place the bread in your hand. Simply put the bread in your mouth and eat it. When the chalice bearer brings the chalice to you, please take hold of the bottom of the chalice and guide it to your lips for a sip of the wine. You may also instinct, or dip, the bread in the wine as the chalice is offered to you and then place it in your mouth and eat it. Having received, return to your pew (you may choose to genuflect or bow as you enter the pew), and either pray or sit quietly or sing the Communion hymns until everyone has received.

If you do not wish to receive Holy Communion, you may (1) stay in your pew to sing or to pray, or (2) go to the altar rail and receive a blessing from the priest. To receive this blessing, cross your arms over your chest with the palms facing the shoulders, indicating that you wish to receive a blessing. The service ends with a concluding prayer of thanksgiving after which the priest blesses the congregation. The deacon or the priest then announces the dismissal, and the worship service is concluded. Throughout our worship, hymns are incorporated and persons with or without musical giftedness are encouraged to sing with strength.

Attend one of our services

Contemplative Mass

8:00 AM Sunday

The Holy Eucharist

10:15 AM Sunday

Midweek Mass

12:15 PM Wednesday

St Ambrose Episcopal Church is a welcoming community that gives worship to God, receives wisdom from God, and works alongside God to move the city of Raleigh.


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813 Darby St
Raleigh, NC 27610

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