Ceremonial in Worship

Diocese of the Midwest  The sign of the cross is used at the reading of the Gospel.

As Euery Mans Devocion Serveth Without Blame

The following statement from the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) summarizes the Anglican position on ceremonies:

As touching kneeling, crossing, holding up of handes, knocking upon the brest, and other gestures: they may be used or left as euery mans devocion serueth without blame.

Most ceremonies, however useful, are inessential and should not become causes for dispute. Nevertheless, the 1928 Prayer Book does mandate a few ceremonies, such as the sign of the cross after baptism (page 280), standing for the gospel (page 70), kneeling for communion (page 82), and giving a ring at marriage (page 302). These ceremonies, along with the use of vestments, were bitterly opposed in the 16th and 17th centuries by the English Puritans, but they became universal in Anglican churches.

Aside from these few Prayer Book ceremonies, almost the only ceremony traditionally enforced by the Anglican Church is bowing at the name of Jesus. The 1603 Canons of the Church of England mandate that

...when in time of Divine Service the Lord Jesus shall be mentioned, due and lowly reverence shall be done by all persons present, as it hath been accustomed; testifying by these outward ceremonies and gestures.. .inward humility, Christian resolution, and due acknowledgment that the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, is the only Saviour of the world....

This generally is interpreted to mean that if one is standing or sitting he or she should bow the head when the word ‘Jesus’ is said in the course of worship.

Common Ceremonies and the Occasions of Use

The most common ceremonies used in Anglican churches are as follows:

Bowing: At the name of Jesus, at mention of ‘Trinity’, and when the three persons of the Trinity are mentioned together (‘Father, Son, and Holy Ghost’); when the cross or the celebrant passes in procession; when passing an altar on which the Sacrament is not reserved; when someone bows to you; at certain points in the Gloria in excelsis, the Creed, and other prayers and canticles; during the Words of Institution in the Canon, but looking up for the elevations.

Genuflection: At the Incarnatus in the Creed (not because of mention of St. Mary, but because we remember then that Christ came down from heaven); when passing or being passed by the Blessed Sacrament (e.g., when entering or leaving a pew before the high altar); when the Bishop Ordinary passes in procession or when greeting him formally. Our Lord gets a genuflection on the right knee, the Bishop gets the left knee. A ‘double genuflection’ is one on both knees, which is done especially at veneration of the Cross on Good Friday.

Sign of the Cross: In general this is done when receiving a blessing, when ending a great prayer, and when hearing or speaking the gospel.

When receiving a blessing would include: the grace at the end of Morning or Evening Prayer or before a meal; absolution after confession; the blessing at the end of the Eucharist; when the Bishop gives a blessing in procession; when the congregation is blessed with the Blessed Sacrament at Benediction; when blessing oneself with holy water on entering the church; before receiving holy communion.

When ending a great prayer includes the end of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and the Gloria in excelsis and often when ending private prayer on entering the church or at the beginning and end of the day.

When hearing or speaking the gospel includes: the beginning of gospel canticles at the Daily Offices (the Benedictus Dominus Deus in Morning Prayer and the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in Evening Prayer – all from St. Luke), the beginning of the gospel lection at the Eucharist, at the Benedictus qui venit (‘Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord’ after the Sanctus – perhaps because these are words from the gospel, though perhaps because of the word ‘blessed’).

The sign of the cross in the Western Church is made with the finger tips of the right hand moving from forehead to chest to left shoulder to right shoulder (and sometimes then back to the chest). At the beginning of the gospel the sign is made with the thumb upon the forehead, lips, and heart, to show that we should receive the gospel into our minds, proclaim it with our lips, and love it with our hearts. The general meaning of this ceremony is that whatever we are doing or saying or receiving in conjunction with it is a blessing from God to us in virtue of the power of the holy Cross.

Knocking upon the breast: This ceremony, mentioned in the 1549 list, is performed as a sign of humility or repentance at the words ‘although we are unworthy’ in the Eucharistic canon; at ‘have mercy upon us’ and ‘grant us thy peace’ in the Agnus Dei; and at the words ‘Lord, I am not worthy’ before communion when the Centurion’s Prayer is said. It is done at the words ‘by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault’ at the private Preparation at the Foot of the Altar when that is said by servers and priest.

Posture: The missals and Prayer Books give some instructions for posture during divine worship, as in rubrics mandating that all stand for the gospel in the Eucharist and that holy communion be received kneeling. Otherwise there is considerable liberty and variety of practice.  

One common rule used to be: Stand to praise, sit to listen, kneel to pray. This rule, however, always had many exceptions (e.g., one stands to listen to the gospel and kneels for hymns during holy communion). In some places the rule was to stand for a sung mass (except for sitting for the epistle and sermon and kneeling for the absolution, blessing, and from the consecration through the ablutions) and kneel for a low mass (except for standing at the gospel and sitting for the sermon).

The People’s Anglican Missal provides precise ceremonial instructions for the Eucharist.

‘Liturgy’ comes from two Greek words meaning literally ‘the work of the people’. Liturgy is worship, the proper activity of the people of God. Liturgy is composed of rites and ceremonies.

Ritual and ceremonial strictly speaking are quite different. ‘Rite’ can mean: either a broad liturgical family consisting of distinct liturgies, forms, customs, and ceremonies (e.g., the Roman Rite, the Coptic Rite, or the Byzantine Rite); or a particular liturgical form, such as the rite of baptism, the rite of the blessing of a house, or the Eucharistic rite.

Ceremonies are the physical actions, gestures, or other ‘embroidery’ of a particular rite. So, for instance, making the sign of the cross and bowing are ceremonies. Strictly speaking, then, one attends a wedding rite, at which a number of ceremonies occur such as the giving and receiving of rings.

Ceremonial is sometimes criticized by Christians who do not under­stand that it is both humanly unavoidable and also a natural outgrowth of Christian doctrine. The central doctrine of the Faith is the Incarnation, our belief in the embodiment or enfleshment of God the Son by which he became God-with-us. It is natural, given this doc­trine, that the Faith continues to express itself outwardly in physical rites and ceremonies. Christ himself implied such physical expres­sions in his ministry and teaching, as when he was baptized with water, when he used bread and wine at the Last Supper, when he healed using spittle and clay or by breathing on someone, and when in instructions to the disciples or in sermons and parables he spoke of the healing or preservative nature of oil and wine and salt.

Furthermore, ritual and ceremonial are inevitable. When someone comes into a home or office most people have a little ritual of greeting with its own ceremonies: they open the door or stand up, shake hands, usher the visitor in, show him a chair, offer coffee, sit down, arrange papers on a desk or lean back in a chair. The fact that such rituals and ceremonies are unconscious does not change what they are. Even reli­gious bodies that formally repudiate ritual and ceremonial in fact inevitably smuggle them back in: their worship has its own patterns and customs, even if these are not recognized as rituals and cere­monies or written down anywhere. The difference with Anglicans is that we recognize our rituals and ceremonies for what they are, we draw them from Scripture and tradition, and we use them conscious­ly to express and teach the orthodox faith.

The use of largely fixed, written rites is very ancient. It is true that in the most ancient Church the Eucharistic canon was often said extem­poraneously by the bishop, though always with certain elements and formulas included. However, the danger of this method appeared quickly as heretical bishops imported false doctrine into their prayers. A fixed liturgy became a way of protecting the congregation from both heresy and also from the perhaps more common problems of bad taste and bad sense in their clergy. Of course Jewish worship, from which the early Church drew much of its earliest liturgy, involved many fixed forms and ceremonies, both in the sacrificial cult of the Jerusalem temple and in the worship of the synagogues.

The following statement from the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) summarizes the Anglican position on ceremonies:

As touching kneeling, crossing, holding up of handes,
knocking upon the brest, and other gestures: they may be
used or left as euery mans devocion serueth without blame.
Most ceremonies, however useful, are inessential and should not
become causes for dispute. Nevertheless, the Prayer Book does man‑
date a few ceremonies, such as the sign of the cross after baptism
(page 280), standing for the gospel (page 70), kneeling for commun‑

ion (page 82), and giving a ring at marriage (page 302). These cere­monies, along with the use of vestments, were bitterly opposed in the 16th and 17th centuries by the English Puritans, but they became universal in Anglican churches.

Aside from these few Prayer Book ceremonies, almost the only cere­mony traditionally enforced by the Anglican Church is bowing at the name of Jesus. The 1603 Canons of the Church of England mandate that

...when in time of Divine Service the Lord Jesus shall be mentioned, due and lowly reverence shall be done by all persons present, as it hath been accustomed; testifying by these outward ceremonies and gestures.. .inward humility, Christian resolution, and due acknowledgment that the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, is the only Saviour of the world....

This generally is interpreted to mean that if we are standing or sitting we should bow our heads when the word ‘Jesus’ is said in the course of worship.

Other ceremonies are matters of personal piety and preference and ‘may be used or left as euery mans devocion serveth without blame’. The most common ceremonies are as follows:

Bowing. At the name of Jesus, at mention of ‘Trinity’, and when the three persons of the Trinity are mentioned together (‘Father, Son, and Holy Ghost’); when the cross or the celebrant passes in procession; when passing an altar on which the Sacrament is not reserved; when someone bows to you; at certain points in the Gloria in excelsis, the Creed, and other prayers and canticles; during the Words of Institution in the Canon, but looking up for the elevations.

Genuflection. At the Incarnatus in the Creed (not because of men­tion of St. Mary, but because we remember then that Christ ‘came down from heaven’); when passing or being passed by the Blessed Sacrament (e.g., when entering or leaving a pew before the high altar);

when the Bishop Ordinary passes in procession or when greeting him formally. [Our Lord gets a genuflection on the right knee, the Bishop gets the left knee. A ‘double genuflection’ is one on both knees, which is done especially at veneration of the Cross on Good Friday.]

Sign of the Cross. In general this is done when receiving a blessing, when ending a great prayer, and when hearing or speaking the gospel. 1. When receiving a blessing would include: the grace at the end of Morning or Evening Prayer or before a meal; absolution after confes­sion; the blessing at the end of the Eucharist; when the Bishop gives a blessing in procession; when the congregation is blessed with the Blessed Sacrament at Benediction; when blessing oneself with holy water on entering the church; before receiving holy communion. 2. When ending a great prayer includes the end of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and the Gloria in excelsis and often when ending pri­vate prayer on entering the church or at the beginning and end of the day. 3. When hearing or speaking the gospel includes: the beginning of gospel canticles at the Daily Offices (the Benedictus Dominus Deus in Morning Prayer and the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in Evening Prayer – all from St. Luke), the beginning of the gospel lection at the Eucharist, at the Benedictus qui venit (‘Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord’ after the Sanctus – perhaps because these are words from the gospel, though perhaps because of the word ‘blessed’).

The sign of the cross in the Western Church is made with the finger tips of the right hand moving from forehead to chest to left shoulder to right shoulder (and sometimes then back to the chest). At the beginning of the gospel the sign is made with the thumb upon the forehead, lips, and heart, to show that we should receive the gospel into our minds, proclaim it with our lips, and love it with our hearts. The general meaning of this ceremony is that whatever we are doing or saying or receiving in conjunction with it is a blessing from God to us in virtue of the power of the holy Cross.


Knocking upon the breast. This ceremony, mentioned in the 1549 list, is performed as a sign of humility or repentance at the words ‘although we are unworthy’ in the Eucharistic canon; at ‘have mercy upon us’ and ‘grant us thy peace’ in the Agnus Dei; and at the words ‘Lord, I am not worthy’ before communion when the Centurion’s Prayer is said. It is done at the words ‘by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault’ at the private Preparation at the Foot of the Altar when that is said by servers and priest.

The People’s Anglican Missal provides precise ceremonial instructions for the Eucharist.

Besides these general notes on personal ceremonial, some mention should be made of some of the other externals of worship and liturgi­cal ceremonial.

Bells. The church generally has three sets of bells: the tower bell(s), the Sanctus or sacring bells, and the sacristy bell.

1. The tower bell or bells are rung before the beginning of a liturgy.

The English Prayer Book from 1552 onwards directs that:

...the Curate that ministreth in every Parish Churche or Chapell, beyng at home, and not beyng otherwise reason­ably letted, shall say [Morning and Evening Prayer] in the Parishe Churche or Chapell where he ministreth, and shall tolle a belle thereto, a convenient tyme before he begyn, that suche as be disposed maye come to heare Goddes worde, and to praie with hym.

In England that often means that the bell is rung for five minutes one half hour before public service and then again for the five minutes immediately before. The tower bell also is traditionally tolled solemnly for funerals and joyful­ly after weddings and on other joyous liturgical or public occasions.

2.  The Sanctus bell (so called because it is rung during the Sanctus at the Eucharist) varies in character: it may be a small silver bell (espe­cially for a bishop), a group of bells (campanili), a gong, or a switch connected to the tower bell. The Sanctus bells are rung during the liturgy to call attention to an important moment. This was particular­ly important in the pre-Vatican II Latin rite in the Roman Church, when the liturgy was largely said in an inaudible voice by the priest in a language not understood by most of the congregation. The bells are used even when the liturgy is in English in many places because peo­ple’s attention does tend to wander. When a priest is celebrant, the bells are rung: three times at the beginning of the Sanctus, during the Canon at the genuflections and elevations at the consecration of the Host and chalice, when the priest says ‘Lord, I am not worthy’ before his own communion, and when the priest says,’Behold, the Lamb of God’ as a signal for the communicants to come to the altar rail. When a bishop celebrates these bells are only rung at the consecrations in the Canon.

3.  The sacristy bell is rung as a signal that the priest is about to enter the sanctuary from the sacristy. It is a signal for the congregation to stand.

In Holy Week the bells are rung after the intonation of the Gloria in excelsis on Maundy Thursday and then are silent until the intonation of the Gloria on Holy Saturday. (No musical instruments are played in church during that same period.) During this time of silence a wood­en clacker may be used instead of bells. On Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil after the intonation of the Gloria all of the bells in the church are rung joyfully to signal the beginning of Easter and the Passiontide veils are removed before the Gloria resumes.

Incense. Incense is used throughout Scripture. It will be used in heav­en, according to the book of Revelation.


Incense has several meanings: first, incense is an offering and oblation to God (e.g., the incense oblation in the Jerusalem temple, as in St. Luke 1:9); secondly, incense is a sign or acknowledgement of God’s presence (‘incense owns a Deity nigh’ as the hymn We Three Kings puts it); thirdly, incense represents prayer rising up to God (Revelation 8:3-4; Psalm 141:2). In public worship the significance of incense is generally either to signal or honor something as a representative of God or else to bless it (i.e., to symbolize our prayer for it rising up to God).

Many blessings end with the aspersion (sprinkling with holy water) and incensation of the blessed person or object.