Wonderful & Sacred Mystery 

   Developmental initiatives for the parish church


Improving the Sunday Eucharist

Consecration is a creative act. It does not merely mean taking something that is already complete in itself, and applying it unchanged to a new purpose: but making it that which indeed it should be, and has not yet become.   - E Underhill


Things to take into account

When we start out trying to improve the Liturgy do we focus on the thinking of liturgical experts, the congregation, the newcomer and visitor, or the rector's judgment about what is appropriate and possible in this particular parish at this time? Notice I state it as "when we start out" because in my experience if we manage things well we can end up in a place where it all comes together (mostly).

Other organizations face a comparable issue when they work at producing "quality" in products or services. How to measure quality? By whose standards--the technical people such as engineers, the consumer, the sales department. Each will see quality in somewhat different ways.

A comment on "liturgical experts" -- Who are the experts? There are those with roots in the history of liturgy, others with a passion to change the liturgy to fit their social/political viewpoint, and some with a practical orientation offering guidance in carrying out the liturgy. Each parishioner at times sees themself as the expert; and in one sense they are. My own view is that we have something to learn from all of them.

We also need to be cautious. The historical orientation has led some of us to offer a series of liturgies based on different historical periods and Prayer Books. The social/political orientation leads others to insist on introducing a new hymnal and new prayer book well before the church has any readiness for it. The practical manuals can take some of us down the road of liturgical rigidity. In each case the problem has more to do with the climate established and message implied than with the action itself.

My view is that we do best approaching this as a matter of pastoral and ascetical theology and therefore as directly connected with the work of congregational development. For definitions see the first section of this description of congregational development

The Sunday Eucharist can be approached as a systems issue (it impacts all other elements of the parish system and is impacted by them) and as being the church's primary instrument of formation (it is what our people do week by week, “May we become what we receive.”)


Specific suggestions and resources:


We begin with the congregation; not the whole parish but the particular congregation within the parish – 8:00, 10:00, 6:00.  These are the gatherings of our parish’s Eucharistic communities. They are usually stable groups of people who attend the same celebration week after week. Improvement takes place congregation by congregation as well as throughout the parish.


How to increase the congregation's competence for the Eucharist?  As important as the role of the liturgical leaders and designers may be, even more essential is the role of the congregation. The task is to increase the Eucharistic proficiency of a critical mass of people who regularly attend that celebration. Usually it makes sense to begin with the largest congregation.

The task is to develop the Eucharistic competence of the congregation. This is a long-term and ongoing effort that never ends because there are always new people joining the life of a parish and long-term members needing renewal.

There's a three-fold approach to take that will over time increase Eucharistic proficiency.

1. Provide a program on Eucharistic Practices

These sessions might best be done after the primary Sunday Eucharist. Allow a few minutes at coffee hour and then invite everyone interested to gather in the liturgical space. Provide a handout that contains the text of the Eucharist with notes identifying the elements that will be explored in the session. The orientation session needs to be offered several times each year. The goal is to build a critical mass of people who know how to participate in the Liturgy. A second goal is to help new members become more at ease in celebrating the Eucharist. The exact number of times it's offered will depend on the number of new people attending. Most parishes will want at least three per year.

From In Your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish Through Spiritual Practices --  "This is a session of about one hour in which there is an experiential walk-through. People are invited to try things -- solemn bows or genuflecting when entering the row of pews or seats, bowing as the cross passes in procession, crossing oneself at various points in the liturgy, actively listening to the sermon, an imaginative engagement during the offertory and so on.  The participants aren’t told they must do things in a certain way. This is about expanding their range of choice and behavior. They are asked to try some practice from the tradition. Along the way time is provided for people to reflect on what they are experiencing, how it feels, what thoughts it sets off in them. This isn't the traditional instructed Eucharist. It is experiential learning -- do it, reflect on it, try it again."

"Eucharistic Practices: Notes for Facilitators" by Michelle Heyne and Robert Gallagher - An educational design to introduce people to practices commonly used by members of the congregation. 

2. Provide booklets on Eucharistic practices

Have these booklets always displayed and available.

"Practices During the Holy Eucharist" - A booklet on the practices of the baptized person during the Holy Eucharist. Explores the meaning of actions as well as noting when they may be appropriate

"The Holy Eucharist: With suggestions for the use of the body during the Liturgy" - A companion to “Practices During the Holy Eucharist.” Guidance about various optional acts of reverence during the Liturgy. The tone is permissive rather than imposing ---this is what many do, you need to explore and experiment yourself to find practices that strengthen and stretch you.

3. Teach and coach the context

Our participation in the Eucharist takes place within a broader context of life and prayer. There are three things that will most improve people's participation in the Eucharist

This is based on understanding that the Eucharist is part of a larger system of life; the organic rhythms of human life and the practices of prayer.

Renewal –Apostolate Cycle -- a way of describing a central dynamic of Christian life. The Cycle focuses our attention on the Christian’s movement between being renewed in baptismal identity and purpose and living as instruments of God’s love and grace in daily life. Or said another way – the parish needs to acknowledge and affirm the life of its members; to take note of the holiness of their daily life in family, with friends, in the workplace, and in civic life. This movement is between our participation in the Eucharistic community and our Eucharistic life. A PDF   

Daily Office and Reflection –  The Eucharist is part of a larger, organic system of prayer. If you want to strengthen the Sunday Eucharist increase the proficiency of a critical mass of members to say the Office in some form (a daily grounding) and become more reflective (a way of integrating life).

Learning how to be part of a parish church -- The key to this is suggesting to people that they have the responsibility, and therefore the power, to make their lives different by the stance they take within the parish. The parish is a school of love – a place to learn how to love, to grow in love.  Along with this of course comes the responsibility of parish leaders to improve the overall health of the parish.


We need to get the objective right. If the Eucharist is about offering praise and thanksgiving to God as well as about the formation of the People of God, then that offers us our focus.

Too often we get distracted. The two primary distractions are time anxiety and “user friendly” mistakes.  If the Liturgy is rich, graceful, and beautiful most people aren’t going to be focused on how long it is and will find themselves caught up in it.

Many people see good liturgy as having what they call “flow” – a mental/emotional state of being fully absorbed by and focused on the liturgical experience; being caught up in joy and delight.   One study of the idea of “flow” as an experience in a variety of settings suggests that the opposite of “flow” is “apathy.” This approach suggests that liturgy with grace and flow is the way out of boredom, depression and agitation. Anxiety about getting the Eucharist done in an hour or taking responsibility for all feeling “comfortable” is a guarantee that we will either produce anxiety or work to generate a temporary energy that avoids the fact of our anxiety.

Good liturgy takes time. There is a transition that takes place for the person. For most of us it takes time to become centered and grounded in the experience, to become present to this mystery of community.

There are a number of resources available that can help those responsible for producing the Liturgy do that well. Here are some of the best.

1. Celebrating the Eucharist: A Practical Guide for Clergy and other Liturgical Ministers, Patrick Malloy

2. A Priest's Handbook: The Ceremonies of the Church (3rd Edition), Dennis G. Michno

3. Ceremonies of the Eucharist: A guide to Celebration, Howard E. Galley

4. “Liturgical Presence”, Robert Gallagher
A booklet for use with everyone who assists up front at the altar. It offers ideas about both behaviors and a stance that assist in maintaining a liturgical presence. Includes ideas on physical bearing, movement, humility, and non-anxious presence.

5. Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style, Aidan Kavanagh

Direct and blunt advice from one who knows; sections on -- Avoid disorder and last minute makeshift, Missalettes are kept out of the sanctuary, choir and canter are servants of the assembly not surrogates for it. He has a section on common mistakes.

6. Liturgy with Grace and Style, Gabe Huck

7. Strong, Loving and Wise: Presiding in Liturgy, Robert W. Hovda, Collegeville, Minn. :Liturgical Press, 1985, ©1976.

On presiding in liturgy. Guidance on the person and the presence of the presider. He begins by exploring the presider's spirit which he understands to be grounded in knowing the "church as minister and servant." One review said, "Fr. Hovda has always in mind the people whom the president enables to celebrate the Eucharist and his thoughts and guidance are as relevant now as 35 years ago. His approach is timeless."



The focus here isn't on books or training programs for the preachers. All this can be done in the parish and in almost all cases will result in improvement.

1. Providing the preacher with information on his or her preaching. A homily feedback process -- Process 1   Process 2                       Form 1   Form 2   Form 3   Form 4

2. Equipping the congregation to engage sermons

We suggest that you use the approach provided in “Eucharistic Practices: Notes for Facilitators" in the section on Engaging the Word.



1. Tell them what to expect - describe it, don't just explain it

          For example: Trinity Parish, Seattle 

This is a piece Michelle Heyne and Bob Gallagher wrote for Trinity Church, Seattle. You'll notice that it is particular to the parish. It is what the newcomer will see at Trinity in 2011 rather than being some generic statement about Episcopal worship. You can write your own. We are available to enter into a coaching relationship that would include helping you produce such a document for your own parish.

 2.  Let them know when the next Eucharistic Practices session will take place.

Remember for the new person in the parish there are usually two activities they face each week—Eucharist and coffee hour. Help them increase their comfort with the Eucharist by helping them increase their Eucharistic competence. You want that to happen early in their time in the parish.



Understand the relationship between the Eucharist and the form of congregational development that is an integration of pastoral and ascetical theology and organization development.

Resources that will help:

The Nearness of God: Parish Ministry as Spiritual Practice, Julia Gatta, Morehouse, 2010

Welcome to Anglican Spiritual Traditions, Vicki Black, Morehouse, 2010

Fill All Things: The Dynamics of Spirituality in the Parish Church, Robert A Gallagher, Ascension Press, 2008

Eucharistic Spirituality: From Audience to Congregation, Robert A Gallagher, Ascension Press, available 2020.

In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today’s Christian Life, Michelle Heyne, Ascension Press, 2011. In the chapter on the Holy Eucharist there are sections on: does going to church really matter?, deciding to join the community, competence in participation, use of the body, stillness & silence, engaging with and listening to the word.

In Your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish Through Spiritual Practices, Robert A. Gallagher 2011, Ascension Press. In the chapter on the Holy Eucharist there are sections on: Elements of doing it well, building competency - increasing Christian proficiency, what we invite people to do (be present, participate and engage).

     The Ascension Press books above 


The books of Martin Thornton (b. 1915 –  d.1986) have once again become popular with seminarians and clergy seeking a more rooted approach to pastoral theology. He writes for a British audience so there is a need to translate but it’s worth the effort if you want to better understand the internal dynamics of our tradition. Understanding the spiritual maps that rise out of our tradition can help us as we work to improve the celebration.

The one that has been getting the most attention is - Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation, Martin Thornton,


  • Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation (1956); new edition The Heart of the Parish: Theology of the Remnant (posthumous, 1989), new edition from Wipf and Stock Publishers  
  • Christian Proficiency (1959)
  • The Rock and the River: An Encounter between Traditional Spirituality and Modern Thought (1965)
  • Prayer: A New Encounter (1972)

Source for a number of Thornton’s books


“The Process of Change”* - This is a chapter from In Your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish Through Spiritual Practices. You may find this useful as you consider introducing improvements in the parish. There is also a reading on "Personality Type and the Eucharist"* that is part of the packet available from CongregationalDevelopment.com 



Coaching may be especially useful in maintaining perspective in the change process. Some of us can get so excited about the possibilities that we lose sight of the impact on people in the here and now. Others can get wrapped up in the minutiae of liturgical correctness and create an oppressive and unhappy parish climate. Probably the most common problem is all of us who are so aware and influenced by the anxieties of others that we do nothing or we settle too quickly for an adequate liturgy.

Coaching conversations can provide an opportunity to: 1) slow down and be reflective about what you're doing (this isn't the sinking of the Titanic), 2) consider other approaches in addition to the one we've thought of, and 3) receive advice about how to implement the ideas in this piece.

 Coaching resource