Posted by: AJtheIrishLass | June 18, 2007

Signing the Cross, Bowing, Am I Doing It Right?

crop woman with cross on chain

Photo by Jonathan Borba on

I often see and hear many questions on things such as when and how to sign the cross, when should you be sitting or standing, do newcomers have to come forward, and who can receive communion and how you do this. I’ve included info on all of these in one article, each with its own section.

Signing the Cross & Bowing

Christians started using the sign of the cross in the second century, when being a Christian was often an offense worthy of execution in the Roman empire. Christians could easily identify each other this way. The Church later started using this sign at Baptism and Confirmation. The sign of the cross is made by moving the right hand from the forehead to the heart, then from the left shoulder to the right. You may sign the cross whenever it’s meaningful to you, if you choose to do so. Some sign the cross at the mention of the Trinity, after receiving communion, or when the priest blesses the people. It’s a completely optional practice.

Many also find bowing, or genuflecting, meaningful. You’ll notice that many people will bow their heads or bow at the knee when entering the church, leaving the church, or when the Name of Jesus is mentioned (Philippians 2:10) Again, this is optional and you only have to do this if you want to.

If I’m New, Will I Be Asked to Come Forward?

No. Although you’ll certainly be greeted by the rector or other member of the clergy after the service, you won’t have to stand up before the congregation and be formally introduced, neither will there be an “altar call”. If you wish to make a public commitment to Christ, you can check with one of the clergy to find out about baptism (if you haven’t already been baptized), confirmation (if you’ve already been baptized), or reception (if you’ve already been confirmed in a Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or other Catholic church with an apostolic succession).

All This Standing, Sitting, and Kneeling! I’m Totally Lost!

A good rule of thumb is that Episcopalians generally stand to sing, praise, hear the Gospel reading, and for the intercessory prayers (unless kneeling is customary), sit to hear the sermon or other Bible readings, and kneel in confession or prayer. In the case of physical disability, you may do whatever you are able to. You’re not obligated to take part in any of the service you’re uncomfortable or unfamiliar with. The only thing that is generally requested is to stand for the Gospel reading if you are able to.

Can I Receive Communion in your Church? What is the Communion Part of the Service Like? I’ve Only Been to Services Where Communion is Given in the Pews, Not from the Altar

All Christians who have been baptized with water in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are welcome to receive communion as long as their own churches have no objection. A growing number of parishes have an open communion policy. Episcopalians believe it is the Lord’s table and not theirs alone.

After the offertory, a hymn is usually sung while the offering and communion elements (bread and wine) are given to the celebrant. The celebrant says a prayer of consecration and invitation, after which the clergy and lay ministers receive. Those in the congregation receiving communion are directed to the altar rail or front of the church by ushers. Those who aren’t receiving but want a blessing may also go. You may either stand or kneel at the altar rail. If you are not receiving communion, make an X over your chest by placing your right hand on your left shoulder and your left on the right shoulder. This will let the priest know you’re not receiving so that he or she may give you a blessing. To receive the bread, cup your hands with the right placed over the left. If you’re receiving the wine from the common cup, you may place the bread in your mouth, gently hold the bottom of the chalice and guide it to your mouth. If you choose to dip the bread in the wine (intinction), either hold the bread and dip it in the cup (be careful not to get your fingers in the wine), or hand it to the lay minister or deacon, who will dip it and place it in your mouth. The appropriate thing to say after receiving communion or a blessing is “Amen”.

After receiving, you may return to your pew and use the time remaining during communion for silent prayer. After the communion, all kneel while a post-communion prayer is said. The priest then blesses the people, all stand for the recessional hymn, and then the deacon or a priest dismisses the people. Usually the rector or another member of the clergy speaks to the people as they leave the church, and, if you’re new, you may want to introduce yourself. Most parishes also offer refreshments after the main service, and this is a good time to meet some of the other members of the congregation. You are always welcome at services 🙂

©2001. Written on February 27, 2001. May not be reproduced without the author’s consent.



  1. I have been baptized in the Church of England when I was a baby. However, I was never “confirmed” later as a child. Can I go to the altar rail and receive a full communion?

  2. Hi David,
    Are you in the US? If so, you can certainly go forward and receive.

    I’m not familiar with C of E policy, but can ask a friend who lives over there about it if you are in the UK.


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