Provisional Explanations: the Purpose and Effects of Liturgy

The thread below has turned to the purpose of worship and especially frequent reception of the Eucharist—what’s it all for anyways?

To push the discussion along, I thought I’d post something that I’m doing elsewhere that connects to part of this question. That is, it fusses with worship and liturgy, but not necessarily the Sacraments. Yet. So, critique away…

The Purpose of Liturgy

Worship grounds our experience of the life hid with Christ in God.

Q. What is corporate worship?
A. In corporate worship, we unite ourselves with others to acknowledge the holiness of God, to hear God’s Word, to offer prayer, and to celebrate the sacraments.
BCP, p. 857

Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father,

    to render thanks for the great benefits we have received at his hands,
    to set forth his most worthy praise,
    to hear his holy Word,
    and to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.

BCP, Morning Prayer: Rite I, p. 41

Our Life and Salvation

Salvation and the embrace of the kingdom of God is at the heart of the Christian life and experience. But how do we define “salvation”? All too often, it seems, our culture tends to equate Christian salvation with “going to heaven”. While this answer is not completely wrong, neither is it right and in choosing to answer this way, perhaps the most important facets of Christian salvation are lost.

What does it mean to be saved?

In the New Testament, one of the words most commonly used to discuss the Christian end/goal is the word “abide”. The Gospel and Letters of John in particular use it, but it is found throughout the rest of the New Testament too. To abide, we in him and he in us.

The way St Paul phrases it in Colossians has especially captured my mind and heart. Speaking of Baptism, he writes, “For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” (Col 3:4).

This is what it means to be “saved”—to be hid with Christ in God. To be invited, through Baptism, to participate in the very life of God, to abide in and with the mystery of love who abides at the heart of creation, who loves each of us individual, who cares enough to take on our frail flesh, live and give his very life for each one of us. The abiding happens once we shuffle off this mortal coil—and in that sense I’ll agree that salvation is connected to “heaven”, the abode (hey, there’s that word ‘abide’ again…”) of God “after we die”. But more important is the invitation into God’s own life.

It doesn’t start once we’re dead.

It starts here. Now. We get to live it. Here. Now. Waiting ’til you’re dead means missing God’s party here and now.


Christian worship—Christian liturgy—is one of the ways that we open ourselves to the mystery of what this abiding/hiding means.

You see, I can’t really explain what it means to be “hid with Christ in God”. Words fail me. And that’s ok. Christian worship—when done well and with full, intentional engagement—is one of our great clues to teach us, to show us, to connect us to what it means to be hid with Christ in God.

Worship gives us the experiences, the sounds, smells, and tastes that we use to recognize, to remember, and to enact our on-going relationship with God when we’re outside of worship as well. It’s like an answer key that gets tattooed into our movements and feelings as well as our thoughts that help us decode the crazy world we find ourselves in—and to find even in the midst of it all the compassion, the love, of the God who created it all, who loves it all, and who waits for us to embrace our life in him.

The Effects of the Liturgy

Worship is habit-forming: it directs our affections and creates an ethos.

Worship is habit-forming…

Note, first, the choice of the verb: is. I’m not saying that it can be, that it may be, or that it should be habit-forming. It is habit-forming. Whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not, it simply is the case. Whether it’s sublime, inspiring, energizing, mediocre or down-right poor, the worship we experience will shape how we understand and experience the Christian faith. And let’s face it: there’s a lot of mediocrity out there. I can’t help but think that it has an effect on our churches and on our lives.

So if worship is going to form and shape us, we as active Christians need to 1) be informed about what the liturgy is, 2) where it came from and 3) be aware of how it shapes us. From a big pictureperspective, I’m going to identify the how under two major concepts: Affections and Ethos.

The Religious Affections

“Affections” isn’t a word we hear a lot, especially in the sense in which I’m using it. Thus, it requires a bit of explanation.

Religious language is often feeling language. We use emotional language to talk about our relationship with God and one another. Even our main virtues like “love” and “hope” have a feeling nature to them. And yet, emotions tend to be both spontaneous and transitory things. Love wells up, hope springs new—but then they go away again. Or, anger springs up in us, often unbidden.

Using the term “affections” is a way to talk about attitudes, orientations, ways of being in the world that relate to emotion or emotional states but are broader and deeper than the transitory surface feelings that we might have. Affections are complex constellations of feelings and thoughts that seek to pattern our lives and train us in certain actions.

Thus when Christians use words like “faith”, “hope”, “love”, “joy”, “expectation”, “penitence” we’re not just talking about emotions that may come or not come—we’re talking about affections. About ways of being undergirded by rational thought that shape how we act.

When affections and emotions get confused,we can start haviung problems. Worship can be seen as a means of manipulating emotions—whether through inculcating fear or else passing off a false fleeting joy as “real” Christian emotion. Both of these emotional extremes distort the message of love, hope, and joy in the Gospel and cause more harm than good.

The historic liturgy of the Church seeks to pattern people into the affections. This occurs preeminently through the seasons of the Church Year. I’ll say more about this later when I discuss the Church Year, but the major seasons show us the shapes and boundaries of the affections and help us try them on, make them part of our habits of living.

Instilling an Ethos

Where we participate in corporate worship has a major effect on our experience of the Christian life with God and thus shapes our theology and spirituality.

The ethos or “character” of a place is a combination of factors. It seems to me that a classic description of the English Anglo-Catholic stronghold, All Saints Margaret Street is one attempt to define a community’s ethos:

Music by Mozart, Decor by Comper; Choreography by Fortescue; but, my dear boy, libretto by Cranmer.

It’s fair to say that an ethos is a combination of:

  • Architecture
  • Music
  • Ceremonial
  • Liturgy
  • Decoration
  • Attitude and Execution of the Liturgy by the Clergy
  • Attitude and Execution of the Liturgy by the Congregation

The last two cannot be overlooked. Reverent, pompous, attentive, energetic, bored, sloppy: it’s remarkable how one community can project a completely different ethos from another even when many of the other elements are the same.

After hearing and participating in “worship wars” for well over a decade, I’ve come to the conclusion that most conflict is about ethos. Such discussions often fail by being too narrowly focused. That is, people argue over music, liturgy, and ceremonial. But more often I think what they really intend is the over-all package and the elements don’t—and can’t—create the whole ethos.

9 thoughts on “Provisional Explanations: the Purpose and Effects of Liturgy

  1. Joe Rawls

    Outstanding. I myself have come to see theosis as the ultimate reason for everything we do as Christians. But I think “being hid in Christ” is just an earlier way of saying theosis. And theosis is not some self-absorbed “me ‘n God” thing–it is very corporate. I have a very strong sense of this when I administer the cup to my brothers and sisters at Trinity Santa Barbara.

  2. dana

    Hm. I like your comments on affection. As one who routinely gets caught up in emotions (and then yells at myself that it is so illogical) I appreciate the differences between affection and emotion. Now, to see if I can put this to practical use.

  3. Vicki McGrath

    Thank you, Derek, this is very helpful, especially defining affection as attitude more than emotion. And music theory (i.e. philosophy) speaks clearly and confidently about affections and the influence of music upon them – certainly from Plato and Pythagoras up to the 18th century – so your discussion stands in that tradition.

    And you are right on the mark with your description of ethos, including the fact that ethos is so often the cause for conflict. I knew my present parish was a good fit for me when their parish profile said they were lokking for a priest who was “reverent.” I declined to apply for a position at a much larger, better-paying parish because i knew from some experience with them and from their profile that our ethos surrounding worship would always be a struggle. And it wasn’t about music style or hymn choice or moving the altar. They ultimately didn’t want a priest; they wanted a CEO who would lead prayers, numerically increase the congregation and be a chaplain to the community.

    For me, the central gravitational force is the sacramentality of worship; not just the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist (although that is both the height and depth), but the outward enactment of the inward and spiritual grace of God that is mediated and experienced in all worship. And by grace I mean the classic definition of God’s unmerited favor, love and goodness towards us which we have done nothing to earn or deserve. So maybe “reverence” is short-hand for that.


  4. Christopher

    One of the unfortunate things is that Dr Saliers nowhere tends to give a straightforward definition of affections. We might think of liturgy as education of desire, formation of affections, or incorporation of dispositions. Your use of “orientation” is spot on to his approach. The Reformers, especially Melanchton, thought of this in terms of rhetoric–moving of the heart and shaping of affections. It’s a connection that the Reformers share with the Fathers.

    Just as with the Scriptures, our society tends to ask how can we reshape liturgy to us rather than how are we reshaped by liturgy. I prefer the latter approach. Over time, we are changed by our praying, singing, moving, receiving. The former approach is more about entertainment and quick emotional fixes.

    Ethos is precisely where the rubber hits the road in the worship wars, and while no one element creates an ethos (or reaction to an ethos), some elements set off what sort of ethos this people and place hold to.

  5. Derek the Ænglican

    “Thje concept of affection designates a basic attunement which lies at the heart of a person’s way of being and acting. . . . the phrase, ‘the affections,’ is used to denote a comprehensive phenomenon of life by which we understand the world in and through a 'sense' of the world. Affections thus always combine evaluative knowledge of the world and self-awareness." (p. 6)

    That’s as clearly as he lays it out. Of course, much of the first chapter is devoted to fleshing this out. I like to mix his notion with “fundamental orientation of the soul” of which I heard frequently from Michael Root.

  6. Sean+ Lotz

    Good post. Thank you for it.

    re: “The Reformers, especially Melanchton, thought of this in terms of rhetoric–moving of the heart and shaping of affections. It’s a connection that the Reformers share with the Fathers.”
    Ever so true. But the emphasis on rhetoric to the exclusion of all else leaves me worried. I know from experience within myself that humans are not simply intellects to be won over by words and thought. We are physical, emotional, spiritual creatures with dark subterranean caverns and playful sunlit fields. (Gack! I’m getting gooey here.) Words are great, and they speak to a part of my being. But they do not, can not, do the whole job. Liturgy, well done, speaks to all of me, in some way, and allows all “parts” of me to participate.

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