Basic Principles for Liturgical Worship

Here’s the next installment in the material I’m working on…

The section that will appear after this one is complementary to it and is entitled “Basic Disciplines for Liturgical Worship.” That one’s only in outline form at the moment so it may be a couple more days before it appears. But here’s this for now:


Basic Principles for Liturgical Worship



Modern Americans absorb the principles of commercial transactions at a young age: If you want something, you have to pay for it; if you pay for something, you’d better get it. As a result, it’s no surprise that many of us start out with a vending-machine model of God. As I child, I remember getting a sense that if I prayed for something, I should get it—if I didn’t God either didn’t like me or he wasn’t being fair… I out grew this, of course, as all do who have prayed for God to give them a pony. Nevertheless, I think many of us still have a vaguely transactional sense of worship. That if we are faithful and diligent in our attendance, God somehow owes us—as if we were building up credit to be used when we get stuck in a jam. Or, on the flip-side, attendance at worship is a bargaining chip to be held over God’s head. (“Do this thing for me and I’ll start going to church/I’ll go to church a lot more/I’ll never miss church.”)

It doesn’t work like that.

Indeed, when we stop and think about it we know that it doesn’t work like that—but that doesn’t stop us from feeling that way sometimes despite our best attempts. When we consider the principles of liturgical worship, it’s helpful to take a quick look at the various ways in which we address God. Different traditions break down the aspects of worship and prayer in different ways, but one of the most common schemes (and the one referenced in the prayer book’s catechism) identifies seven types: adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition.

I see adoration and praise as inter-related because of what is driving them—nothing but God. Praise is worship directed towards God for no other reason than rejoicing in the person and presence of God. It’s not bribery to get something, it’s flat-out joy in the Lord’s presence. Adoration is one step closer still: it’s relaxing in the direct presence of God.

Thanksgiving is driven by past events. This is when we give thanks for what God has already done for us (and with us, and through us) and for the wonder, majesty, and delight of God’s creation.

Oblation is prayer driven by our response to God and God’s works: at the heart of oblation is offering. Specifically, we offer ourselves to God—as well as our works—to be united with his will and works. I see this as related to Thanksgiving but the next logical step beyond it.

Penitence, intercession and petition are different from the others because they are all asking for something. In penitence, we acknowledge (and bewail) our sins and ask God for forgiveness. In intercession, we ask God for things on behalf of others, recalling individuals, groups, and ultimately all creation to God’s memory—and our own. In petition, we make requests to God based on our own needs.

The liturgical worship of the Book of Common Prayer contains all seven of these elements in different balances at different points. All forms of Christian worship have these seven aspects in different amounts. One of the strengths of liturgical worship is that the balance between these elements is stable.

Within the Eucharist and the Daily Office, the first three—adoration, praise, and thanksgiving—predominate. That’s not to say that the others don’t have a place and don’t appear, but our liturgies foreground the praise of God and rejoicing in God’s presence. The fundamental and primary purpose of liturgical worship is praise and adoration. It’s about celebrating the relationship; it’s about experiencing the vastness of who and what God is. It’s not flattery with an eye to scoring something off the Big Guy at a time to be named later. God does not need our praise; God is not subject to our manipulation.


I’m going to be paradoxical for a moment now… Having said that the primary point of worship is the praise and adoration of God, I’m going to turn that around on us. The praise and adoration of God is and must be our primary purpose in worship—but God doesn’t need it. God is not made greater for our praise of him; God is God perfectly well without us. We are the ones who need to be reminded—we’re the ones who have to have the Gospel held before our eyes lest we forget and forsake it. So, despite God being the fundamental aim of our worship, if we are to speak of “benefit” at all, we do it for our benefit.

As a result, the way that we do worship has to accomplish its aim, but also be edifying to those of us who participate in it. It needs to draw our minds and hearts to God. It needs to facilitate a lively encounter with the Holy One whom we praise. It needs to give us the tools for understanding what it means to be in the midst of holy things, holy people, and the holy presences within holy places. It needs to feed our sense of the sacred so that, once we have returned to more ostensibly secular living, we may spy out the presence of the Holy woven in the warp and weft of the world around us and within us. In worship we are given the signatures, the characteristics, the tastes of God in a deliberate sense so that we are more able to recognize them when and where we least expect them.

The danger of realizing that worship is for us is if—when—edification usurps the purpose and becomes the primary focus. The point when the nave is turned into a lecture hall or when worship becomes an exercise in consciousness-raising is the point where we have lost sight of God. Edification, formation, is an important secondary purpose of worship but, whenever it moves into primacy we move into an idolatrous self-worship where we take the center rather than the Living God.

No less idolatrous, of course, is when the edification is of an aesthetic sort and worship becomes its own end where its aesthetic qualities and effortless performance edge out adoration. Worship too consumed by its own beauty and elegance is no less a worship of ourselves and the works of our own hands than more overt celebrations of the self and our own enlightened opinions. I say this not because I don’t like beautiful and elegant worship—indeed, I say it precisely because I do! Beauty and holiness are essential aspects of worship done well; care, precision, and planning make it what it can be. And yet whenever our focus is turned from God, we have substantially missed the mark because the purpose of the formation has gone awry.

The true formation found in worship consists of orienting the soul towards God and aligning us within God’s vision of reality. In worship, we are turned to God in praise and adoration, and are given to see the rest of creation as fellow worshippers hymning God with their very being. This is the edification that we need. Whenever worship moves towards ostensible edification, it loses its primary focus—God—and, in doing so, loses its power to orient us beyond ourselves in him! Thus, edification is an important secondary aspect of worship, but if ever it threatens to take primary place then its very value is undermined.


Liturgical worship is founded on the principle of repetition. There are patterns and habits that make us who and what we are. The shape of worship shapes our character; the texts of worship pattern our priorities; the ways of relating to one another performed in the liturgy rehearse principles for engagement outside of worship as well. Worship is—literally—habit-forming. And it’s supposed to be.

Modern brain science tells us that an action has to be repeated daily for roughly 40 days for it to become a habit. My martial arts teachers tell me that the Chinese reckon daily practice for 100 days as the small accomplishment, 1,000 days as the middle accomplishment, and 10,000 days as the great accomplishment—and that no one should presume to teach a thing without the middle accomplishment at least (roughly three years of daily practice…) on the grounds that they have not yet achieved sufficient understanding.

Repetition happens in a few different ways in the prayer book system. The first is the repetition of services. Morning and Evening Prayer truly are the bedrock of the system; their daily, weekly, yearly repetition shapes us like nothing else. The Eucharist and the sacraments of the Church become the punctuation of this ongoing rhythm.

The second is the repetition of texts and actions. The same texts and the same body of texts are rehearsed over and over. Some—like the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed—are repeated multiple times a day. Some—like certain psalms and canticles—are repeated several times a week. Some—like our Eucharistic Prayers—are repeated at least once a week. The Psalter is run through monthly or in an eight-week cycle; Scripture itself—or at least a fulsome quantity thereof—is covered every year or two (more on these later). As we gather in corporate worship our rituals of greeting, responding, and reconciling with one another are patterns of relating designed to help us see Christ and find the holy in the other.

Repetition teaches in a variety of ways; it’s not just a matter of gaining information or training a skill. One of the most fruitful teachings of repetition comes through exhaustion: in martial arts training, constant repetition of an act or form wears out the muscles—no matter how strong they may be—and forces the body to learn efficiency. Our body learns something in a special way when the muscles are burdened, deaden, and ultimately desensitized by repetition; at a certain point the neuro-muscular motion breaks down and the repetition becomes an act of will—the will guiding and sustaining it as the body finds on its own a minimal efficiency that enables the motion to continue. It’s then that the deepest levels of learning occur. At this point, it’s no longer a matter of being fun or enjoyable or even “good exercise”—it’s passed purely into the realm of discipline.

What are our expectations of our spiritual practices? Do we expect them to be fun or enjoyable or a good spiritual stretch? What happens if we come to them and find them no longer fun? We speak of a discipline of prayer because the repetition of the liturgical round requires discipline. It requires commitment to the concept of repetition even when we don’t feel like we’re getting anything out of it.


But repetition on its own can get a bit boring… Even worse than being boring, repetition without allied aspects and disciplines can become rote and stagnant, allowing the mind and focus to wander and reducing the formative texts and actions to mechanical and thoughtless motions and mumblings. As a result, the liturgical round has principles of variation built into it. Variation—a break from the routine, a deliberate alteration in the pattern—not only keeps our attention and keeps us mindful, but can also break open new vistas into prayers and practices that we thought we already knew.

The seasons of the liturgical year are one of our chief vehicles of variation. As the seasons in their courses highlight different aspects of the Christian Gospel, liturgical texts are required or suppressed; the Gloria disappears in Lent, the Pascha Nostrum appears in Easter. These changes may be slight but subtly alter our experience of worship. Sometimes we don’t notice any effect on us; at other times, they may catalyze a new understanding of God, life, and everything. At the least, the changes through the seasons—whether those be textual or the ornamentation of the worship space or the kinds of music chosen (when there is music)—communicate something of the unique character of the time.

One of the most constant sources of variation is found in the Scripture texts deployed in worship. The psalms and lessons prescribed by the lectionary are just as much a part of the liturgy as the prayers. The lectionaries present Scriptural pieces—stories or prophecies or teachings that combine together to communicate the deep meaning of the season in which they are placed. The changing psalms give us something new in the otherwise stable structure of Morning and Evening Prayer. Variation is the spice of repetition that helps us keep our minds and hearts engaged.

Now—some people need more variation than others. Too, I think some times, places, and cultures tend to need more or less variation than others. Modern Westerners on the whole prefer a higher level of variation than we see in liturgies from other times and places. The prayer book is helpful here in both directions: it offers a variety of ways that variation can be introduced, but also puts controls on just how much can be altered lest the benefits of a balanced repetition be completely lost.


One of the most beautiful images from the Book of Revelation is the image of the cosmic chorus encircling the celestial throne of God and the Lamb in Revelation 4 and 5. Revelation gives us a sense of the whole world oriented in acts of praise in a continuous outpouring in the presence of God. Holding this image in mind as an overarching structure, we gain the sense that—if you really think about it—our worship only appears to begin and end… Rather, we temporarily join our voices into the unending chorus of praise. We slip in and out of that eternal song. Whenever we pray and worship, whether we are in a crowd of thousands, or together with only a few or if we are in our room alone, our prayer and worship is never strictly an individual thing; because of this greater praise, our personal prayer and praise is always corporate because our worship contributes to the whole.

Liturgical worship helps us remember this because we are not just joined in the principle of prayer—we are also united with the whole in its practice. The liturgy gives us a tangible sense of continuity with the rest of the Christian family across both space and time. When we use the words of the Book of Common Prayer, we are sharing “common” words with all those in our church. Not only that, we are praying in union with Anglicans across the world. Not only does our prayer join us across space, but it also connects us with the Communion of Saints through time as well. We share practices with all those who have used books of common prayer across the past five hundred years. We share with the prayer of all those who came before that as we bear witness to the prayer and praise of the Western Church stretching back to the time of the apostles. Indeed—language aside—the Eucharist from the seventh century Leonine sacramentary (one of the oldest surviving liturgical books) would seem pretty familiar to anyone used to the Eucharist from our American prayer book dating from 1979.


This great continuity across time leads us to the last of the principles that we’ll discuss—stability. Despite the passage of ages and the myriad cultures it has moved through, the liturgy has provided a coherent and continuous pattern of understanding, communicating, and living the Gospel. Instead, the book as a whole has been prayed over generations and centuries.

The prayer book is an authentic expression of the historic Western liturgy that has nourished literally millions who have come before us. It is an authentic expression of the English devotional experience. The importance of this is not that it’s English, of course, but that it is a rooted, embodied, inherited tradition that has been embraced and passed on by a diverse group over a period of centuries—not just dreamed up by a few people last week. Furthermore, the prayer book is an authentic expression of historic Anglican liturgy that balances reform of Western norms with Scripture and the theological and spiritual practices of the Early Church. That’s actually quite a lot of things going for it—and it’s more things than would be going for most services either you or I would dream up.

Because of this long period of use, because of its proven ability to form Christians, the prayer book system commends itself to our use. Repetition and formation work best when we commit ourselves to a given pattern of practice. The prayer book offers us a stable set of practices capable of sustaining the spirit across decades, through highs and lows, enthusiasms and doldrums.


13 thoughts on “Basic Principles for Liturgical Worship

  1. bls

    A very good overview of all the moving parts! I especially like the Revelation images in “Continuity,” and the “our worship only appears to begin and end” idea – that’s wonderfully evocative.

    Did you maybe mean “Indeed” in the first para of “Stability”? I’m not getting what “Instead” refers to….

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  3. Derek Olsen

    Thanks! And let me know too if I’m being to brief on anything.

    Yes, I think you’re right—I think there may have been another sentence there that I removed. Indeed would work better.

  4. bls

    One interesting thing I’ve noticed more recently is that “repetition” within the Great Church Year (for instance) has some pretty interesting benefits: each year, as each season repeats, you realize that you’ve actually learned something since last time, because your take on the season is different (which means, hopefully, deeper) each year. You notice some other aspect of a feast or season you’d never noticed before. So there’s quite a lot of “variation” even within “repetition” – and vice versa. But you are the thing that’s changed. That can give you a good feeling of movement.

    Actually, this happens in reading and hearing Psalms, too; you all of a sudden notice something you’ve never heard before. Sometimes it seems as if the text itself is completely new – and all that happens (I think) because your ears are now opened to something else, if only because of the simple passage of time. (Actually, it amazes me that this even happens with the Gospels! I think I’ve heard it all – and then, wham! I hear a passage I feel like I’ve never heard before.)

    BTW, I also really love the thing about “repetition becoming an act of will”! That’s a great observation – and it will help me get through the Creed at times, I’m sure. ;-)

  5. Robert Solon Jr

    Hi Derek, also very good. If I didn’t already do so, I’d like to ask if I can love to run some or all of these in the “New Tracts for New Times” section of The Anglican. Could you please contact me at Bob Solon.

  6. Susan Loomis

    I’d appreciate more about oblation. It’s not a concept I’ve heard discussed. There are songs and hymns about it (Take my life and let it be, consecrated, Lord to Thee…) Further discussion probably doesn’t fit here, but perhaps you can find a place for it elsewhere.

  7. Derek Olsen

    Actually, Susan, I’m thinking that “oblation” will get tackled in the Spirituality of the Eucharist section. My tendency in this direction was confirmed today as we used Rite I for our parish’s Ascension Mass and the Rite I Eucharistic prayer contains a wonderful self-oblation section within it that has flavored my Eucharistic thinking for quite a while.

  8. Michelle Jackson, ObJN

    But also…. our ordinary lives, lived in spiritual consciousness, are an oblation, and the kind of understanding of homely divinity is crucial to how lay people view themselves, their vocations in the world and their comfort in using the prayer book.

  9. Pingback: Basic Disciplines for Liturgical Worship, Part I | haligweorc

  10. Pingback: The Work of Prayer Book Liturgies | The St. Bede Blog

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