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  • Writer's pictureCaleb Molstad

Reading a Liturgy of Confession: Liturgy as Forma Formans

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

Like many people raised in the Evangelical tradition, I grew up attending a non-denominational church. Our church worshiped in a manner that was probably similar to many non-denominational churches. Its Sunday morning service was composed of two movements. The first was the singing of worship songs. Once the congregation had been uplifted by the music, the service shifted to the second movement: the sermon. Though music and preaching styles differed, the essential structure was the same at many of the churches I visited when I was younger. It never occurred to me that Christian worship could take anything other than this two-fold form.

Now that I am working towards a graduate degree in English, I pay more attention to form. Literary form—the way a text is structured and the linguistic and social conventions that it uses—is not simply a shell which the reader can discard once they reach the meaning. It makes a great deal of difference whether a piece of literature is, for example, poetry instead of prose. Though poetry and prose use the same raw material of letters and words, poetry typically expresses meaning and affects the reader quite differently from prose. We can even see the effects of form in different genres of poetry. The fourteen lines and set rhyme scheme of a sonnet gives a serious tone to its subject, while the sing-song meter and playful rhyme of limericks make them vehicles for the comic and the crude. Thus form is bound up with meaning and the effect a piece of literature has on a reader.

The importance of form is echoed in Christian belief. The Word of God is foremost a Word that “became flesh and dwelt among us.” The divine logos through whom the entire universe was created took on a particular human form in a particular place at a particular time. As Philippians 2:6-7 puts it,  Christ Jesus “who, though he was in the form (morphē) of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form (morphē) of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (ESV). We can see the effect of this change in form throughout Scripture. The words of God spoken on Mount Sinai in unapproachable darkness and thunder strike us differently from  the words spoken by Emmanuel (God with us) during the Sermon on the Mount. If the form in which God communicates himself is so important, it is worthwhile to pay attention to the effects of form in Christian worship.

One finds, for example, that the form worship takes remains even when the content has been removed. Take the structure of the week in the United States. The division of a week into week days and a weekend is an entirely arbitrary division of time. It is grounded in a Jewish liturgical cycle which then became a part of the Christian form of worship. Though institutional religion is no longer as important to US society as it once was, we retain the form of this liturgical cycle in the way our week is structured, a kind of cultural echo that remains after the practice that caused it is gone.

Remnants of the form of worship remain in the same way in worshipers. My friends who grew up in the Catholic church, even those who would no longer consider themselves religious, find the use of guitars and drums in a service strange and a little irreverent. I, who always remember seeing a drum kit somewhere near the pulpit, still find high Catholic mass to be a little stiff. From this we can see that the form worship takes forms the worshiper, shaping their tastes and perceptions in lasting ways.

I would argue that the shaping power of form is not limited to churches that consider their worship “liturgical” or “formal.” Every church has a plan or script for how they order and structure worship, which gives a service its form. One only needs to spend a little time reflecting on a Sunday morning service to see the outline of this structure in their particular church. This structure has traditionally been called liturgy, though in contemporary usage we call this structure a liturgy if it is written out, for example in the Book of Common Prayer or a missal. Nevertheless, every church has a liturgy in the traditional sense, whether it is made explicit or only exists as an unwritten script for the way a worship service should proceed. And whatever the particular form the liturgy takes, it has the power to shape the worshipers.

In order to highlight the shaping power of liturgy I would like to refer to liturgy as a forma formans, a Latin phrase meaning a form that forms. Liturgy is a structure that structures the lives of those who participate in it. Participating in worship—liturgy means the “work of the people,” pointing to the active role of the worshipers—forms people into something. Hopefully that something is more Christ-like humans. This formational power of liturgy makes worship a pedagogical activity as much as it is an act of adoration. The form worship takes reveals has certain assumptions about how people learn built into it. Reading liturgy from a formalist perspective, one that pays attention to form, reveals much about what those assumptions are. 

In what follows I would like to do just this sort of formalist reading of liturgy, paying attention to liturgy as a forma formans, the way it teaches and shapes worshipers and the things it teaches them and shapes them into. Since my own experience for the past few years has been in the Anglican tradition, this is the liturgy that I will focus on, though doubtless there will be parallels to other traditions. In particular, I would like to read the moments of confession in the Anglican liturgy.

For those who are less familiar with more traditional forms of Christian worship, it might help to compare those liturgies to a memorial or monument. Memorials are intentionally constructed to have some kind of meaning that goes beyond the physical structure. Nevertheless, the meaning of the memorial depends upon the arrangement of the physical parts to communicate its meaning. For example, the 9-11 memorial in New York includes two sunken pools in the footprints of the old World Trade Center towers. By giving shape to the absence of the towers, the pools not only call attention to the lost buildings but also the loss of lives that occurred on September 11th. In the same way many memorials have a focal point around which the building is structured, so in a traditional service the parts of the service are structured around around the Eucharist. Switching from the metaphor of architecture to story-telling, we can see the Eucharist as the climax of a plot that includes an introduction, rising action, and a falling action; it is the point to which the entire narrative leads. That which comes before the Eucharist in the liturgy points to and prepares for its celebration.

Paul makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 that we should prepare for the Eucharist by examining ourselves for sin. The liturgy weaves this preparation into the service through moments of reflection and confession. Sometimes Anglican worship includes the prayer of humble access just prior to the Eucharist. This prayer weaves together words of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:28 and the centurion in Matthew 8:8 when they speak to Jesus. The prayer is a new addition to the liturgy, relatively speaking, that gives the worshiper an extra push towards a humble mindset and awareness of sin before taking the Eucharist. 

Prior to this is a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer, which includes “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” gives the worshiper one opportunity to confess their sins. Moving earlier in the liturgy, before the giving of peace, there is a specific time of confession and repentance in which worshipers confess their sins against “God and our neighbor.” These points of confession in the liturgy prepare us for Eucharist, so that we may eat and drink of it in the right way. As Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 11, such confession is vitally important because eating and drinking the bread and wine in an improper manner can lead to divine punishment.

Through these various preparations, the liturgy forms us in the habit that confession and repentance are necessary for drawing near to God. Just as repentance is important before consuming the Eucharist, a meal with Christ, so our relationship with Christ involves repentance. In a service we physically enact this drawing near to God by leaving our seats and going up to the altar to receive communion. (Communion is brought to those who are physically unable to go up to the altar, a reminder that when we are unable to approach Christ in our weakness, he seeks us out. Because we could not go to heaven, God came down from heaven and took on flesh to save us and bring us to heaven.) From a pedagogical perspective, this is kinesthetic learning, teaching that reinforces a lesson through motion and physical activity. Through this the liturgy shapes us as individuals and as a community to recognize the importance of regular confession and repentance in order to draw near to God. It calls attention to the way that sin can put obstacles in our relationship with him. While the liturgy is forming our vertical relationship, the one between ourselves and God, it also shapes our horizontal relationships, between ourselves and others.

One of Paul’s central concerns in his first letter to the Corinthians is the disunity and conflict that is occurring in the church. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 places that concern in the context of the Eucharist. The Eucharist should be an experience of Christian unity, which is not what is was for the Corinthian Christians. Our eating of the one body of Christ is a sign of our identity as members of the one body of Christ, the Church. Sin is an obstacle to that unity, placing barriers in our relationships with others just as it separates us from God. Thus in confession we repent our sins against “God and our neighbor,” dealing with the horizontal as well as the vertical.

This confession is followed by absolution and the recitation of “The Comfortable Words.” James K.A. Smith observes that this part of the liturgy teaches us that when we sin, God is always present to offer forgiveness when we repent. His mercy is continually available, just as we hear the words of absolution and forgiveness week after week. When we sin, and we will, we must never forget God’s offer of forgiveness.

Absolution is followed by the giving of peace. Peace can only exist between members of the church when there is repentance and forgiveness. I think that peace is not the absence of conflict, but a state in which broken relationships and wrongs have been put right through forgiveness. Right relationships are necessary for peace. As Psalm 85:10 says, “Righteousness and peace kiss each other.” This is what the arrangement of the liturgy teaches by putting confession before the giving of the peace. Service after service, the mindset that repentance is necessary for healthy relationship becomes reflexive. Kneeling for confession adds a kinesthetic element to the practice. Our external posture mirrors what our internal attitude should be. Once we have confessed and repented, we are able to give peace to our fellow members in the body of Christ. Only when peace is proclaimed in our human relationships are we ready to eat the body of Christ and drink his blood in the manner that 1 Corinthians 11 commands.

One might notice that this is a very different approach to teaching that that exemplified by a service which revolves around praise music and a sermon. A service where teaching is conceived of as the work of a single person lecturing on the Bible to a group of listeners shares many assumptions with traditional academic modes of education. Liturgy, by incorporating actions and movement, assumes learning to involve the whole person, body and mind. Seeing liturgy as a forma formans recognizes that forming habits and attitudes through repetition can be as powerful a method of teaching as the sharing of information. Lastly, liturgy prioritizes active learning over passive learning. The liturgy forces the learner to be actively involved in the learning process rather than passively imbibing knowledge. 

I think it is important to recognize that simply asking for forgiveness may not be enough. As Matthew 5:23-24 says, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (ESV). We might also recall Zacchaeus, who repented by restoring his stolen wealth. Repentance may require more than simply confessing in the pew and giving peace. This is something that the liturgy does not do. It does, however, model the mindset and the attitude that is necessary for repentance. I believe that for individuals and for nations, confession and repentance are necessary steps towards peace. In a nation and world that desperately need peace, openness to confession and repentance may be a good first step.

While doing the work of worship, the liturgy, we are being shaped by the worship; the form forms us, forma formans. I have focused on the Anglican liturgy because that is the kind of tradition I have chosen at this point in my life. Nevertheless, one can do the same kind of reading of a worship service that is considered “non-liturgical.” How is it shaping the worshipers and what is it shaping them into? We will be worshiping God for a long time, so we better start getting in shape now.


Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich, ed. 1975. “Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations.” In From under the Rubble, 105–43. Boston: Little, Brown.

Smith, James K. A. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press.

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