Exploring How Liturgy can Assist the Assembly in Experiencing the Trinity

by Melissa Skelton

Some assumptions about the Trinity
In speaking about the Trinity and liturgy, I am assuming that at the heart of the Trinity is a dynamic relationship of love among equals who are distinct and at the same time are one. I’m also assuming that in any exploration of the Trinity, it is difficult to speak about the persons of the Trinity as entirely separate entities or persons, that the dynamic energies of the persons of the Trinity are woven together in a way that will mean that the distinctions I will make are artificial at best.

Within the relationship of equals, God the Creator and Father (Jesus’s “Abba”) is “that without which there would be nothing at all.” God the Creator creates, loves and sustains all there is. In accounts within the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Christian Testament, God as creator and father (Jesus’s “Abba”) relentlessly desires and seeks after humanity whose image, though tarnished, reflects its creator, with all its potential for dignity and dignifying action, with all its potential for compassion, with all its potential for the good, with all its potential for justice-making, with all its potential for creativity, with all its potential for healing and wholeness, and with all its potential for liberty.

God the Holy Spirit is God who, through praying in us, draws us to the source of being who is God. In being drawn to God we become adopted children who occupy and travel within the space that Jesus has opened for us. As Sarah Coakley puts it, “God the Holy Spirit is the perpetual invitation and lure of the Creator to return to its source, the Father, yet never without the full and suffering implications of incarnate Sonship.” God the Holy Spirit, then is essential in the spiritual life and in the experience of prayer within and outside the liturgy. I would also add that I understand God the Holy Spirit to be a holy “esprit du corps,” an energy that moves among human beings and works towards deepened relationships and unity within the Body of Christ, a unity that does not obliterate distinctiveness or difference.

The second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, is the incarnate Son whose life, death, resurrection and ascension open for us, through the Spirit, what Sarah Coakley has called the potential for our becoming adopted children of God who through their bodies and in their lives share in Christ’s own solidarity with and suffering in the world. As a part of this sharing in the life of Christ, we participate in the Paschal mystery throughout our lives, losing life in order to find life, dying in order to live.

Some admissions about myself
Whereas I have experience teaching in theological schools with students from a number of different ecclesial traditions and while I have participated in liturgies prepared and offered within different ecclesial traditions, I am at my core an Anglican. What this means is that I am of a tradition of worship that is Eucharistically-centered and that makes use of the full range of potential elements in the liturgy in terms of the formation of participants in the liturgy. These elements include language, speech and silence, music, the visual arts, movement, liturgical objects, the liturgical space, and the use of the senses in liturgy.

Experiencing God as Creator in the liturgy
Perhaps the best place to start in exploring what we do might do to assist theological students as they prepare to create and lead liturgies that will, with God’s help, assist those participating in experiencing God as Creator, is to invite students to consider these questions, questions that are meant to get at the theology of God that our liturgies may be expressing:

1. Do those experiencing the liturgies we prepare and offer experience a God of mystery and power or do they meet a God who is merely one among many other competing categories? Connected to this, do those experiencing the liturgy have the possibility of feeling awe, reverence and wonder in the liturgy? What particular elements within the liturgy best bring participants into the presence of a God of mystery and power who evokes a sense of awe, reverence and wonder in them?

2. Do those experiencing the liturgies that we prepare and offer make actual contact with the materials and things of creation with all their magnitude or plenteousness, their depth, their texture and power, or are materials and elements of the creation omitted or somehow fenced out of the liturgical experience?

3. To borrow a line from the Song of Songs (Song of Songs 2:3-4 KJV Version), do those experiencing the liturgies we prepare and offer, from their welcome prior to the liturgy through the movement of the liturgy to its culmination and sending forth, discover that “his (sic) banner over me (is) love” or, put another way, do participants in the liturgy discover in the liturgy a Creator who desires them, who seeks after them and, with the Spirit’s help, is forever drawing and enticing them back towards God’s very self?

4. In terms of language for God, do the liturgies, both spoken words and the sung lyrics, offer a range of images and language that do not allow the liturgical participant to “settle” into an idolatry around particular images or language that overly defines God, that robs the assembly of an experience of the mystery of God?

While students, of course, are to answer questions such as these for themselves when they experience or plan liturgies, what I can share from my experience is that is that the range of things that affect my responses to these questions have been: the size, particularly the height, of the liturgical space, liturgical art in the space that points beyond itself to a greater mystery; the use of local materials (wood, stone, metal) in the space and the generous use of water, oil, fire, in liturgical action; the use of silence in the liturgy; the use of language and music that does not domesticate or overly identify the creator with a certain language system; the use of music that expresses the longing of the human heart for God as an answering love; the avoidance of what Aidan Kavanaugh refers to as affecting a kind of “loose informality” when leading the assembly in worship; the adoption of a tone of solemnity in the liturgy.

Experiencing the Holy Spiritin the liturgy
In approaching the experience of the Holy Spirit in liturgy, I would pose the following questions to theological students:

1. Are those leading and participating in the liturgy prayerful? Is the liturgy, itself, prayerful? Within this, do those leading the liturgy bring an available and non-anxious presence to the liturgy as a part of their prayerfulness?

2. Does the liturgy allow those leading and participating to enter into times of shared silence? Do these silences open a receptive space for the movement of Spirit in the lives of people and in the collective life of the assembly?

3. Does the music, to include the lyrics in liturgies, assist those singing it or listening to it to experience the desire of God for them or to inflame their desire for God? Do the liturgies have enough love songs in them?

4. Is the liturgy done in a way that allows people to function as one in terms of shared gesture, shared speech and shared singing? Another way of asking this question is this: is the assembly of people connected in a way that is the fruit of their awareness of and ability to “listen” to each other? Does the assembly of people listen to other voices and blend their voices with them? Do they notice others’ gestures and harmonize their gestures with them?

5. Is beauty and its power to entice people toward God nurtured and protected in the liturgy?

While most of these questions simply assume an affirmative answer as the “right” answer, let me just say that the cultivation of a tone of prayerfulness on the part of those leading the liturgy and on the part of those participating in the liturgy is, in my view, an essential element when it comes to assisting others in their experience of the movement of the Holy Spirit in liturgy. One of the fruits of this prayerfulness is a spirit of surrender, a spirit that, I believe, is critical for the Spirit to do her work within us and among us as we yearn for reunion with God. This prayerfulness and surrender enable the members of the assembly to put aside their needs to overshadow others and allows the assembly to function as one in terms of gesture, singing, speaking and sharing silence. It is in this shared experience of accord that the assembly can be drawn back towards the accord that is at the heart of the Trinity itself.

Experiencing Jesus Christ in the liturgy
Finally, we come to the questions for theological students related to experiencing the second person of the Trinity in liturgy, I suggest that those questions might be:

1. Are the liturgies we prepare and offer earthy, or are these liturgies heavily weighted toward the abstract, conceptual, the analytical and the logical? Are the liturgies and liturgical spaces where liturgies are offered rich with images, smells, sounds, music, the opportunity to touch something or someone and to move? Is the preaching in liturgies rich with story and images?

2. Do the liturgies we prepare and offer assist us in entering the

“Jesus space,” a space in which we are able to identify with our own suffering and the suffering of the world? Do homilies deal with pain, brokenness, the lives of the poor and the marginal in real ways? Do homilies deal with the pain of listeners in ways that are real and would evoke a “that’s me” response from listeners, an experience that prepares the way for the Gospel to be preached?

3. Do the liturgies that we prepare and offer assist us in developing our capacity and willingness to lose life in order to find life, to understand Jesus not as a “past figure to emulate” but “the life into which we step”?

4. Do the physical spaces, art or objects in the space and the actions associated with the objects, does the observation of the liturgical calendar and the enactment of important liturgies, especially in Holy Week and Easter, enable us more fully to enter the “Jesus space” and live out of that space?

Again, while students will need to answer these questions for themselves, out of my own experience I would offer the following as elements in the liturgy that support participants experiencing Jesus Christ in the liturgy: A sensory-rich liturgical experience to include the use of incense, the use of high quality, colourful vestments, the use of candles and flowers that are real versus objects that are masquerading as real; the opportunity those participating have to do something—to bow, to cross themselves, to light a candle, to touch another person’s hand or make a gesture towards them, to sing, to hold silence with others; the opportunity to experience sermons that are essentially narrative in nature.

In terms of liturgies that assist us in entering the “Jesus space,” I would offer the following as important elements of our liturgies that can assist with this: A font in the space that is large enough for a person to lose their life in and that is filled with an abundance of living water; bread, wine, and oil that are real, fragrant and speak of the sense-filled nature of the incarnate life and the generosity of the sacrament; images of the crucified one in the space (as opposed to the empty cross); the full observance of Palm Sunday and Holy Week and Easter liturgies to include Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday; within the Holy Week liturgies the full observance of foot washing, the veneration of the cross and the entire experience of readings and psalms within the Easter Vigil liturgy; the observance of devotional practices such as the Stations of the Cross; praying the Rosary, praying the Angelus; preaching that highlights and invites us over and over again to give ourselves to the Paschal mystery, that is “in order to come to fuller life and spirit we must constantly let go of present life and spirit.”

Melissa Skelton is the former Archbishop of the Diocese of New Westminster and Metropolitan of the Anglican Province of BC and Yukon. Archbishop Melissa Skelton is currently serving as Assisting Bishop in the Diocese of Olympia (Western Washington) in the Episcopal Church. Melissa is the founder of the College for Congregational Development in the US (called the School for Parish Development in Canada). She currently lives in Seattle and serves as an Adjunct Faculty member at VST as well as a team member in the Resilient Congregations Project at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology.