Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What do you see?

Moreover, no noticeable changes have been made in the public celebration of the Mass, except that in certain places German hymns are sung alongside the Latin responses for the instruction and exercise of the people. (AC XXIV.3)

The Reformers did not wreck havoc upon the lives of the people by recklessly changing the primary face of the faith in the Divine Service.  They did not reform with abandon but pastorally, conservatively, evangelically (for the sake of the Gospel), and with a catholic deference to tradition received.  In the end the folks saw that the Mass was the Mass still and yet with the renewed intention of sacramental eating and drinking and with the more vigorous proclamation of the Word in the sermon. 

I wonder if we Lutherans have forgotten this.  We seem intent upon making sure that as little looks like the Mass on Sunday morning as is absolutely necessary.  In the end, some of us look more like our non-denominational cousins than Lutherans, some look more like Methodists than Lutherans, and some look more like evangelicals than Lutherans.  There is certainly less chance today that anyone wandering into an average Lutheran parish will confuse it with a Roman Catholic parish and this is especially true of larger Lutheran congregations.  The question is:  Is this a good thing?

Most Lutherans sigh with relief when people do not confused them with Roman Catholics.  There is enough angst in us about our spiritual and liturgical ancestry that we are happy when a stranger in our midst knows that we are not Catholic.  Strangely enough, we are not so bothered if they confuse us with Methodists or Presbyterians or Baptists or some form of evangelical or non-denominational congregation.  Some might even be thankful that folks who walk into an average Lutheran congregation think it looks and acts and smells more like a mainline or evangelical congregation than a Roman Catholic one.  The question is:  Is this a good thing?

Sociologists of religion tend to classify the ELCA Lutherans as a mainline group and LCMS Lutherans as an evangelical group.  I don't know how the ELCA feels about this but if Missouri knows anything of its history we should be uncomfortable with the association.  When the Saxons came to America they were by and large shocked by the state of Lutheranism they found.  They determined not to compromise their Lutheran confession and its faithful practice even when they knew it would be misunderstood by the folks around them.  Today we are more likely than ever to be driven by the fear of being misunderstood than by the desire to maintain the distinctive liturgical practice of our confession.   The question is:  Is this a good thing?

My point is not that we ought to wear it as a badge of pride that people think us Roman but it is important that people identify our doctrine and practice as being catholic.  Let me put this another way.  The Lutheran distinctive on Sunday morning is not that we have a Lutheran form or way of doing things as much as who we are and what we do bears clear and unmistakable resemblance to the catholic tradition from which we were born and which our Confessions claim to preserve.  When this resemblance is lost, it means we have also lost our continuity with our own past and with the Christian past which we claim.

The critics of the liturgical movement have often claimed it is all about smells and bells.  They are wrong.  The recovery of our catholic identity on Sunday morning is not about aesthetics or preference but about continuity and faithfulness.  It is not about the restoration of practices unless those practices evidence the full restoration of faith (doctrine) and piety (practice).  The genius of orthodoxy is not only in right belief but right glory.  Lutherans have long insisted that they have the right belief but Sunday mornings often made folks wonder how the doctrine held could make so little difference in the liturgy practiced.  The liturgical movement was never about the recovery of right praise (doxa) in isolation from doctrine (right belief) but an insistence that if our right belief means anything at all, it will manifest itself in what we do on Sunday morning.

Sadly there are Lutherans who do the liturgy well but who do not believe its words.  There are those who genuflect at the incarnation but refuse to believe that Jesus was born of the Virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit.  There are those who ring bells at the consecration but refuse to believe in the reality of Scripture's story and who isolate the real presence to the imagination.  There is surely no glory in going through the motions without believing what the ceremonies signify just as there is not glory in believing rightly and then worshiping absent the ritual that gives form to the confession.  Which is worse?  Those who keep the form but without the content or those who keep the content but are uncomfortable with the form?  But it does not have to be this way. 

We keep the Mass not because the Mass is a nice thing to be kept but because the Mass is the means of grace (Word and Table).  We keep the ceremonies and church usages of the Mass not because they are nice things but because they are postures and actions that flow from the dogmatic content of that Mass.  Lutherans began life by presuming this intrinsic connection and only as the Reformation grows distant in time have we find Lutherans uncomfortable with the content and uncomfortable with its liturgical expression.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Pastor Peters,

I could not agree more with your ideas about what should be done, but I have to take issue with you when you say, "We do...." My own experience of Lutheraniam, about 25 years worth, was much more aligned with "We don't..."

You do an excellent job of describing how things ought to be, but, in my estimation, you are far off the mark with regard to how things actually are. I think you know this, and we are really discussing semantics here, but this is how your fine article struck me.

Fr. D+
Anglican Priest

Robert E. Waters said...

But was it Lutheranism, Father, or the ELCA? Or that portion of the LCMS which is embarrassed to be Lutheran?