Tuesday, August 22, 2017
Nobody's fault. . .
Who could have foreseen what was going to happen in Missouri, what was already underway by the time the 1965 Detroit Convention voted to invite other Lutherans to work on this common book of worship? Who could have known that a few years hence the partners of Missouri would have chosen to ordain women and radically transform the shape and direction of Lutheranism in America? Who could have known that what seemed to be the right time to cast aside the 80-90 year tradition of the Common Service would turn out to be a pivotal event in Lutheran worship life? Who could have recognized that while this was happening the technological revolution in printing would make a hymnal a question more than an exclamation point? Who have seen that the invention of a personal computer would enable every backwoods parish into a publishing dynamo capable of putting out every week not only something new but rather professional in appearance?
At the time the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship was sending out its paperbacks to the rhythm beat of change, I was in college and seminary. It was a heady day and I was all for the change. I was tired of the old liturgy and its staid, dull, and predictable pattern and thought that a new liturgy and a new hymnal would save us from ourselves. I was all into tie-dyed chasubles and candelabra made of old wine bottles and the sound of guitar or even a small jazz ensemble accompanying the liturgy and hymns. How wrong I was! I was in love with my own youth and had confidence in myself and in the spirit of the age. The new mood in Lutheran worship proved to be a destructive depression that erupted in a dark disconnect with the past. Every catholic movement begins with continuity and I was too ready to give birth to something new and discard the mom in the process.
Yes, there have been some good fruits that accompanied the changes that also have helped to stifle the growth of Lutheranism on the cusp of the 1960s and 1970s. Yes, we have recovered more than ever the pattern of our Confession of the weekly Divine Service and we have recovered Eucharistic vestments and the catholic shape of our liturgical tradition. But this happened in spite of our penchant for change and our dissatisfaction with the status quo. The fruits were not the direct consequence of the imposition of new hymnals upon somewhat interested parishioners but they came at the same time as did our housecleaning of our past.
Although the lectionary change brought more Scripture into the life of the Christian, it did so at a time when the Christ crucified and risen was being replaced by a friendly Jesus who just wanted us to be happy. We embraced a three year lectionary at the very moment our attention span was constricting. We could hear more but did we? We manipulated the readings assigned toward political and cultural ends at the very time when we were most suspicious of the truth of the Word of the Lord (due largely to the scientific approach toward Scripture and the documentary hypothesis for the OT and the proto-evangelion underneath the Gospels of the NT). We reduced Jesus to a figure in history and we reduced the Gospel to the present life, forgetting that the resurrection is the lynch pin of the truth and our hope rests in a new heaven, a new earth, and a new and glorious flesh -- which only Jesus can give.
No, I do not believe the Common Service of 1888 or The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941 was the golden age of Lutheranism. I do not hold the historic lectionary as sacred. I am not sure there ever was a pristine moment or a sacred pericopal system. We have faced different struggles at different times and each epoch in our history has brought with it gain and loss. We are sinners and the only constant among us is both the sinful nature and the grace that rescues us from ourselves, the God incarnate, Jesus Christ, whose death gives us life and whose resurrection is our hope. I do believe it is possible to retain the catholic shape and faithful confessional witness that has embodied our Lutheran identity even within the rites that have now become old (the LBW and LW settings that, at least for Missouri, now sit side by side with page 15 of TLH).
It is not the fault of any single individual or even a small group. Churches willingly participate in apostasy and heresy. They also willingly embrace change. We are all looking for new and improved. It is still enticing to us to wonder what the latest phone offers that our old one does not. Nobody's fault but all our fault and now our lament. What began as a move toward a common liturgical tradition and hymnal ended up with the most individualistic and diverse pattern of worship among Lutherans normally rather hesitant to embrace all things new. Now we covet this diversity even more than unity! We do this not simply among the educated and elites but on the plains of the Midwest (the heartland of Lutheranism and Lutherans). The way we do it here has become more important that the way Lutherans do it. This is our new sacred.
The desire for a common hymnal was not bad but we forgot that before it could come, we needed a common faith, an uncommon confidence in the means of grace, and a confession raised with common voice. In the end, a common hymnal was not a loss for the fabric of Lutheranism was too broken to be papered over by a book in all our pews. The path to unity will not come from church conventions (though they are not the enemies of liturgical unity and the healthful liturgical uniformity we often make them to be). The path to unity will come from pastors and parishes determined to be Lutheran on Sunday morning (with the surprise being that what is Lutheran is, by definition of our confessions, that which is catholic in doctrine and practice). It will be a ground up movement, a grass roots movement, and a unity that is discovered and affirmed parish by parish, place by place, little by little. And it will be fed and nourished by those who come from seminary fresh with the tradition of a faithful liturgical identity nurtured not only in the classroom but in the chapel. It will build upon old men (may I count myself here) who have rejected the liturgical fascination with newness of their youth and learned that real liturgical change is deliberate and slow and knows a hermeneutic of continuity. But it may be hindered by those who insist upon lockstep uniformity or nothing at all. It can easily be derailed by a fixation on things on the fringes. Even if our own denomination will not survive, the Church of Christ will continue and will flourish where the Word is proclaimed faithfully, where the Sacraments administered with equal faithfulness, and where the confession is maintained faithfully in preaching to the Church and in witness before the world.