Thursday, May 3, 2012

Role models and personal preference...

I recently had a "come to Jesus" talk with our acolytes.  Every now and then it is good to remind them of the serious nature of their role within the liturgy and of their need to take this responsibility seriously.  I mentioned to one of them about kneeling but this acolyte insisted kneeling was not a preference.  It is not about your personal preference when you are a servant/leader in the liturgy.  Your personal preference takes second place to being a role model -- modelling the fullness of the liturgical ceremony.  You will kneel.  To another it was about singing the hymns.  But some of the hymns we sing, this acolyte did not like.  Again, it is not about your likes or dislikes.  As a role model in the liturgy -- even as an acolyte -- your personal taste is second to modelling the full participation in the liturgy.  We have spoken in this way to others involved in the Divine Service.  Maybe other Pastors have had conversations like this with acolytes or assisting ministers, etc...

As I thought about it afterwards, I wondered if perhaps I was being hypocritical.  Should we expect this of an acolyte while allowing the Pastor free rein to apply his personal preference to his leadership of the liturgy?  I have often heard it said, "My personal preference is not to cross myself..." or "My personal preference is alb and stole..." or "My personal preference is chanting..." or "My personal preference is common cup..."  or "My personal preference is to preach without the constraint of a pulpit..." or "My personal preference is to elevate..."  The more I thought about it, the worse I felt.  We tell others who play assisting roles that personal preference is not the primary criterion for what is done or not done (especially with respect to ceremonial) but then we Pastors turn right around and express our own personal preferences in the way we lead worship.  Perhaps we need to be told to heed our own words.

In a perfect world, the Pastor and those who assist him in the Divine Service should cast aside preference or even comfort level and model the fullness of the church's ceremonial before the congregation.  Those in the pew will not learn about or learn to appreciate something they do not see modeled before them on a weekly basis.  We who serve in leadership roles in the Divine Service (servant leadership to be sure) should be careful about inadvertently expressing personal preference as the primary requisite for what the Church does in the Divine Service.

If there are notes to be chanted, we should chant.  If the sign of the cross is made in this place or that, we should make it.  If the full vesture of the Church is available to us, we should wear it.  If the chalice is available, it should be the model and primary method of distribution.  If we can kneel, we should kneel.  If hymns are appointed to be sung (except perhaps during the distribution), we should sing them... all stanzas.  If the rubrics require or allow a certain ceremonial as visual counterpart to what is happening in the liturgy and what is confessed therein, then we better have a pretty darn good reason why we are not following that rubric or doing the action that accompanies the words.  Personal preference does not cut it.

"What I like to do..." should not enter in.  Personal preference and taste are hidden or set aside in favor of the fullness of the Divine Service as is available.  This will certainly mean that the ceremonies of the liturgy will vary from place to place, from what is accessible or available and what is not, but the reason for the difference will not be "I like" or "I don't like."

Adiaphora does not mean that personal taste or preference is allowed to real.  Adiaphora does not mean do what feels good to you or what you like.  Adiaphora simply means that rules cannot be made binding upon the conscience which go beyond the Scripture.  Adiaphora does not displace the idea that my own personal preference is set aside for the sake of unity, order, identity, and expressing before the people of God the fullness of the Divine Service (as is accessible to us).  If there are differences in the ritual, it should be because of limitation of circumstance, availability, or resource and not simply because "I don't like it..."

Nothing does more harm to a congregation than when a Pastor comes who models the fuller ceremonial of the Divine Service and, when he leaves, his successor prefers to do something else.  The people are held captive to personal preference of the Pastor as if it were some prerogative of office denied to them as laity.  What you wear, what you do, and how you do it in the Divine Service should not be held prisoner to your preference or desire.  The people deserve more than this.  We cannot and should not legislate uniformity but at least the Pastors who lead the Divine Service should act with a higher goal than modeling their personally preferences to the people.  They are models (as are acolytes, assisting ministers, etc.).  You model the best and so that the teaching of your practice is consistent with your teaching in words.  As true as that is, it is even more true for the Divine Service and how we approach rubric, ceremony, ritual, and church usage.

Once our new (12 years old this year) building was completed, someone in the parish said, "Pastor, are you happy you got your new building?"  "My new building?" I replied.  "Well, isn't it what you wanted?" they asked.  "No, it was not my choice."  Larry Peters likes tall, long, narrow, dark, stone structures more than the wide, bright, and cheery structure we have.  After the architect listened to people in the parish, I worked with the firm to develop this into something that would serve the liturgy best but there is hardly anything in this building that is Larry Peters.  Oh, to be sure, there are things that a lot of people did not know were Lutheran (kneelers, as an example) but they are not there for Larry Peters.  Larry Peters would have knelt whether or not kneelers were in the pews.  This was an opportunity for the people in the pew to choose to kneel as well.  And no is making anyone kneel so that choice is theirs and not mine.  But it is my role and purpose to model the best and richest and fullest of the Lutheran identity in the Divine Service (or daily offices) whether or not these are my personal preference.  We do many things that are not my personal preference and we sing many hymns I do not like. 

Lutheran liturgical practice tends toward minimums.  This is most confusing.  We proclaim expansive grace that undoes sin, death, the devil, and even God's own justice and righteous wrath over sin. But then when it comes to Sunday mornings we tell ourselves over and over again that it matters not to God what we do or how we do it -- except that we enjoy it and are sincere.  If we do what we want on Sunday morning, then we will do it better and therefore God will be pleased.  Funny how easy it is to justify personal choice and minimalism.

We are so accustomed to like buttons that we have forgotten basic truth.  Personal preference or liking something is not the highest goal.  Even in some liturgical congregations, we tend to speak the same language as the market place with all its choices.  "We do what we want or like; don't keep us from doing what we want or like and we will not demand that you be like us."  But that misses the whole point of what the ceremonial of the Divine Service is about.  This is what we do.... who we are... When it comes to what we do on Sunday morning it is as simple as that -- or at least it should be.


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

There are many things that I would prefer to do here at my church, but they are not the custom of this congregation, so I don't get to do them. Oh well. As a pastor I am to serve a congregation, not turn it into a personal playground for my whims.

Anonymous said...

The idea of the Pastor modelling the fullness of the ceremonies of the Mass had never occurred to me before. It is a fascinating thought. How else would the people know of these unless they witnessed them first hand? I sense that you are not saying that these are demanded of the people but modeled for them; this is a very different matter. I like the idea of modelling.

Anonymous said...

I always wanted to cross myself but felt self-conscious and unsure. I watched the pastor but he made it in the air and not over himself so I began attending a Roman Catholic service enough so that I could watch it and see it and then learn it. It would have been wonderful to have learned it in my own Missouri congregation.