Friday, April 5, 2013

Situation Liturgical Theology. . .

I grew up in the age when situation ethics took the scene by storm.  Joseph Fletcher had a hit book with a subject and an approach to ethics and morality that fit the moment.  We were a nation, a culture, and a Christianity facing change.  From the seeds of free sex, anti-war sentiment, and the rise of a counter-culture movement was born an ethical approach in which rights and wrongs were replaced with shades of gray.  It was a time in which principles gave way to context, the triumph of an ethical system in which acts were no longer judged against a codified morality but against the immediate context.  In such a system the very same action could be morally right in one context and morally wrong in another.  Whether intended or not, the implicit understanding of this case by case ethical approach was to leave it to the actor to judge his or her own actions.  It became almost sacred to believe that just as the context would determine the rightness or wrongness of an action, so the actor was the only one truly qualified to judge the context and therefore the morality of what he said or did.

While not so radical as it was in 1966, the approach has become ordinary.  From its fruits we have reaped abortion, free sex, and transformative approaches to marriage and family.  Who would have thought that an approach to ethics might be used for liturgical theology and practice.  That is exactly what seems to have happened.  At the time Fletcher was finishing his book, churches in America were beginning to break out of the liturgical patterns of their past and explore what they found outside their own heritage.  Within a decade, the cultural turmoil would give way to the start of a liturgical chaos made possible in large measure by the technology of a photocopier within financial reach of almost any parish budget.  Another decade and the personal computer would make it easy what the copy machine had made possible.  Another few years and desk top publishing would make what you see in an average worship bulletin as clear and artistic as what was once possible only by a mighty publishing concern.

Now the worship of the churches has become extremely congregational.  Not content with the ordinary options inherent in the liturgy, the freedom afforded the local clergy and congregation have made it hard to define what is or is not representative of their own theological tradition.  It is not that parishes are printing out the entire worship service or hymns for ease of use but that what they print out is borrowed from every possible source or created as a liturgy du jour week after week after week. 

Liturgical theology has given way to the rise and rule of context.  Context now governs all things liturgical.  What we do and how we do it are defined locally.  The freedom to do what is appropriate to the circumstance has become license to do whatever is desired.  This liturgical chaos is not limited to Lutherans.  Roman Catholics complain about ad lib and ad hoc versions of the Mass that is supposed to be governed by laws and rules.  Methodists and Presbyterians have joined everyone else in picking and choosing a liturgical identity for Sunday morning which varies with the landscape.  There are certainly those who complain about this (me being one of them) yet the principle to which the practitioners of this liturgical entrepreneurship appeal is freedom (another word for context).

Nothing in worship is right or wrong anymore.  No one can judge another for context is everything and only the local situation can judge the context.  We have taken congregationalism to the extreme and made it the prime liturgical principle as well.  Liturgical decisions and choices follow flexible guidelines rather than absolute rules and must be reviewed on a case by case basis, with those invested in the context making the ultimate determination about what is right.

Moreover, the flexible guidelines are no longer liturgical theology or specific rubrics but completely different concerns.  Appeal to the unchurched, cultural practices, and personal preferences have become the only guidelines that apply to the decisions made about what will happen on Sunday morning.  We have completely reversed St. Paul's dictum about not all things possible being beneficial and have decided that because it is possible it must be good -- how good waits to be determined until after it is used and the criteria for judgment have everything to do with what people think or feel and almost nothing to do with what is faithful to the standard of belief and the confession of faith.

Situation ethics is an exception morality in which outcomes determine what is moral and what is not.  Situation liturgical theology and practice is an exception based practice in which outcomes determine what is good, wise, right, and salutary.  Though no one would do this, it is about like taking a poll of the folks after each action in worship and deciding then if it "worked" or if people "liked it" or, best of all, if it was "moving".

The liturgical chaos spread across nearly all churches in America will not change until we ditch this situation approach to liturgical theology and practice.  It will not pause until we begin to believe that we have just as significant responsibility to our confession of faith and other congregations who confess this same faith as we have to the local situation.  It will not relent until we affirm that doing whatever seems right in our own eyes is not a definition of liturgical success but of selfishness, self-centeredness, and sin.  

Right now it does not seem that we are willing to surrender any of what we believe is our right to do what is right in our own eyes.  The only love not worth mustering is the love that might infringe upon our freedom to do as we judge right through the lens of context.  The greatest sin in our age of liturgical confusion is that we did not do what we could have done but did what we should have done.  That might imply that the tyranny of context is not a good thing and that is one step further than most, even some conservatives, are willing to go.


Rich Kauzlarich said...

Pr Peters: Thank you for bringing this problem forward.

RomGabe said...

Wow. That was powerful. Thank you for the clear analogy and wakeup call.