As Luther himself noted from personal experience, the monastic tradition of liturgy was simpler though not simple, and provided a marked contrast to the more elaborate forms and practices of a courtly setting. It is then somewhat surprising that the modern liturgical movement is born within the monastic tradition of Rome and spread from there to all liturgical churches. The liturgical movement was, in effect, providing the larger church with the forms preserved within the confines of the monastic tradition.
While it is not entirely fair to say that monastic liturgy was simple or universally simpler, it is true to say that on the whole it was simpler than the Baroque liturgies and than the liturgical settings of courtly life. But the liturgical movement began less with a reform to the mass than to the restoration of the daily offices typically absent from the life of most people outside the monastery or convent. Until modern times, these monastic communities retained the richness of the daily office and, though ritually ordered, they offered a picture of consistency, tranquility, dignity, and simplicity so often lacking in the chaotic shape of modern life. Monastic life flourished at the same time as the liturgical movement was coming into its own and the influence of liturgical scholars was being felt beyond the confines of a cloistered life, prior to 1950 or so.
Simplicity and tradition are not opposites nor do they compete. In fact, the monastic heritage of simplicity was thoroughly traditional even as it lived side by side the more elaborate settings of cathedral and court. Surely it is true that the aristocratic excesses of the Baroque era contributed to the grandeur and elaborate character of the mass, especially in cathedral and courtly setting and yet this seemed not at all to threaten the simpler setting of the monastic community anymore than the monastic life competed with the more elaborate settings.
In other words, it is not a choice. And this is true for Lutheranism no less than for Rome. As Luther envisioned Latin being retained in urban settings, living side by side the German Mass in the vernacular, so must simpler forms live side by side the more elaborate settings in our own day. Yet that is exactly the problem. No one insists that it is a betrayal of Lutheran identity to follow the form with a simpler ceremonial in rural Nebraska, for example, yet there is no shortage of folks who insist that the settings where musical resources and a more elaborate ceremonial are employed are not fully Lutheran. That is the problem we face today.
Our Confessions quoted approvingly both the liturgical tradition of the East and its doctrine and fathers. They did so even knowing that the Byzantine Divine Liturgy simply overflows with rich imagery, profound gesture, and deep ceremony. The Byzantines, it seems, did not succumb to the idea that there is a preference between the richer or simpler forms or one is more authentic than they other. They have resisted the cultural move toward minimalism, utilitarianism, and egalitarianism that have surely had profound influence over Western society, culture, and religion.
Nevertheless, we find ourselves at a time when a liturgical folk turn up their noses at the wholesale adoption of evangelical forms for confessional reasons and those who see liturgy as better simple, plain, and basic insist that this is Lutheranism drawn to its logical conclusion. They are not the same. Just as monastic life preserved the tradition, so must simpler liturgy preserve the tradition today. A more elaborate ceremonial should not threaten the places where it is not possible or authentic and neither should a simpler liturgical setting dismiss those who have retained the once common and familiar shapes of our liturgical piety. Strangely enough, we live at a time when the hymnal is seen as the fullest liturgical expression that must adopted in small bites while the more elaborate ceremonial once normative among Lutherans is rejected out of hand as a betrayal of that hymnal and suggestive of Roman sympathy. What fools we have become!
A liturgical parish like mine does not threaten the parish a couple of hours down the road that has no organist, speaks most of the liturgy, sings fewer hymns, and observes the rubrics without elaboration. Maybe I am wrong but I find few voices insisting that every Lutheran parish must employ all the ritual and ceremonial of our tradition to be authentically Lutheran. I do find many voices in our church body insisting that the Lutheran parishes who do employ the richer liturgical and ceremonial aspects of our tradition to be less than Lutheran. As once the simpler tradition of the monastery lived side by side the more elaborate one of cathedral and court, so must Lutherans learn to do the same. Note, however, that I have said nothing to encourage those who have thrown out the baby with the bath water and whose Sunday morning worship bears little or no resemblance to the forms resident in our hymnals and agendas. That, my friends, is a different fish to fry.