Monday, April 29, 2019

Leave it to the experts. . .

Some in Rome wonder how their church got from the rather careful and incremental expectations of liturgical change that are embodied within the documents of Vatican II to the radical disconnect in which the old or Latin Mass gave way to a vernacular mass that innovated more than reformed.  One suggestion is that it was the retreat of the people doing the mass (bishops and priests) and their decision to leave it to the experts that ended up with a liturgical renewal that looked more like invention than reform.

It was put like this:
Over the decades, an international network of professional Liturgical Experts had grown up who were mostly not particularly marked by precise or original scholarship but maintained a close network of meetings, conferences, and journals. After the Council, they soon came to dominate the Diocesan Liturgical Committees which the Bishops set up, and then the liturgical bureaucracies created by the Episcopal Conferences. Bishops felt that they themselves didn't really know about Liturgy and were glad to be able to leave it to The Experts.
I wonder if something of the same happened to the liturgical changes within Lutherans about the same time.  I wonder if there was not a view, not entirely uniform, that experts should be leading and guiding the discussion of what the liturgy ought to be.  I wonder if the fear that those doing the liturgy did not know the liturgy well enough was underneath the deference to the experts who should know best.

The experts in the liturgy should not be equated with academics who study such things.  To be sure, we need the academics and we should pay attention to them but the experts in the liturgy should be, if they are not, those who do the liturgy regularly.  In other words, the real experts are the pastors who lead the Divine Service and the people whom they lead.  At least they should be.  Sadly, if they are not, then we are in big trouble.

I have to admit that liturgical practice is often shaped less by what should be (consistent with our doctrine) than it is what people want or prefer or what, well, works.  Some of those leading God's people on Sunday morning have either deliberately chosen to be unschooled in their task or have decided other things are more important that presiding at the Divine Service.  By their lack of interest or by their decision to put other things ahead of the liturgy, they have positioned themselves and their people to be shifted by every wind of change in pursuit of that which satisfies the most folks or that which seems to work to pack the pews.  They have, in my humble opinion, failed in their primary task and abdicated their responsibility to whim, preference, or statistic.  No pastor should ever think that Sunday morning is utilitarian or a less important responsibility that justifies placing their attention elsewhere.  If Sunday morning fails, everything else in the parish suffers.  If the Divine Service is not source and summit of all that the pastor does and of the expectation and life of the people in his care, nothing good can replace this.

What it means to be an expert in something is to be familiar with it as one who knows it.  The experts in the liturgy are those who pray the liturgy regularly and faithfully.  Indeed, the liturgy is part of our catechesis and one of the schools in which we learn as well as practice the faith.  We are and ought always to be students of the liturgy -- both the pastors who lead the Divine Service and the people whom he leads in the Divine Service.  Know the liturgy well, like the back of your hand, and you are well on your way to becoming a so-called expert.

That means knowing the rubrics.  Red letter directions are not incidental helps but the signs and guideposts which help us know and understand what and why we are doing what we are doing in the Divine Service.  Both those leading and those being led need to know the rubrics.  Read the red and do the black.  That is not some witticism but the profound wisdom of becoming a star student in that which is the most important thing that happens in the life of the parish all week long.  This is our calling -- as pastors and as people -- to read the red and follow its guidance do it.  It amazes me how many people ignore the rubrics and it is so often quite obvious when those leading the Divine Service are ignorant of these important guides and rules.

While I am at it, knowing the liturgy means also knowing the church year, the pericopes, and the hymnal.  I well recall a cartoon in which a pastor pulled down a lever and the hymnboard spun the numbers until they settled in like a slot machine on the hymns for the day.  Sadly, this is more true to form than any care to admit.  The hymns, at least for Lutherans, are an integral part of the Divine Service and great care and wisdom should be employed in the choice of what is sung and when.  In the same way, preaching is not the only thing that suffers when each Sunday is viewed on its own and the pastor and people are blind to what has been and where the church year is going.  We have resources to help us here but no resource is more profound and essential than simply knowing it (dare I say it, memorizing by use the assigned portions of the lectionary and the hymns in the hymnal?).

As long as we defer to the experts, we will risk the loss of that which is most important or suffer the great disconnect when the pace of change runs faster than the minds and hearts of God's people.  But if we take up our roles (pastors and people) as experts by use of the liturgy and all its parts, we will be able to preserve what was passed down to us faithfully and manifest a hermeneutic of continuity in which the past is not the sole dictator of practice but neither is it of no consequence.  Rome found this out too late and is still trying to pick up the pieces.  Perhaps we are not as far gone as Rome but we as Lutherans have surely suffered in this vein as well.   

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