NOTE to Lay Readers of this blog: Some of the blog posts on One Lutheran…Ablog! are directed more to fellow clergy than they are to the general public, and may contain material that without the proper training or context could be misunderstood. This is one of those posts. If you read it, please understand that conversations like this are common among us pastors, and are useful in sharpening our skills as shepherds of Christ’s flock.
There is a false caricature that is being put forward by a respected colleague in the Ministry regarding some so-called “high church” pastors and congregations (you can find the posts here and here, and some responses here and here by the Gottesdienst bloggers). It is this idea that they are obsessed with rubrics for the sake of rubrics and that they criticize and frown upon pastors and congregations that do not, for one reason or another, make full use of the ceremonies that are at our disposal as Lutherans.
I say it is a false caricature because in my interactions with these “dangerous” types (many of whom, to my great joy, call me a friend), never have I heard them criticize, frown upon, look down upon me or any other pastor or congregation that does not do things exactly like them (speaking here of pastors and congregations that use the hymns and liturgies in the hymnal, not those who completely abandon the liturgy). Nor have I ever gotten the sense from them that they are obsessed with rubrics, that they are doing their level best to heap up ceremonies as if it were some kind of hobby. Generally, they are interested in excellence, as men who are called to serve the living Christ at the altar.
What I have observed is a very pastoral desire to do whatever they can to extol the Gospel in its various forms, whether in preaching, or in Sacrament. And, rightly so, there is a criticism of fellow brothers in the Office who knowingly and intentionally conduct the liturgy in a haphazard way, so as to let people know that they are “just ordinary people.” Every other kind of laborer is honored and respected for the attention that is paid to detail in his or her craft. Why should it not be the same with those who labor with the Word of God? Why should the conduct of the Service get “short-shrift”?
Ceremonies are, as A. C. Piepkorn has noted, nothing more than practical amplifications of the general rules of reverence and courtesy. I might add order, as Paul H. D. Lang does in his book Ceremony and Celebration. But let us not forget another Biblical principle, expressed in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” As long as one understands that external ceremonies are not the essence of worship, but are useful for the sake of order, reverence, courtesy, or teaching, then there should not be a problem.
I know of no one among the group in question that does not fully understand the Confessional point that faith is the highest worship of God. In fact, I have heard it publicly preached that these things are not in and of themselves worship in the proper sense. I know of no one, nor have I ever even heard it suggested, that ceremonies such as kneeling or ornate vestments are necessary coram Deo, or necessary for justification. Nor have I ever heard any inkling from them that congregations are less than Lutheran that do not make full use of the historical usages. Maybe I am missing the point.
Of course the Word and the Sacraments are valid whether they are celebrated in a hospital room with little or no ceremony or in a church with all the “smells and bells.” But why the minimalistic approach? Is a Divine Service made somehow more beautiful by doing less? If the ministry of death (Old Covenant) was glorious, how much more glorious is the Ministry of the Spirit (New Covenant)?
Every pastor has to decide for himself, given the congregational circumstances in which he finds himself, what will be beneficial to the people, and what will not. But I am not in favor of false caricatures, especially when I know some of these men personally who are being implicated. No one is perfect, and no one’s practice is perfect. But surely there is nothing wrong with striving for excellence in one’s conduct of the Service. Surely there is no sin in trying to reign in our natural inclination to draw attention to ourselves.
It is not, as has been suggested, simply about “doing things my way” when a pastor wishes to adorn the preaching of the Word or the administration of the Sacraments with ceremonies that are in continuity with Lutheran (and longstanding Christian) tradition and in conformity with Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. Assuming the best about the motives of our brothers in office is part of keeping the Eighth Commandment. I believe this is one of those areas where this rule applies.
Should we exercise caution when re-introducing forgotten ceremonies? Absolutely. There is no benefit in scandalizing members of congregations. Is it good to seek the counsel of your neighboring pastors, and strive for uniformity in congregational practices? There can be no question. But to require a certain “middle of the road” standard, which if one goes beyond he or she is labeled “dangerous,” or accused of “doing his own thing,” that, I think, is unfair.
Our Confessions provide for us a helpful word of counsel: “We believe, teach, and confess that no church should condemn another because it has fewer or more external ceremonies not commanded by God, as long as there is mutual agreement in doctrine and in all its articles as well as in the right use of the holy sacraments, according to the familiar axiom, ‘Disagreement in fasting does not destroy agreement in faith’” (Formula of Concord, Ep., X7).
God be praised for men and women who fearlessly speak words of caution to their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. In all humility, we should listen to those words, and evaluate our own practice without getting defensive, or having knee-jerk reactions. I hope that this post will not be taken in that way, but that it will be taken as a friendly response. I do feel, however, that the criticism in this case is unfounded. Feel free to disagree with me. God’s peace be with you.
Rev. Paul L. Beisel