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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Ceremonies Revisited

by Larry Beane

There has recently been quite a ruckus here regarding the use of ceremonies in worship and under what circumstances a pastor should make changes.

There have also been some statements about "the Gottesdienst editors" regarding our motivations and what we consider to be the proper use of ceremonies in the Lutheran Divine Service.

Well, it should be apparent by now that "the Gottesdienst editors" are not in lockstep agreement on all matters. I don't purport to speak for anyone at Gottesdienst except myself. But given that my own contributions to the discussion seem to have been misunderstood, I'd like to throw out a few thoughts for clarification, and perhaps for further discussion.

Our confessions declare that the "chief use" of ceremony is to "teach the people" (AC 24:3). Ceremonies are a form of nonverbal communication, a way of proclaiming silently and confessing bodily. Also according to our confessions, we retain traditional ceremonies as a way of confessing that we have not introduced theological novelties, but are rather in continuity with the ancient Church (AC 24:40). They are confirmation that we do not act or teach "contrary to Scripture or to the Church catholic" (AC Conclusion 5).

It is not a coincidence that Baptists, Pentecostals, and non-denominational Christians, who believe in a purely symbolic view of the Lord's Supper, have little to no ceremony in their services and versions of the Lord's Supper. In the context of their disbelief in the Real Presence, it would be ridiculous for them to genuflect, elevate, chant, ring bells, or wear a chasuble. These ceremonies only make any sense at all in the context of the Real Presence. It also stands to reason that the use of grape juice instead of wine should pose them no real problem at all, as they hold the elements to be only ritual symbols anyway.

Reformed Christians, who deny the physical presence of Christ in the sacrament but confess a "spiritual presence," typically have more ceremony, reverence, and liturgical piety than the above group in the celebration of their version of the Lord's Supper.

Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox Christians, on the whole, have a more reverent and ceremonial celebration of the Lord's Supper than the above-mentioned Protestant groups. This is not by coincidence, but rather flows from the fact that these confessions believe that Jesus is miraculously and physically present at the altar.

It really isn't rocket science that Baptists and Roman Catholic pastors are going to dress, act, and comport themselves differently at their respective altars.

So, where does this leave us Lutherans?

We confess, with the other historic branches of Christianity, that Jesus is truly and bodily present on the altar, that the bread is the body of Christ and that the wine is the blood of Christ. It should be just as odd for us to behave as Baptists at the altar as it would be incongruous for them to genuflect and elevate.

We live in a culture that is not only heavily Protestant, but also subject to a kind of modern Gnosticism, a dualism that revels in "spirituality" at the expense of physicality of the type of the Real Presence. Sacraments are definitely not confessed in their historical context by most Christian churches in America. In that sense, we Lutherans (and all sacramental Christians) are swimming upstream. We have to find a way to confess and profess our theology that the Lord is physically and miraculously present in the Mass. Our confessions present ceremony as a means to that confession and catechesis.

The problem is that in the LCMS, we have a huge number of congregations resorting to entertainment instead of liturgy - now with the full backing and encouragement of the synodical apparatus. The seminaries themselves seem resigned to this reality. In the world of LCMS worship, you'll find everything from rock music and dancing girls to congregations trying to sell themselves as high-end coffee shops. Even in our traditional services, it is common to see pastors conduct the service with very little ceremonial, leaving hardly anything to "teach the people" and confess differently than Presbyterians or even Pentecostals. One can even find LCMS congregations shunning wine in favor of grape juice as our Baptist brethren do.

In many cases, our congregations have been in this condition for literally generations. One may find such things as infrequent communion, resistance to even such basic things as the sign of the cross, hostility against eucharistic vestments, and an expectation of ceremonial that would be right at home in Reformed churches. It should be no wonder that there are children and adults in the LCMS who are shocked to learn that our church actually teaches and confesses the Real Presence. That we do believe, teach, and confess this doctrine should be obvious in the way we conduct ourselves at the altar.

And like the authors of the Lutheran confessions, there are a lot of us LCMS pastors who believe we ought to retain the ancient ceremonies not only for their catechetical value in teaching, but also in their confession of the Lord's Presence and in their profession that we are in continuity with the ancient church, as opposed to being just another innovative sect or cult.

To this end, helpful ceremonies include such things as: genuflecting, chanting, the pastor's use of the sign of the cross, kissing the altar, and elevating the consecrated elements - all of which require no financial outlay or asking the congregation to do anything different. These are all things the pastor does in his office as celebrant, and in doing them, he is able to teach and confess without having to open his mouth. Some of these, the pastor may be able to implement quickly without a lot of teaching beforehand (as the gestures themselves are a form of teaching, just as the stained-glass windows and church architecture likewise "teach the people"), while others may require explicit catechesis and a slower pace of implementation.

It also goes without saying (or should anyway, but apparently doesn't) that these ceremonies or lack of them do not change the validity of the sacraments offered. They are not an exclusive barometer of piety or "Lutheranness" of any congregation or pastor. Ceremonies, at least under conditions of normalcy, are adiaphora. But at the same time, it would be wrong to consider adiaphora to be just a synonym for "unimportant" or liturgical license for "anything goes."

Some may argue that such ceremonies are "un-Lutheran" as they have, in many cases, long since fallen into disuse. Such a conclusion entirely misses the point about what is "Lutheran." In some matters, the liturgical reforms of the early Lutherans revived ancient evangelical practices that had been literally lost for centuries - such as the use of the vernacular in worship, and the revision of the canon to exclude innovations that had become the norm in all western churches of that time for centuries.

Even in the 1970s, the alb was considered by some in American Lutheranism to be "high church." Nowadays, it is rare to find any LCMS pastor (at least among those who preside at traditional worship services) who doesn't vest at least at this level of eucharistic dress. Even District Presidents and men who would wrinkle their noses at Gottesdienst will don an alb and cincture without batting an eye. At this point, chasubles have become so common as to routinely grace the pages of Lutheran Witness and Reporter without the hint of scandal. Similarly, half a century ago, clerical collars were hardly the norm, whereas even in congregations with very little ceremony, clerical garb doesn't even raise eyebrows today. Of course, someone had to take the first step. Someone had to endure the first round of slings and arrows for being on the leading edge of something that within a few years was destined to become quite normal. At this point, those who wear cassocks and genuflect at the altar are considered by some to be "extreme." Perhaps a decade from now, this will be as uneventful today as a pastor wearing a collar and an alb.

There is an old expression: "Those who say it can't be done are often interrupted by those who are doing it."

While it is certainly true that a pastor can act with unwise haste in such matters, he can also err on the other side. It would not only be unproductive, but also cruel and contrary to the Gospel for a pastor to attempt to compel his parishioners to cross themselves. But even understanding that there are certainly extraordinary circumstances and exceptional cases, there is nothing to prevent a pastor, even a newly-ordained seminary graduate, to cross himself at the altar from day one in the parish. If the pastor crossing himself becomes a scandal or is injurious to a person's faith, he can always stop doing it pending resolution of the problem. But simply becoming yet another pastor conducting the barest minimum of liturgical ceremony in fear of making waves can serve to further entrench a lack of ceremonies and a failure to untilize them to "teach the people." Such excessive caution can actually calcify the practice, making it yet harder for the next pastor to restore reverence at the altar. The lowest common denominator is not necessarily the best option.

Pastoral care, including ritual conduct of the Divine Service, is art, not science. It requires wisdom, sensitivity, and courage. There are no one-size-fits-all answers, nor is it automatically the loving, or even the wise thing to do, to resolve to maintain a level of ceremony that is more appropriate in a Baptist or Reformed church.

The Higher Things motto "Dare to be Lutheran" can be a helpful guide to pastors wrestling with how best to "teach the people" and confess a catholic theology of continuity that is at odds with the dominant religious tradition in our time, place, and culture.