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Gottesblog

A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Liturgical Extremism

By Larry Beane

It has become cliché that there are two extremes for everything.  And this often leads to the conclusion that the answer to "extremism" is to be lukewarm.  In liturgical matters, the reasoning runs like this: In the LCMS, one can find both praise bands and dancing girls on the one hand, and Gregorian chant and "smells and bells" on the other.  And since these represent the "liturgical extremes" in our synod, they both must be "wrong"; the "right" answer must be a compromise position in the mushy middle.  There is an assumption of the equality of opposites.

In other words, if liturgical dancers are bad, so must liturgical incense.  If we are opposed to Amy Grant, we must equally decry Gregorian chant.  This reasoning is often hurled at those who are sometimes labeled "high church."  This logic equates the lady in the skin-tight leotard to the lady covered by the mantilla - and condemns them both as the same side of the extremist coin.

So, according to this line of thought, the "right" way to conduct a Lutheran liturgy is to be liturgical, but not too liturgical; reverent, but not too reverent.  Page 15 (or its modern incarnation,  page 184) is fine, but without all of the chanting.  A plain-vanilla recitation of the Words of Institution is encouraged, but without the genuflecting and elevating.  Stole and alb are good, but chasubles represent "extremism."  The goal is to become a raging moderate.

The Rev. Prof. John Pless once cited a quip (if memory serves) that the Rev. Dr. Norman Nagel advised, tongue in cheek, that pastors wear their stoles a little crooked lest they be accused of being "high church."

I believe the solution to the plague of our liturgical diversity in the LCMS does not lie in some kind of golden middle, a compromise position that equates tradition with innovation and tries to play to the majority (and ends up like the proverbial possum on the yellow line in the middle of the road).  Rather, I think we should consider what is being confessed and what our circumstances are.

Luther complained that, in his day, vestments and such were treated in a superstitious way - as though the vestments and candles were the beating heart of the church (e.g. SA Preface:13; LC 1:314).  And thus, canon laws developed that micromanaged such aspects as to what had to be worn for what service and how many candles had to be placed on the altar.  This represents the true extreme: not the existence of chasubles, but rather the notion that they add to God's Word.  On the other hand, Luther famously chastised Karlstadt for his iconoclasm - for his extremism was the same thing: making the rejection of traditional vestments and liturgical forms an equal and opposite superstition.

The "happy middle" is not necessarily a "bronze age" page-15 service that steers clear of both hand-waving and kneeling.  Rather, avoiding the extremes is essentially to avoid the superstitions and legalism, and to enjoy the rich heritage of the church without turning them into a kind of cult, to retain the old and steer clear of the innovative - as is the liturgical position laid out in the Augsburg Confession and its Apology.

By way of example, I just finished reading the now-sainted Richard Wurmbrand's In God's Underground.  It is a more complete and autobiographical account than his bestselling Tortured for Christ.  Wurmbrand was a Lutheran pastor who courageously spent many years in prisons in Romania (as did his wife and son) for his Christian witness and ministry behind the Iron Curtain.  He went on to expose Communism to the west, and with his wife and son, founded Voice of the Martyrs.

I highly recommend this book as a spiritual exercise.  It provides the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of confessing Christ, of the role of faith, and the inevitability of the cross as part and parcel of the Christian life.  The book has very little Scripture and almost no doctrine.  It is not a theological treatise.  Nor is it dry history or personal hagiography.  It is an account of the triumph of faith and love in the most horrific of real-world conditions.  It is a good thing for American Christians to read, especially given that with few exceptions among us, we do not suffer for the faith.  And it is written by a Lutheran pastor to boot.  We have the luxury of debating doctrine and practice, and then going out for a steak dinner with our families afterward.

Not so for Christians who labor under oppression.

One passage struck me as being of particular interest to Gottesdienst readers, and led me to ponder the matter of liturgical extremism.

On page 203, Blessed Richard writes about the Divine Services that he conducted in between his two periods of imprisonment, the brief time he had in leading his congregation as a free man outside of prison, after the church buildings had been confiscated.  He writes:
"Our services were as simple and as beautiful as those of the first Christians 1900 years ago....  Sometimes we met in open country.  The sky was our cathedral; the birds supplied our music, the flowers our incense, the stars our candles, the angels were the acolytes who lit them, and the shabby suit of a martyr just freed from prison meant far more to us than the most precious priestly robes."

What strikes me here is that Pastor Wurmbrand gives us a window as to what the Lutheran liturgy of his time and place looked like (before Communism seized the building and the implements of worship).  Notice, he speaks of these things as beautiful, but not necessary.  He does not attack such things as vestments and incense, and nor does he treat them as the very essence of Christian worship.  He is avoiding the extremism of both groups criticized by Luther: those who clung to the superstition of tradition as essence and those who clung to the opposite superstition of iconoclasm as essence.  The Word and the Sacraments are the substance, and beautiful reverence is a confession - whether the reverence manifests itself in the chirp of a meadowlark or the chant of a choir.  And yet, the Word endures, whether in a Romanesque cathedral or a Romanian torture chamber, whether amid the smells of living tree sap in the forest, or surrounded by the aroma of tree sap that has been collected and placed into a thurible to be burned in a church edifice.  All of these beautiful things serve to confess the Triune God, the Atoning Christ, and His Word and Sacraments among his holy people.  All of these things aid our worship in the very real world in which our Lord took human flesh and dwelt among us.

Note that Wurmbrand does consider beauty - however limited by circumstance - to be part and parcel of Christian worship.

By necessity, the liturgy in these extreme circumstances was conducted in simplicity - but always with reverence.  And the implication is that if Communists were not forcing Christians to worship in "basements, attics, flats" and "country homes" (p. 203), then the beauty of the sky, the birds, the flowers, the stars, and even the suit of the martyr would certainly manifest themselves as a cathedral, music, incense, candles, acolytes, acolytes, and priestly garb.

And how sad that so many among us are willing to surrender that which is beautiful and reverent not because of the force of Communism, but rather by surrender to freedom.

Let us continue to pray for our persecuted brethren and beseech the Lord that they may one day return to their peaceful cathedrals amid the beauty and bounty of reverent worship hindered neither by the sirens of the People's Police nor the siren song of popular culture.  And let us pray that we may likewise benefit by the example, courage, and prayers of all the saints who have been formed by the cross through Word and Sacrament.