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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Chanting, Ceremonies, and Consciences

At a recent gathering where I was privy to some of the discussions and decisions regarding the conduct of the services, a quite different approach was taken to chanting (and to the music in general) than was taken with respect to other ceremonies.

One ceremony, in particular, was a matter of concern: Some of the pastors preferred to bend the knee (to genuflect), and others were not so inclined. No one disputed the freedom of this ceremony. No one suggested that it was commanded by God; nor did anyone argue that it was forbidden. But some were concerned that, by engaging in this admittedly free ceremony, the pastors who did so were confusing the people and burdening consciences. So, in order to avoid this danger, the ceremony was ruled "out of order."

Ceremonies in general were viewed with similar caution and suspicion, though I'm not aware that any other practices were given the ax. There were differences of opinion, naturally, but the basic perspective of those in charge seemed to be, that pastors should not risk doing anything that isn't necessary, pedagogical, or practical. It was implied that nothing should be done simply for the sake of reverence, elegance, and beauty . . .

Except for the ceremony of chanting (and music in general). In this case, the standard was set very high. The liturgy was not only to be chanted, but to be chanted well. It was expected to be beautiful. It was deliberately intended to impress the Christians who were gathered together for worship. It was to show the lay people an example of how nicely things could be done, even if those things weren't being done (or done so well) in their home congregations.

I do not recall any conversations as to whether chanting might burden anyone's conscience. Nor did I consider such concerns at the time. Why would I? I don't believe that the simple practice of a free ceremony burdens consciences. I do understand that what pastors do is not just a matter of their own personal piety, but a public profession of the faith, as well as a powerful means of catechesis. But where the Word of God is being taught in its truth and purity, and the Law and the Gospel are being properly distinguished, and the Gospel is predominating, there is little danger that chanting, as opposed to speaking, is going to shipwreck anyone's faith. There's precious little danger that bending the knee, as opposed to standing, will do so, either.

In retrospect, though, I am thinking about the insistence on a certain proficiency and quality of chanting. I'm wondering, too, about those pastors who were not permitted to participate in the services because their chanting wasn't up to snuff. What about the burden on their consciences? What about the message sent to other pastors, and to would-be future pastors?

I do believe that having standards is not only fine, but good and right. We should put our best foot forward. We should offer our best abilities and talents, the first fruits of God's good gifts to us. Not everyone has the same gifts, but each of us should serve where he is qualified to do so, as well as he can. So, it seems to me that, in certain circumstances, it is appropriate for a pastor who is not able to chant so well to step aside, in order that another pastor may serve that role with God-given skill. In other cases, and certainly within his own congregation, a pastor should simply chant as well as he is able, or else speak the Liturgy with simple dignity and reverence.

With that, I'm also thinking about the very different way that bending the knee was considered and dealt with at that gathering, in contrast to chanting. If it is appropriate to have high standards for the latter, should there not also be similar or analogous standards for the posture and movement of those pastors who serve at the Lord's Altar? As chanting is a form of elevated speech, so is bending the knee a more profound expression of humility. One's heart can be equally faithful with or without chanting, whether standing or kneeling; or equally hypocritical, either way. But we are dealing here with standards of conduct, that is to say, with outward ceremonies; which, while free, are not incidental. Clearly, these things have an impact and make an impression.

So, what is my point? On the one hand, I'm looking for greater clarity and consistency in the way that ceremonies are considered. I'm curious whether Lutherans may be particularly prone to a double-standard in this respect, in dealing with music on a quite different level than other ceremonies. Surely our concern for the neighbor's conscience should prevail in all circumstances, along with our strong defense and right exercise of freedom. And by the same token, we should be as concerned about the posture and movement of our bodies as we are about the quality and character of our voices. We should neither be cocky about our chanting, nor careless and cavalier in the conduct of any other ceremonies. The same Lord is the object of devout faith and reverent worship in each case, and the same neighbors are set alongside of us, that we might serve them with Christian courtesy, respect and love.