After 25 years of publishing, the Gottesdienst editors met for a first ever retreat. It was a time of not only meditation upon our Lord and His Gospel (with, of course, the prayer offices anchoring our time in the Word of God and worship of the Most Holy Trinity), but also reflection on our purpose, with the intent of strategic planning.
My own involvement in Gottesdienst began as a Lutheran layman who somehow got a copy of the journal. Little did I know that I would join the editorial staff in 2008 as a pastor. And over the years, I have heard all the distortions of purpose and false descriptions of Gottesdienst's editors and writers in a regular litany of what we call today "fake news," including:
- Liturgical Pietists
- More concerned with how to hold their hands than the Gospel
- Haters of the lost
- No heart for missions
and so on.
The technical Latin terminology for these charges is "bubulum stercus."
As I've gotten to know the editors over the years, I have found them to be men of not only deep knowledge (many of them with advanced degrees), but also of evangelical pastoral sensitivity and devotion to our Lord, to their vocations, and to the people whom they love and serve in their calls. Anyone who says otherwise is either misinformed or a liar.
In fact, the setting of our retreat itself became for me a microcosm of our purpose.
We met at the DeKoven Center in Racine, Wisconsin: a retreat center run by the Episcopal Church. It is exquisitely beautiful, located on the shores of Lake Michigan in the former campus of Racine College.
The Rev. Dr. James DeKoven (1831-1879) was the warden of the college from 1859 until his death. He was clearly beloved as evident by his pictures and various tributes (my room was actually Father DeKoven's room when we served as the school's warden).
The DeKoven Center is a treasure. The buildings are stately and gothic. Taylor Hall, where we stayed, is apportioned beautifully with antique furniture and bookcases filled with magnificent old tomes. There are elegant portraits and ecclesiastical art adorning the walls. St. Mary's Chapel is simple and yet stately, elegant without being garish. We met in a picturesque library filled with the wisdom of the ages.
One piece of art that caught our eyes was a small wooden statue of a man who looked like Don Quixote. It was carved "Fr. DeKoven." At his feet were four bishop's miters. We asked what this was about, and we learned about this remarkable churchman.
Dr. DeKoven was a priest who was part of the Oxford Movement. Although he was gifted as a cleric and educator, a highly-respected preacher, and beloved by the people - he was seen as a threat by the powers-that-be. He was elected - on four separate occasions - to serve as a bishop, but each time, his elections were blocked by church bureaucrats. Father DeKoven was also offered three plum pastorates, which he turned down to continue his work in education. He died tragically at the age of 47. The city of Racine closed for his funeral, which attracted some 5,000 people. Father DeKoven was canonized by the Anglican Communion, and his feast day is March 22 (he is titled "Blessed James DeKoven").
During his lifetime, he was derided as a ritualist, a pejorative term for those in the church who sought to re-adopt often lost ancient liturgical practices, vestments, and piety; the catholic, sacramental, and incarnational aspects of worship; the beauty, majesty, and mystery that befits our conduct in the very Presence of God Incarnate.
We thought, "Now this guy's one of us!" He even caught flack from the "usual suspects."
Blessed Father DeKoven is buried on the grounds, and his tomb bears the words: "He being dead yet speaketh." Of course, through his words and deeds, his work goes on in the church - even as one generation passes the torch to another, and even as preachers continue to proclaim the Gospel long after any one of us is placed in the grave to await the resurrection. Father DeKoven's life, by his example, continues to speak to us - both as inspiration and as a warning.
Father DeKoven's unshakable commitment to the Holy Eucharist and all the ceremony that naturally accompanies it is an inspiration to all of us: especially as his refusal to compromise cost him advancement in the church, more prestigious calls, and financial gain. His dedication to education and catechesis is also something that I found inspiring. Father DeKoven had his priorities in order, and could not be bought.
So what is Father DeKoven's warning? This is where the shallow charges against Gottesdienst are proven to be bubulum stercus. For Father DeKoven speaketh from the dead as a Jacob Marley character, warning us that liturgy for the sake of liturgy is not enough.
Though our own Lutheran version of the liturgical movement may have much in common with the Oxford Movement of Anglicanism, we are not promoting liturgy divorced from our evangelical confession. While the Oxford Movement promoted liturgical practice, it did so without real confessional writings other than the Book of Common Prayer. As magnificent a resource as it is, it is not enough. Liturgy can indeed preserve the church through dark times, but liturgy alone runs the risk of becoming the stuff of hermetically-sealed glass cases in museums where a handful of scholars and bored schoolchildren on field trips peer at it through the dust.
For even after the glories that came to Anglicanism as a result of the work of the Oxford Movement and faithful churchmen like Father DeKoven, look at the Anglican Communion and its American manifestation, the Episcopal Church, today. To say that it has become a dumpster fire is not charitable to waste bins. Of course, there are besieged Christians still in the ECUSA and across the Communion of Canterbury, but look at what it has become, unmoored from the Bible and disengaged from the catholic confession of the Holy Christian Church. The Episcopal Church in particular has come to embrace nearly every heresy possible.
The dumpster fire is not limited to the ECUSA, but also includes the largest grouping of people using the name "Lutheran" in North America. Indeed, the ELCA is no longer His Church, but has become a nightmarish goddess-worshiping apostasy: herchurch. The mainstream Church (sic) of Sweden has likewise become a neopagan cult replete with gay porn in Uppsala Cathedral (I will not provide a link, the exhibit known as Ecce Homo, shocked even far-liberal Swedes). "Lutherans" also become a hollow shell when they (God forbid!) forsake the Bible and the Confessions.
The bubulum stercus about Gottesdienst being devoted to "chancel prancing" and is divorced from the life of the ordinary Christian is, well, bubulum stercus.
We are devoted to liturgy, to beauty, to reverence, to our rich traditional hymnody, to holy silence, to conducting ourselves with humble dignity in the Lord's Presence - as well as teaching how this is done in the real world. And yet our liturgical devotion is rooted in the Scriptures and in our Book of Concord, centered on the cross and justification, manifest in both rite and preaching. For us, the liturgy is not a pageant, but rather the natural living out of our faith - not just in the chancel and the nave, but in our homes, our schools, and our workplaces. Liturgy is not just rubrics in a hymnal, it is rather how the Christian comports himself at all times. This is why Gottesdienst isn't limited to explaining the "hows" of worship (though that is part of our mission). We also address the things that shape our piety, be they cultural, ecclesiastical, or synodical. For these things affect how we worship, and how we worship affects these things.
And so we have heard anew Father DeKoven speak to us, of the glories of restoring a rich liturgical practice, as well as the warning of doing so apart from our confession.
We prayerfully laid some short- and long-term plans to influence our little corner of the Church Catholic in matters liturgical, as well as in matters catechetical, confessional, cultural, synodical, educational, social, and practical. We editors have committed to a renewed emphasis on our blog. We have brought onboard four new bloggers. We are implementing new columns for the journal, a new book project, and another very special project that will roll out soon - which will remain a surprise for now.
For at its heart, liturgy is not the stuff of the ivory tower. Liturgy is practical. It is praxis. It is practice. It is the church's evangelical and catholic confession lived out reverently coram Deo.
So if you mention Gottesdienst to someone who rolls his or her eyes in response, and recites the hackneyed litany of what Gottesdienst is (not) all about, there is indeed an appropriate liturgical response, one that even includes our much-maligned explanation of hand-placement. You can extend your index and pinky fingers of your upraised hand, and say: "bubulum stercus."
I think Father DeKoven would approve.