Conscientiously Lutheran Liturgical Worship
A relatively new member of the WELS congregation I attend, who is a recent convert to confessional Lutheranism, told me not long ago, “I never thought that I would enjoy liturgical worship. In fact, two years ago, I would have rejected the notion out of hand as Roman heresy in practice... But... then I tried it. And there is only one word I have had for it since: Heavenly.” Not long after that, he confessed further: “That wasn't from the hymnal we use here, though. Don't tell pastor, but I think it was a Missouri Synod congregation. They are a small rural congregation and have a smaller hymnal, it was red, and used the King James... It was amazing... We always go there when we are in that part of Wisconsin.” He is a former Evangelical, and a very intelligent and thoughtful person whose company I enjoy immensely.
Of course, he was talking about the orders of service contained in the old The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH) published by the Synodical Conference in 1941, a hymnal which is still in wide use among confessional Lutherans, which seems to be the standard among congregations affiliated with ELDoNA (though they don't all use it, nor are they required to), and which was used during Matins, Vespers, and Divine Service (Wednesday Morning) during the Colloquium.
To quote from Rev. Rydecki's Dresden paper, “I am WELS, for now.” This means that, at present, “I am WELS.” Endeavoring to maintain fidelity to this fact during the worship services of the Colloquium translated to a posture of non-participant status during these worship services, though I will admit to humming along with the hymns and liturgical music, while singing the words in my head. No, I didn't resent them so much for not being WELS that I also refused to internally participate in manifestly orthodox worship. My outward non-participation was only a testimony of my non-fellowship status – though I highly doubt anyone there noticed or cared. So much for the testimony. However, I will also admit to reciting the Creed aloud, since the TLH used the text “I believe” rather than the “We believe” phraseology contained in the versions printed in the more contemporary WELS hymnal, Christian Worship (CW), and reasoning that, since the phrase, “under God,” can be properly understood I can therefore recite the Pledge of Allegiance alongside heterodox Christians, Muslims, Jews, pagans, agnostics and atheists, as long as I mean to do so as an individual pledge (i.e., I pledge allegiance... under God...) without necessarily meaning to offer it in unity with whatever aberrant significance anyone else may assign to it, then I can also publicly recite an accepted and embraced Ecumenical Creed versed in personal rather than collective terms without the risk of making a false confession or insinuating full agreement in all matters of doctrine and practice with those individuals reciting the same personally versed Creed alongside me. (Yes, legalism often begets long sentences... but most often they're just fun to write.).
All of this preamble to introduce the fact that this was the first time I had observed or in any way experienced a conscientious public execution of any order of service from the TLH, much less the the Divine Service on Wednesday Morning. To quote my friend, “It was heavenly.”
I had been liturgically reared in WELS on its hymnal Christian Worship, which, when executed with the utmost reverence and musical integrity (as I had been introduced to it and often experience it), is sufficient to assist the congregation in their worship by reminding them of who they are, who Christ is, where He is, and what they are doing together in that worship chamber. But it is definitely a comparatively diminished impact. Its contemporary language patterns and pop-folksy key changes alter the ambiance created by the liturgy and hymnody to such a degree that it appreciably reduces the gravity it would otherwise have, reducing its impact to that of the relatively inconsequential vulgar, or common everyday, speech patterns we all use to order a beer at the local bar and grill, ask for assistance at the hardware store, give instructions to our employees, or greet our customers and clients – and this is especially the case with the WELS CW Supplement, which for me has never been anything other than a manic ride through levity and fury (in fact, it's so distracting, I now simply refrain from participating when Supplement orders of service are used). That is, the word and tonal patterns employed in contemporary orders of service, coming from the same common stock of words and sounds we hear in everyday life, are not sufficient to assist the worshiper out of the worldly frame of mind in which he has thought, acted and spoken all week, and into a distinctly “other-worldly” and reverential Ecclesiastical frame of mind instead.
The fact is, an important aspect of “worshiping in spirit and Truth,” is endeavoring to function under God's command to be “in the World but not of it;” we are not of the world, but of the Body of Christ, that is, of the Church – this is fundamental, and the visible church simply fails in its aspirations to represent the Church Universal on Earth if it aspires to worldliness in its practice rather than the “other-worldliness” to which it is commanded. And this is recognized among most conscientious Lutherans, I think – if not in these same explicit terms, then at least implicitly. Thus, if the word and tonal patterns employed in contemporary orders of service are not sufficient to appreciably assist the worshiper out of his worldly frame of mind, the task falls entirely upon the shoulders of the liturgist (usually the Pastor), the organist (and/or other musicians), and upon the intellect of the worshiper. That is to say, though the words may be easier for the modern liturgist to say, the overall tasks of the liturgist and organist are made inordinately more difficult, while the worship of the congregation necessarily becomes more cerebral. Often, neither the liturgist, nor the organist nor the worshipers are up to the task, and the congregation becomes increasingly comfortable with the creeping invasion of worldliness into the church's worship practice.
These are the thoughts that began to percolate as I sat through Matins and Vespers on Monday and Tuesday of the 2013 Colloquium and Synod of the ELDoNA, and struck me squarely as I sat through Divine Service on Wednesday. Having now finally sat through the liturgies of the TLH, I can confidently and emphatically say, “No one talks like that any more; no one hears music like that anymore; it is entirely out of place in the world of today.” And this is precisely the reason we should want to use these older liturgies. Though prior to this I'd understood and defended this fact primarily from the standpoint of reason (also extrapolating from experience with WELS CW), I now have first-hand experience with which to positively assert it.
No one talks that way anymore! – but everyone understands what the words are saying. Moreover, when people, especially Christians, hear the old Elizabethan language patterns, their first thought is not, “Oh, Shakespeare! Bunyan! Milton!” – nobody reads that stuff anymore, nor do they associate these language forms with an era of history, a nation, a queen, or a genre of English literature. Indeed, there are exponentially more readers of the King James Bible in the world today than there are readers of classic literature. On the contrary, when Elizabethan language forms are heard, especially when they are heard by Christians, those forms carry with them a sense of gravity, being immediately associated with the Church and the Teaching and Authority of Scripture as it comes to us from far in the past into the present – the Christian's thoughts are immediately carried away from the cares of this world, and set to dwell upon, and find solace in, the constancy and historicity of his cherished religion. Though Christians no longer use these language forms in the conduct of their everyday affairs, they nevertheless understand them and automatically associate them with the Church, its weighty tasks, and the authority with which Christ has charged her. For the Christian in today's world, Elizabethan language patterns in the context of worship carry the sounds of True and Enduring Religion, immediately grab the attention of the conscientious Christian, and set his mind in order.
As I sat through these TLH liturgies, listening to the distinctive form of language that in our era is exclusively associated with the Church, recognizing the precision and efficiency of Ecclesiastical terms spoken only by the Church, and hearing the unique sounds that only the Church makes, my mind was transported to a place far away from the world outside the walls of that building, to an “other place,” a place where God Himself comes to me with His Gospel and ministers to me, a place where the personal Word of Forgiveness is spoken directly to me by His ambassador, who was by Him given the authority to do so “in His stead and by His command.” That is, my mind was brought to center on the place where I had brought my body – God's Sanctuary – and it was the old liturgy of the TLH, with its old words that no one outside the Church really uses anymore, and with its old musical forms that no one outside the Church really uses anymore, that did most of the work of bringing my mind to that place. It wasn't the perfect execution of the liturgists and musicians, nor was it by exercise of “highly disciplined intellect” – but, almost immediately upon its opening sounds, the old liturgy more thoroughly assisted my worship in a way that more contemporary liturgies, with their vulgar language patterns and pop-folksy tonal progressions are simply unable.
Informal discussion with a few of the ELDoNA pastors left me with several impressions regarding worship practice among them.
- In every case, there is a palpable respect for the incarnational, sacramental, evangelical, historical liturgical practice of genuine confessional Lutheranism.
- There was nothing that struck me as “out of balance” about these men with respect to their views regarding the practice of Lutheran liturgical worship. One hears from certain quarters of the internet about these “Gottesdienst types” who supposedly affix “soteriological significance” to the position of the celebrant's fingers on the communion chalice, etc... I perceived none of this while at the Colloquium.
- While the TLH seems to be the preferred hymnal, not all congregations affiliated with the ELDoNA have moved back to using it yet, though that does seem to be the desire among those pastors whose congregations' move to the TLH is still pending. There was no indication that I could discern that such a move was mandated, but that it was, rather, a voluntary desire.
- While nearly all of the liturgy was chanted or sung at the Colloquium, not all congregations affiliated with the ELDoNA chant or sing the entire liturgy, nor are they required to. Some do, some don't, as the local circumstances warrant. But in all cases, the aspiration seems to be directed toward a reverent decorum and wholesome catholicity.
- At one point in time in the recent past, there was an internet rumour circulating that the ELDoNA “leaned pointedly East” in its worship practice. I don't recall the source, but I think it had something to do with the colours and patterns in the chasubles some of them chose to wear. Though I don't recall the source, or all the facts cited by that source, I'd been under that impression ever since. And I know I'm not the only one, as I have been contacted more than a few times in the past year, on Facebook and other IM tools, by people I've never met, expressing the same opinion and wanting to know what I thought about the ELDoNA in this regard. I could only confirm “what I'd heard.” So, while at the Colloquium, I asked. Now I know. The rumour is hogwash. Apparently, the rumour started the year that all of the pastors of the ELDoNA were pictured together having – purely by coincidence – grown heavy beards. This was also about the time that “a couple of Gottesdienst pastors defected East” – so the rumour was that the ELDoNA, with its beards and Gottesdienst connections (and, perhaps, with Eastern rather than Western patterns on their chasubles...), was tinged with Eastern Orthodoxy. Nope. They're not.
More to come, tomorrow...
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