From time to time, there are those among us who issue warnings against those they deem to be "high church" or "too ceremonial." We are told that these "high-churchers" are guilty of some sort of infatuation with medieval rubrics and seek to incorporate these into their conduct of the Divine Service to produce a golden manner of ceremonial conduct that all Lutherans should readily emulate, and that they claim that those who do not emulate this conduct are less than ideal and sub-Lutheran. We are also told that these "high-churchers," with their ultra-ceremonial leanings, are just as guilty of abandoning true Lutheranism as those who pitch the liturgy altogether and do their own thing, which is never really their own thing, but always a mimicking of those who believe and practice a decidedly different thing than Lutherans. The idea is that there are supposedly two extremes, both of which are to be avoided.
Two such "fraternal warnings" have been issued just this past week, the first from Rev. Paul McCain over at his blog, Cyberbrethren; the second from Rev. Mark Schroeder, who commends Rev. McCain's post and expands on it over at BJS. In the attempt to justify the need for their warnings, Rev. McCain includes a quote from Hermann Sasse, where he warns Lutherans to steer clear of the "Liturgical Movement," which he believes leads to Rome, and Rev. Schroeder adds quotes from an Anglican (C.S. Lewis), a Roman Catholic (Hans Urs Von Bathassar), and a Lutheran (Dr. Luther himself). Additionally, in the comment section of Rev. Schroder's post on BJS, Rev. McCain adds some lengthy comments he received from a Confessional Lutheran in Germany on the issue, and Rev. Dr. Martin Noland applauds Rev. Schroeder's post and provides some historical background regarding the "Liturgical Renewal" movement.
The problem is that none of these guys actually provide any examples of what they see as dangerous from the so-called "high church" side of the equation. What exactly are we being warned to avoid here? Rev. McCain tells us:
I have read, in many places, and at various times, that there are those who wish to imply, suggest, or even say outright, that there is in fact a certain form of the Lutheran liturgy to which all should aspire in order for the Lutheran liturgy to be conducted most appropriately and most properly. Such claims, while well intentioned, are wrong.It would be nice if Rev. McCain would cite some of these implications, suggestions, and outright claims, so that we would be able to properly determine whether or not they are wrong and dangerous. As it is, this is akin to when that parishioner comes to the pastor and says, "People are saying . . ." What people?
Likewise, Rev. Schroeder posits that both "high churchers" and "contemporary worshipers" are guilty of turning the liturgy into a "tool" each "side" uses, according to its own tastes, to build the church up in its own image (or something like that), but, again, neglects to put any meat and bones on the straw man he has followed Rev. McCain in erecting.
Warning people about the danger of "high churchers" in our midst has been a hobby horse Rev. McCain has been riding for a long time. One would think that, as often as he mounts this particular hobby horse, he would have compiled for us a long list of examples of these nasty fellas who imply, suggest, or even say outright that there is a golden form of the Lutheran liturgy to which all should aspire, and that those who do not adhere to this golden form are less than Lutheran. But, he hasn't. Instead, we get the same old warnings about this supposed boogeyman who is as big a threat to our synodical unity as those who abandon the liturgy altogether, but we're never introduced to him.
I've challenged Rev. McCain on this issue several times in the past. When pressed hard enough, he'll tip his hand to reveal who he has in his cross-hairs, but, as it turns out, those he targets are not, in fact, guilty of his accusations, which makes them false. Who does he target? "The Gottesdienst Crowd" (a name Rev. McCain coined himself a while back), which refers to the editors of the excellent quarterly journal on the Lutheran Liturgy, Gottesdienst, and the editors of the Gottesdienst Online blog, as well as those who subscribe to, support, and follow the journal and blog (that would include me and many others).
Now, it is true that "The Gottesdienst Crowd" loves to study and talk about the liturgy. It is also true that they promote a ceremonial conduct of the liturgy that brings to life what we Lutherans believe, teach, and confess about what is actually taking place in the Divine Service, namely that our Lord Jesus Christ is Present in His Holy Word and in His Holy Body and Blood in the Sacrament. "The Gottesdienst Crowd" believes that this reality ought to inform our practice and conduct when in our Lord's Holy House. For that reason, it is common practice among those who belong to "The Gottesdienst Crowd" to bow, genuflect, make the sign of the cross, elevate the Body and Blood, employ reverence and care in Distributing the Sacrament and dealing with the reliquae, wear chasubles, chant, etc. Some view such ceremonial conduct as "high church," which is not a Lutheran, but an Anglican descriptor. But, fine. If someone wants to call this "high church," knock yourself out, but to claim that such ceremonial conduct does not belong to our Lutheran heritage and/or should be avoided is not fine, but, quite simply, wrong.
But, Rev. McCain claims that his warnings are not necessarily against such ceremonial conduct. He has even said that he loves all this stuff. He knows that such liturgical practices are part of our Lutheran heritage. So, what's his continual fuss all about? You can get an idea from this comment he made yesterday on FB in response to someone who said that we need not fear liturgical practices that are part of our heritage:
"Liturgical practices that are part of our heritage" are one thing, making people think that certain high church practices are essential to what it means to being and remaining a genuine Lutheran is quite something other.So, Rev. McCain's beef with "The Gottesdienst Crowd" is not with their love of the liturgy or their promotion of ceremonial conduct that matches what we Lutherans confess about our Lord Jesus being Present among us, but rather he is (and has been for some time) accusing them of claiming that their "high church practices" are "essential" and that anyone who doesn't employ them cannot be or remain a "genuine Lutheran."
This is patently false. "The Gottesdienst Crowd" has never made such a claim. Not in their journal. Not on their blog. Not at their conferences, many of which I have been blessed to attend. In fact, on the contrary, while they believe the kind of ceremonial conduct mentioned above best matches our Lutheran confession, all of them, to a man, has made it clear, time and time again, that these things are not "essential" and that the lack of these things does not make one less or un-Lutheran. Rev. McCain has been assured of this many times in the past and yet the accusations still fly, which means that he either refuses to listen or he believes that these men are liars.
In this latest go-round, which, unfortunately, provoked the BJS post in support of Rev. McCain mentioned above, as well as conversations on Gottesdienst Online and on FB, Rev. McCain honed in on a document containing an Ordinary of the Holy Mass on the website of Zion Lutheran in Detroit, where Pr. Mark Braden serves. Rev. McCain claims he was alerted to this Ordinary by a Lutheran pastor in Germany, which produced another post by Rev. McCain on his blog. However, what the reader of his blog post or his comments about this elsewhere were not made aware of is the fact that both Pr. Braden and a couple of his parishioners told Rev. McCain (publicly on FB and, evidently, via private correspondence as well) some weeks ago that the Ordinary used at Zion had been changed by Pr. Braden when he began serving there. Thus, Rev. McCain already knew full well that Pr. Braden had corrected some of the less than desirable portions of the Ordinary Zion had used in the past. One would think that Rev. McCain would have mentioned this little tidbit of information in his post linked above or in his comments elsewhere. Instead, he gave the impression that he was unaware of this and posted links to the controversial Ordinary in several places.
When called out on this, Rev. McCain made the point that, even though he was aware of the fact that Pr. Braden had made changes to the Ordinary used at Zion, he believed that the link to the old Ordinary should not still appear on their congregation's website. Fine. Maybe he's right about that. But, again, one wonders why he didn't make it known to readers of his blog and his comments elsewhere that he was aware that changes had been made. By not doing so, he gave the impression to those who clicked on the link to this Ordinary, which, again, he readily posted in several places, that Zion was still using it. That's bad form. It's reminiscent of the sort of media coverage we've been getting from the liberal left surrounding the HHS controversy, where facts are inconveniently left out to promote an agenda. I would expect more from a person in Rev. McCain's position, but, unfortunately, this has been his SOP for some time. Sad, that.
I recently wrote an op-ed piece for our local newspaper in response to a couple of articles that had appeared therein, which I titled, "Red Herrings, Straw Men, and Outright Lies." The piece was about the way our local opinion writers were simply regurgitating what the liberal media had served up in the aftermath of the hearing held to discuss how the HHS mandate infringed upon religious liberty, the hearing that featured the excellent testimony of our own synodical president. I find it sad that I can easily write a piece with the same title addressing the way Rev. McCain incessantly fusses over what he deems to be dangerous "high churchers" in our synod, for all we ever get from him are red herrings, straw men, and outright lies. Besides the convenient little "silver bullet" of the Ordinary posted at Zion's website, which turned out to be not-so-silver-bulletish after all, he has never produced any evidence that his accusations and warnings are warranted. It's a shame that others have now picked up his false mantel and are intent on producing warnings against the straw man he has erected.
If those labeled as dangerous "high churchers" in our synod actually claimed that anyone who does not employ the ceremonies they employ in their conduct of the Divine Service is not a genuine Lutheran, I would be the first in line to correct them. But, they have never, and do not now, make that claim. They employ the ceremonies they do because they want to conduct the Mass (Divine Service) with the "highest reverence" and "teach the people what they need to know about Christ," per AC XXIV above. In this way, ceremony is used as a "tool" of sorts, for all the bowing, genuflecting, elevating, etc. are not mere play things or tastes so-called "high churchers" love to dabble with, but a confession of the Lutheran faith they hold dear; a reverent confession of the Real Presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Mass. Is it really dangerous to make such a confession through the teaching aspect of ceremony? How any confessional Lutheran could answer in the affirmative is beyond me.
Furthermore, even if it could be proven that there are "high churchers" in our midst who are guilty of the accusations Rev. McCain often hurls, it does not follow that they would be "just as guilty" as those who abandon the liturgy altogether, an oft-made charge Rev. McCain (and now, others, sadly) make. As I posted on FB yesterday:
To make the claim that those who some deem to be "high churchers" are just as dangerous to the Lutheran confession of the faith as those who abandon the liturgy altogether and mimic the practices of those our Lutheran Confessions condemn is absurd. It's like saying that a husband who shows too much affection toward his wife is just as bad as a husband who cheats on his wife. Please, friends, stop drinking that kool-aid.I mean, that anyone could compare this . . .
. . . to this . . .
. . . and claim that both are equally guilty of the same thing is simply ridiculous. That should be self-evident. That it's not to some is rather disturbing.
Ceremonies teach, my friends. They also add beauty and dignity. Every Lutheran pastor in every LCMS congregation employs ceremonies. And, the people are taught by those ceremonies what they should believe. What those who are deemed "high churchers" advocate for are ceremonies that match our Lutheran confession of the faith. That's all. Nothing more, nothing less. If you attend a Divine Service where such "high churchers" serve, what you will be taught by the ceremonies employed is that it is believed and confessed in that place that our Lord Jesus Christ is Really Present and that, because of that reality, you are in a Holy Place, where reverence and awe are the order of the day. You simply cannot help but notice this, as great care is taken by such "high churchers" to take very seriously how they conduct themselves in the chancel, and how they approach the task of preaching, leading the liturgy, and consecrating and distributing the Most Holy Sacrament.
At the same time, those who are deemed "high churchers" and often feel the brunt of the false accusations hurled at them also take seriously the fact that our Lutheran Confessions make it vividly clear that ceremonies do not have to be the same everywhere. Indeed, even among "The Gottesdienst Crowd" often in Rev. McCain's cross-hairs, ceremonies differ from place to place. This is perfectly fine. Not every pastor has to conduct the liturgy in the exact same, lock-step way. Not every pastor absolutely must make the sign of the cross and bow and genuflect at all the customary places. Not every pastor must wear chasubles or chant or elevate, etc. There is no ultimate "Golden Form" of ceremonial conduct that all Lutheran pastors must aspire to or else live with the label of being less than Lutheran. To suggest that anyone teaches this is wrong and absurd.
But, what should be non-negotiable for any Lutheran pastor is that he take seriously what he is doing and strives for reverence and dignity as he fulfills his duty to be a steward of the mysteries of God. If his ceremonial conduct is such that those in attendance are taught to believe that Jesus is not really Present, but "up there in heaven," or that what's going on is not a holy encounter with our Holy God, but a time for fun and entertainment, chock full of dramas and skits and testimonials and "get-down-with-Jesus" songs and motivational messages by a pastor who goes out of his way to be hip and cool and "just one of the homies," well, then, the people are not being taught what they need to know about Christ, and the Lutheran confession of the faith is not being put into practice. Ceremonies teach. The question Lutheran pastors should always be asking is, "What are the ceremonies I'm using teaching the people?"
So, ceremonies do not have to be the same everywhere. No one is arguing that they do. But, the ceremonies we use do teach, and we should keep that always in mind, which is what "The Gottesdienst Crowd" has always been about, as you can glean for yourself in several recent posts offered at their blog here, here, here, here, and here.
With these repeated warnings and false accusations against so-called "high churchers," we are led to believe that it is somehow wrong to strive for the best in ceremonial conduct by Lutheran pastors, which seems quite odd. Do those warning and accusing really want to suggest that we should not strive for the best ceremonies to employ as we conduct the Divine Service? It would seem that striving for the best ceremonies to employ is automatically equated to "doing your own thing" and "creating a Golden Form everyone must emulate or else." Isn't it possible that those who strive for what they believe to be the best ceremonies to employ for the teaching of the faithful and the beauty and dignity of the Service are simply doing their best to uphold and foster our Lutheran confession of the faith? Are they not permitted to exercise their Lutheran piety without being accused or labeled? Evidently not, which is a shame.
What is the alternative to this? What is the goal of those who warn and accuse the "high churchers"? Is it that every pastor in our synod employ the same ceremonies and conduct the Divine Service in the exact same way - you know, not too "high" and not too "low," but "just right"? What does "just right" look like? And, if there is a "just right," then aren't those who advocate for it guilty of finding some Golden Form of ceremonial conduct that all Lutherans should aspire to or else be less than fully Lutheran? What's that saying about a pot and a kettle?
It's all rather silly, my friends. As I said above, all this "high, middle, low church" stuff is not the stuff of Lutherans. It has been imported from elsewhere. Lutherans believe, teach, and confess that ceremonies do not have to be the same everywhere. Yes, we should strive for uniformity as much as possible. Yes, it would be wonderful if we all used the same hymnal. Yes, it would be outstanding if you were able to attend any LCMS congregation on a Sunday morning and know that you were going to follow the liturgy (in one of our hymnals) and receive the Divine Gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation via our Lord's Holy Word and Sacraments. We should strive for as much uniformity among us as is possible. But, Lutherans have never argued that such uniformity should extend to every aspect of ceremonial conduct among pastors and parishioners. Lutherans have never argued that it is necessary that all Lutheran pastors wear the same vestments, bow at all the same places, chant, elevate and genuflect, etc. Lutherans have never argued for such rigid uniformity because Lutherans recognize that there is a great deal of freedom allotted for ceremonial conduct, even while maintaining that such freedom is not limitless. What we can do is encourage one another in this area, putting forth and suggesting to our brothers ceremonies we have found to be effective in teaching the faithful and fostering reverence and dignity. Nothing wrong with that, even though that is the very thing that amazingly causes so much angst for some, for that is the only thing being done by those whom they accuse.
But, I have no confidence that this nonsense will end any time soon. This go-round will simmer out, but a few months from now, Rev. McCain or someone else will post something about the dangerous "high churchers" again. Oh well. As a friend of mine said the other day, "Some people just love to go searching for dragons to slay." Exactly, and when the dragon doesn't actually exist, but is a figment of one's imagination, he'll never actually get slain, so round and round we go.
Now, where'd I put my rosary? :)