03 October 2007

The Liturgy Is Not a Competition

A good friend and colleague recently commented, after visiting another congregation, that Emmaus was "low church" by comparison. He introduced that remark with a "sorry, but," implying that he expected the evaluation to be taken negatively. No, I understood that it was offered good-naturedly and in good humor. Even so, my immediate gut instinct was to respond defensively. There's always that green manaleshi with the two-pronged crown ready to rear his ugly head within my heart, and to bare his venomed fangs within my mouth. Cursed pride and sinful ego! Thankfully, I didn't argue or get defensive. What I said — and I meant it, even if I didn't feel it at that moment — was that it isn't a competition. It really isn't, and it shouldn't be. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, as soon our liturgical practice has become a kind of competition, it has to that same extent become idolatrous.

I've never been too fond of the "low church" vs. "high church" terminology, but I think it's become even more useless and misleading in the course of the past few decades. To speak this way is about as meaningless as trying to discuss "contemporary" vs. "traditional" "worship," and aiming at any one or another of these ambiguous terms is about as pointless as "blended" worship. Whatever else it may connote or comprise, "blended worship" sounds like syncretism to me, and I suspect that it usually derives from syngergism in any case. Normally my buddies and I would be inclined to level such critiques against those who are flailing about with attempts to be "creative" and "contemporary" in their practice. Honestly, I think such criticisms are on the mark most of the time, even if they are not always offered as charitably and graciously as they ought to be. How easy it is to forget that our erring brothers are not simply erring but brothers, and that, however wrongheaded and bungling they may be, they are loved and longed for by the Good Shepherd, who seeks out the lost to save them. If a brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him, even if it happens seven times a day. Forgiveness is the goal.

Sometimes the critique needs to be leveled against a very traditional "high church" liturgical practice, or, if not against the practice, then against the competitive spirit that may pervade it. The role and benefits of ceremony are to serve and support the Word of God, first of all, and so also to encourage and support the confession of the faith, the piety and prayers of the faithful, and the exercise of love for the neighbor. I've come to appreciate more and more Piepkorn's summary rule of ceremony as reverence and courtesy; which are simply faith toward God and love toward the neighbor, as these are concretely practiced in the liturgical life of the Church. But reverent faith and loving courtesy are always looking unto God and to the neighbor, not at oneself. Competitive comparisons are neither reverent nor courteous; they are neither faithful nor loving. What is worse, such competition in liturgical practice is missing the whole point of the Liturgy itself, which is the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins by the grace of God in Christ. Everything may be done very correctly and beautifully, and the people of God are surely well-served by that faithfulness of practice, but what a crying shame if the minister of the Divine Service is so consumed by his own self-consciousness and prideful (or jealous) competitiveness that, in the midst of saving others, he becomes shipwrecked in his own faith and life.

One may certainly learn from the good example of others. For a pastor surely ought to be going about the sacred preaching and holy administration of the Gospel as faithfully and reverently as possible, and we shall none of us ever be doing this too well. Even when we have done all things correctly, at the end of the day we have only done what was our duty. A called and ordained servant of the Word has nothing to give but what he has been given, so it seems to me that he should always be striving to avail himself of greater knowledge, better understanding and wiser discernment, especially by the dutiful study of the Word of God, but also by the observation of fathers in Christ and brothers in the Holy Office. In turn, he may become a good example and encouragement to others. The chief aim in all of this is the care and feeding of the flock with the Gospel, the preaching of repentance for the forgivness of sins, unto a sincere faith and holy love.

The goal is not to be more or less "high church." I still think the best understanding of that terminology is the quip I once heard Dr. Weinrich make, the gist of which was this: We ought to have a very high view of the Church, for she is the Bride of Christ, and she is to be treated like a lady. Löhe writes eloquently of this very thing in his Three Books about the Church. There he observes that, while the Church is still a queen even when she is dressed in a beggar's rags, she is the more appropriately clothed in royal elegance and beauty. Ultimately, her bridal gown is the blood and righteousness of Christ, the Bridegroom, which is by grace through faith in Him (always under the cross), but the gorgeous adornment of her liturgical approach unto her Lord is a confession of her faith and love in Him, and of the divine love that He lavishes upon her.

If we are to "compete" at all in our litugical practice, let us compete to the laud and glory of Christ, which is to compete in the faithful service of His people (for the Gospel is His Glory). If we are to boast at all, then we are to boast in the Cross of Christ, the true beauty of which is not to be found in outward appearance, but which is confessed nonetheless in the face of sin, death, the devil and hell. But let none of us compete for pride or the praises of men. The Liturgy is the Gospel proclaimed and delivered, and such a solemn enterprise should by all means happen reverently and courteously. Decorum and ceremony serve and support that faithful and loving practice, and so far as I can tell there is a lot that all of us can learn in that regard, both from the heritage we have received (or too often neglected) and from one another in our life together. It is the very devil, though, when that which is so much of the Gospel becomes a contest of egos.

I am pointing the finger chiefly at myself. Let others examine their own hearts and repent of their own sins. I know the devil in me. I get jealous when others are praised for their practice, instead of rejoicing in their faithful service. I am comforted and content when my own practice is held up for others to consider, even though I know my own weaknesses and ought to be doing more and better than I am. If and when I am able to provide a good and helpful example, then Christ be praised, but God help my unbelief and guard my heart against all self-righteousness.

In the end, I would rather be known for an evangelical preaching and faithful catechesis of the Word, than measured by the "height" or "depth" of my liturgical practice. Anyway, good preaching will prompt and support good liturgical practice, perhaps not right away, but slowly and surely. For my part, I am deliberately liturgical in my practice because I am decidedly evangelical in my theology, and because I am helped to be more evangelical and more faithful by the Liturgy of the Gospel.

I am still learning, and I pray that I never stop learning, to conduct the Liturgy in a way that gives greater clarity and free course to the Gospel. There are so many factors and considerations that come into play, I don't believe that anyone ever "arrives" at the perfect practice, leastwise not this side of Paradise. The piety of the people, the customs of the parish, the architecture of the church and its location (whether urban or rural), the service books and hymnals in use, the musician(s) and instrument(s) available, the financial resources of the congregation, the age and abilities of the members, and the number of catechumens, whether predominantly children, youth or adults, all bear upon the sort of practice that will best serve the Gospel in a particular place, from one week to the next, from one year to the next.

Good preaching is a perennial challenge. So is the faithful administration of the Liturgy, which includes the preaching of the Gospel for one thing, as well as the giving of the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus to His people, and the prayer, praise and thanksgiving of the Church in His Name. I believe that following the official rites of the Church, abiding by the rubrics and utilizing the historic ceremonies that have been handed down to us, all contributes to good evangelical practice, because these things honor and uphold, serve and support the Word of the Lord, His Gospel in particular, and because they help to discipline my sinful flesh and curb my sinful heart. God forbid, therefore, that I should usurp these precious gifts to the glory of my own name. There is but one Name to which belongs all glory, honor, thanks and praise, and it has been given to me by grace alone, apart from any merit in me, in the waters of Holy Baptism. I don't know if my Baptism was "high church" or "low church," but it was Christ who cleansed me by that washing of water with His Word, who thereby clothed me in Himself and His righteousness forever. There is no greater benefit to be given or received than that.


Christopher Esget said...

This is an outstanding post, Dr. Stuckwisch. Thank you for writing it.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thank you for your kind words, Brother Esget. I'm very glad if my thinking out loud proves helpful to others. And I surely do appreciate your gracious comment.

Lutheran Lucciola said...

I just came across this article too, and love it. Thank you!