There's been a lot of discussion of reverence recently, which I have found both fascinating and at times frustrating. The subject of reverence came up repeatedly at the CCA, although it there seemed to be aimed primarily at musical considerations. An insistent focus on music is significant and telling, I think, but I am of the opinion that reverence is deeper and broader and ultimately more comprehensive than even the musical realm. It may also be more elusive and amorphous than music is.
In conversation with one colleague at the CCA, regarding "reverence," he posed the question: "Who decides?" Again, he was thinking chiefly of music, though I didn't fully realize that at the time. It is a good question, in any case, and I have been trying to formulate a response. Is reverence a matter of convention or taste, an aesthetic, or a programmatic body of rubrics? Is it objective or subjective (whatever those words mean!)?
It is easier to identify irreverence than it is to specify what reverence will look like or sound like. Or so I am presently convinced. Certain manners of speaking, dressing and acting would surely be recognized as rude and inappropriate, and therefore irreverent, because they flaunt the public mores, the social etiquette that polite adults and even children learn from the culture. There may be points of debate on the fringes of those standards, and the particular group one is with will make some difference in where the lines are drawn, but I believe there are boundaries outside of which everyone would agree: We just don't do that.
It is much harder to say what reverence is or ought to be. Some recent conversations would suggest that one man's reverence is another man's robotics. I have argued, and I still maintain, that genuine reverence is a matter of faith in the heart. It is the prostration of the heart in the fear, love and trust of the Holy Triune God, such as the First Commandment calls for. That reverence of the heart will manifest itself outwardly in the confession of the lips and the actions of the body, but I resist attempts to specify the details of those bodily actions or the particular qualities of the confession. What we speak in reverent confession will be as the oracles of God, but whether we speak, chant or sing, and whether we do so together or in turn, in unison or harmony, in English, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German or Spanish, will depend. What we do or don't do with our bodies, in reverence, will also depend.
Actions that are sinful are not reverent, surely, but there is a large realm of freedom in which we live with our bodies. As faith is free before God, so is outward bodily reverence free to that same extent. Genuine reverence neither derives from nor depends upon any predetermined dance of the body. Whether we stand or sit, kneel or bow; whether we fold our hands in one way or another, or not at all; and whether we bow our heads and close our eyes, or lift our heads and our hands to heaven, may or may not coincide with faith in the heart.
So what difference does it make, then, what we do with our bodies? Or does it matter at all? Is everything a free-for-all, barring outright sin or blatant impropriety? Already there are those boundaries, which suggest that other considerations may also be helpful and appropriate.
Pastor Cwirla has frequently called for a "relaxed dignity," which I have found a helpful way of thinking about these matters. He stresses that a man, a pastor in particular, must be comfortable with himself as a justified sinner before he will be able to conduct the Liturgy with "relaxed dignity." Then he will be able to wear vestments and follow rubrics in a manner that is neither slavish or awkward, but reverent and respectful. In general, I concur with these observations, but I believe there is still more to be considered and said.
For a pastor or any Christian to be comfortable with himself as a justified sinner is, indeed, to possess and exercise the reverence of faith in the heart. For a pastor to conduct the Liturgy, or for any Christian to receive and participate in the Liturgy, brings that reverence of the heart out into the open, into the public sphere of words and actions. That is where and when and why reverence goes hand-in-hand with "respect," as Pastor Cwirla has noted, or "courtesy," as Arthur Carl Piepkorn so helpfully indicated many years ago. It seems to me that respect or courtesy for the neighbor, and for the Church as the Body of Christ, is the key to discerning the outward contours that reverence will follow.
Reverence and courtesy are the baseline rubrics, from which everything else may be measured and determined, so as to serve and support the Gospel. I have very much appreciated this rule of thumb for some time now. It is simply another way to speak of faith and love, which is the way that Dr. Luther also approaches his writings on liturgical practice (and, really, the entire Christian life). Before God, by faith, we are utterly free, the slave of no man; in love, however, we are the dutiful servants of all. Likewise, the reverence of the heart before God is manifested in the courtesy of love for the brother and sister in Christ, together with whom we worship the Lord. Individual freedom is tempered by the pastor's public office, within which he administers the Liturgy as a public service. So, too, individual freedom is tempered by the Christian's participation in the public worship of the Church.
The dual criteria of reverence and courtesy are not simply parallel considerations. The reverence of faith before God is primary and determinative; however, such faith is never alone, but is always moving in love toward the neighbor, and dealing with the neighbor in courtesy. If one claims to love God, whom he cannot see, and yet hates his brother whom he can see, he is a liar. But, no, faith and love toward God are verbalized and visible in words and actions of love for the neighbor. That love is guided and governed chiefly by the Word of God, which reveals what is His good and acceptable will. Similarly, the pastor loves the congregation chiefly by his faithful preaching and administration of the Gospel. But in working out the details within the freedom of adiaphora, where God has neither commanded nor forbidden anything in particular, there love will seek to be courteous by setting aside personal proclivities for the sake of corporate unity.
Not only should a pastor be comfortable with himself as a justified sinner, but he should also be content and willing to discipline his outward actions in courtesy or respect for the congregation. He does not follow the rites and rubrics of the Church in order to impress or appease the Lord, but out of courtesy for the people of God, whom he has been called and ordained to serve. His reverence before the Lord is thereby manifested in love for his neighbors. The pastor does not insist upon this-or-that ceremony in order to impress the people, but in order to catechize them in the Word of God and in the confession of faith in His Word. In such matters, clarity and consistency are meet, right and salutary; thus, the heart that is utterly free before God reverently reins itself in, out of courtesy for the Church, in order to serve the people in love.
I like Pastor Cwirla's "relaxed dignity," but I shall prefer to speak of "reverent courtesy." Either way, it is not a matter of prescribing a predetermined set of particular rubrics, rites and ceremonies, but rather of guiding the free heart of faith in its external confession of words and actions. There is no assumption that reverence will always look or sound the same. Love does not force itself upon the neighbor, but first of all considers the neighbor's circumstance and need; and not only those of one neighbor (vs. another), but the circumstances and needs of the congregation as a communion of saints in a particular place and within the corporate life of the entire Church on earth. In the fear, love and trust of God above all things, we shall then love our neighbors and serve them in the catechesis and confession of the Word of God.
"Who decides?" Faith and love determine what reverence will do and say in a given time and place. If that answer is frustrating to our desire for more specific rules and regulations, it is only because we are still learning how to live in the freedom of faith and in the service of love. Daily we are called to repentance, to find our righteousness in Christ and not in ourselves, and to exercise ourselves to the glory of God and the benefit of others, rather than serving to our own glory and benefit. Clearly we are not to despise the Word of the Lord, which is the true Wisdom by which we live; nor ought we disregard the truly catholic and evangelical traditions of His Church on earth, which are among His gracious good gifts to us. But let us receive and use these things in faith and love and with thanksgiving. That is the way of reverent courtesy.