05 July 2009

Reverence and Courtesy

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.


Phil said...

"whether we speak, chant or sing, and whether we do so together or in turn, in unison or harmony... will depend."

On what will they depend?

Speaking or chanting, solo singing or unison, antiphonal responses or corporate statements have all been used in the liturgy, but would you agree that these contrasts indicate a specific meaning when examined against each other?

It seems to me that a principle of reverence might be that the liturgical form is appropriate to the liturgical content, similar to Bach's use of rezitativ, aria, and chorale in his cantatas and Passions. The example of a responsive recitation of the Verba has been cited before; while there are many problems with such a practice, I would think that irreverence would be one of those problems--the form is inappropriate for what is taking place and displays a lack of reverence for Christ.

I'm tempted to think that certain "forms" are universal to human beings. Is there a society in which what appears to us present-day Americans to be gleeful, childish laughter is in fact an expression of deep depression?

"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."

Does reverence speak to the case of the impious priest or member of the liturgical assembly? In this case, the rubrics wouldn't be an expression of the faith of the person in question, but they would protect the faith of the rest of those present. At this point, the external reverence of the rubrics might look more like the enforcement of the Law than the freedom of the Gospel.

William Weedon said...

Very fine ruminations, dear Father in Christ. I will not forget a member of a certain pastor's parish complaining that he was so attentive to what he was doing at the altar, they felt he simply was ignoring them, the people of God. Your reverent courtesy maintains both dimensions, indeed with the accent upon God's gracious giving, loving and reverently received, but always remembering the people of God for whom such gifts are intended. When incense is used, it is highly significant that not only are the holy things censed (the bread, the wine, the Gospel book, the cross and altar), but the people of God as well, and the celebrant and servers. None is ignored, all are honored.

The relaxed bit from Cwirla I thought well stated too. An instance from this morning: we had a Baptism at late service, and so I put in the bulletin that we'd omit the Nicene Creed, but after the Gospel habit kicked in and I started our usual introduction:

Beloved, let us love one another...

Then it dawned on me that the people were preparing to sit down because that's what the bulletin said to do. So instead of continuing with: ...that we may with one heart and one voice confess the holy faith; I continued with: ...even though I forgot that we're not doing the Nicene Creed this morning - let us love one another. And you may be seated.

Many smiles. Pastor screwed up. And yet it was hardly a blip in the service and we were off into "O God, my faithful God." A relaxed and reverently courteous way of leading the liturgy takes full cognizance of the man presiding in all his weakness and yet who seeks constantly to move himself out of the way that the Lord and His grace may be seen in all His glory.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Yes, well said, Father Weedon.

Phil, I left the "will depend" open-ended, because there are any number of examples that could be given, and any number of factors that come into play. I would agree that different forms of singing (or speaking) do make a difference. My point was not to suggest that it's all pointless; but rather to say that there are a variety of factors which help one to determine the best practice for a given circumstance.

Also, I probably didn't say very well or clearly, but, absolutely, the rubrics do help to control the impious priest and to protect the people of God. That is exactly part of what I have meant to say. Genuine reverence cannot be manufactured for the impious, nor does the faithful heart require a set of rules to be reverent before God. However, my argument would be that genuine reverence is never apart from loving courtesy (just as saving faith, which alone justifies, is never alone, but is a busy, active thing). Following the agreed-upon rubrics is a matter of courtesy, such as I have described, not only for the sake of good order (which is itself a matter of love), but also for the clarity and consistency of the confession and catechesis of the Word of God (which is the first foremost work of love). Thereby the reverent heart of faith is guided and assisted in doing the very thing it desires to do in love; and the impious, irreverent heart is prevented from harming the Body of Christ with impiety.

Again, the pastor's individual freedom of faith is tempered by his public office, within which he administers the Liturgy as a public service. So, too, the individual Christian's liberty is tempered by the needs of his brothers and sisters in Christ in the corporate worship of the Church. The Christian heart is already reverent "by faith alone," but the Christian heart resides within a body that lives within the Body, and therefore embodies reverence in courtesy for others. And, among other things, courtesy will mean using the Church's rites and rubrics, rather than everyone making things up as he goes along.

Finally, I think it is relatively easier to identify irreverence; and I would agree that certain practices are ruled out for that very reason. True courtesy and genuine love for the neighbor do not mean doing whatever feels good or makes people happy, but chiefly doing what God has given us to do, and, above all, confessing Christ.

Thanks for your comments and questions, Phil. I hope these late-night (too-tired) responses provide some kind of clarity.

WM Cwirla said...

Good post. I appreciate the positive perspective that it takes.

I think we are looking at the same thing from two slightly different perspectives. In "relaxed dignity," I see a tension that must be maintained between "being yourself" and yet not drawing attention to yourself. Overemphasis on the "dignity" can result in pomposity, while overemphasis on the "relaxed" will result in quite undignified behavior. Reverence and courtesy both belong to the proper dignity due God, the holy gifts, and God's holy people.

"Who decides?" is a very good question in our post-Emily Post era where the concept of communal"manners" is pretty much gone. Rubrics are a kind of "liturgical manners" that guide our behavior as holy people gathered around holy things. These liturgical manners will be, in part, culturally determined, as signs of reverence and respect vary. But they should also have a certain commonality among Christians, reflecting the trans-cultural universality of the Christian faith.