Sunday, May 24, 2009

Ceremonies Revisited

by Larry Beane

There has recently been quite a ruckus here regarding the use of ceremonies in worship and under what circumstances a pastor should make changes.

There have also been some statements about "the Gottesdienst editors" regarding our motivations and what we consider to be the proper use of ceremonies in the Lutheran Divine Service.

Well, it should be apparent by now that "the Gottesdienst editors" are not in lockstep agreement on all matters. I don't purport to speak for anyone at Gottesdienst except myself. But given that my own contributions to the discussion seem to have been misunderstood, I'd like to throw out a few thoughts for clarification, and perhaps for further discussion.

Our confessions declare that the "chief use" of ceremony is to "teach the people" (AC 24:3). Ceremonies are a form of nonverbal communication, a way of proclaiming silently and confessing bodily. Also according to our confessions, we retain traditional ceremonies as a way of confessing that we have not introduced theological novelties, but are rather in continuity with the ancient Church (AC 24:40). They are confirmation that we do not act or teach "contrary to Scripture or to the Church catholic" (AC Conclusion 5).

It is not a coincidence that Baptists, Pentecostals, and non-denominational Christians, who believe in a purely symbolic view of the Lord's Supper, have little to no ceremony in their services and versions of the Lord's Supper. In the context of their disbelief in the Real Presence, it would be ridiculous for them to genuflect, elevate, chant, ring bells, or wear a chasuble. These ceremonies only make any sense at all in the context of the Real Presence. It also stands to reason that the use of grape juice instead of wine should pose them no real problem at all, as they hold the elements to be only ritual symbols anyway.

Reformed Christians, who deny the physical presence of Christ in the sacrament but confess a "spiritual presence," typically have more ceremony, reverence, and liturgical piety than the above group in the celebration of their version of the Lord's Supper.

Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox Christians, on the whole, have a more reverent and ceremonial celebration of the Lord's Supper than the above-mentioned Protestant groups. This is not by coincidence, but rather flows from the fact that these confessions believe that Jesus is miraculously and physically present at the altar.

It really isn't rocket science that Baptists and Roman Catholic pastors are going to dress, act, and comport themselves differently at their respective altars.

So, where does this leave us Lutherans?

We confess, with the other historic branches of Christianity, that Jesus is truly and bodily present on the altar, that the bread is the body of Christ and that the wine is the blood of Christ. It should be just as odd for us to behave as Baptists at the altar as it would be incongruous for them to genuflect and elevate.

We live in a culture that is not only heavily Protestant, but also subject to a kind of modern Gnosticism, a dualism that revels in "spirituality" at the expense of physicality of the type of the Real Presence. Sacraments are definitely not confessed in their historical context by most Christian churches in America. In that sense, we Lutherans (and all sacramental Christians) are swimming upstream. We have to find a way to confess and profess our theology that the Lord is physically and miraculously present in the Mass. Our confessions present ceremony as a means to that confession and catechesis.

The problem is that in the LCMS, we have a huge number of congregations resorting to entertainment instead of liturgy - now with the full backing and encouragement of the synodical apparatus. The seminaries themselves seem resigned to this reality. In the world of LCMS worship, you'll find everything from rock music and dancing girls to congregations trying to sell themselves as high-end coffee shops. Even in our traditional services, it is common to see pastors conduct the service with very little ceremonial, leaving hardly anything to "teach the people" and confess differently than Presbyterians or even Pentecostals. One can even find LCMS congregations shunning wine in favor of grape juice as our Baptist brethren do.

In many cases, our congregations have been in this condition for literally generations. One may find such things as infrequent communion, resistance to even such basic things as the sign of the cross, hostility against eucharistic vestments, and an expectation of ceremonial that would be right at home in Reformed churches. It should be no wonder that there are children and adults in the LCMS who are shocked to learn that our church actually teaches and confesses the Real Presence. That we do believe, teach, and confess this doctrine should be obvious in the way we conduct ourselves at the altar.

And like the authors of the Lutheran confessions, there are a lot of us LCMS pastors who believe we ought to retain the ancient ceremonies not only for their catechetical value in teaching, but also in their confession of the Lord's Presence and in their profession that we are in continuity with the ancient church, as opposed to being just another innovative sect or cult.

To this end, helpful ceremonies include such things as: genuflecting, chanting, the pastor's use of the sign of the cross, kissing the altar, and elevating the consecrated elements - all of which require no financial outlay or asking the congregation to do anything different. These are all things the pastor does in his office as celebrant, and in doing them, he is able to teach and confess without having to open his mouth. Some of these, the pastor may be able to implement quickly without a lot of teaching beforehand (as the gestures themselves are a form of teaching, just as the stained-glass windows and church architecture likewise "teach the people"), while others may require explicit catechesis and a slower pace of implementation.

It also goes without saying (or should anyway, but apparently doesn't) that these ceremonies or lack of them do not change the validity of the sacraments offered. They are not an exclusive barometer of piety or "Lutheranness" of any congregation or pastor. Ceremonies, at least under conditions of normalcy, are adiaphora. But at the same time, it would be wrong to consider adiaphora to be just a synonym for "unimportant" or liturgical license for "anything goes."

Some may argue that such ceremonies are "un-Lutheran" as they have, in many cases, long since fallen into disuse. Such a conclusion entirely misses the point about what is "Lutheran." In some matters, the liturgical reforms of the early Lutherans revived ancient evangelical practices that had been literally lost for centuries - such as the use of the vernacular in worship, and the revision of the canon to exclude innovations that had become the norm in all western churches of that time for centuries.

Even in the 1970s, the alb was considered by some in American Lutheranism to be "high church." Nowadays, it is rare to find any LCMS pastor (at least among those who preside at traditional worship services) who doesn't vest at least at this level of eucharistic dress. Even District Presidents and men who would wrinkle their noses at Gottesdienst will don an alb and cincture without batting an eye. At this point, chasubles have become so common as to routinely grace the pages of Lutheran Witness and Reporter without the hint of scandal. Similarly, half a century ago, clerical collars were hardly the norm, whereas even in congregations with very little ceremony, clerical garb doesn't even raise eyebrows today. Of course, someone had to take the first step. Someone had to endure the first round of slings and arrows for being on the leading edge of something that within a few years was destined to become quite normal. At this point, those who wear cassocks and genuflect at the altar are considered by some to be "extreme." Perhaps a decade from now, this will be as uneventful today as a pastor wearing a collar and an alb.

There is an old expression: "Those who say it can't be done are often interrupted by those who are doing it."

While it is certainly true that a pastor can act with unwise haste in such matters, he can also err on the other side. It would not only be unproductive, but also cruel and contrary to the Gospel for a pastor to attempt to compel his parishioners to cross themselves. But even understanding that there are certainly extraordinary circumstances and exceptional cases, there is nothing to prevent a pastor, even a newly-ordained seminary graduate, to cross himself at the altar from day one in the parish. If the pastor crossing himself becomes a scandal or is injurious to a person's faith, he can always stop doing it pending resolution of the problem. But simply becoming yet another pastor conducting the barest minimum of liturgical ceremony in fear of making waves can serve to further entrench a lack of ceremonies and a failure to untilize them to "teach the people." Such excessive caution can actually calcify the practice, making it yet harder for the next pastor to restore reverence at the altar. The lowest common denominator is not necessarily the best option.

Pastoral care, including ritual conduct of the Divine Service, is art, not science. It requires wisdom, sensitivity, and courage. There are no one-size-fits-all answers, nor is it automatically the loving, or even the wise thing to do, to resolve to maintain a level of ceremony that is more appropriate in a Baptist or Reformed church.

The Higher Things motto "Dare to be Lutheran" can be a helpful guide to pastors wrestling with how best to "teach the people" and confess a catholic theology of continuity that is at odds with the dominant religious tradition in our time, place, and culture.


  1. Reading the whole discussion, this question struck me:

    Do ceremonies, as ceremonies, actually "teach," as the Book of Concord says? Or are they in some sense opaque, such that they need to be "taught"? Or is something else going on here?

    It seems like there's some doubt as to how ceremonies do their teaching. Before someone teaches me something, I don't understand it, or at least I don't understand it fully--there's something to be taught. If ceremonies are retained because they teach, or as Luther says in the LC "that God’s Word may exert its power publicly", isn't it the case that the ones being taught in some sense don't understand something to which the ceremonies witness?

    Too, no one seems to question how the verbal aspects serve to teach. The controversy seems to center around the nonverbal aspects--chanting instead of reading, vestments, elevations, genuflexions, incense, and so forth. Can these things teach--teach something not understood before?

    Putting aside some of the less edifying parts of the discussion below, I've appreciated the parts that have been constructive.

  2. Great post, and well said, Pastor Beane. Thank you for this contribution to the discussion. I think that Phil has succinctly hit upon a key point in what you have said.

    At the risk of beating a dead horse, I'll repeat (again) my point that there is no question of whether or not to have ceremony, nor a question of "how many" ceremonies to have, but only of which ceremonies one will use. The Baptists do, in fact, have their own ceremonies; they are simply different ceremonies. And their ceremonies, as well as "ours," also teach the people: something.

    The teaching that ceremonies provide is not analytical or propositional in character; nor is it absolute and unambiguous. It is visceral and relational, and it occurs within a context, in which the catechesis of the Word of Christ is primary. The ceremonies that one uses (whether by choice or by happenstance), and the way in which those ceremonies are conducted, will either be in harmony with the catechesis of the Word, or to some degree out of sync with that catechesis. So, along with catechesis -- before, during, and after the introduction of new ceremonies, whether that be done quickly or slowly -- there ought to be a consistency of practice that serves and supports the Word of God, rather than competing with it. Where there is that continuity of catechesis and ceremonial conduct, the ceremonies teach in a way that goes beyond the intellect and powerfully assists our confession of the Word of God. I find that to be especially true in the case of young children, but it is also true in the case of adults. Actions do speak differently and "louder" than words. Where actions are at odds with words, as where ceremonies are out of sync with catechesis, there is hypocrisy, or the impression of hypocrisy, or, at the very least, a confusion of the confession.

    The ceremonies we use as pastors, the ones we introduce and the ones we inherit and continue using, ought to coincide with our faithful catechesis and confession of the Word of God. So, too, the very way in which we go about changing ceremonial practice or introducing new ceremonies ought to accord with our confession of the Gospel, flow with our ongoing work of catechesis, and proceed in faith and love.

    The catechesis of the Word is primary, but the Word has also become flesh and tabernacles bodily among us. Jesus wants us to have ceremonies, and we frankly can't exist or live without ceremonies of one sort or another. It was God's idea when He created us, creatures of body and soul, and He could hardly have affirmed that intent more solidly then He did when the Son was conceived and born of the blessed Virgin Mary. Not only has He obtained our salvation by His bodily death and resurrection, but He has chosen to bestow that salvation upon us through bodily means of grace. The principle ceremonies of Christ are the preaching of His Gospel, the administration of Holy Baptism and the administration of His Holy Supper. Everything else, including catechesis, flows from that.

  3. Would it be helpful to make a distinction between catechesis and mystagogy here? I believe catechesis was the pre-baptismal instruction in doctrine, whereas mystagogy came afterwards and was more about the education of those already baptized, primarily concerning the meaning of the liturgy.

  4. I think this is a helpful distinction, Phil, although it was really a matter of two different aspects of an ongoing catechesis. Pre-baptismal catechesis focused on Bible stories, the Christian way of life, the Creed and the Our Father. Post-baptismal mystagogical catechesis focused on the rites and ceremonies of Holy Baptism and the Holy Communion, as the means by which the neophyte receives and participates in the life of Christ and lives as a member of His Body, the Church.

    Your point is apropos to the present discussions, in the sense that some catechesis could not be done until after a participation in the Mysteries of God has begun. That fits with what several of us have been trying to say; namely, that sometimes ceremonies are better introduced up front, with (mystagogical) catechesis following (and the ceremonies themselves are part of that ongoing catechesis).

  5. I guess what I was getting at is that it seems hard to maintain that ceremonies absolutely must be explained completely and over a long period of time before they can be practiced (by clergy) or experienced (by congregation). If you maintain this, then the only conclusion is to condemn the early Church, which didn't even let the catechumens see the Supper and the ceremonies surrounding it until immediately after they were baptized, and didn't explain those ceremonies until after they had first been seen!

  6. The introduction of this thread into the discussion is, in my view, exceedingly helpful. In particular, reference to the fact that the catechumenate generally receive instruction in ritual only after they have first experienced it for awhile.

    Admittedly, this is a bit contrary to the fourth-century practice of the disciplina arcana, by which the catechumenate were not allowed to see or participate in any way in the mysteries until they were fully admitted. For instance, they were barred even from being present during the Our Father.

    Nevertheless our churches have rather universally agreed that the disciplina arcana generally took things a bit too far, though certain elements of it are worth remembering and considering.

    What is clear first of all, however, is that the disciples themselves most certainly first participated in the Lord's Supper before they understood it. Their eyes were not opened until after the resurrection.

    Thanks for a helpful post.

  7. Yes, Phil, I understood your point and agree that it is a good one. In my typical fashion, I managed to bury the good point under my tirade of too much rhetoric. Sorry for that. But thanks for your observation and insight.

    I would only add that, for the early church, the catechesis received in the Service of the Word, and in the Bible stories, was understood to be catechesis in the very Mysteries of God that were then received and realized in Holy Baptism and the Holy Communion. It was, after all, the same catechesis that God the Lord had provided for His people in preparation for the incarnate Christ (the "primordial Sacrament").

  8. Now that I have been so bold...

    Do you think the root of the controversy below has to do with people's understanding of what a ceremony is and what it does?

    Some might view ceremonies as ornamentation. It's like paint on a wall; you can paint the wall blue or orange, or you can just leave it white. The result doesn't really change, and it's a question of taste and what happens to suit the people in the room. The result here seems to be utilitarian: do what provides the most utility for the greatest number (in the judgment of the individual).

    Maybe others see ceremonies as a direct outgrowth of essence. The best analogy I could come up with would be a flower on a tree--a magnolia tree is a magnolia tree, whether it's blooming or not, and it remains a magnolia tree even if you chop off branches. Still, a magnolia tree produces magnolia blossoms and not apple blossoms. As a result, there is an objective standard: you can examine a flower and distinguish what kind of flower it is; you can examine two different ceremonies or two different rites, and evaluate which one is a more faithful product of the Church's essence.

    I actually think Rev. McCain's question, "What ceremonies are of the 'essence of the Gospel?'" strikes close to the center of the disagreement.

    I also wonder whether this is why many say the Liturical Movement of the last century degenerated into aesthetic arguments.

  9. It is most certainly true that this is more of an art than a science. I have served the same parish since I was placed here out of seminary eight years ago. I have always made the sign of the cross as it is a great comfort to me. The people had no trouble with it though none of them had the practice themselves. After eight years of teaching I notice a number of them making the sign of the cross as they leave the altar. We were given a crucifix from a congregation that closed and after much instruction it is now in the sanctuary. Some parishes may never have accepted it but they did here. I am confident that I could wear chausibles without a ripple - but I need to get the money first! :-) A pastor gets a "sense" of where the people are on these things. I have begun elevating the elements - not a problem. However, I know if I began genuflecting or kissing the altar it would be a problem. They would be uncomfortable. Though I would like to it is not something I will do until I teach. Perhaps I will never get there. However, in another parish perhaps one could introduce genuflecting without a problem but the elevation of the elements may present trouble. Who knows? But that is why it is an art. That is why specific pastors are called to specific parishes to practice the art in that place.

  10. Teaching does not take place only through verbal communication, mental cognition. Unfortunately, we have inherited our worship dogma from both the Liturgical Renewal Movement and Church Growth Movement, with their modern, Enlightenment assumptions. They generally argue that ritual and ceremony should be intelligible, comfortable, simple, immediate, transparent, relevant, spontaneous, and creative. I think they are dead wrong.

    As an atavistic troglodyte, Stone-Age caveman, homo religiosus, who believes that God Himself truly is present through His Word joined to hot air, water, bread, and wine, I must also confess that liturgical ceremony and ritual should testify to this biblical, other-worldly reality. As such, liturgy should emphasize the complex, opaque, transcendent, mysterious, formal, and reverent. It should be habitual. And it should make the participants just a tad uncomfortable and disturbed from time to time. In other words, sacramental ritual and ceremony should reflect the scriptural narratives where sinful creatures are in the presence of the One who is Holy, Holy, Holy... (cf. Leviticus, Isaiah, and Revelation just to start).

    I am convinced that ritual appropriate to our sacramental confession is the best teacher for it emphasizes the non-verbal and non-cognitive, treating human beings as human beings rather than modern angels, ghosts, and ghouls. I further believe that people are best instructed in the mysteries of faith when men move and act like men who believe that God is present rather than overgrown adolescents who may say God is there, but then act as if they are performing in Branson for a bunch of groupies and retirees.

    Well, enough of a rant . Father Hollywood, a very helpful post.

  11. "Mason,"

    You should totally write that into a DMin thesis.


  12. In one of my favorite quotes from Professor Marquart, may his soul rest in peace, from a symposia "paper" years ago, he bemoaned those pastors who administer the Lord's Supper "like they were hawking fish at the market."

    A man who truly believes that the Lord is present in His very body and blood will not, and cannot, behave as though he were handling nothing more than bread and wine. Asking him to do so would be tantamount to asking him to love the praise of men more than God.

  13. Fr. Curtis,
    I may in fact write such a DMin thesis. Although it will have to be under my pseudonym, or I'll never move up in the Missouri Synod. Aapparently, the Party does not want to be confused with strange notions derived from theology, liturgy and confession. This is the language of the Lutheran bourgeois and problematic. Please don't report me... I have heard you get a "tenner" in the CRM Archipelago.

  14. Fr. Beane,

    This ia an excellant post, as are the comments of my Rev. Fathers and Brothers who have replied to it.

    I wish respond to your remark that "a newly ordained seminary graduate could sign himself with the cross from day one" by relating what happened to me even before I became a seminary graduate.

    This happened during my first year at a synodical junior college. I was home for Christmas vacation and
    was attenting my (then) home congregation. I received Holy Communion at the altar rail when, at the dismissal, I signed myself with the cross. There was no voice from above, nor did the roof fall in; but....

    The next day the vicar, when he came to visit my grandmother, cornered me and derided me "in loco pastores". I was informed that I, as a pre-ministerial student, should not cultivate habits such as crossing myself, etc. The reason being, if I should receive a call to a parish where this was not the custom, I would scandalize that congregation beyond repair. I had "no business" adopting such customs at this point in time.

    I will confess that my reply was less than evengelicel. I informed the vicar that if I did not adopt these customs now I would, most likely, never adopt them at all. Then, what if I were called to a congregation that practised these same customs; would I be scandalized if I were expected to practice them? Obviously, no reply was forthcoming.

    I also suggested to the vicar that, if the pastor had a problem with my making the sign of the cross when I had received Communion; it should be up to him to counsel me, and not send the vicar to do it for him.

    This was the last that I heard about this. And I continued to make the sign of the cross at the rail, after receiving Communion.

    Obviously, this incident did nothing to suppress my interest in, and study of, liturgical ceremony. Ceremony is nothing more than good manners.

    If you never learned "please" and "thank you" as a child, you will never use them as an adult. And if you, then, end up in the midst of a "please" and "thank you" crowd; you will have not understanding of how you are expected to perform.


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