Friday, May 29, 2009

The Liturgical Double Standard and the Weaker Brethren

by Larry Beane

Dcn. Muehlenbruch left a comment on the post "Ceremonies Revisited" that is so astute, that I think it bears a closer look and perhaps further discussion.

Here is his comment:

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 attending 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 evangelical. 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 practiced 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.

Thank you, Reverend Deacon!

For all of the ruckus about ceremonies and scandal, it is worthwhile reminding ourselves of Dcn. Muehlenbruch's observation that "ceremony is nothing more than good manners."

When we ask a man or boy to remove a ballcap while inside our homes or sanctuaries, we are not stomping on his "Christian liberty" - but rather we are simply asking for a display of good manners. The lowering of the level of reverence to the point where that which is holy is being treated as common is a scandal to folks who recognize our sanctuaries as holy (which is what "sanctuary" means by definition!). When we ask for reverence, we are only asking that people be polite. They may think it odd that we have such mores, but a good guest (whether in our home or in God's House) ought to be sensitive to that which causes us scandal.

The local Greek Festival, like most I would imagine, included a tour of the local church. In the case of the local festival, it was a cathedral. Since this is New Orleans, and our summer basically starts in February - folks were not exactly in their Sunday Best for the festival. The parishioners who gave the tour provided small blankets for ladies to cover themselves with, in order to take part in the tour in a state of modesty. They were not obnoxious about it, but they were firm. We were welcome in their church so long as we did not transgress their sense of holiness.

In our circles, the issue of what is appropriate in a holy place and/or a holy time is often framed within the concepts of "Christian liberty" and the "weaker brother." We Lutherans rightfully value, protect, and exercise our Christian liberty as a confession of the Gospel. And we also pay heed to St. Paul's exhortation that the exercise of our liberty not be a cause of offense to the "weaker brother" - as this does not advance the cause of our Lord and His Church. There is certainly a tension here.

But there is a disturbing double standard that seems to emerge among us Lutherans whenever liturgical ceremony comes into focus.

The future deacon's being admonished not to cross himself based on a theoretical future possibility was cast in the mold of scandal-avoidance. His rejoinder that scandals can cut both ways seems to be obvious. In all of these discussions, it is assumed that those who opt to make use of traditional ceremony in their expressions of piety are a potential cause of offense to those who refrain, but it is never considered that those who refrain may be a stumbling-block to those who make use of traditional ceremonies.

The proverbial bull in the china shop is always a smells-and-bells type who storms into rural Iowa wearing a miter. It is never a latte-swilling hipster who struts into rural Iowa installing big screens and bandstands. How many traditional Lutherans (often elderly people) have been made to feel unwelcome by a decrease in traditional ceremony and practice? We seldom hear about them, especially not in any official channels.

Though anecdotal, it seems that often those who are cast as "high church" are warned, scolded, admonished, and guilt-tripped into being casual around the holy things so as not to offend those who prefer casualness. And yet, the feelings and sensibilities of those who appreciate reverence and traditional ceremony, those who believe they are under obligation to submit to certain postures and gestures in the presence of the holy, are never taken into account. This is especially true when it comes to things like coffeehouse "churches," rock music services, dancing girls, gimmicks, wise-cracking pastors strolling around the sanctuary with a stage mike, lack of vestments, lack of reverence, lack of frequent celebration of the supper, and so on. We're expected to shut up for the sake of the "weaker brother" who wants his "church" to look like a Starbucks or a peeler bar.

One of my colleagues informed me that the recent district "pastors' conference" included a Eucharistic service that only included shot-glasses. I find it hard that the organizers and celebrant were unable to find a chalice. I can also imagine the "scandal" if the host pastor had only made a chalice available. Scandal, it seems, is a one-way street.

I'm sad to say that some of my own parishioners have been scandalized at even the "traditional" services of some of our sister LCMS congregations they have visited while on vacation - sometimes to the point of not feeling comfortable even taking communion in such a setting. What a sad state of affairs for churches that are supposed to be in fellowship with one another.

But when it comes to ceremonies, we are the "scandalizers," never the "scandalizees."

The logic behind this is interesting.

Speaking of "newly ordained seminary graduates," when I was one myself, I got a taste of this double standard - even before my installation. As a campus pastor of a high school, I was installed in the same service with several other members of our faculty. A few days before the installation, the principal was taken aback when I asked what the liturgical color for the service would be, so I could make sure my stole was proper. It just never struck me as unreasonable to be vested for my first installation as a pastor.

I wore cassock, surplice, and stole for my installation, and planned on going to lunch with my wife afterwards. As we were headed to the car, we were invited to lunch with all the other newly-installed "church workers." I was still clad in my cassock. I soon found out from a highly-placed district official that I had scandalized someone that afternoon - though the scandalized person lacked the "testicular fortitude" (thank you, Father Neuhaus) to speak to me himself. I don't know who the "scandalizee" was, but he/she did not approve of the cassock. I had become a scandalizer to a "weaker brother" on the day I was installed!

The district official went into "Dutch Uncle" mode, took me under his wing, and counseled me regarding this area of his grand expertise and vast pastoral wisdom.

He made the case that cassocks ought to be avoided by Lutheran pastors in New Orleans, as this is a heavily Roman Catholic area. He compared this situation to his own first call in another area of the Deep South dominated by Baptists. Because of his environment, he avoided wearing the clerical collar - opting for the same garb worn by Baptist pastors: a shirt and tie.

I was confused. Is the principle to blend in, or to stand out?

At that point in my ministry and life, I was too timid to ask for clarification or to point out the king's logical nakedness. Too bad. I should have called "BS" and made him explain. Mea culpa. But as I have heard more "war stories" of pastors and layfolks who appreciate traditional Lutheranism and its catholic ceremonial, it has become apparent that the principle actually works like this: if you are in a Roman Catholic area, it is important to stand out, dress like a Baptist. If you are in a heavily Baptist area, it is important to blend in, dress like a Baptist.

Translation: dress like a Baptist. And the same applies to ceremony.

I suspect this recapitulates how many of those in positions of power in our synod see ceremonial matters. It always struck me as odd when our Council of Presidents would show up to take part in call services dressed like bankers or insurance agents, in business suits and ties, while in the chancel as those who exercise episkope over the pastors and congregations of our church body. Give them plastic cups shaped like hand grenades, and many of them could pass for vacuum cleaner salesmen convention-goers strolling the French Quarter.

The official line seems to be that we should conduct ourselves with as little ceremony as possible, so as not to offend the "weaker brethren" who don't like ceremonies. And if we offend those who see ceremonies as good manners, reverence, and the proper expression of our lived-out faith according to our own Lutheran confessions, oh well. Those people are never the "weaker brethren" and they need to be content with jokes, dancers, people slurping coffee, khaki-clad pastors rushing through the Words of Institution, shallow music, puppets, skits, etc.

It is a double standard, and it is a very dangerous practice to take the Lord's Word and wield it like a club in order to get your way. The "weaker brother" can indeed be a bully. I believe the true "weaker brethren" are the silent majority of Lutheran laity and clergy who are scandalized by the creeping lack of reverence and even attack on ceremonies that is going on all around us. This double standard may well explain at least some of the defections from our communion, both pastors and laymen, who are tired of being treated as "speed bumps" and simply told to shut up by their very strong, powerful, and pushy "weaker brethren."

The way we make the sign of the cross itself began as confession against the Arians who wanted to minimize our Lord Jesus Christ and gainsay His divinity. No doubt many Arians were offended at the audacious tracing of a large cross on oneself that started happening around the time of the Nicene Creed (before that, people signed a small cross on their foreheads). The cross is a scandal. It always has been. Satan is scandalized whenever anyone confesses with his mouth or with his body that Jesus is Lord and that He is present with us and forgiving us sinners. And this is why ceremonies that confess these realities are a scandal.

If a person chooses not to cross himself or take part in other traditional liturgical ceremonies, he may well have good reason to refrain. And no-one should compel or bully compliance in such matters. But neither should the person refraining turn himself into a bully and seek to quash the piety of someone else - especially when those ceremonies are confessions of our Lord and His sacred presence among His people. It is simply ungodly to castigate a pastor for genuflecting at the altar. He does it because his conscience tells him this is the right thing to do at that place. Pastors have the privilege and the burden to be sinners in the closest proximity to holy things and holy places. It is an awe-inspiring and humbling experience to stand before the Living God. Even if people think bowing and genuflecting are silly, they need to cut their pastor some slack, and bear with him as the "weaker brother" standing like Isaiah in the holy of holies.

For in the Presence of our blessed Lord, we are all the "weaker brethren."


  1. Very well said. Thanks to you and Dcn Muehlenbruch for shining some light on how offense cuts both ways. I pray that this would give us "museum keepers" some traction.

  2. This reminds me of Paul Tournier's masterful "The Strong and the Weak." Both are struggles for control; both are imprisonments. The solution is to be free, which is a very risky road.

    The truly "weak" can never assert their weakness over and against another to control his behavior; this is passive-aggression, a weak form of aggression. Weakness can be recognized, and accommodated in love, only by the other. It can never be self-asserted. This is the heart of true Christian liberty.

  3. Larry,

    This is simply outstanding, my friend! Thanks for putting into words the thoughts that I (and I'm sure many others) have often had. Excellently stated!

  4. I believe much of the offense against specific ceremonies springs from America's Puritan/Baptist cultural foundations. This fact supports Pr. Beane's observation that dressing like the Baptist is always the way to go. Most American Lutherans are much less likely to worry about offending Roman Catholic sensibilities, but we often seem very concerned about 'other Protestants'. As a layman, who wants the traditional liturgy and seeks proper law & gospel preaching, I rejoice when a congregation follows the basic liturgy (i.e. LSB), and don't really worry about genuflecting, chanting or images. I like all those things and encourage their use, but they are not the most important matters when we have numerous congregations who have completely abandoned Christian worship.

  5. Fr.Beane,

    I am glad that someone finally spoke up about this double standard. For a time, I thought I was the only one seeing these things and no one believed me. Thank you for taking the time to fully explain this double standard.


Comments are moderated. Neither spam, vulgarity, comments that are insulting, slanderous or otherwise unbefitting of Christian dignity nor anonymous posts will be published.