What do theatrical productions, sports games, the procedures of the U.S. Congress, and the liturgy of the church all have in common? Answer: they are all ritual systems. Rituals allow social groups to get certain things done, whether the goal is to stage Romeo and Juliet, score a touchdown, enact legislation, or facilitate an encounter between God and God’s people.
As ritual systems these activities operate according to strict sets of rules. The balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet cannot be done without a balcony if the director is to make sense of the dialogue between the two main characters. A touchdown counts only if the player carries the football across the opposing team’s goal line. A legislative bill becomes law only if it is brought to the floors of the house and senate, receives the requisite number of votes, and is signed by the president. The liturgy of the Western church, including its Lutheran variant, also follows a set of rules called rubrics (from the tradition that directions used to be printed in red ink) that allows the liturgy to be the forum of an encounter between God and God’s people.
The Order of Liturgy: Rules and Roles
The order of the historic liturgy contributes toward this goal by providing two moments in which God comes to God’s people in Christ through the Holy Spirit in promised ways: the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Christ promises to be present where two or three are gathered in his name, but we believe the Holy Spirit works through means of grace. Since the encounter with Christ is a two-way communication, the order has preliminaries involving praise and prayer by which the people are prepared to receive Christ, and faith-responses of the people in the forms of a confession of faith and a post-communion song and prayer.
There are also roles in the assembly that serve this encounter. The people are involved in offering their praise and prayer, their affirmation of faith and thanksgiving. The liturgy (leitourgia) is the public work of the people. But there are roles in the assembly for ministers who read the scriptures, preach the word, officiate at the sacrament, and administer the earthly signs of the sacraments. In addition to the “visible words” of water and oil, bread and wine, there are words spoken over these elements and to those who receive them. The rubrics of who does what in the liturgy are as precise as the cast of characters in a drama, the number and function of players on a team, and the role of legislative leaders in the U. S. Congress.
Disregarding Rubrics: An American Cultural Phenomenon
We Americans seem content to follow rules and procedures when it comes to staging plays, playing games, and doing the work of the people in government. But many pastors, priests, and other ministers are willing to bend the rules or ignore them when it comes to liturgy. Yet liturgy has characteristics of some of the other ritual systems I have mentioned. It is a kind of drama, a form of play, and an official representative work. Some, especially Lutherans of a pietistic bent, would claim that disregarding the rubrics is a way of exercising evangelical freedom. Such folk appeal to a spiritual value within the genius of Lutheranism.
I don’t see it this way. As I see it, this penchant for flouting rubrics is an American thing. It’s in our cultural veins, and we appeal to the principle of evangelical freedom in order to justify our cultural proclivities. To be sure, there is a proper evangelical freedom which resists oppressive legalisms.
The European State Lutheran Churches also know about the Reformation’s principle of freedom in the gospel. Yet they have canon laws which regulate times of services, orders of service, and sometimes even the texts on which pastors will preach. In Iceland, for example, guidebooks state that Sunday services in the Church of Iceland are at 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. The Church of Sweden provides in its Manual all the liturgical options available to parishes at the principal stated times of worship (although there is freedom at other times to use other eucharistic liturgies or prayer services). The United Lutheran Church in Germany has a seven-year series of preaching texts, and pastors are expected to base their sermons on these texts. These churches cannot be regarded as un-Lutheran because they operate with liturgical laws and expect pastors to adhere to the rubrics in agendas and manuals.
In contrast, our pastors believe that statements adopted by churchwide assemblies, such as The Use of the Means of Grace, and rubrics in worship books such as the Lutheran Book of Worship are optional. The result is often a confusion of belief on the part of the laity because practices are uncertain and differ so widely from one congregation to another.
Sacramental Practices Can Be Changed
Let us be clear that sacramental practices statements and worship book rubrics are not carved in stone for all time. They can be changed by the consensus of the church through orderly procedures. In the last two generations, sacramental practices, statements and worship resources have been put before pastors and their congregations for study, trial use, evaluation, and feedback, and then adopted, not by elitist committees, but by churchwide conventions and assemblies. The authorities that stand behind recommended sacramental practices and liturgical rubrics are formidable; they include scripture, historical tradition, theological principles, and reason in the form of previous experience and ritual sense.
A Theological Case for Observing Rubrics
In making a theological case for observing rubrics, I appeal first to the law/gospel dialectic of Lutheran theology—not every use of the law is negative. Law can have a positive value in that what God promises is received as a consequence of doing what God commands. The promised benefits of the sacraments come from doing what Christ has commanded us to do.
The Lutheran theology of the means of grace holds that grace comes from performing certain rites instituted by Christ, who commanded his disciples to continue performing these rites. Forgiveness of sins, deliverance from death and the devil, and the gift of eternal salvation come from performing the rite of baptism. Without water connected with God’s word there is no baptism, and therefore no benefits.
The same applies to the Eucharist. Forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are the promised benefits of following the rubrics given in the institution texts: namely, that bread and wine are to be taken, blessed or given thanks over, distributed, and consumed by the communicants.
There’s nothing difficult about following these rubrics; the commands are easy to observe. Yet the church at various times and places has celebrated the Eucharist disobediently by taking elements other than bread and wine, not giving thanks, withholding one or the other of the elements, and not having communicants present to eat and drink the sacramental signs. (In European Lutheran churches I have never received communion in forms other than bread and wine, and the wine only from a common chalice; and people in these countries are just as health conscious as Americans.)
Are Rubrics Adiaphora?
We have justified our cultural desire to disregard rubrics by appealing to the doctrine of adiaphoron. This doctrine holds that matters not essential to salvation are “indifferent.”
First of all, we should be clear that not all practices are indifferent; some ritual matters are essential to salvation. “The one who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). Eternal salvation depends on performing the rite of baptism, which in its larger sense includes practices of catechesis that lead one to belief. Baptism also initiates one into the fellowship of the church, which is manifested at the Lord’s Table. Holy Communion is the test of whether one is a member of the church, the body of the crucified and risen Christ, the community of salvation. Therefore the obedient performance of the eucharistic rite is also not a matter of indifference.
St. Paul held that one could eat and drink to one’s condemnation (1 Corinthians 11:27-32). The same may be applied to the office of the keys. Confession and absolution—in that order—are not indifferent matters; they are the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What the church does on earth in loosening and binding sins is ratified in heaven (Matthew 18:18; John 20:23).
Even Adiaphora Are Important
Secondly, just because some liturgical matters are true adiaphora does not mean they are unimportant. Many practices which are not essential to salvation aid or hinder the communication of the gospel. It is not a matter of unimportance, just because salvation doesn’t depend on it, whether worshipers understand the scriptures that are read in the assembly or participate overtly in the songs of the liturgy.
Luther was concerned that worship should be in the language of the people and that the people should participate in the liturgy by singing sturdy songs. Lutheranism will surely continue to be concerned about these issues. If there are people in our assemblies who do not understand English, the scriptures must be proclaimed in a language they do understand. The people must have songs that they can sing—both settings of liturgical texts (many of which are biblical) as well as durable hymnody. Issues of musical leadership and architectural acoustics are not unimportant, since they affect the people’s ability to sing.
Connecting with the Church of All Times and Places
Luther was concerned that the people’s worship connect them with the church of all times and places and not be ensconced in one language and culture. Therefore he retained the catholic order of the liturgy, the historic texts of the mass or versifications of them, and sometimes words from other languages, especially the Latin language which provided a transcultural element, and the chants associated with the Latin texts.
Lutheran liturgy still demonstrates these characteristics. Our orders of service are, as I said above, variants of the Western rite in terms of the form of the mass, the prayer offices, and the features of many of the occasional services. We have retained the actual biblical and liturgical canticles rather than just versifications of them. It is OK if our choirs sing in languages other than English. In the Taizé chants that have attained an almost universal popularity, even Latin refrains have been revived.
With some of these principles in mind, let me risk wrath by commenting on some practices that are ritually confusing, cite the rubric that is being violated, and state the authority that provides the rationale for the rubric.
Prayer of the Day
Some pastors have directed the congregation to join in reading aloud the prayer of the day even though the script indicates P for Presiding Minister. This prayer, historically called the Collect for the Day, was said by the celebrant at the end of the entrance rite as he or she gathered the assembly into prayer before hearing the word. The weight of tradition as well as ritual sense argues that this prayer should be offered only by the presiding minister. The congregation assents with its “Amen.”
Many of these prayers go back to Latin texts with complicated grammatical syntax, and some practice is required to speak them effectively. The Notes on the Liturgy in the Lutheran Book of Worship Ministers Book say, “The prayer should be read or sung deliberately, since each phrase carries a wealth of meaning and application” (p. 27). (Contrary to opinions that flourished in 1978, the Notes on the Liturgy were part of the authorized or approved text. The brown Ministers Edition is simply a desk version of the official green altar book. The Manual on the Liturgy was an unauthorized, though helpful, resource.)
Reading the Gospel Text
Some pastors have the congregation join in reading the gospel text, arguing that they are all proclaimers of the gospel. The script here also designates P, but the Notes on the Liturgy indicate that this P might be the preacher for the service and acknowledge that reading the gospel was traditionally the deacon’s role; therefore reading the gospel “may be assigned to an assisting minister” (p. 27).
In arguing against a congregational reading of the gospel we appeal to the Pauline dictum that “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). We all stand as those who need to hear the gospel before we can proclaim it to others. Moreover, a well-read narrative has a far greater impact on the hearers than a hundred people mumbling through a text they have not practiced. If the text is read well, it is better for people simply to listen than to follow the reading on a lectionary sheet.
Actions Inappropriate to the Liturgy
There are things which are simply inappropriate to the liturgy. It is inappropriate to carry on general conversation during the greeting of peace. This is a solemn moment enacting reconciliation among those who will commune together at the Lord’s Table.
It is inappropriate to applaud the choir or other musicians who have offered music to the glory of God or the edification of the congregation. The practice also opens up a Pandora’s box of problems. How does the choir feel if some Sunday the congregation doesn’t applaud? Does the choir or a vocal soloist get applause, but not the flutist or the organist? Or, in an effort not to ignore anybody, should we applaud everything? It’s better not to go there.
Then there’s the presentation of the alms basins at the altar as a heave-offering in the grandest gesture of the entire liturgy, which surely goes beyond the slight elevation mentioned in the Notes on the Liturgy. How does this ostentatious act answer the criticism of some people that all the church is interested in is money?
There is also the practice of breaking the bread at the words in the institution text that Jesus “took bread, …broke it, and gave it to them.” The breaking of bread (called the fraction) is for the distribution, as the Notes on the Liturgy indicate, not for dramatic effect. Lutherans in the sixteenth century categorically rejected a dramatic fraction, whether done to enact the sacrifice of Christ by the papists or done to foster a subjective memorial of Christ by the Reformed.
Use of the Great Thanksgiving
There are issues which are genuine conundrums. I think one of the thorniest is the question of the use of the Words of Institution alone versus the use of the Great Thanksgiving. There’s no question that a full eucharistic prayer had no career in Lutheran liturgy before the twentieth century. Here Lutheranism broke with the catholic tradition in exorcizing the Canon from the Mass and not replacing it with any other eucharistic prayer. Yet the biblical rubrics clearly say that Jesus “took bread, blessed it…” and “took the cup, gave thanks over it…” We cannot say what kind of thanksgiving Jesus might have said, although we do have clues about the Jewish table prayers in the Mishnah.
I think one way to approach the issue is by asking how certain theological meanings of the eucharistic celebration would be expressed without using the Great Thanksgiving. How does the Service of Holy Communion articulate thanksgiving, the sacrifice of Christ, the remembrance of saving events, the role of the Holy Spirit, the use of creation, the eschatological banquet, etc. without a great text at the center of the celebration? Are we helping our people to appreciate the rich theological dimensions of Holy Communion if we use only the Words of Institution alone? (The argument that the Great Thanksgiving takes too long is simply ludicrous. Cut the parish announcements and augment prayer and praise. Worship will be a much better experience, especially for visitors.)
Frequency of Celebrating Holy Communion
We still have congregations which do not celebrate Holy Communion every Sunday and festival, as the Confessors at Augsburg said was done in their churches (Augsburg Confession, 24; Apology, 24). We have the weight of catholic tradition, the Lutheran Confessions, the clear preference of theLutheran Book of Worship itself and the ELCA Statement on The Use of the Means of Grace all pointing in this direction, but some congregations have not yet implemented the practice.
What does it take to implement this practice? In the absence of pastoral confidence, I would say it takes some intervention on the part of the bishop. I once heard an ELCA bishop, when asked how a congregation decides whether to have weekly communion, respond by saying that the congregation has already decided to have weekly communion by adhering to the Lutheran Confessions in its Constitution. The decision has been made; the question is when it will be implemented.
Seeker Services and Contemporary Worship
Finally, I have not addressed the question of seeker services or contemporary worship versus the traditional liturgy, nor will I address that question. The form of seeker services comes out of the frontier evangelical revival tradition and operates with a different set of rubrics than the historic liturgy of the Western Church. However, since practice informs belief, Lutherans ought to inquire about what kind of belief system is being formed in seekers by the use of this ritual system. As for “contemporary worship,” this is presumably a free form experience on which one cannot generalize.
With both seeker services and creative liturgies, however, one ought to inquire whether a balance is struck between the sacrificial and sacramental dimensions of worship, between giving glory to God and edifying the congregation, and whether such orders provide for such elements of worship as the centrality of word and sacrament, confession of sin, adoration of God, proclamation and thanksgiving (which are closely related in reciting the mighty acts of God, as the biblical word exhomologesis indicates), profession of faith, acts of commitment, intercession, and supplication. The full historic liturgy provides for all of this; many contemporary services I have experienced are lacking something.
Order, Texts, and Rubrics: A Unified Whole
In the traditional liturgy (which is reflected in but not subsumed by the Lutheran Book of Worship), the rubrics by which the order is followed and the texts read are as integral to this rite as the fact that the Gospel follows the Second Lesson and that there is a particular Gospel assigned. Order, texts, and rubrics are of one piece, a unified whole. Like performing Romeo and Juliet, playing football, or passing a bill in the U.S. Congress, there is some leeway in how the liturgy is realized in each assembly. Some of the rubrics even give options for variations according to time and place. But you can’t disregard the stage directions, the rules of the game, the committee procedures, or the rubrics and not be surprised if the play, the game, the law, or the liturgy break down into confusion.
Perhaps after twenty-five years, and before we move on to the next generation of worship materials, pastors ought to take the brown LBW Ministers Book off their shelf or open up the green altar book to the front and re-read the Notes on the Liturgy.
ADDENDUM: Two Views from the Pews
Here are two views from the pews about public performances of the ministry of word and sacrament. The names of the reporters are withheld to protect the innocent. I’m not sure that even an immersion in the Manual on the Liturgy would help where there is no sensitivity to the requirements of public ritual. You be the judge.
“In a previous congregation we had an interim pastor who proclaimed the Gospel while slouched against the piano, reading from a single sheet of paper. This was not done to make a dramatic point on a given Sunday. It happened week upon week. The Worship Committee suggested that he give some thought to the dignity of the moment and act accordingly. He told the next interim that the folk in the congregation tried to tell him where to stand.”
“[Let me tell you about] this lack of decorum on Easter at the congregation I grew up in. Ever since I was a kid there, the congregation has had a cross structure on which they have placed Easter lilies on Easter Sunday. One year it was placed front and center in the chancel, directly in front of the altar. There was no way the pastor could have used the altar unless he wanted to hide behind this lily cross. (Why they didn’t assemble this thing off to the side, I will never know.)
“So, since the altar was rendered essentially unusable, the pastor presided at Holy Communion from a plant stand placed next to the cross of lilies, with a top less than a foot square. While celebrating from this incredibly inadequate makeshift altar, the pastor suddenly forgot the Words of Institution. He fumbled around for a Lutheran Book of Worship and tried to find the page on which they were printed. While he gracelessly continued, he almost dropped the book several times while trying to balance it and hold forth a tiny wafer or the chalice. Needless to say, the next year I found an excuse to stay at my regular parish for Easter rather than go home.”