I had the pleasure of serving Lutheran churches of different synods as a church musician for nearly a decade. I came to admire the centrality of the Word, baptism, and the eucharist in their individual and congregational lives. Roman Catholics easily find our eyes of faith distracted by less central features of the Christian landscape. The Lutherans I have known nearly always maintained their focus on Christ. A strong Christocentric focus is equally apparent throughout the statement on the practice of Word and sacrament, The Use of the Means of Grace, which has been proposed to the 1997 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA. From the very first principle, “Jesus Christ is the living and abiding Word of God,” the proposed statement maintains Christ at the center. He is “read in the Scriptures,” he is the one into whom Christians are baptized; his body is discerned in the Christian assembly; his body and blood are received in holy communion.
Roman Catholic liturgical regulations often use a far more prescriptive and proscriptive language than found in the ELCA proposed statement. I found the open, advisory tone of the proposed statement both refreshing—for the large number of questions left to the discretion of local congregations—and confusing—being accustomed to the lawyerly style of Roman Catholic documents. I am reminded again that Martin Luther nearly invented the term adiaphora, and that this principle is well remembered by American Lutherans. The Gospel and its reception through faith are essential foci of Christian faith. In the practice of Word and sacraments, both carelessness and rigidity, like a Scylla-and-Charybdis, can threaten the Church’s ability to receive the Gospel and live by its power (Background 2b).
As Principle 4 so clearly reminds us, unity among Christians should not be made to depend upon the imposition of uniform liturgical practices. The unity of the means of grace originates in God who is One, not in ceremonies of human invention. In Application 4b the intersection between the Christocentric focus and the rich diversity of pastoral application envisioned by the document’s authors is easy to see. Christians are united by their relationship to a person, not to principles or things. Christ is proclaimed and celebrated among Christians in a variety of ways and from diverse perspectives. Good church order requires only that the center of he Church’s life and mission remains accessible and in focus. It does not entail that the Church’s response to the Word, in doxology and celebration, be identical everywhere and for all time. Whatever uniformity exists among Christians in worship results from the nature of worship as a response to a single Divine initiative toward us and all creation. Lutherans assist their Roman Catholic friends when they speak and live according to such ideas. They offer a helpful corrective to Roman Catholic authorities who too easily multiply the number and gravity of possible liturgical transgressions at the expense of genuine pastoral considerations.
With chagrin, I heard myself echoing the criticism of one of my dissertation directors as I read the proposed statement, “Where is the Holy Spirit in this document?” The role of the Spirit in worship is too often and too easily over-looked in Western Christian theologies. Lutherans, I am afraid, inherited and share with Roman Catholics an impoverished pneumatology from our common, medieval heritage. Ecumenical dialogue with Orthodoxy has challenged Roman Catholics, Lutherans and others to incorporate doctrine of the Holy Spirit into all areas of theology. The proposed statement goes far in this direction, but not far enough.
For example, the connection between Christ and God’s Word and the reception of God’s Word in the scriptures, as expressed in Principle 5, would be enhanced if the statement had mentioned the role of the Spirit in the reception and transmission of divine revelation. The Scriptures, like the sacraments, are “visible words” for they are visible signs, inscribed on paper, of the reception of God’s Word by human beings. As symbols of God’s Word, scripture is made living and active in people’s lives and in the Christian community only by the power of the Holy Spirit. Only by means of the Spirit were the authors of scripture able to hear and incorporate authentic expressions of the Word into their words. Only by means of the Spirit could the ancient Church discern the Word in some ancient texts (the canon of Scripture) and not in others. In comparison to other sections, statements on the role of the Spirit are well developed in the section on baptism.
More devastating, no significant reference to the role of the Holy Spirit appears in the section on the eucharist. (The only statement, Background 36a, refers to the Spirit as establishing the Church’s koinonia or communion at the eucharist.) Although Martin Luther’s modern companions should be encouraged to echo his emphasis on the Word in discussions of the eucharist, to neglect growing ecumenical consensus on this point seems ill advised. For example, the Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry document (BEM), to which Lutherans and Lutheran churches, contributed greatly, does not overlook the role of the Spirit in the eucharist quite so glaringly as the proposed statement.
Lutherans may have difficulty with the role ascribed to the Spirit in other eucharistic theologies. In churches that have maintained a highly developed practice of eucharistic prayer, like the Oriental, Catholic and Anglican churches, the Spirit is always invoked over the bread, the wine and the Christian assembly so that they may “become the body and blood of Christ.” Liturgists call this portion of the eucharistic prayer the epiclesis referring to the “calling down” (Greek, epikaleo) of the Spirit upon the gifts and people. The epicletic portions of the eucharistic prayers typically emphasize how the Spirit will change us and the gifts we offer into Christ himself. Understandably, American Lutherans may find the transformative language difficult. Though unlikely, I might accept a description of the role of the Spirit in the eucharist that is not entirely (or essentially) either epicletic or transformative. However, as a Roman Catholic (and a one-time Calvinist) I have great difficulty with the minimal role given to the Holy Spirit in the section on the eucharist in the proposed statement.
Many aspects of the proposed statement commend it to Roman Catholics. The statement’s emphasis on the Word, on the role and
nature of preaching, and on the central role of scriptures in worship are admirable features. The centrality of Sunday worship is also commendable in the midst of a culture that has made Sunday a day for individual recreation and shopping; where some churches have now transferred “believer’s worship” to weekdays, Sunday assemblies are given over to evangelism and Christian entertainment. If anecdotal evidence is trustworthy, I am confident that Lutheran pastors are increasingly requested to administer second baptisms. The background and application statements of Principle 16 will provide pastors with precise and sensitive words for responding to such requests. Catholics might only suggest that, in the cases foreseen in Application 16c, the possibility of “conditional baptism” be offered to pastors. (“If you are not baptized, I baptize you…)
The careful application of pastoral sensitivity to special cases of communion was particularly helpful. Sacramental norms should not make baptized children, those with wheat allergies, alcoholics, and other Christians strangers at their own table. Rightly, the document will help pastors greet communicants with sensitivity, discretion, and with the open hospitality of Jesus, which is the guide and norm for all Christian table fellowship. God chooses to meet us in our neediness. The welcome that Christ offers all who receive him and the preparation of conscience that precedes the communicant’s faithful acceptance of that welcome are aptly described in background statement 42b. “Worthiness” to receive Christ depends less upon self-examination, than on preparedness to receive others as the body of Christ “given and shed for me.” “for the forgiveness of sins.”
The section on eucharistic hospitality is lovely. However, I suggest that belief in the presence of Christ in the eucharist (Principle 49) is not sufficient alone to warrant hospitality at the altar. To discern the Body of Christ in the body of this assembled Church is an additional, important condition considering both Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 11:28-29 and the statements in Background 42b. I profess hope that Roman Catholic churches may someday exhibit the beautiful and courageous hospitality at the altar which this statement models for congregations of the ELCA.
Finally, I could grasp at summary statements, but prefer to conclude with a leading question. While reading the proposed statement, I sensed hesitation over the ELCA’s understanding of the role and meaning of ordained ministry. Principles and applications referring to the role of lay preachers, readers, ministers of communion, special lay delegates to preside over communion services, and the role of the laity in the administration of emergency baptism did not seem to depend upon a single, well-defined distinction between lay and ordained ministry. Some statements seemed zealous to guard and maintain the role and authority of the pastor, while others retained and extended the traditionally Lutheran emphasis on the priestly character of all Christians.
Many Christian churches, not only in America and not just Lutherans, now struggle with questions about ordained ministry; its status and meaning, the pastoral and liturgical practices associated with entry into clerical state, or the relationship between ordained ministry and Christ. Is ordination principally a mark of academic or spiritual achievement (with attached status and authority in the church) or is ordination first given to the Church for the sake of Christ’s ministry (with certain educational prerequisites)? Do Lutherans believe there is a difference in quality between lay ministry and the pastorate or is there a difference in degree only? I understand that discussions with the Protestant Episcopal Church in America (PECUSA) challenged the ELCA to describe the episcopacy in new ways. Will the challenges facing American Lutherans be the catalyst for similarly reviewed understandings of lay ministry and the character of the ordained pastorate?