Along with my ordained colleagues, fellow Associates in Ministry, and many lay members of my congregation, I awaited the publication and revision of The Use of the Means of Grace: A Proposed Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament, with great anticipation. As Chair of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod Worship Committee, I was hoping for a document which would “foster common understanding and practice” (Principle 4, p. 7) among the congregations of our Synod while also recognizing that “Our congregations receive and administer the means of grace in richly diverse ways” (Principle 4b, p. 7).
As Cantor for Ashburn Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Chicago, I was hoping for a document which would affirm those practices in my own congregation which reflect “concern for healthy pastoral action and strong congregational mission” (Principle 4a, p. 7) and, at the same time, challenge those which may reflect “either careless practice or rigid uniformity” (Principle 2b).
As a Lutheran Christian who grew up in an American Baptist household but was drawn to the Lutheran Church by its liturgical worship and confessional theology, I was hoping for a document which would not only “encourage common practice…consistent with Lutheran theology” (Preamble, p. 3), but also speak a prophetic word “to ground the practice of our church in the Gospel and to encourage good order within our church” (Principle 4b, p. 7).
In many ways the second draft of the proposed sacramental practices statement, published last November and recommended by the ELCA Church Council for adoption by the 1997 Churchwide Assembly, has met these hopes and expectations. It does in fact reflect concern for “common practice among the expressions of this church, as well as freedom for appropriate diversity” (Preamble, p. 4), and thus it should serve as a valuable resource for the richly diverse congregations in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod. Similarly, the document does both affirm and challenge sacramental practices in my own congregation as we seek to re-evaluate our mission “to give and receive God’s Word and sacraments as full and reliable signs of Christ” (Principle 2c, p. 6).
Nevertheless, from my point of view, there are three areas in which the statement misses the opportunity to speak a strong prophetic word when the word might encourage “good order” and one area in which the statement fails completely to give voice to an important prophetic word which might better ground our practice “in the Gospel.”
The first area in which the statement might offer a more compelling prophetic word is found in its three references to weddings and funerals (Principle 6a, p. 8; Principle 13 a, p. 11; Principle 49b, p. 32). In each instance, the document takes an entirely neutral position with regard to placing these rites in the context of Holy Communion. Indeed, the document goes no further than to indicate that “the celebration of weddings and funerals within services of Word and Sacrament in the congregation are appropriate traditions” (Principle 13a, p. 11).
Though the document may simply be reflecting the fact that most Lutheran congregations, at least in my experience, are also rather neutral about this issue, a more prophetic sacramental practices statement would have joined with the Manual on the Liturgy in proclaiming, “The centrality of the Eucharist as the Christian’s principal act of worship is underscored by the inclusion of…Marriage and Burial within the liturgy of Holy Communion” (p. 199). Such a proclamation to encourage the practice of celebrating the Eucharist at weddings and funerals would seem to be a next logical step in the liturgical renewal movement. Some forty years ago, most Lutheran worship resources were also rather neutral about weekly Holy Communion; in The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) and in the Service Book and Hymnal (1958), the observance of the Lord’s Supper in the Sunday service was the exception rather than the rule, and even in the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) the Sunday liturgies quite clearly offer the option of concluding the “Service of Holy Communion” without actually serving Holy Communion! Now, as a result of a gradual return to our liturgical roots, the newer liturgies in With One Voice assume the inclusion of the Eucharist in the Sunday service, and the proposed sacramental practices statement further emphasizes that “All of our congregations are encouraged to celebrate the Lord’s Supper weekly” (Principle 35b, p. 24). The exception has now become the rule. I think it is time for the celebration of Holy Communion at Lutheran weddings and funerals to become a “normal” practice as well, and a stronger prophetic word about this topic in the proposed document would be most welcome.
The second area in which the statement might provide a more prophetic voice relates to lectionary usage in congregational worship. I fully agree that the “use of ELCA-approved lectionaries serves the unity of the Church, the hearing of the breadth of the Scriptures, and the evangelical meaning of the church year” (Principle 7a, p. 9). Therefore, I think a sentence or two supporting the common utilization of the Revised Common Lectionary in all Lutheran churches would be an appropriate addition. A sentence to that effect did appear in the first draft of the document (“Our congregations make use of the Revised Common Lectionary” [First Draft, S1.2, p. 6]) but was omitted from the second. Instead, the proposed version mentions both the “Revised Common Lectionary” and the lectionaries in the Lutheran Book of Worship…” (Principle 7a, p. 9), without recommending either, while also leaving room for the possibility of not employing a lectionary at all. That approach seems counter-productive to the unifying purpose of a lectionary, and if the original statement in the first draft was deemed to be too “non-inclusive” in the revision process, then surely, for the sake of maintaining a prophetic voice, the following modification would have been preferable to complete deletion: “Our congregations are encouraged to make use of the Revised Common Lectionary.
The third area in which a more prophetic word might be spoken by the proposed statement appears in its discussion of worship environment. Although it does declare that “Music, the visual arts, and the environment of our worship spaces embody the proclamation of the Word in Lutheran churches” (Principle 11, p. 10), and that “The visual arts and the spaces for worship assist the congregation to participate in worship, to focus on the essentials, and to embody the Gospel” (Principle 11b, p. 10), the document only offers guidance as to what comprises such spaces in a single reference in Part II to the design and placement of a font:
A baptismal font filled with water, placed in the assembly’s worship space, symbolized the centrality of the sacrament for faith and life. As congregations are able, they may consider the creation of fonts of ample proportions filled with flowing water, or baptismal pools which could allow immersion. The location of the font within the church building should express the idea of entrance into the community of faith, and should allow ample space for people to gather around (Principle 27 and 27a, p. 19).
However, there is no mention of the pulpit, a lectern, or a reading desk in Part I; there is no mention of the altar in Part III; and there is no mention of the relationship between the font, pulpit and altar anywhere in the document. Perhaps the authors felt that further treatment of the subject was beyond the scope of the statement or that any comments they might make would be largely self-evident. Yet, there are many Lutheran churches which still do not have a free-standing altar, and there are many that could likewise benefit from even a brief discussion of pulpit/lectern, reading desk placement in relation to the font and altar. A few more paragraphs on the topic in the appropriate sections of the document would certainly allow for a more prophetic word about the spaces we set aside for worship, since all too often our spaces determine our sacramental practices rather than our sacramental practices shaping our spaces.
While the above issues constitute missed occasions for the proposed sacramental practices statement to present Lutheran congregations with prophetic words of a beneficial nature, the final area of concern for me is much more consequential and speaks directly to our understanding of sacramental theology and the ways in which that theology is acted out in our assemblies. Apparently for the misguided purpose of inclusivity, the document in some places supports the concept that “Congregations of this church may establish policies regarding the age of admission to Holy Communion” (Principle 38c, p. 26). Yet, it also states quite clearly that at other times “Admission to the Sacrament (of Holy Communion) is by invitation of the Lord, presented through the Church to those who are baptized” (Principle 37, p. 24; reiterated in Principle 49a, p. 32). This internal inconsistency in the proposed statement, in my consideration of the issue, is a direct reflection of the larger theological discrepancy between a Lutheran theology which champions the concept that sacraments are a sign of the gift of God’s grace and consequently function independently from human action or merit and a Lutheran practice which requires baptized Christians to achieve a certain age or to pass a certain course or to develop a certain understanding in order to be welcome to receive the Sacrament of the Altar.
My discomfort with the conflict between theology and practice with regard to Holy Communion runs much deeper than simply wishing for internal congruity in the proposed ELCA sacramental practices statement, for it arises out of the theological shift I needed to make some years ago in order to come to terms with being a Lutheran Christian. The practice of “believer’s baptism” in the American Baptist church in which I was raised very quickly becomes categorized as a form of “works righteousness” in Lutheran circles. I was baptized at the age of eight, after reaching the so-called “age of accountability.” I was baptized because I decided when I was ready to make a commitment to Jesus Christ and the Church, and I attended the required pre-baptismal conferences with the pastor who determined whether or not I really understood the step I was taking. Then, and only then, was I permitted to be baptized, but as a baptized believer I was immediately welcomed to the Lord’s table. Having made the shift from considering Holy Baptism as an ordinance of the church to be received only after meeting certain requirements to understanding Holy Baptism as a sacrament of the church to be received as a free gift from God at any age, I continue to have great difficulty in accepting the varying human “customs…on the age and circumstances for admission to the Lord’s Supper” (Principle 37b, p. 25) are in any way theologically appropriate or acceptable. Even the statement itself acclaims that Paul’s cautionary words to the Christians in Corinth to “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup, for all who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Corinthians 11:28-29) are “addressed to those in the community who are eating and drinking while excluding from the meal others who belong to Christ” (Principle 42b, p. 29). If God makes us God’s own, “seals us by the Holy Spirit and marks us with the cross of Christ forever” (Principle 14a, p. 12) through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, then who are we—as a church charged with preaching the Gospel “in its purity” (Principle 3, p. 6) and administering the sacraments “according to the Gospel (Principle 3, p. 6)—to deny any baptized Christian the baptismal right to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion on the basis of age, knowledge or understanding?
The document is correct in its assessment that “The age for communing children continues to be discussed and reviewed in our congregations” (Principle 37b, p. 25) and, no doubt, it will be so for some time. That fact notwithstanding, it seems to me that this statement at this time in the life of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America needs to take the risks that every good prophet must take and forge ahead through the congregational discussion and review to proclaim prophetically in no uncertain terms that, as quoted earlier, “Admission to the Sacrament (of Holy Communion) is by invitation of the Lord, presented through the Church to those who are baptized” (Principle 37, p. 24; reiterated in Principle 49a, p. 32). Period! Twenty-five years ago Lutheran sacramental statements and liturgical materials began to take a similar risk in prophetically affirming the long-lost Lutheran normative practice of celebrating the Eucharist weekly. Now, with this statement, the ELCA needs to join with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, with the Orthodox communion, with the early Church, and with Jesus in the Gospel According to St. Mark in saying “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14).