This August, the ELCA Assembly in Philadelphia will consider adopting the latest document on worship in the ELCA, The Use of the Means of Grace: a Proposed Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament. The Preamble states the purpose of the document:
- This statement seeks to root common sacramental practice in the Lutheran Confessions within the context of our contemporary situation.
- It also seeks to encourage study and discussion of the sacraments in the congregations of this church and (3) increased teaching about the sacraments by the bishops and pastors of this church.
This is all meet, right and salutary, but it then goes on to state one caveat:
It is not a comprehensive doctrine of the means of grace and is not intended to be. Preparing such theology for the Church is an important task appropriately done by the teaching theologians of this church in an academic context.
And, therein lies the rub—the somewhat tarnished quality of a statement on worship that is not articulated from its theology—its understanding of God. This leads to the primarily descriptive tone of the document. This document is not a prescription for worship. But isn’t “liturgy” the “work of the people—directed to God”? Hasn’t liturgy preceded theology in the history of the Church? In worship, we become the Church, the people of God who live and express in petition and praise—our theology.
That is not to say that there is no theology behind the statement’s principles, or that the statement is formed apart from any theological reflection. The relationship that is there is tenuous, in some places articulated in the “Background” section or cited in the footnotes. But not every “principle” statement has a “background” statement, and in a number of places the “background” statements would go a long way in answering “why” we ought to do things. For instance, on page 31 (Principle 47), the following statement is made:
The bread and wine of Communion are handled with care and reverence, out of a sense of value both of what has been set apart by the Word as a bearer of the presence of Christ and of God’s good creation.
The application (47a) goes on to state:
Nonetheless, in the rare event that more of either element is needed during the distribution, it is not necessary to repeat the words of institution.
It’s not? Why not? And what does this say or mean? Those teaching theologians of the church should have been invited to offer their critical reflections to the document. It would be a richer, stronger statement for it.
Nonetheless, as far as it goes, this document does have something to say and contribute to our church’s worship. I found the format of “principle, background, and application” helpful in study and discussion. The “principle” sections combine statements of faith with rubrics for worship, while the “background” sections contain sources and interpretation. The “application” sections take up implications for the practice of worship. This format allows our 16th Century Confessional roots to be in lively dialogue with our practice of liturgy today.
The Use of the Means of Grace is also squarely rooted in our ecumenical context. In the footnotes on sources, the 1982 Lima text, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry from the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches is regularly cited, placing our worship practices in the context of the worship traditions of our ecumenical partners. This statement describes Lutheran worship in its ecumenical, catholic origins.
As a description of worship in the ELCA this statement gives us something to hope for here at the end of the 20th century. There is a strong emphasis in the statement on the significance of our sacramental life. Baptism is once again strongly joined to preparation through catechesis, and continuing nurture through education, witness, and service. The role of “Affirmation of Baptism” and the use of our baptism as an identity and measure of practice in faith receives emphasis. There is a clear call for weekly worship that fully incarnates the Gospel of Jesus Christ through preaching and visibly in Holy Communion.
The statement avoids a number of controversies that still beset our worship practices across the ELCA. The discussion over the age of first communion is mentioned (p. 25). It is noted that while the “1989 Statement on Communion Practices” precluded the communion of infants, some churches continued to commune them anyway. And so, application 37d suggests, “infants and children may be communed…” Change in the theory of sacraments? Just going with the flow? Or is it a case of the tail wagging the dog? I, for one, applaud the permission now granted, since we have communed all baptized in our congregation since 1985. We know why we adopted the worship practice, but the document doesn’t provide any insight into why any other ELCA congregation might consider doing the same.
The “red flag” issue over worship and language, particularly “God language” is not addressed at all. If any direction is to be taken on this, it would be from principle 24, articulated around Baptism (pp. 17-18). There, the Trinitarian orthodoxy of the church is the grounding for God language, and the naming of the triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is further explicated in the ecumenical context of Baptism. We baptize in the only name and identity of god recognized by all Christians throughout the history of the church. Does this, then, act as the principle for God language throughout our worship? Maybe. Maybe not.
The fourth part of “The Use of the Means of Grace” takes up worship in the context of the church’s mission. The rich potentials for mission contained in Baptism, Confession and Absolution, Intercessory Prayer, Holy Communion, and the Dismissal, are articulated as implications for witness and work for social justice. Worship in the context of the world echoes for me the excellent writings of Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World and Eucharist. The significance of the means of grace and worship for our mission is not often explicated. I was happy to see it when it was, but this is also the shortest part of the document, and I would have liked to have seen more.
The statement leaves us wanting more. And that may be a good thing. Having set out to “encourage study and discussion of the sacraments in the congregation of the church” and “increased teaching about the sacraments by bishops and pastors of the church,” the statement leaves us to do just that. And it situates us in an excellent context to engage in study and discussion, especially as Lutheran worship relates to the 16th century Confession of the Lutheran Church and the ecumenical relationships we have forged here at the end of the 20th century.