Conversation and information about music and liturgy from a confessional Lutheran perspective.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What I Found

So, before we get into the "Three-Year Plan" that we implemented at Bethany to "nurture authentic worship," I think it best to take a look at what things were like at Bethany when I first arrived there. What was the state of worship in 1999 that led Bethany to call their first Cantor? Some knowledge of what liturgical life was like when I arrived will be helpful to understanding the need for a comprehensive plan for liturgical renewal, as the scope of what we undertook over the course of four years was thorough and significant--and therefore required a patient and deliberate approach.

When I arrived at Bethany, she was being served by three confessional pastors, two of whom had been there for several years, and one who had been added just a few months prior to my arrival. The DCE and principal were theologically conservative, and the call committee which had interviewed me was vocal in their support for our Lutheran liturgical heritage and our hymnody. I even noted during the interview process the wonderful absence of flags in the chancel and was told they had been placed at the exit to the narthex a couple of years before following congregational deliberation on the matter. So I was greatly encouraged that I'd be serving a solidly Lutheran parish and was looking forward to serving people who were unified on worship matters.

Only they weren't. Not by a long shot. Sure, the program staff and the call committee shared a vision of traditional Lutheran liturgy supported by a strong and creative music program, but I soon saw that there was much work to be done--and learned very quickly that there were some who either wanted no changes at all (for various reasons) and others who wanted Bethany to move in a totally different direction.

Certainly good things were going on. The preaching was and remains excellent. But liturgically I entered an environment where the following was the norm:

1 - Cutting of hymn stanzas and omitting of parts of the liturgy so that services without communion were but 45 minutes long. (And communion was only once-a-month at that time!)

2 - Two praise teams that "led worship" at all Sunday morning services: one group once a month; another, made mostly of non-members, once or twice a quarter.

3 - Little use of the chorales for hymnody.

4 - Little use of the excellent new hymns and liturgical resources that were in common use in sister churches (such as from HS 98).

5 - Very little ceremony; a high degree of informality in how the ministers conducted the service.

6 - An expectation that children's choirs were for pre-service entertainment.

7 - A general view of instrumental and even choral music for worship as being "special music" of general devotional content rather than as a means for proclaiming the Gospel.

You get the picture. More specific details will come out over the course of this series, but this is enough to give you a feel of the disconnect between the theology being preached and the liturgical customs of the parish. And, let's be clear: I'm not complaining. I was brought in to "improve the field" at Bethany, and was aware that the leadership was seeking a musical and liturgical life that would match the theological depth of Bethany's preaching and teaching. I just didn't realize the size of the gap until I got there. Having served previously in parishes with fairly rich worship traditions, I was unaware that large congregations within Lutheranism could have such "low church" traditions. And I was also unprepared for the number of folk who were actually opposed to the pastors' and lay leaders' vision for worship as well. In previous parishes, there were staff who wanted more "evangelical" or "entertaining" worship, but the people pretty much wanted Lutheran hymns and liturgy. At Bethany, many of the people wanted "contemporary worship", but the staff was opposed.

So it was into this environment I was installed as Cantor in January of 2000. Over the next 11 months, working with the pastors, a worship committee, and a "Ministry Council," we would draw up a document called the "Three-Year Plan" that would guide Bethany's liturgical renewal from 2001-2004. We did this because we believed that a significant amount of teaching would be necessary in order to lead the congregation to embracing a more Lutheran approach to music, liturgy, and ceremony, and so took the time to get the full leadership of the congregation on board and took the care to be fully transparent with the congregation about our plans.

Over the next few weeks, I'll share the plan with you, and let you know how things turned out!


Elephantschild said...

Wow. We're not in quite as bad a shape here, but I sure spot some familiar themes.

Orianna Laun said...

I'm sure there are many congregations out there such as this. I suppose some of it is from general lack of knowledge or understanding.
Could part of the "low" liturgical practices in congregations stem from the past when the norm was that pastors of a more liberal bent who were more liturgical? Some congregations may not have moved beyond that.

Phillip Magness said...

Yes, Orianna, there were many pastors of a liberal bent who were very "liturgical" during the heady days of LBW/LW. The "liturgical renewal movement" had "community" as a chief value, and so liberals loved getting into "high church" because they were viewing liturgy as "the work of the people" rather than "a public work for the people." Some of those guys are still around, and are affectionately known in church worker circles as "old Valpo libs".

But here we had a different story: Bethany was a historically conservative that opposed the liberals of the 60's & 70s and so embraced a "low church" practice as an emblem of its conservatism vis-a-vis the seminex/Valpo/liturgical renewal liberals. Indeed, as I look through the music library I can see this move toward more of a "low church conserative piety" relected in the purchases made for the library during the 70s and beyond. Earlier music is more based on chorales and the psalter; once the "low church" phase kicked in, hymn anthems and "pious praise anthems" became the norm.

Much of my work when I arrived was centered on reclaiming the liturgical function of the choir. This was a new concept to many members of the congregation, who viewed "conserative Lutheran" as almost synonymous with "simple Lutehran".

Thanks be to God that has changed today!