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

Friday, January 30, 2009

And of the First in the Series

As I prepare to write the next installment on this series of articles on Bethany's three-year plan to 'nurture authentic worship' in the Lutheran parish, I thought these wordles would give me some perspective. So the previous 'wordle' was made from the article about the second phase of the plan, "Liturgical Dialog". Here's one of the first: "The Drama of Liturgy":

Wordle: The Drama of Liturgy

A Wordle of the Last Post

Wordle: Liturgical Dialog

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Liturgical Dialog

The second phase of Bethany's three-year plan was entitled, "Liturgical Dialog". Building on first phase, "The Drama of Liturgy", we proceeded quite logically to exploring the speaking parts that the pastors, assisting liturgists (ordained or lay), and the congregation have in the Divine Service. We wanted to invite people into more active participation in the 'conversation' of worship, which is nothing less than the eternal conversation about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This conversation is the subject of true worship (Luke 9:31b), and is the story the Church is called to proclaim (Is. 12:4).

During this time, we taught the meaning and purposes of various congregational responses in the liturgy. Many of these responses had been cut from the service in the 80's and 90's out of a zeal to reduce the length of worship services. (Indeed, I was shocked that the first time I was introduced to Bethany, the non-communion service that morning lasted only 42 minutes!). This was done ostensibly because of parking problems at the previous site, necessitating a need for more 'exchange time' in the parking lot. So we told people that, having been at our new campus for over three years, there was no need to deny ourselves of the rich opportunities the liturgy provides us for rehearsing godly language on our lips. So we restored saying 'Thanks be to God" after the readings, the acclamations before and after the Gospel, the congregational cadences at the ends of each petition in the Prayer of the Church ("Lord, have mercy" or "Hear our prayer"), and other dialogs.

Most of the folk either liked or had no objections to these changes. After all, they are in the hymnal! And the older crowd appreciated singing 'Amen' after doxological hymn stanzas and after the concluding stanzas of some hymns that are especially prayerful. Sure, some wanted an Amen after every hymn, but we explained that hymns are often proclamation and catechesis, and so we'd let the text and context determine whether or not the organist would cue an Amen. A couple of people objected to becoming "too catholic" at this point, and we did lose three families during this time over the new worship direction, but overall most people liked recovering things that had been taken out of the service and also appreciated the teaching we were doing.

One prominent member in the congregation did object, though, to the prayer cadences. He pointed to Jesus' admonition against "vain repetitions" (Matthew 6:7) and argued that people really weren't praying when they would respond to a pastor's bid by saying "Lord, have mercy" but rather were just being mindlessly conditioned. His position was that truly pious thing to do was for everyone to listen to the pastor pray at length, and then whisper a quiet "Amen" if they wished. I attempted to show him from Scripture that Jesus was talking about the babbling of the Gentiles, who thought that by their efforts to repeat what they thought to be god-pleasing words was somehow meritorious before God. I agreed that the context of this passage would seem to include the "showy" practices of the hypocrites in the synagogue, but I doubt I was ever to get him to see that the problem was not the repeating of a versicle, but rather the vanity of an ungodly heart. This gentleman did not leave the congregation over this, but eventually decided that we were too liberal (!) and is now worshipping elsewhere.

We also began at this time to rehearse another dialog provided for in liturgical worship: that of a psalm refrain or antiphon. Psalms were already being done this way on occasion at Bethany, but we decided that congregational refrains were overall a good thing to do on most Sundays because they contextualize the psalm and also help the congregation learn and meditate on God's Word. As the old Latin proverb says: Repetitio est mater studorium. And what better way to let the Word dwell in you richly that a little music to accompany that repetition, right? Isn't this how we all learned our ABC's? And so during this time we also taught what Paul has to say about "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" in two of the few passages the New Testament has to say about worship (Eph. 3:15; Col. 3:16). We encouraged people to invest themselves more in the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in the liturgy, and also to sing them at home as well. The psalm refrains have proven to be very popular, and I commend them as a first step for any parish seeking worship renewal.

This phase of the plan ended in May of 2001, the end of my first full academic year at Bethany. It was a good choir season for both the senior and the children's choirs, and I used the talent of the choirs and some of our instrumental groups to ornament and enliven the psalms and canticles of the liturgy. In the years before I came to Bethany, most of the music - especially the instrumental music - was "special music' played as preludes or meditations. Sure there were hymn concertati on festival Sundays, but the choir mostly sang texts of various devotional qualities as a prelude to the service or as music during distribution, and most of the handbell and brass music was not hymn-tuned based. So there was a considerable shift in the direction of the music itself at this time, to highlight the new direction we were going as we had handbell choirs ornament the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei and play hymn introductions and descants, instrumental soloists play Voluntaries based on the Hymn of the Day and add descants to psalm refrains, and began using choral settings of the proper Verse of the Day.

Personally, I didn't think this was so radical. In fact, I still don't. We were just being Lutheran. Indeed, we were just reclaiming a basic liturgical spirituality that has characterized orthodox Christianity since its inception: the practice of magnifying the Word of God by singing it, that it may dwell in us richly. But some would find this "new way" to be "cold" and "too formal" and "stale". They wanted worship that would "move" them.

Summer was upon us, and so things would remain quiet for a few months, but in the fall these voices would begin to influence some members of the Ministry Council and also bend the ear of one of our pastors. Though all but one council member supported the plan in the beginning, and all the pastors and program staff participated in its development and promotion, some would view any amount of dissent or disagreement as a failure of the plan.

I learned in the beginning that some would view any actual teaching about liturgy as a problem in the first place. I now began to learn that some of those who advocated teaching above all else would conclude that if any fellow brother or sister in Christ were to reject the teaching and therefore be 'unhappy' with what we were doing, we should therefore stop doing whatever it is they would object to until such time as the teaching might convince them. And yet the teaching never would convince them - either because they objected to the very concept of instruction in worship in the first place or because they simply would reject either all or part of the many practices and customs which characterize Lutheran piety.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Drama of Liturgy

And so now we really begin to walk through Bethany's "Three-Year Plan" for nurturing authentic worship (2001-3) in the Lutheran parish.

The first three-month phase was called "The Drama of Liturgy". We thought this a good way to open up our teaching about the Divine Service as a whole, in order to get the congregation focused on the overarching themes of the Divine Service and of the Church Year. It also worked rather nicely that the customs to be refined during this first 3-month phase of the plan involved the Entrance Rite, that is, that time of prayer & praise between Confession & Absolution and the Service of the Word, during which the celebrants enter the chancel area to conduct the service.

Bethany already had some established customs for this part of the service. The cross was processed in during the Entrance Hymn, and "This Is the Feast" was generally sung whenever there was a full Divine Service (i.e. with the Lord's Supper). But there was little pattern to when the Kyrie would be used, the opening liturgy was often supplanted by a generic song of praise as a matter of convenience rather than as something intentional for the day, and there was little exploration of other possibilities for this time of the service, such as Introits or other Canticles.

So we did three main things at this time: instituted a general practice of praying the Kyrie during Lent, Advent, and all feast days, taught the people that processions of the cross at the beginning of the service served not to highlight the pastors and acolytes but to remind people that their salvation comes to them extra nos (i.e. outside of themselves, as a free gift from the cross), and also taught the people that the Kyrie in the liturgy is a petition for blessings - not a repetition of Confession. We reminded the folk that we are all "beggars before God" (Luther) and let them know that, in the drama of the liturgy, the people who have received the forgiveness of sins now boldly petition their King for additional blessings. We are able to do this because we are no longer slaves to sin (Romans 6), but instead members of the Royal Priesthood - whom Christ calls 'friends'. (John 15) But we are still trapped in our flesh and so remain sinners even while we are made saints, and so approach the Lord in all humility, knowing that we receive His gifts only by his mercy, praying, "Lord, have mercy." (Kyrie eleison!)

During these three months, there was little reaction from the congregation that reached my ears or my desk. But over the course of the 2001, I was to discover something interesting: while there was little objection to the actual changes being made, people took issue with the teaching about worship. The very thing that was supposed to make the changes go over better - "explain things to people before you do it so that they'll understand and accept and not think we're just doing some kind of empty rituals" - actually proved to be what was provocative! It has taken me years to figure out why this is so, but I think I have a handle on it now: for those who want liturgy to make no other claims than simply a utilitarian benefit for the sake of order teaching about the liturgy is precisely what offends!

You see, if one has a low view of the liturgy, it's OK to change it, expand it, shorten it, flatten it, or stretch it, just so long as one doesn't make any claims for it. So, for these folk, it doesn't matter whether you have a Kyrie or not, or whether a cross goes down the aisle with the pastor, or whether you sing the Gloria or an alternative Canticle. It's all just a matter of taste. Just do what "works", i.e. what is most popular, or, at least, take turns doing what different people like. But don't start talking about processing the cross being an intrinsically good thing to do, or telling people what "Lord, have mercy" means. Let people think whatever they want. And let them sing what they want, too. They don't want to hear that one Canticle is more appropriate for one time of a year than another.

And so it began. Three of the roughest years of my life. While the majority of the congregation would give the plan high marks in the end, the minority was vocal. And it turned out that many in that minority were in positions of power in the congregation.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Developing "The Plan"

And now, with the new year, I plan on being much more regular in my postings, and have motivation to do so as I now embark on the chronicle of liturgical renewal at Bethany I have been promising. As I have mentioned, my first year at Bethany was consumed with the development of a "Three-Year Plan" for nurturing the liturgy. The need for education, development, and consistency in this area was identified by the congregation in 1999, and was integral to broadening the position of "music director" to that of "Cantor" as I was brought on board. As the new "Cantor", I had to then work through the details of what all this meant. By bringing everybody on board, the thinking went, we would have smooth sailing as we inaugurated changes and enhancements to Bethany's worship customs and practices. The final document that came out of this was called, "Nurturing Lutheran Worship at Bethany: the Three-Year Plan". It was mailed out to every congregation member, accompanied by a nice introductory letter from Pastor Rossow. It was not called "The Plan" at the time, but for the sake of brevity I'll now start referring it to such in this series. "The Plan" itself was formulated via a series of open questions in worship that were brought to the worship committee and to the program staff. Members of both groups added their own questions to the list, and over the first five months of my cantorate over a dozen meetings were held in which these two groups shared their responses to the questions and systematized their areas of agreement into a vision of where we wanted to go as a congregation. I then assessed where Bethany was and where we wanted to go, and marked out a path to getting there over three years. Once a path was laid out, a new series of meetings began so that we could review and revise the plan and come to agreement on exactly what we were going to do. Once there was agreement between the program staff and the worship committee, a final draft was sent to the Ministry Council, which then sent the plan back for further revisions. Finally, after almost a full year of discussions, The Plan was approved, with the unanimous support of the worship committee and the program staff, and by a 9-1 vote of the Ministry Council. The plan had 12 stages, each guiding a 3-month focus on different aspects of the liturgy. Most but not all of these stages also introduced either a change or an addition to Bethany's customs. The first stage of The Plan was entitled "The Drama of the Liturgy" and, among other things, explained the Entrance Rite to the congregation. No real changes were introduced, but more consistent customs were agreed upon, explained, and established. But before we look at each of the 12 stages, we should take time to look at the Introduction to the Plan and the Worship Statement that was introduced to the congregation as The Plan began in December, 2000. So, if you want to know how we explained the need for The Plan to the congregation in the first place......head on to the next post!

Introducing "The Plan"

"Nurturing Lutheran Worship at Bethany: The Three-Year Plan" (herewith referred to simply as "The Plan") was mailed out to all congregation members and introduced via pastoral letter, announcements in the parish newsletter and weekly bulletin, and in various sermon illustrations in the weeks surrounding the beginning of its implementation. Repeated in print were a Purpose Statement and a Worship Statement, the latter of which still appears (in revised form) in our weekly newsletter and on our website. It gives a general outline of worship of Bethany and serves to inform guests and visitors about our general practices. The Purpose Statement was specifically for the introduction of The Plan and explained to the congregation why we were embarking on our liturgical renewal effort. It read:

As Christians have been called to be 'in the world' but not 'of the world,' (2 Cor. 10:3; John 15:19) so the Divine Service has come to be known among Lutherans as 'the unchanging feast in a fast-changing world.' Though we are citizens of heaven by virtue of Holy Baptism, we are also still citizens of this fallen world, which accompanies our sinful nature to God's house even as the saint within us is drawn by the Spirit to worship God in Christ. Hence, God's unchanging forgiveness is ministered to us in the context of our culture.

Because worship connects an eternal God to his ever-changing people, the liturgy and music of the Church must always address this relationship so that the Word is effectively and convincingly proclaimed. Static music, liturgy, and ceremony risk disconnecting Christ from his people by becoming incomprehensible, ritualistic, and meaningless. Music and ceremony that moves beyond the grasp of the average worshipper carries a similar risk. The task of Christian worship, therefore, is to assure that the eternal truths of God are effectively proclaimed to the assembly. This requires both education so that Christians understand and appreciate the liturgy and hymnody of the Church, and also reformation, so that what has become artifact can be replaced by art that is truly able to perform its functions of adorning and proclaiming the Word.

Above all, it is important to remember that though practice may be changed according to the culture of the congregation, the substance as even style of worship remains consistent according to the confessions of the Lutheran Church. Lutherans worship as Lutherans believe. Confessional Lutheran liturgy is always centered on the means of grace: Baptism, Absolution, the proclamation of the Word, and the Lord's Supper. The problem of man remains sin, and God's solution remains Christ crucified for sinners. By Grace Alone, Faith Alone, and Scripture Alone, salvation is applied to us in the Divine Service. As God's chosen people, we are built up in our understanding of both sin and grace by the proper distinction of Law and Gospel, which is essential to Lutheran doctrine and practice.

Bethany's devotion to providing worship that achieves these noble ends is expressed in our worship mission statement. This statement explains both what is essential to Christian liturgy and seeks to transcend stylistic labels by affirming that Lutheran worship embraces yet transcends both tradition and contemporary culture:

"Christian worship begins with the crucified Christ, who comes to us in Word and Sacrament. He brings to the people of God forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. We in turn extol these gifts with joyful thanksgiving an praise, proclaiming the story of God's love through His Word. This celebration is done in concert with the Church throughout the world, and finds its expression in the liturgy. Lutheran worship is traditional in that it is part of the timeless culture of the Church, and contemporary in that it effectively communicates the Gospel to the assembly. Worship is the vocation of all baptized Christians. The Divine Service at Bethany is therefore designed to involve all who gather here in the name of the Lord."

Because worship that is truly confessional and evangelical cannot be static, and because congregations need to be educated about liturgy and worship that they may better know the riches they have received as members of the body of Christ, the program staff, the worship committee, and Ministry Council have designed the following three-year plan to nurture Lutheran worship in our parish. This plan takes the form of a series of strategic educational foci, which are accompanied by specific ceremonial, liturgical, or musical emphases designed to enrich the Divine Service at Bethany, that all who attend worship here may be more strongly connected to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ through His means of grace.

So, "there it is". Looking back eight years later I can see some things that could have been said better, such as referring to "customs" that may be changed rather than "practices", since "practices" best refers to essentials such as baptizing and communing and absolving and so "customs" is a better word to describe adiophoric approaches as to how such things may best be done in a given cultural context. But enough of what I think. What do you think?