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

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.


Clint Hoff & Family said...

Fascinating reading, I look forward to reading more.

Unknown said...

I am wondering, why omit the Kyrie in certain seasons? Does the entrance rite go directly from Introit to the Hymn of Praise? Just curious. I have to say that I never thought about omitting the Kyrie. Thanks for your thoughts.