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

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Flexibility and the Liturgy

Folks who generally stick to the rubrics when planning worship are oftentimes thought of as "inflexible" in their approach.   The spirit of the age highly values spontaneity and innovation - believing such things to be markers of sincerity, authenticity, and even creativity - and so following a traditional liturgy is seen by many as an impediment to genuine worship.  To be sure, an approach that does everything "by the book" can definitely be uncreative and even careless.   Yet worship that is "free" from liturgical constraints is not necessarily more creative nor does it really bring with it more variety.  More often than not,  "contemporary" or "low church" or "evangelical" services follow an unwritten order and a musical ethos than is much more rigid than one finds in most "liturgical" parishes.

Why is this so? Why is there no real correlation between "flexibility" and whether a service is "traditional" or "contemporary". I think it is because when you get right down to it, everyone has to have a liturgy - whether they admit it or not.   If you are going to baptize, praise, preach, pray, commune, and bless, you have to have some way of doing these things.  And, at the end of the day, there are only so many different ways you can go about it, because there are only so many cards in the deck, and some of the potential ways of laying out those cards just don't make sense.   You can't start the service with the benediction and it makes little sense to have the readings after the sermon.  So whether one likes it or not, there are certain things that everyone does in a given tradition, and then only so many different ways of ordering them.   And whether you order them according to your denominational hymnal or do things in a more parochial way, everyone falls into a basic pattern which their congregation settles into as the regular "dance" of Sunday morning worship.

This point was really brought home to me a few years ago when I was teaching a class on worship in Peoria.   As I was talking about the options provided for in the Divine Service and how certain choices  are desirable at different parts of the church year, a man raised his hand to comment that he was a convert to Lutheranism and really appreciated the variety in our liturgical services.  He went on to say, "I was raised Free Methodist and we heard all the time about how free we were and how the liturgical churches were stuck in their rituals - but our pastor pretty much started and ended church the same way every Sunday and we had no church year except observing Christmas and Easter Sunday.   It was very predictable - and really rather boring.  I much prefer the variety Lutherans have.  It makes church much more interesting."

Of course, there are many liturgical Lutheran churches who don't have much variety.   Perhaps they sing the same setting of the liturgy every Sunday.   Perhaps they limit themselves to 50 hymns all generally of the same style and all played the same way.   And certainly there are "non-liturgical" churches that have much more variety than where this gentleman was raised.   However, this all just helps set up the point that I'd like to make: flexibility and creativity in the liturgy depend not so much on your order of service or how much you use a hymnal, but rather your ability to take your congregation's basic "Sunday morning dance" and build on it.   The basic steps always going in the same direction is going to be boring, but, whatever your routine, adding dips and breaks and turns and moving around the floor makes for an exciting and uplifting dance - whether your worship is like a waltz, a tango, or the Cottoneyed Joe.

I'd like to close with an example.  Last Sunday we had the Feast of Pentecost.  In keeping with the pattern of our congregation's worship, which is basically to follow the orders found in our synodical hymnal, the Lutheran Service Book, we had the following "dips and turns" along the way:

*We divided the hymn, "O Holy Spirit, Enter In", singing stanza 1 as an Entrance Hymn and stanzas 2, 3 as a Closing Hymn.   This was because the text of stanza 1 is invocatory whereas the other two stanzas petition the Lord to sustain us with His Spirit as we go out into the world to glorify Him in our vocations.

*We sang a Russian Orthodox Kyrie, a cappella, in lieu of the Kyrie used in the order of service we followed (Divine Service II).    This was sung a cappella.

*We sang the Puerto Rican hymn, "Alabaré" as the Hymn of Praise, rather than one of the Gloria or standard Dignes Es ("Worthy is Christ"/"This is the Feast") that is the hymnal's default.   And again, we used alternative accompaniment rather than organ:  piano, brass, maracas, calves, congas.

*In place of the Psalm, we sang the ancient Pentecost chant, "Veni Creator Spiritus" (in English), with the choir alternating verses with the congregation.   The accompaniment was aleatoric "bell effects" played on the grand piano.

*Rather than the congregation singing the ordinary Verse before the Gospel, the choir sang a beautiful setting composed by Dawn Sonntag.  (Yes, I couldn't help but add a little plug! )

*For the communion liturgy itself, the pastors used the options for Pentecost provided for in the Altar Book, further accenting the theme of the day in creative ways.  

*The post-communion Prayer of Thanksgiving was from CPH'S Creative Worship.  Sure, that resources is often misused by simply doing the sample service in toto each week without regard to a congregation's pattern and practice, but that doesn't mean that the resource can't be a great help.   It's sort of like liturgical alcohol. Just drink responsibly!   

*Finally, the attendant music chosen for the services throughout the weekend was quite varied: from John Ylvisaker's "Spirit" on Saturday night with guitar & keyboard bass to a neo-traditional hymn anthem with flute sung by the choir to the choir leading the congregation in singing the Argentine classic, "Holy Spirit, the Dove Sent from Heaven" with brass & full percussion (guiro, congas, maracas, calves, tambourine.)

We did deploy a few more musicians last Sunday than on average - but not much more.  It was Memorial Day weekend after all!   But most of what was done could have been done anyway.   We actually use this much variety most every Sunday, whether we have a choir or not.   And yet the congregation stays within a comfort zone, because the basic dance of our pattern of worship remains unchanged.

The Lutheran liturgy is rich in substance and solid in its construction.  It provides a great foundation for worship that provides for significant variety in texts and can be accommodated by all sorts of music.   There is no reason to abandon Lutheran liturgical practice in search of creativity, authenticity, or relevancy.   It all really depends not so much on what you do, but how you do it.   Indeed, the depth and scope of the liturgy actually allows for more flexibility than the typical pattern of most "contemporary worship services."

May the leaders of the Lord's song take advantage of the full flexibility provided for in the liturgy, that our worship may never be boring, and that all who are gathered may gain interest in it.                                                                                                                                                


David Ernst said...

Many in our congregation, both adults and young people, either cannot read at all, or are semi-literate. But through repeated hearing, they have memorized "el Oficio Mayor" from "Culto Cristiano" (CPH). "Alabaré", accompanied by the pandaretta, is a favorite opening hymn. For closing, we often sing "Dios es nuestro Amparo". Also popular are "Bueno es alabarte, Jehová" and "Creo en Dios el Padre eterno" (the Apostle's Creed in metrical form).

Phillip Magness said...

Wonderful, David. A great example of how even in a context that allows for less variety (because of a lower level of literacy in the congregation), the liturgy provides for great flexibility.

I have found the same thing in my trips to Africa. For example, in Brazzaville, they people can read - but have no books. And so the Introit has to be very repetitive. They sing back whatever the pastor sings to them. However, the pastor and the assembly have their own tones, so it makes for a nice musical dialog. A bit different than what you describe, but the common thread is repetition.

Repetition is the mother of learning. One big reason why the historic liturgy serves the churches so well - in so many different ways!