In recent e-mails and in a couple of suggestions to this blog, I have been encouraged to comment on the the ELCA’s project, called “renewing worship,” under which banner some souls hope to publish a new “worship resource” – which now apparently means a new hymnal and liturgical rites book, together with downloadable “online” resources. I hope that non-Lutherans won’t be offended that I’m taking on such a parochial project. (But really: is it parochial? Is there anything more central to Lutheranism and its relationship to society than the way it worships?) It seems a little off the path of a blog devoted to the intersection of “faith” and “life.” But liturgy is at the heart of all my thinking, and I have been thinking about this issue for a long time and fulminating to anyone who will listen about the wrongheadedness of the ELCA’s project. So I take another personal privilege and risk some kind of a critique.
Let me say that I am not completely informed about what product the renewing worship process will produce. As I understand matters, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly (the Disneyworld Assemble, I am wont to call it) authorized the production of a worship book and it placed responsibility for revising and approving the book in the office of the Presiding Bishop. We are promised that by March 2006 we will have a sampler of the contents of the book an that by mid-October 2006 a new book with supporting materials. But right now, no body seems to know what’s going to be in the book beyond hints provided by the previously published resources and overviews offered at the Renewing Worship website. That makes it difficult to discuss and criticize. That will not deter me however. I find it possible to criticize both process and product based on what is now available.
Since the project began, I have been troubled by the title taken for the effort: “renewing worship.” What does that mean? What is it meant to convey? Does “renewing” refer to process or to product?
Will the committee or task force, by its “own reason and strength,” seek to accomplish something that will renew “worship” within the Church? What, by the committee’s lights, needs to be renewed? Has worship grown flat in the ELCA? (It’s brazen arrogance to call oneself a renewer or a reformer – that title is usually granted, not claimed. But if that is the goal, perhaps the committee might have looked elsewhere than to the Lutheran Book of Worship, the rites and hymns book that has faithfully served the Lutheran Church for over twenty-five years, for a place to propose changes.)
Or is the phrase meant to carry a more consumerist note? Does/did the committee intend to develop “worship resources” that would “renew” the worshiper? That sounds current and mega-churchly, saleable and just vague enough to avoid definite meaning. (I can already see the ads: Joy Lutheran Church offers “Renewing Worship.”) But does such a suggestion – i.e., such an instrumental and utilitarian view of worship – reflect the or a Lutheran understanding of liturgy and worship? Is worship meant primarily to make us feel better? Even if one takes a very conservative position on the supposed distinction between sacrifice and sacrament, I doubt one would come down on the side of such personal fulfillment. (Rebuke and repentance may be good for the soul, but they are not necessarily good for the morale. I have heard complaints that Lent is a “downer” and ought to be downplayed in favor of Easter and joy, e.g.)
The lack of definition in “renewing worship” seems to have characterized the process that was meant to renew worship or to design person-renewing worship. The book now proposed for publication as “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” suffers from the same lack of definition.
The very title of the book is problematic, too: “Evangelical Lutheran Worship.” Is that to suggest that the book is from and for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the ELCA?)? Or does it offer a critique or worship in the Lutheran churches in America? Is “evangelical” intended to contrast with “high church”? Or are there non-evangelical Lutherans or is there non-evangelical Lutheran worship? (On that latest point, don’t get me started; I may have to cede the argument.) Is it intended to attract customers from the “Evangelical” wings of Christendom in America?
The process for “renewing worship” has also been problematic. I have checked my perceptions with others, and there is a sense that the “product” of the process has not been tested sufficiently for the Church to have confidence in it. I realize that materials have been available, and I see some evidence that supposed criticisms have been taken, at least partly, to heart. (E.g., I see that scandalously weak pastoral address of the Maundy Thursday liturgy has been corrected – but unfortunately, it has been eliminated altogether so far as I can tell from the materials now available.) Nevertheless, there is a sense among many of us that there simply was not engagement with the wider Church that characterized, for example, the development of the Lutheran Book of Worship. The process seemed, if not secretive, at least arcane.
Compounding that problem is the apparent snubbing of any member of the team that drafted the LBW. That is unfortunate for a variety of reasons. Many of those people still live (and I know enough of them to know that a sizeable sample would have been available). These are people of enormous talent and insight, theological acumen and healthy experience with the Church’s worship. They could have enhanced the quality of the product – and probably improved the process by which it was developed – in ways that we can now only imagine. Furthermore, by consulting them, the “new resource” drafters could have availed themselves of the institutional memory residing in the heads and hearts of those faithful servants.
In a future post, I’ll take on criticism of the final “product” – something that is hard to do because the final product is not yet set. The previously published interim editions of the rites are just that – interim. As I understand matters, the Disneyworld Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA gave authority for the Presiding Bishop’s office to make final revisions and changes and to produce the final product (which I think has to be approved either by the bishops’ conference or the Church Council). The final texts have not yet been approved, even though evaluation materials have been sent out to congregations and a brochure exists trying to sell copies of the book at pre-publication prices. (Talk about offering a pig in a poke).
For now, I offer a few general ideas about this project. First, it seems to me that the chief reason for developing a new “resource” is that the Lutheran Book of Worship is old – twenty-seven years old and counting. I am not sure why age seems a liability in a worship book (age and provenance are often tests of worthiness in the great Tradition of the Church), but apparently that concern intersects with another concern – viz., the need for a product that will find acceptance in congregations that are not keen on the LBW’s relatively sober, serious, and (mostly) European tone and substance. “Formal worship” – which has been inestimably encouraged the the LBW – seems to have fallen from favor; happy, clappy, praisy, band-led, entertainment-style events are the rage.
But for congregations that offset their “traditional” liturgy with a “contemporary” service (in order, I guess, to “give the people what they want” – sort of like bread and circuses), there is not much to draw on (arguably) from the LBW. I mean, Bach just doesn’t swing with an electrified guitar, lousy trapset, and electric non-organ keyboard. So if we want to offer resources to that cohort of the Church, we need new resources, right?
Finally, if one may deduce from drafts of the rites, there is at least one other motive behind the movement: that of reducing the scandal of the faith. I detect in the texts a softening of the realities of grace and death – and as a consequence a moderating of the stunning surprise of resurrection.
I’ll deal with my charge that the drafters are dumbing down the language of faith in my next post. But let me just say how wrong-headed I think it is to serve the other two purposes I’m positing. The folks who favor so-called “contemporary” worship (and some musicians ought to take on that misnomer: I hear no “new music” in contemporary worship) are not going to buy a hardbound worship book from AugsburgFortress. We don’t have nearly enough people working in that field to develop resource materials that praise bands and related arrangements want. Besides, few of them want a book at all; better are projections and downloadable resources. (Customers will be able to download materials from the book Evangelical Lutheran Worship. But on that point, return to my earlier point – that the people most desiring such stuff won’t look to our new worship book.)
Worship books ought not be designed around the findings of consumer polls. Their purpose is to serve God, not to serve current taste. The test of their success is not their sales volume (so I really don’t care whether AugsburgFortress loses its shirt on this deal or not – though I suspect it will), but rather their theological integrity, clarity, Christocentrism, durability, eloquence.
I’m not insensitive to the need for AugsburgFortress to develop new products to improve its bottom line. I used to own a bookstore; I know that new sells. But I question the wisdom of this approach to solving the problem. Why, in essence, a replacement for the LBW? Why not stand-alone resources?
I suspect that the answer will emerge from a look at the proposals already in front of us. And for that, I’ll need another post.