Thursday, December 16, 2010

The New Battle for the Liturgy


In the 1980s and 1990s, congregations across America were divided over how to worship. One side said that times were changing and the church should also change to become more culturally relevant. It was okay to use popular music in church, they said, because traditional organ music and hymns are passé and driving away those ubiquitous “young people”. Others said, form must follow function, and traditional music and liturgies are the best way to objectively proclaim what the Church has always proclaimed: the gospel.
In retrospect, we can see that music was the whipping boy for larger issues. It was the tangible change that was occurring in the congregation, but plenty more was changing, too. The role and authority of the pastor, the mission of the church, even the necessity of the cross were all being redefined in the contemporary movement. All of these things were silently being debated as the drummer set up his drums and the guitarist tuned his six-string. In truth, these debates continue to rage. But most of the congregation dividing and conquering has already happened. Now, congregations are either “traditional” or “contemporary” or some weird combination of the two.
I have begun to envision a new battle emerging in the future and it is between those who share a similar liturgy, but mean very different things in saying or singing them. It would not be hard for me to point you to several congregations, possibly scores of them, who love and use very “traditional” liturgies. The creeds and collects are said, the scriptures are read, the Eucharist is celebrated weekly, and centuries-old hymns are sung, perhaps even accompanied by a pipe organ.
But like in earlier debates, the pastors and leaders of congregations are redefining the very language they utter. The uniqueness of Christ and his saving work, the name of God, and even the role of baptism in a Christian’s life are all undergoing transformation in some congregations that use traditional liturgies. Generally speaking, the bent is towards more "liberal" liturgies that seek to minimize the need for confession of sin, and include social justice language of all stripes. As an example, if you are a member of a more "liberal" but liturgical congregation, do not be surprised to hear more and more talk about how Jesus' death and resurrection was for all of creation.
This is certainly true, but this is a classic case of over-appropriating one theological truth to make a more general statement about a political point-of-view. To state it bluntly, this is a prayer for global warming legislation or a moral covering for the green ambitions of the pastor. By saying that Jesus died for all of creation, he is stating a truth, but slyly removing the whole "he died for your sins" reality of the crucifixion. Anything to hide sin is advantageous in our postmodern age.
In that same vein, baptism has been given a larger and larger role in the liturgy over the years. Baptism is now used, I would argue, as a shield against the need for repentance. Again, it is true that in baptism, our sins are forgiven. But the hope is that if we just focus on that reality of baptism, we can hide that we are really preaching cheap grace. Baptism becomes a magic act/"get out of jail free" card all in one swoop. And once baptism becomes that, confession and repentance can go as well.
Again, if you know how to look for these transformations, you’ll see them. One of the changes in my denomination's new hymnal was the removal of the Athanasian creed. (My congregation will use it on Holy Trinity Sunday; it is on page 54 of the LBW and absent from the ELW). Read it sometimes. It's harsh. Therefore it was on the liturgical chopping block. The Intercessory prayers may begin to resemble a wish list for social programs as well, depending on who actually writes them.
I don’t know how the new worship wars will shake out over time. They may shake out in individual conversations rather than mass exoduses or congregational votes. Something like this: a visitor asks a pastor why he should join church A or B, because they use the same liturgy. The pastor will then take time to explain how the theology that undergirds the liturgy is in place at one congregation, but not another. Or perhaps a member of a congregation will, over a period of months or even years, begin to detect a different bent to the preaching and praying of her congregation. Only by researching the pastor’s library will that member begin to know why things have changed.
One thing is sure: you cannot separate the theology of the liturgy from the proclamations of the liturgy. The historical, objective liturgy proclaims the truth about God and the truth about us. It is our nature as sinners to try to twist that truth for our advantage. Many congregations have done that, slowly but surely, even while using the historic liturgy. I don’t know when or how, but I can see new worship wars in the future. But the fight won’t be traditional vs. contemporary, but liturgical congregations who live by the theology of the liturgy, and liturgical congregations that have altered the historic liturgy just enough to suit their theological predilections.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a well written post, one of your better. In the last paragraph you wrote:

"...you cannot separate the theology of the liturgy from the proclamations of the liturgy.."

I struggled with the meaning of this for a while, but reduced it to:
"For those who choose power over principle, they put themself into a position to lose both."

Correct?