Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Traditionalism is not Legalism

George Carlin once quipped that anyone driving slower than you is an "idiot" and anyone driving faster than you is a "maniac."

Of course, this is because the sinful nature sees itself as, like the third bowl of porridge: "just right."

In the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, especially exacerbated by the multiplicity of electronic media, there is a real culture of trying to bully people into being Just Like Me. You will see it pretty often these days, be it on blogs, in social networking sites, or on e-lists. The self-styled "confessional Lutherans" often berate the emerging movement, the contemporary worship faction, or the church growth industry for not being reverent and traditional enough. Their opponents often reply by playing (in the words of Rev. Todd Wilkin) "the Pharisee card." In other words, the "confessional Lutherans" are denounced by their less liturgical counterparts for "legalism" and for being "Pharisees." Of course, the characterization is unfair and a poor substitute for rational and churchmanly debate and discourse.

But, the game goes the other direction. There is a movement of traditionalism, not only in Lutheran circles, but also among the Roman Catholic, Reformed, and even neo-Evangelical branches of the Church Catholic. Creeds and confessions are being dusted off. Churches that have been hesitant to use the traditional church year and the lectionary are taking them out for a spin. Chasubles and incense are cautiously being reintroduced in liturgical churches - even in America where minimalism and anti-Roman hysteria has skewed Lutheranism and Anglicanism in a more Protestant direction than the confessional writings and tradition of those communions confess on paper.

But the traditionalist movement is being ridiculed as legalism by the "confessional Lutheran" faction in the same way that the "confessional Lutherans" are often mischaracterized by their opponents. And the impersonality of the internet emboldens a sense of rudeness that is far less likely in a more personal forum.

One example I've seen recently involved a pious Lutheran lady who blogged about her decision to adopt what was, until the sexual revolution, almost a universal practice among Christian ladies in worship - the wearing of a head covering. For this, she was mocked and ridiculed by "confessional Lutherans." A pastor even went so far as to post pictures of women wearing Muslim burkas on her website, and to question her motives.

Another "traditionalist Lutheran" layman was explaining some of the rationale for the traditional Lutheran practice of receiving communion on the tongue. He was by no means saying this is a requirement, but was rather explaining why this was customary and nearly universal among Lutherans for centuries - until very recent times (when communing in the hand became common in the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church). The dialog went on to discuss the way pastors have traditionally been taught to hold their hands while distributing communion, and he made a cogent and calm argument in favor of the traditional practice. In response, this educated layman was openly mocked by pastors, who themselves tried to tag him with the accusation that he was "scorning" them and not showing enough obeisance to the pastoral office. Of course, namecalling never refutes a good argument. I know the fellow in question, and you will not find a more gentlemanly, churchly person. He is scholarly and genteel, and has profound respect for thr holy office. Some of his opponents simply sought to silence him through bullying and playing loose and fast with the facts. Again, the traditional position was mocked and associated with legalism.

Sadly, people seem to forget that these "rubrics" (specific instructions about worship) are ancient, appear in Lutheran hymnals and/or liturgical guidebooks, are nowhere taught as meritorious for salvation and are never touted as such today by any Lutherans, and simply give direction about how to do things.

They are, in short, etiquette.

Etiquette is not a priority in our culture these days. It is denigrated as some kind of pompous self-aggrandizing trivia about which fork to use at a fancy dinner. Today's movies and TV shows routinely celebrate rudeness. Even children's movies are filled with burping and flatulence. Anyone who displays etiquette is portrayed as effeminate - when in fact, the correct way to describe this ethos is "chivalry", which is at its core, a manly Christian deference for women, for children, and for those who are weaker or disadvantaged in any way. And even among those who are not weaker, politeness is simply striving to treat others the way we ourselves would want to be treated - which, in spite of its seemingly un-Lutheran "legalism," sounds vaguely familiar for some reason.

Of course, etiquette and chivalry would preclude mocking a lady with pictures of women wearing burkas. Etiquette would also dictate gracious disagreement rather than misstating the opposing view and trying to destroy a person's reputation.

I can't help but think of the story of the Southern lady who went to Manhattan, and her rude and obnoxious hosts wanted to rub her nose in the fact that they had conquered her home state in the "late unpleasantness." So, they took her to the St. Gaudens equestrian statue of General Sherman which includes the figure of an angel (portrayed in the feminine) walking alongside. The Southern lady got the upper hand, though. When asked for her reaction, she replied: "Isn't that just like a Yankee to make the lady walk?" Unfortunately, these days, there is little or no deference shown to ladies, Christian or otherwise. It's as though "confessional Lutherans" have surrendered the premises of feminism unawares.

The other nice thing about etiquette is it prevents distraction and embarrassment. For example, my fifth grade music teacher, who was rather eccentric, had the habit of putting a record on for the students and then sitting on the piano bench, mindlessly burying her index finger two knuckles deep in her nose, digging wax out of her ear, picking at her scalp, then rolling the amalgamated bio-matter around in her fingers, and eating it. You can imagine the reaction of her students, who observed this trainwreck tableau with rapt attention. No doubt, she had no idea that she was doing this. She had no "rubric" to suggest a proper place or procedure for her hands. So, she did what came naturally.

A liturgical rubric about hands developed over many centuries (a rubric mocked by some of the "confesisonal Lutheran"faction) involving the celebrant. When communion begins, the ancient custom is for the priest to place his index finger and thumb together. This keeps his fingertips and thumbs clean, since he is placing the hosts into the mouths of his parishioners. It also keeps him from brusing his hair, picking his eyes, or imitating the rhinotillexial rituals of my fifth grade music teacher - which would certainly detract friom the Gospel (and yes, someone will, no doubt, claim that he will deliberately be picking his nose during next Sunday's service to express his freedom in the Gospel...). The rubric allows a habit to be formed - a good habit, a hygenic habit, a helpful habit. This isn't legalism, it's common courtesy. It's like the rubric of brushing your teeth or not wiping your nose on the altar linens.

Now, I find that particular rubric (keeping finger and thumb together, that is) difficult to master (I don't have liturgical assistants), but I do make the effort to keep in in spirit. When I am celebrating the Mass, I try very hard not to touch anything - especially not my face - with my right forefinger and thumb. I bless the children with my pinky instead (since I use my thumb and forfinger to give communion). Does this merit something for me? Of course not. Is it a good habit to foster? I think so.

The rubric is not only good hygiene, it promotes protection of the Lord's body from desecration. Most rubrics are rooted in a desire for good order in worship, or common courtesy and hygenic considerations. These are good things, not bad. This isn't legalism, but rather a loving attention to propriety and detail. Often the celebrant in Christian churches is seen with hands folded. Again, this is a habit that continues to protect the hands from picking up foreign substances which will then be placed into people's mouths. And yes, it is a way for the pastor to focus on something other than wondering what the heck to do with his hands so that he doesn't draw undo attention to himself. We don't have to reinvent the wheel out of some misguided Romaphobia or desire to look as slovenly as possible so as not to appear overly catholic (a seminary professor once said that Dr. Nagel suggested, tongue in cheek, that the pastor should make sure his stole is a little crooked so as not to appear too "high church").

Another example: the custom of the pastor turning to his right (instead of his left) dates back to the days when we had deacons (that would be "male deaconesses" for some of our modern LCMS folks unfamiliar with the term) assisting at the altar. The priest would turn to his right so as not to turn his back on the deacon. Now, I don't have a deacon, but I do usually have a lay elder assisting me, and I do try to avoid turning my back to him - whether he is on my left or right. That little matter of etiquette will not merit salvation, has no effect on the efficacy of my preaching or the validity of the sacrament, but it is the polite thing to do. I don't insist others do this, but I might mention it if I were teaching a course on liturgy - and I'm sure someone would interpret it as legalism, and suggest the Christian thing would be to turn one's back on him in order to express Christian freedom. Sigh.

Traditionalism is filled with polite actions. And that's not a bad thing, especially in the face of people coming to church with bare midriffs, nearly exposed breasts, ball caps on the head, and chomping on bubble gum (I'm thinking mainly of funerals and weddings here). Propriety is not legalism, and mocking those who strive to go back to practices rooted in reverent tradition doesn't add anything to the discussion. In fact, it just fuels the fire of criticism among "liberals" that the "conservatives" are cads, rubes, troglodytes, and barbarians. Maybe it's also a matter of Christian liberty that we may indeed rise above these impressions? Maybe Christian freedom includes the freedom to not to confirm to the bottom-shelf stereotype asserted by our opponents?

I do think it entirely compatible with the Gospel not to mock and humilate Christian ladies who cover their heads nor those who place their hands in such a way as to maintain hygiene and respect. It seems to me quintessensially Lutheran to honor our forebears rather than presume the worst of their motives in handing down rubrics to us.

And if you want to disagree, please feel free. But at the risk of being called a "legalist," I insist that any discussion of this topic will be conducted as ladies and gentlemen. I'm a fan of Robert E. Lee's single rubric concerning the behavior of his students at Washington College: "Be a gentleman." If you're not, your post will disappear and not be addressed.

That's my rubric, and I'm sticking to it.


James McDonald said...

Great rubric, Pastor Beane, and a great call to "liturgical etiquette" And while it is encouraging to see a resurgence of liturgical worship, it is troubling to see the mounting opposition to these “old paths.” We have seen our share of ad hominems and name calling over the years. I suppose it goes with the territory.

Keep the faith,

Pastor Beisel said...

Good post. I think a lot of this has to do with simply being deliberate, don't you think? I mean, rather than walking around the chancel haphazardly, without a purpose, isn't it better to be deliberate, to serve with purpose? Isn't there merit (not for salvation, of course) in planning ahead, in practicing, in preparing, in thinking out what you are going to do beforehand, so that you don't make an idiot of yourself? That is how I see a lot of this stuff. You know what is funny, is that the Confessions state that we do not cricitize others for having more or less ceremony. Meanwhile, the "Confessionals" are certainly guilty of critizing some for having more ceremony. I love your points about being polite. This just goes to show you how ignorant our culture and society is in manners. We are not accustomed to standing up when a lady enters the room anymore, or children when adults approach them or enter the room. Granted, I would say that if a pastor is spending the majority of his time "fussing" about liturgical details, at the expense of reading and studying theology and doctrine, then he needs to just decide on something, and get his butt in gear. But I will never fault a guy for trying to do things well, and for being deliberate and purposeful in his conduct of the service.

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Fr. Beisel wrote: "But I will never fault a guy for trying to do things well, and for being deliberate and purposeful in his conduct of the service."

Don't you love how easy it is to casually quote Piepkorn in a conversation of this sort?

Christopher D. Hall said...

Have you seen McCain's reaction to, presumably, this post? It's like he only read every other word.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Br. Latif:

Wow, I had forgotten about Dr. Piepkorn's explanation of liturgical rubrics:

"Really there is only one basic rule of good form: 'Be courteous!' And similarly there is really only one basic rule of altar decorum: 'Be reverent!' Every other rule is simply a practical amplification of this basic charge." (The Conduct of the Service, p. iii, Redeemer Lutheran Church, 2003 edition).

Of course, Fr. Beisel was also trained liturgically with this ethic - thanks to the fine work of many of our professors and colleagues who instilled in us courtesy and reverence.

Following the old forms and rubrics while thinking the forms are themselves the substance, is, of course, something that Luther railed against and even mocked. This was a problem at that time and in that place. But reverence and decorum in worship and being considerate of other people for the sake of the Gospel is not something we should rebel against under the banner of "Christian liberty."

The rubrics were made for man, and not man for the rubrics. They are good and helpful and allow us to focus on Jesus. The caricature of the Lutheran rubricist falling into pre-reformation works righteousness is a straw man and a myth - though the sin of pride (Thank you, Pr. McDonald!)is always lurking for all Christians - whether they take pride in their "smells and bells", in their whitewashed walls and simple unadorned services, or in their coffeehouses and rock bands.

Instead of making fun of rubrics (and those who have the gift of teaching them), maybe a healthier exercise would be to put the best construction on things and try to figure out how they serve the Gospel through courtesy and reverence.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Pr. McDonald:

Thank you for your encouragement, as well as your wise pastoral counsel against pride - which I linked to in my previous comment. I know you've taken a lot of slings and arrows in the form of charges of "legalism" - and your sense of humor, cheerfulness, and constant focus on our Lord Jesus Christ is a great example to all presbyters and preachers.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Fr. Paul:

How true! The nice thing about rubrics is they put you on a kind of "autopilot" while you keep your mind where it needs to be. If you're constantly fretting about how to step, where to look, which way to turn, what to do with your hands, etc. you're not really worshiping (sort of like a beginning driver groping for the clutch, forgetting which gear is reverse, and spending so much time looking at his feet he nearly runs over a shopping cart).

The rubrics, far from being "legalism" free us to "lift up our hearts" and participate in the worship - even as we lead it. The red stop sign doesn't hinder your freedom on the road, and neither do the red rubrics in the hymnal or other liturgical resource.

"Deliberate and purposeful" is a great summary of how worship is to be conducted. And I think Dr. Scaer (armed with his mace at graduation) would agree wholeheartedly!

Thanks for your comments.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Christopher:

Actually, I think Pr. McCain was responding to some of Br. Latif's earlier comments at the web-ring Wittenberg Trail. I think he misses Latif's points, and I disagree with his characterization of ritual and rubric.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

The contention I make is that our actions should also be a matter of teaching - and if it teaches, fantastic. Respect and decorum are things that need to be taught.

However, when it becomes "this is just how we do it" that something becomes. . . diminished. I think that is the dividing line to look at.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Eric:

I agree to a point. We may not always understand why we do something (such as, when we were kids, why we couldn't have ice cream sundaes for dinner every day and wash them down with gallon jugs of Bosco). But, I think we should err on the side of tradition - even if we don't have a rational explanation.

If a tradition is rooted in bad theology or attacks the Gospel, of course, it needs to be done away with. But I can't think of a single traditional Lutheran rubric that would fall in this category.

For example, in the U.S., we drive on the right side of the road. And indeed, "that's just how we do it." I don't advocate a "pro-choice" viewpoint about driving, nor would I consider it a blow for liberty to drive on the left.

But your point about rubrics being a part of teaching well taken. They certainly do help us teach and confess. However, as often as not, however, nobody will ever notice our obedience to rubrics, e.g. a pastor blessing the children with his pinky in order to avoid passing along crud to the hosts that we put in people's mouths.

Some things are indeed "just done that way" even as some things are (as my wife was taught by her proper grandmother) simply "not done." There isn't always an explanation.


Pastor Beisel said...

I used to use this analogy at seminary on making the sign of the cross. I think you can over teach on things too, like giving all sorts of non-traditional explanations for why we make the sign of the cross, or why we use candles in church. I like to say, "If you asked a plumber why he has a utility belt, he would say, 'Because I'm a plumber. What'd you expect?" Perhaps our answer to some questions about "why do you make the sign of the cross" should simply be: "Because I'm a Christian." Or "Because I'm baptized."

Fr. Latif--I had forgotten that I was even quoting Piepkorn; his words as well as those of Paul H. D. Lang are so engrained in me now, that they come out without even thinking.

You know, my services don't look exactly like those at Redeemer in Ft. Wayne. Are they any less reverent? I don't think so. Would Pastor Petersen ever, EVER criticize me or my congregation for having less ceremonies than they? Absolutely not! Are there ways that I can still improve my practice and conduct of the service? Indeed. But I think that you get the service to the point that you are comfortable with, and then leave it be for a while. Get a good foundational practice and then you can add or subtract what will edify or what does not edify. I do what I can in my little church, and what is tolerable by the people, and I teach and reinforce the fact that the beauty of the service is in the doctrine and the Word, and that the ceremonies serve the doctrine of our services, not the other way around. They are servants, not masters. Pulpits help to extoll the preaching of God's Word and set it apart from every day speeches. Chanting also makes the words of Scripture more distinct. Vestments hide the pastor and extoll the office. The way we walk, hold our hands, and conduct ourselves says a lot about how we view God, and the service that we are conducting.

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Fr. Beisel,
I am in no sense a father. Thanks thanks for your comment.

Randy Asburry said...

Fr. Hollywood,

Great post and a great discussion going on here! Thank you for some good, sanctified common sense (that, sadly, may not be so "common" for self-styled "Confessional Lutherans").

The Piepkorn quote mentioned above also reminds me of another way of approaching things liturgical: "noble simplicity." We conduct the liturgy with a view to both things--the nobility of being in the Lord's presence and the simplicity of acting both courteously and naturally. In fact, I would argue that the attention to rubrical details does indeed free us up to focus on what's really happening. After all, if one has constantly to worry about where to stand, which way to face, and if those things change from week to week or every so often, then such matters distract from serving the Kingly Lord in His house.

I'm also reminded of Dr. Korby's way of looking at "Christian freedom." We live in a time in which it's common to spout "Christian freedom" as "I don't gotta do that!" However, I like to turn it around. "Christian freedom" most certainly means that we can and do conduct the liturgy with the utmost in courtesy and reverence, nobility and simplicity.

Thanks again for a great post!

Past Elder said...

Well, if holding one's fingers a certain way reflects and derives from a faulty understanding of the mass, may I reflect on my experience of seeing communion in the hand be resurrected in the post Vatican II RCC.

We (I was one of them back then) were told that for one thing, the priest placing the host on the tongue reflected an unfortunate passive view of faith, and that extending the hand for the host showed our active participation in faith, meeting God's action with our own -- and of course, returning us to the more ancient practice of the early church.

Which practice is evidenced in the early church indeed, but its resurrection in modern times was directly tied to a faulty understanding of what happens at Mass.

I think authentic Lutheran faith and practice will suffer far more from all this Vatican II for Lutherans than from all the church growth emerging church mania combined.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

If I might further expand on the idea of teaching - there are things you grow in knowledge and learn more about. Think of grammar - you may speak a certain way because it sounds right - but as you grow you understand why it is "you understand" and not "you understands".

The liturgy should be something that we grow into - and as we grow we should gain more and more insights into why we do that which we do.

Maybe more than "teach" with the implication that if you don't know the meaning at the moment it is worthless (which wasn't my implication, mind you) - perhaps the actions we take should imply and point to a Spiritual Truth. As long as they point, as long as they proclaim that are permissible. As long as they show reverence to God and love to the neighbor, they are profitable.

As long as the little old ladies of the congregation like them - they remain. =o)