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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Liturgy and Eucharist - A "Conservative" Lutheran Conundrum

[Disclaimer: The primaries are approaching but the post title and this post have nothing to do with current secular political issues.]

It is not surprising to hear "conservative" Lutheran pastors defend the liturgy. The use of hymnals, the services contained therein and hymnody are supported against efforts to make the liturgy something minimal or make it entertaining.

An eye opener for me these days is to hear that this same "conservative" thinking does not see a connection between the liturgy and the holy Eucharist. In other words, let us keep the hymnals, the hymns and the orders of service but it is not necessary to offer the Eucharist. Some, it seems, would even rather not offer it.

Now it is probably best that the Eucharist not be offered if it is not done reverently and following accepted historical liturgical practice. However, what concerns me in this thinking, which was a surprise to me when I first heard it, is the idea that the liturgy might really not have anything or little to do with the Eucharist.

We need not rehearse 2,000 years of Christian history, nor, for Lutherans, the Scriptures and the Confessions, let alone the Lord's institution. We must be living in a vacuum of some sort that such thinking exists among clergy. At least three factors have me concerned. First, this talk is heard among the clergy. Second, these clergy consider themselves "conservative" Lutherans. Finally, the very possibility that the liturgy might have anything to do with the Eucharist seems not even to be a consideration by some. Is the Eucharist merely an appendage that we add on random occasions?

If a study of Scripture and/or the Lutheran Confessions cannot help the clergy then I am not one who can be of much help. Also, there are numerous volumes written on this topic, as if the liturgy itself cannot be of assistance. Let me simply make two observations. First, it appears that this thinking is also connected to the lack of making a connection between the liturgy and factors such as reverence and holiness. Second, if this is what it means to be "conservative" Lutheran, supporting the separation of the Eucharist from the liturgy, then don't call me a "conservative."


Julie G said...

Tim, as a lay person, and no theologian, your post certainly reminded me of most of my childhood and young adult years. I am old enough that most of the pastors of those days would be considered "conservative" by today's standards, although there were "liberals" around. Certainly my pastor was conservative. Anyway, it was standard practice not to have the Sacrament at every service, and you chose your service to attend based on the week. The liturgy was the same except for the omission of the Sacrament. I believe this was common practice. So, perhaps some of what you are seeing is from people who were raised when I was, and took in some of the thought of that time. It wasn't until I was older that I began to attend churches where the Sacrament was offered in each service.

Fr. Timothy D. May said...

Julie, thank you for these comments. Indeed, as you describe, most of the pastors of those days and the practices they followed were/are "conservative" Lutheran for our day.

Still, the standard practice of not offering the Sacrament every Sunday, I suggest, is not truly "conservative" if you include Lutheran history between the time of the Reformation and the time of Pietism and Rationalism. What I mean is that Lutherans following the Reformation and prior to Pietism and Rationalism received the Sacrament every Sunday and on other days (some, even daily). This is in line with the witness given to every Sunday Communion in the Symbols or Confessions.

So the generation before us was "conservative" but in the sense that they were/are holding on to Lutheran practices more heavily influenced and shaped by Pietism and Rationalism.

My post is really a struggle with the word "conservative." Apart from secular politics, conservative suggests holding on and preserving something of value from the past. Reformation and American religious history have complicated the meaning of this word because the word today is connected with evangelical protestantism. Theologically, many are heirs of this wing of the Reformation which rejected the Sacrament altogether, similar to anything else that smelled "Catholic." So the irony is that, popularly speaking, the word "conservative" is attached to those who did not conserve or preserve the Sacrament but rather those who rejected it.

This leads to our dilemma today. Again, apart from secular political understanding of the word, I suggest that true theological conservatism would not separate the Sacrament from the words of Christ, nor the Church from the Sacrament. In other words, Christ instituted the Sacrament for His Bride, the holy Church. The liturgy is the setting for the Sacrament and was designed to lead the faithful to the altar, the foretaste of the heavenly banquet.

My post also draws attention to my amazement at today's "conservative" Lutheran understanding of the Sacrament in its relation to the liturgy. I think there are at least a few factors connected to this:
1) a Lutheran ignorance of history prior to the 19th c. that perpetuates some of these practices
2) the great infuence of evangelicalism on both laity and pastors
3) the tendency to replace conserving or preserving the Sacrament in its rightful place and direct efforts and energies instead to conserving, preserving conservative social, moral and political issues (which in themselves are not bad)

Neither am I saying here that I am a "liberal." Ironically, liberals in the past tended to be more liturgical than their counterparts. We cannot say that today anymore. Nowadays, liberals may be walking around in suits and ties and be vocally opposed to liturgical worship.

In short, the post is meant to underline the vital connection between the Sacrament and the liturgy, that they go together, and that you cannot have one without the other. I would hope that "conservatives," if anyone, would see that connection, in Scripture, Confessions, Church history and tradition and primarily in the flow of the liturgy itself. The invitation to the Sacrament is the true altar call. At this altar is Christ given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.