“You Are Not Free to Use This Liberty” — Thoughts on Liturgical Uniformity
Now even though external rites and orders … add nothing to salvation, it is un-Christian to quarrel over such things and confuse the common people. We should consider the edification of the laity more important than our own ideas and opinions … Let each one surrender his own opinions and get together in a friendly way and come to a common decision about these external matters, so that there will be one uniform practice throughout your district instead of disorder … For even though from the viewpoint of faith, the external orders are free and can without scruples be changed by anyone at anytime, yet from the viewpoint of love you are not free to use this liberty…
Or how about this one?
It is the cause of much incorrectness… when the external church ordinances, divine service and ceremonies are not held with reverence, or in orderly fashion, or in like manner. Also certain pastors purpose to act in these matters without uniformity. They shall carefully see to it that the ceremonies which have to do with hymns, clothing of the priests, administration of the sacrament … as well as the festivals, be maintained in an orderly and uniform fashion, at one place as at another, uniform and in accord with such as occur at Wittenberg and Torgau, in accord with the Holy Scriptures…*
Ceremonies [should be instituted] which give the external indication that in the congregation
great, high, serious dealings are present, so that the ceremonies lead, stimulate, admonish and move the people to join together their thoughts, lift up their hearts in all humility. That there be in the congregation heartfelt devotion to the word, the Sacrament and prayer … Christian freedom has its place in this matter, as the ancients said, “Disagreement in rites does not take away agreement in faith.” It still brings all sorts of benefit that in ceremonies, so much as it is possible, a uniformity be maintained, and that such uniformity serve to maintain unity in doctrine, and that common, simple, weak consciences be all the less troubled, rather strengthened. It is therefore viewed as good that, as much as possible, a uniformity in ceremonies with neighboring reformed churches be affected and maintained. And for this reason, henceforth all pastors in the churches of our realm, shall emphatically follow this written church order, and not depart from the same without specific, grave cause. *
To suggest that the better way for the church to order herself is for there to be the greatest amount of liturgical uniformity as possible strikes some ears as a call for a slavish formalism, some even go so far as to use the word "legalistic" whenver this comes up. That never has made sense to me. I’ve never heard anyone in favor of traditional Lutheran worship say that its use is required for salvation. It seems that some in the Lutheran Church have dismissed discussion of the dangers of liturgical diversity and the blessings of the great possible liturgical uniformity. Why? Sadly, in an era that has witnessed a trend toward doing whatever is right in the eyes of an individual pastor, or congregation, the blessings of liturgical uniformity are being woefully neglected. We have lost our understanding of the blessing and advantage of striving to have as common a liturgical practice as possible.
The thought that a pastor would, from Sunday to Sunday, reinvent the church’s worship service
was an alien thought to the Lutheran Confessors, and hence the Lutheran Confessions. Rev. Matthew Harrison, some years ago, did a study on the practice of the Lutheran Church in the sixteenth century. In it he uses the "church orders" of the time to demonstrate how one should, and likewise should not, interpret the comments on adiaphora in the Lutheran Confessions. It is quite fascinating and very revealing. You can read a copy here: Download liturgical_uniformity.pdf
Some might assume that my remarks are directed only toward those who have chosen to embrace "contemporary worship" or "blended worship" with its Sunday-to-Sunday "newness." But that would be a mistake. I would also direct these remarks to those who choose to "do their own thing" in a more traditionally liturgical direction: that is, those who choose to embellish and otherwise change the church’s received liturgies in a direction that they regard as "better" or "more faithful" or "more liturgical."
I have been concerned for years that some of those most stridently speaking against the
liturgical diversity in our Synod turn right around and in their parish create their own little variation on the Lutheran liturgy, claiming that they are doing it better, or more historically, or more traditionally. I’ve seen horrendous mixta composita of liturgical services slapped together from multiple sources, all of course perceived as being "historically Lutheran" and these undertakings have always struck me as problematic in the same way the cut and paste "services" in contemporary worship contexts are.
I do not see any difference between this and those who chose to go another direction in terms of a sensitivity for the good order of the church. It may be that a
liturgy is more similar to a particular 16th century German Divine Service than others, perhaps even more similar than anything in any present hymnal, but I find no justification for deciding, as an individual pastor or parish, to "go it alone" in this direction, any more than I find justification or benefit in creating new liturgies from Sunday to Sunday. The goal of liturgical uniformity is not repristination of what happened in the Sixteenth Century, any more than it is should be the goal to toss our the liturgy.
My opinion is that it would be a tremendous blessing to our church body if we would all set aside
our pet theories, our cherished preferences, and even our favorite hymnals, and embrace the use of one hymnal: Lutheran Service Book.
I believe it is essential for all of us to set aside a fixation on"contemporary worship" [as if there is any worship that is not contemporary"] and stop dividing up our Sunday mornings between "traditional" and "classical grace" or "contemporary" or "blended" and just start having "church," period. It means that we need to stop turning the church into a popular opinion poll from Sunday to Sunday. It means that we use the church’s hymnal. Use the church’s liturgies as they are printed in the church’s new hymnal and use the many opportunities for variety within that structure. I see as little wisdom in trying to mimic some specific territorial German church order, as I do in trying to take our cues from the non-denominational "Evangelical" worship forms prevalent in our nation among many Protestants.
There are some who would like to use the Tenth Article in the Formula of Concord to justify a practice by which each individual congregation in our Church can just go ahead and "do its own thing" when it comes to worship practices. But this is truly a misuse of this article, and was not, by any stretch of the imagination, what the Lutheran Confessors had in mind when they prepared the Formula of Concord. Here is a very helpful insight into the attitude toward liturgical uniformity that was in the minds of those who prepared, and subscribed, to the Formula of Concord from 1577-1580.
As Rev. Harrison notes in his paper: "The final Church Order here referred to is one of the most significant
for interpreting FC SD 10, 9. Duke August I of Electoral Saxony was the driving force behind the Electoral Saxon Church Order of 1580, and Andreae its author. The order came out after the adoption of the Book of Concord. In fact, it calls for ministers to subscribe to the Book of Concord. What FC SD 10 means when it states, ‘no church shall condemn another’, is crystal clear in ‘IX. Regarding Ceremonies in the Churches’."
Pastors and ministers, on the basis of God’s Word, and at the instigation of the declaration published this year (1580), and incorporated in this book [The Book of Concord], shall diligently instruct their flock and hearers in their sermons, as often as the opportunity avails itself, that such external ordinances and ceremonies are in and of themselves no divine service, nor a part of the same. They are rather only ordained for this reason, that the divine service, which is not within the power of human beings to change, may be held at various times and
places, and without offense or terrible disorder. Accordingly, they should not at all be troubled when they see dissimilar ceremonies and usages in external things among the churches. They should much rather be reminded herein of their Christian freedom, and in order to maintain this freedom, make profitable use of this dissimilarity of ceremonies… Nevertheless, so unity may be maintained in the churches of our land…the following ceremonies shall be conducted according to our order or incorporated church agenda, until there is a general uniformity of all churches of the Augsburg Confession … And it will be granted to no minister to act contrary to the same [agenda] to introduce some revision, no matter under what pretext. *
If I may use a crass analogy, imagine if you would that McDonalds decided tomorrow that they
no longer cared what any of its restaurants looked like. No more standardization of the logo, or clothing, or ways of doing things. Every McDonalds would be told, "Do whatever you feel is best and whatever feels right to you." That would make little sense, would it? How much more than does it make sense for every Lutheran congregation to be running off in its own direction, doing what feels right to it? Now, granted, every McDonalds has some minor differences, but there never is any doubt that you are at a McDonalds. See the point?
That’s my .02 cents worth. As always, your mileage may vary.
By the way, the person who said the first quote, that we are not free to use our liberty in matters pertaining to liturgical uniformity was…Martin Luther. And the second quote? It is from the Wittenberg Church Order of 1542, prepared by Jonas, Cruciger, Bugenhagen, Melachthon, Luther, and others; Sehling, I:202. The third quote? It is from the 1569 Church Order of Brauncshweig-Wolfenbuettel and was prepared by none other than Martin Chemnitz and Jacob Andreae, the chief authors and architects of the Formula of Concord. [Sehling VI.1, 139, 40]. The final quote is from: AL Richter ed, Die evangelischen Kirchenordnungen des
sechszehn ten Jahrhunderts. Urkunden und Regesten zur Geschichte des Rechts and
der Verfassung der evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland, Leipzig, 1871, vol II:, p. 440.