Form and Substance: A Message to Evangelical Seekers or Lutherans Looking to Jump to Rome or Constantinople
Pastor Peters knocks yet another one out of the park. You have added his blog to your regular blog reading, haven’t you? You really must. Here his latest post that was spot-on.
In reading about Lutherans and other Christians (especially evangelicals) who have chosen to swim the Tiber or the Bosporus (i.e. go to Rome or Orthodoxy) I find myself increasingly thinking in terms of the problem of form and substance.
The truth is that many who seek out Rome or Constantinople are coming out of churches that have neither form nor substance. They do not have form — the liturgy, creed, confession, Eucharist, priesthood, etc. They do not have substance — the fullness of the catholic faith in proclamation or in teaching. For many of these people the journey is one that begins with the emptiness of what most of Protestantism has become (whether mainline or evangelical). With worship centered on the “me” of the person in the pew – uh make that theater seat — and with preaching and teaching that has evolved into social justice or personal happiness, their rebellion leads them to find something that has roots, depth, Truth…
For Lutherans (and Episcopalians) the journey is somewhat different. It is not so much a turn from emptiness to something as it is a determination that either form or substance is lacking in their tradition and so they seek that which they believe is gone. For Lutherans it is often a move toward form — a tradition in which the Mass (Divine Liturgy) does not have to be introduced, defended, or justified. It just is. For Lutherans it is often the frustration of substance (present in the Lutheran Confessions and the catholic identity of the Great Reformation and its most significant teachers) that is not reflected in practice (non-communion Sundays, contemporary worship without identifiable liturgy, and a me-too ideal that gravitates either toward non-denominational evangelicalism or mainline Protestantism).
For Episcopalians it is the form that increasingly lacks substance — the Prayer Book, liturgy, the three fold ministry of Bishop, Priest, and Deacon — in a church body that seems to stand for nothing specific and tolerates such a diversity of truths that the one Truth of Jesus Christ is missing.
I understand the frustration. It is tiring to have to remind Lutherans who they are — over and over again. Or to teach them who they are for the first time. Our Confessions have become distant from us — they are there, they are the doctrinal standards of our Synod and congregations, yet we so often do not know them well enough so that they truly inform and define the practice of our faith (the form).
I understand the frustration. My own parish stands out not only from the Baptist/Church of Christ/Nazarene landscape of the city in which we reside but also from the bulk of other Lutheran and LCMS churches in the surrounding cities, states, and District. It is a constant fight to keep our liturgical identity rooted in our catholic confession. I know all too well that the work I have undertaken for nearly 17 years here could all be gone if another kind of Lutheran Pastor replaced me.
Yet I am not so sure that a boat trip across either the Tiber or the Bosporus would yield any substantial gains on either front — form or substance. I love the liturgy, the Western Mass, which is the heart and soul of Lutheran and Roman Catholic worship. Truly the Roman does not have to defend the ceremonial practices of the liturgy as a Lutheran must. But… I am not so sure that Gospel speaks so loudly and clearly in the average Roman Catholic parish as it does in the average Lutheran parish. My own experience is that the form itself has been corrupted by a lack of participation of the congregation, a lack of singing, a shallow musical tradition of anything goes, and a determined need to get 900 people through the Mass, communed, and on their way home in 55 minutes or less. I believe that even in form, the trade off for leaving is really an exchange of one set of problems for another.
When it comes to substance, I think a swim in either direction of Rome or Constantinople, may bring with it a certain fuzziness about this Gospel that means, again, the exchange of one set of problems with another. Rome’s reintroduction of indulgences even as Lutherans and Roman Catholics were supposed to have some solid agreement on justification stands out as a sign of this fuzziness. The ethnic and cultural identity of Eastern Orthodoxy as it is practiced in most parishes is often a hidden barrier to anyone whose worldview and perspective are distinctly Western. The tradition of a church body shaped by the first seven Ecumenical Councils is noble but 1200 years have passed since that last council and Orthodoxy has suffered much from that distance.
I continue to believe that a liturgically vibrant, confessionally confident, theologically informed, and liturgical catholic Lutheran parish offers me the best combination of form and substance. And I would offer it to those frustrated with their current church home… give us a look see…
Like Transformers… more than meets the eye…