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Liturgical Minutiae is NOT the Essence of the Church

July 30th, 2012
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A few weeks before his unexpected death, at a meeting of the General Synod of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (VELKD), Werner Elert participated in a discussion which preceded the adoption of the first part of a new liturgy for that church. His extempore remarks on this occasion are here translated from the Informationsdienst der VELKD (January, 1955) both in memory of this distinguished theologian and churchman and also on account of their significance for American as well as European Lutheranism.


“In the historical part of Leiturgia it is asserted that Luther really did not achieve a proper understanding of public worship. When one goes on to consider the conception of worship which is set forth in this study, one finds that it rests, quite understandably and properly, on a consideration of historical development. The liturgical life of the church is of course an historical phenomenon which must be traced to its origins. Now, it is to be observed (and this can easily be established by anyone who is familiar with the literature) that the description of the beginnings of Christian worship which is offered in Leiturgia follows the description given by Roman Catholics on the basis of the very outstanding investigations which have been made in recent decades by Benedictines especially, and more recently also by Jesuits. Lutheran liturgiologists rest their case, insofar as the historical treatment is concerned, on these investigations. I do not intend to criticize the work of the Benedictines, for everyone knows how much thorough knowledge, how much quiet objectivity, and how little polemic is involved in it. However, we cannot and should not expect that these Catholic brethren are in a position to understand and present, even in the history of worship, what was of concern to Luther. If Luther is to be judged by the norms which are basic to the Benedictine interpretation, it can indeed be said that he did not really un- derstand what worship is.

“Over against this charge I should assert that, if it can at all be said that Luther reached back beyond the Middle Ages to the ancient church, this was especially true in his restoration of preaching to an important and central place. The contrary opinion with regard to public worship in the ancient church is so widely held that I cannot hope to counteract it effectively in the few moments at my disposal here. But I cannot refrain from mentioning a few little things which the reader of the sources will encounter and to which the literature makes some reference. We are today given the impression that worship in the ancient church was quite exclusively liturgical — as we still find it, for example, in Eastern Orthodox churches. But in a sermon one of the ancient Church Fathers sets forth in very vivid fashion the fault he has to find with the contemporary liturgical service. The congregation is not there, he reports. The people are wandering about outside, the boys and girls lounging about during the performance of the liturgy. They have a watchman posted at the door, however, and when the distribution of the elements in Holy Communion is about to begin, a signal is given and the young people rush into the church like a pack of hounds, snatch up the host from the clergyman’s hands as a dog snatches up a piece of meat, and then depart. I am not suggesting that this sort of thing was the general practice, but it happened.

“I have a different understanding of preaching from that [set forth in Leiturgia]. The preaching of the ancient church . . . was doctrinal preaching. It was an expression of the orthodox faith of the church at that time. Accordingly it is subject to the prejudiced charge which is leveled against all forms of orthodoxy, including the orthodoxy of our time, that the preaching was dry and irrelevant and of interest only to learned theologians. I wish that you could see some of the few extant fragments of paper on which stenographers recorded sermons. Perhaps you are aware that the extant sermons of the great Church Fathers, including those of Augustine, were not written by themselves but were recorded by stenographers. When one sees and deciphers the hastily written shorthand notes of the stenographers, one can get an impression of what preaching was like at that time. Sermons were not dull doctrinal addresses in our sense of the term. Congregations were attentive. Records reveal the tremendous, dramatic emotion which the sermons evoked, even the cries with which the auditors interrupted the preacher. The stenographic reports give us all sorts of information, even that Augustine had a bad cough on one occasion. This is alluded to in a passing remark, ‘Pardon me, I could not help coughing, for I have been preaching a great deal the last few days.’

“If one reads the great sermons on the dogma of the ancient church which Gregory Nazianzen preached in Constantinople before he was elevated to the patriarchate—the entire dogma of the ancient church is contained in four sermons which have been published on
the basis of stenographic reports— one must be astonished at the intellectual and spiritual power of the preacher, who was able to communicate the teaching of the church to his hearers in such a compact, vivid, and existential manner, for what he treated concerned life and death. This is what services were like in the ancient church. Our honored liturgiologists . . . will say that all of this is well known. But there is still danger that we misinterpret the ancient church when we see it only in the light of the Benedictine investigations and inquire only about the origin of the Kyrie and ask when the Hallelujah was first employed. . . .

“The impression has gone abroad, and our liturgiologists are at least partly to blame for this, that the preaching, teaching church is to be replaced in some sense by the liturgical church.”

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  1. July 31st, 2012 at 06:02 | #1

    Pr McCain,
    I have found it very interesting that upon attending Russian Orthodox liturgies (conducted in a language not entirely accessible to the congregation) that the sermon is most often reduced to a 5 minute exhortation at the end of the liturgy, often delivered from a makeshift lectern (sometimes a music stand!) brought out from behind the iconostasis for the purpose. At times the sermon is reduced to a discussion of…you guessed it: liturgical minutiae! I suspect that St John Chrysostom himself (to whom the Divine Liturgy of the EO is attributed) would consider that this falls short of true Divine Service.

  2. July 31st, 2012 at 06:10 | #2

    Hi, wondering if you could supply the source for these excellent quotes? Thanks :)

  3. July 31st, 2012 at 08:55 | #3

    What is this a quotation from, Paul?

  4. Charles McClean
    July 31st, 2012 at 13:48 | #5

    There have undoubtedly always been those for whom preoccupation with liturgical minutiae has become a substitute for sound doctrine and good preaching. Elert’s warning should be taken to heart. But in his great work, The Structure of Lutheranism, Elert also deplores the liturgical devastation brought about through Reformed influence. Surely the number of those guilty of preoccupation with liturgical minutiae is negligible compared with the regrettably large numbers of pastors and congregations which have simply abandoned the liturgy and hymnody in which the doctrine of the Gospel is so clearly – and beautifully – expressed, to say nothing of the terrible abuses in connection with the celebration of the Sacrament: more or less open communion, failure to use the elements given in Christ’s institution of the Sacrament, and all kinds of irreverence in the administration of Holy Communion. Anyone who has read the writings of Pope Benedict will know that he is not guilty of preoccupation with liturgical minutiae: he is concerned with the recovery of reverence in the celebration of the Sacrament which has been so widely lost in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Anyone who has read his splendid two-volume work, Jesus of Nazareth, will know that here is a man who wants nothing more than to be a humble hearer of the Word of God. Whether or not he always succeeds in that is of course arguable.

  5. July 31st, 2012 at 15:15 | #6

    When I attended an Eastern parish a couple of years ago, the sanctuary was basically empty throughout – and there was indeed a “watchman” at the door. But when the celebration of the Sacrament came to pass, all of a sudden the Church filled up, and everyone scurried to receive it; of course, they also left afterwards. Very interesting citation, and timely to wit.

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