Thursday, August 16, 2007

Learning from Lutheran Liturgy

Although we have a news site and a blog, the life of an American Anglican cherishing traditional liturgy sometimes seems a bit lonely and isolated. Meanwhile, in the US there are 3x more Lutherans than Anglicans/Episcopalians — and their traditionalists are better organized — so there are opportunities for American Anglicans to learn from their Lutheran counterparts.

Sure, the doctrinal split of ELCAmajority liberal, some conservative — parallels that of The Episcopal Church, although there are more of them (4.8 million vs. 2.4 million). However, ECUSA is smaller than the 2nd largest Lutheran group, the 2.5 million-strong Missouri Synod (LCMS) which is more traditional in its outlook, in that it has (mostly) resisted the pressures of the postwar cultural changes.

Although not a theologian, from what I’ve seen of the LCMS media, the LCMS holds beliefs similar to continuing Anglicans on issues such as the role of scripture, liturgy, morality and other key issues in American Christianity. Of particular interest among the LCMS media is KFUO AM, a physical St. Louis terrestrial radio station with online podcasts. Several times a month, I try to catch up on the podcasts from the show Issues Etc. As with any talk show, Issues Etc. reflects the tastes of its host, LCMS Pastor Todd Wilken. (Note to my Anglican friends: he’ll answer to Rev. Wilken but not Father Wilken).

Normally each hour covers one or two topics. About half of the topics are expositions of Lutheran (LCMS) doctrine, some (but not all) of which are consonant with Anglican belief. The rest are a smattering of Sunday school teaching, pop culture, political controversy and liturgy.

The occasional episode talking about liturgical music are probably the best source of interviews and discussion on issues of interest to this blog. Over the period I’ve been listening, Pastor Wilken has run a number of programs (with expert guests) about traditional vs. contemporary liturgical music. Let me highlight three, which present a consistent set of arguments in favor of the former vs. the latter.

“Religion & Pop Culture,” Terry Mattingly (March 19, 2006)

My favorite Issues Etc. episode of all time was the interview with religion writer Terry Mattingly, a syndicated columnist, a college instructor, book author and cofounder of GetReligion, one of the best blogs in all cyberspace. Appearing to promote his book Pop Goes Religion, Mattingly spent two hours with Wilken critiquing various trivailizations in modern worship.

In the first 10 minutes of the first hour, he slammed contemporary music and TV screens in worship. In the 2nd hour, Mattingly got to the crux of the attempts to change (or abolish) the hymnary to keep music current with today’s tastes. Mattingly asked:
How many of us will be singing songs that our parents and grandparents sang?
At the end, Mattingly asked: “Why are so many young Christians trying to turn church into a night club?”

Mattingly himself had many years’ experience with Anglican music. Raised in Texas as the son of a Baptist preacher, he went to Baylor University but then left the Baptist church. He was an Episcopalian for two decades before joining the Antiochian Orthodox Church a few years ago.

“The Impact of Music,” Prof. Barbara Resch (July 24, 2007)

Dr. Resch is a music professor at Indiana University and a church choir director, with particular training in childhood music education and the psychology of music. Her half-hour interview focuses on the psychological and physiological impacts of music on human beings.

In one of the more memorable exchanges, Rev. Wilken asked “Is music spiritually neutral?” to which Prof. Resch replies that every musical style has associations, so that adding new lyrics to a familiar style will still evoke those associations. She is critical of contemporary worship music that tries to manipulate feelings towards non-spiritual aims. Asked about praise choruses, decries popular “ear worm” music (like “Feliz Navidad” or “YMCA”) whether secular or nominally religious.

“Praise Bands,” Pastor Jon Sollberger (August 15, 2007)

Rev. Sollberger is pastor of two parishes in Orchard, Nebraska and a former praise band guitarist. He was interviewed in the 2nd half of the first hour of this Wednesday’s show.

Pastor Sollberger’s basic criticism is that a “praise band” (i.e. contemporary music performance) inherently changes the focus and goals of the service:
Rock & roll belongs to the world. Electric guitars played from the front of any venue — where people are sitting and looking at that guitarist — is not worship, it's performance. And we even as a church will never ever get past that.
Consistent with Prof. Resch, he notes that certain styles of music "carry too much baggage" to be effective for worship. In particular, using secular music styles:
We're going against the basic tenet of God and his word: the church is to influence the world, not vice versa...

It comes down to this: the church just doesn't do the things of the world as good as the world does. So we should let the church be the church, because if church sounds and feels like the world, well why are we wondering why people aren't coming?
Asked to address common criticisms of “authentic” (or traditional or liturgical) worship — such as that the (Lutheran) music is from the German 16th century — Rev. Sollberger notes that liturgical worship belongs to the church. Meanwhile, contemporary music which belongs to the world, and tends to subordinate the words to the music.

Finally, to the claim that contemporary music is necessary to attract youth, he emphasized the importance of scripture over music:
You don't attract the youth with anything else but God's word. We are not saved by style; we are not saved by the taste in music. The Word accomplishes the purpose for which it is sent.

From his choice of guests (and their views), I suspect Pastor Wilken & I are of similar mind on liturgical music. Although it’s not necessary to rewind the liturgy to when Martin Luther was promulgating his 95 theses in 1517, I think we both would agree many liturgical innovations of the subsequent 490 years should be treated with suspicion — particularly those of the last 10% of that period. For Anglicans who trace their faith back to the 1559 Book of Common Prayer (or the modern 1662 update), key elements of the ’59 book remain recognizable 350 years later in the 1928 BCP, the gold standard for continuing Anglican groups in the U.S.

Thus the challenge of “authentic” worship (Wilken’s adjective) is to preserve it for all generations without turning it into a museum piece. My hunch is that this means a subtle evolution of the canon and its musical expression, while preserving the historic texts, and being able to trace continuity of message and meaning to the earliest written texts of the church. To me, the test for any new music would be: is this additions intended to preserve or to change the received meaning of the liturgy?

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