27 December 2008

Congregational Catholicity, Pastoral Practice, and Episcopal Ecclesiology

The catholicity of the Church comprises two aspects:

(1.) It is the unity of doctrine and fellowship, of teaching and practice, which is shared by all the congregations of the whole Church in every time and place; and,

(2.) It is the fullness of the one Church in each congregation, in each time and each place, wherever the apostolic doctrine of Christ is faithfully received and handed over in teaching and practice.

The locus of this catholicity is the preaching of Christ and the administration of His gifts. That is why the Church, properly speaking, is the whole communion of those believers in Christ among whom the Gospel is rightly preached and the Sacraments are rightly administered in accordance with the Gospel. Wherever there is this faithful preaching and hearing, this faithful giving and receiving of the Gospel, there is the Church, the one Body of Christ.

The catholicity of any given congregation is therefore both inward and outward. On the one hand, the Church in each congregation is fully self-contained and self-sufficient in the local Ministry of the Gospel; because it is Christ Himself who speaks and acts in that Ministry. On the other hand, the Ministry of the Gospel does not belong exclusively to any one congregation; because it is the sacred tradition of the one Lord Jesus Christ, handed over to His holy Apostles and to each succeeding generation of His Church on earth. Because a congregation lives from that Ministry, and is the Church because of that Ministry of the Gospel, it belongs to the fellowship of every other congregation that lives from that same Holy Ministry.

The fellowship of the Church catholic is the shared participation of the means of grace. To have pulpit and altar in common is not merely a consequence of Church fellowship; it is the fellowship of the Church. For as the Church lives in the preaching and hearing, the giving and receiving of the Gospel, so does the fellowship of the Church reside in the mutual administration of the Gospel. This fellowship is not parcelled out in bits and pieces, nor by degrees, but is whole and complete in the common preaching of the one Lord, the common teaching of the one faith, the common practice of one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and the common administration of the one Bread, which is the Body of Christ, and the one Cup, which is the New Testament in His Blood. Many other things may differ between congregations, whether in their temporal circumstances, their pious customs or ceremonies, without impinging upon the catholicity and fellowship of the Church. But differences in the preaching, teaching and administration of the Gospel are a breaking of the Church's fellowship on earth.

The catholic faith is not divided, nor can it be, but the Church on earth is, on account of sinful human fraility and mortal weakness. Thus, the fellowship of the Church on earth is necessarily marked and measured by the outward confession of the catholic faith, that is, by the preaching and teaching of the Holy Scriptures and the administration of the Holy Sacraments. Differences in this outward confession divide the fellowship of the Church on earth, so that the integrity of the catholic faith may be clarified, and that the erring may be corrected and called to repentance. Since the heart of the faith is the Gospel, and Christ is the Savior of sinners, we do not conclude that the heterodox are damned; but precisely for the sake of Christ and His Gospel, neither do we encourage or embrace the outward confession of heterodoxy. Rather, we share the fellowship of the means of grace with those who share with us the outward confession of the catholic faith in teaching and practice.

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is a fellowship of congregations ostensibly sharing a common confession of the catholic faith. The polity of this synodical fellowship was formed, historically, on a congregational basis. That arrangement demonstrates a real understanding of catholicity, in recognizing the wholeness of the Church in the life of each local congregation, and in the mutual cooperation of those congregations as fellow members of the one Body of Christ. The synodical membership of congregations collectively and of pastors individually, and the suffrage of both congregations and pastors in the governance of the Missouri Synod, rightly acknowledges that the Church comprises both preachers and hearers of the Gospel. That the official leadership of this polity is vested in men ordained to the Holy Ministry is appropriate, given that the pastors of the Church are responsible for the administration of the Gospel, which is the foundation of the Church and the basis for the fellowship of congregations in the Church.

Unfortunately, the autonomy of congregations within the fellowship of the Missouri Synod has increasingly meant an independence of spirit and practice. At the same time, the "advisory" role of "the Synod" has become increasingly legalistic and heavy-handed, as confidence in the Word of God appears to have waned and the unity of our confession in teaching and practice has been stretched and strained. The political representation of both congregations and pastors often seems to be a competitive balance of powers, almost adversarial, instead of the harmonious concord of preachers and hearers. Suffrage in general has been driven by partisan propaganda, rather than emerging out of the lived catholicity of the Church in the practice of congregations. The "pastors" who administrate the polity of our synodical fellowship have been ordained, but, with few exceptions, they are no longer pastoring the Church with the means of grace; they are not attached to any one pulpit and altar; and they are not regularly preaching and teaching and administering the Gospel. Sadly, that is also the case with most of our seminary professors. As a consequence, the leading "pastors" of our synodical fellowship are functionally removed from the beating heart of our catholicity, where the Church lives and the fellowship of the Church resides. That is not to fault those men who are presently serving in such offices, but it is a fault of the current LCMS polity.

Church fellowship is pulpit and altar fellowship. It is the fellowship of real bishops, that is to say, of parish pastors who are called and ordained to the oversight of particular congregations. When a pastor communes the member(s) of another congregation, it is because he is in fellowship with the pastor of that other congregation; which means, or ought to mean, that he preaches and teaches and practices the same confession of the catholic faith. Likewise, when a pastor preaches from the pulpit of another pastor's parish, he does so within the fellowship of their common confession, as a sharing of pastoral care and catechesis; for that is what preaching is.

The polity of our synodical fellowship ought to be connected, at ground level, as closely as possible to that real life of the Church in local congregations. It should therefore be structured along the contours of pastoral fellowship in the catholic faith, in service and support of pastoral practice. Such a polity would rightly begin with the mutual conversation and consolation of brother pastors serving congregations in close proximity.

The current arrangement of circuits in the LCMS is generally quite sound, and the monthly meeting of circuit pastors would be a fine starting point for synodical structure and governance. In that comradery of real bishops (parish pastors), a mutual consensus should be reached to identify one as an overseer of the rest. We have that now in the office of circuit counselor, but there is a lack of clarity and consistency in the way that office is understood and exercised. Although the circuit counselor is more-or-less chosen by his colleagues (whether by consensus or compromise), he then functions officially as an agent of the District President, so his relationship to the circuit ends up being from the top-down, instead of from the ground-up. But the special strength of the circuit counselor is that he (not always, but usually) continues to serve as a full-time pastor in his own parish; he remains a real bishop of the Church in that place. His humanly arranged oversight of colleagues is informed by the exercise of his divinely given pastoral vocation.

Now, the circuit overseers within a larger region might identify one of their number to serve as their overseer and representative; and, in turn, those regional overseers might identify one of their number to serve as their overseer and representative; and so on, and so forth, perhaps as many as three or four levels of oversight.

Each of these overseers should continue to serve his pastoral office as a real bishop of the Church in a particular place, that is to say, as the pastor of his own congregation. At some level of oversight, it is likely that a pastor would not be able to serve a parish on his own while also serving the larger synodical fellowship. Even then, instead of becoming a "full-time" politician, he should still be attached to the particular pulpit and altar of a local congregation, where he would regularly serve as a minister of the liturgy in cooperation with the parish pastor, and, as time permits, regularly preach and teach, visit the homebound and hospitalized, and administer the holy Sacraments. In such a case, his income would be covered, in whole or in large part, by the synodical fellowship, so as not to be a burden but a benefit to the local congregation. It would not need to be a large congregation. The point is that an overseer of brother pastors should remain actively engaged in parish life and pastoral practice. The same thing is true of seminary professors. It wouldn't be necessary for the parish service of these men to be extensive, nor should it be excessive, but only regular and consistent, a genuine service and a real participation in the life of the Church. A fine example is provided in the case of my dear friend and colleague, Pastor Grobien, who serves as an assistant pastor of Emmaus in South Bend while pursuing his full-time doctoral studies at the University of Notre Dame. Such arrangements can be made to the mutual benefit of both the pastor and the congregation, without unduly burdening either.

The most important "oversight" within this sort of synodical polity would not be that which requires "full-time" attention at a district or national level, but that of the circuit overseer. His "political" function, so to speak, would be to foster collegial fellowship with and among the circuit pastors and to facilitate the discernment of their conciliar wisdom pertaining to pastoral practice and the Church's confession of the catholic faith. Every other level of synodical oversight would build upon this pastoral foundation.

The role of the laity in this polity would be exercised, first and foremost, in the relationship they actually have, by divine arrangement, with their own pastors. For it is precisely in that relationship of the faithful with their own pastors that the Church catholic is embodied and lives in the form of the local congregation. Pastors do not constitute the Church by themselves; preachers and hearers belong together in Christ, as the Gospel belongs to faith and faith to the Gospel. (That is why every man ordained to the Office of the Holy Ministry should be attached to a particular pulpit and altar.) This relationship of pastors with the people of God is not a competition, nor should it be contentious, but is the very concord of Christ and His Church.

As pastors are called to serve the Church within their divine vocation as Ministers of the Gospel, so are the laity called to serve within their own respective vocations. This works well in the life of a healthy parish, and there's no reason it can't work on the larger scale of synodical politics. The members of sister congregations within a circuit, for example, ought to cooperate in planning and putting into practice the common efforts of the "synod in that place." That should be happening more than it does. Especially with respect to legal and financial considerations, and in the Church's work of mercy in the world, the laity are often much better positioned and equipped than most pastors to carry out the responsibilities of the Church's earthly life. That is true at every level of a synodical fellowship. As they are fully members of the Church, the laity ought to be fully involved in developing, authorizing, and undertaking such enterprises, whether in part-time or full-time capacities. Not in competition with the pastors of the Church, nor as a "balance of powers," but as a stewardship in cooperation with the pastors.

In sum, the polity of our synodical fellowship ought to be congregationally structured and pastorally governed. That is simply to say that our polity, however it may be formed in the freedom of faith, ought to grow out of the preaching and hearing, the giving and receiving of the Gospel. It ought to concern itself chiefly with that Ministry of the Gospel. It ought to be always returning us (and calling others) to that life of the Church in the pure fountain which flows from the riven side of Christ, our Lord.

26 December 2008

Three in One and One in Three

Having moved from the somber joy of Advent to the holy days of Christmas, I’ve had occasion to reflect on the lectionary. I am unapologetically a three-year preacher. I heard it in the pews since the advent of Lutheran Worship. I learned to preach from it at the sem where I also studied its history and theology from Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum concilium. I’ve used LW’s revised common three-year lectionary for 16 years of preaching in Holy Trinity’s pulpit.

I appreciate the annual cycles through a particular synoptic Gospel, giving attention to the subtle nuances of each evangelist which inevitably get lost in harmonization. I like the broad variety of texts during “ordinary time,” the green seasons of Pentecost and to a lesser extent Epiphanytide. I like the way the Epiphany season is constructed, beginning with Jesus’ Baptism and ending with His Transfiguration. I like the continuous readings through various epistles in ordinary time, allowing the preacher to examine an epistle in some detail from the pulpit. All of these I consider strengths of the three-year lectionary.

I don’t care for the seemingly endless stream of Sundays in John 6 that the old 3-year series had (apologies to Frank Senn for this). How many “Bread of LIfe” sermons can one preach in a row? I also don’t care for the variation of readings at the major festivals, the most notorious being Pentecost. The revised 3-year series in LSB has improved this somewhat. But it is in the festival cycle that the genius of the one-year lectionary stands out, providing a solid foundation of texts for the major festivals of our Lord.

I sincerely wish that we had adopted the hybrid lectionary initially proposed by the Lectionary Committee. Yes, it was a little complicated, at times resembling an NFL playbook, but the idea was, in my opinion, a stroke of genius. During the festival part of the church year, it was a one-year series in line with the “historic” series. Each year, the same set of readings would be heard from Advent through Pentecost. But during “ordinary time,” Pentecost- and Epiphanytides, it became a three-year series, providing different readings in a three year cycle.

The time of the festivals had a reliably repetitive series of texts. Festivals don’t change in their content and meaning. The preacher can link back to all the great (and not so great) sermons preached on those feasts from the past. The time of teaching had a broader exposure to the whole counsel of God, allowing the preacher to expound on more words and works of Jesus. Plus, it respected the unique viewpoint of each synoptic writer, something that is completely lost when one harmonizes Matthew, Mark, and Luke not to mention John.

It would have been the best of both worlds , but sadly it was not to be. I suppose one could rig one’s own hybrid vehicle out of the current three- and one-year series, but it’s more fun to have others in the sandbox with you. Maybe next time.

24 December 2008

NO other way.

Glory to God in the Highest and on earth peace, goodwill towards men. As the angels announce the birth of the Son of God they remind us as I do today that we can enjoy peace and goodwill from God our Father. He the mighty Judge who ought to condemn us for our sin rather desires our salvation. So the plan of salvation was conceived in the heart of our Father who loved the world. An early church father St. Athanasius says it well:

For the Word, perceiving that in NO other way could the corruption of men be undone, except by death as a necessary condition, while it was impossible for the Word [Jesus] to suffer death, being immortal and the Son of the Father; to this end He takes Himself a body capable of death, that it, by partaking of the Word who is above all, might be worthy to die in the place of all, and might, because of the Word which was come to dwell in it [a body], remain incorruptible, and that henceforth corruption might be kept from all by the grace of the Resurrection.

So we see that this Peace and Goodwill come to us because the Baby Jesus was capable of dying through the mystery of the incarnation from the womb of the Blessed Virgin. We touch Him and see Him in the manger this Christmas time to remind us that Jesus came in the flesh to bring us forgiveness of sin, life and salvation. We sing Alleluias and rejoice at this season; we see the Christ Child with the eyes of a childlike faith believing that this Jesus came not only in our heart but truly in the flesh to suffer and die. So I challenge you to come see in the manger our Savior, even the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and grants us His peace. Then and only then can we sing " Lord, now let your servant depart in Peace." Amen

Pr. Georg Williams

16 December 2008

Advent Reflections on TLH

Advent/Christmas/Epiphany-tides are the seasons of Divine Service 3 in Lutheran Service Book for our congregation. Before the advent of LSB we were a Lutheran Worship congregation, rotating the three service orders through the various seasons of the church year. The old TLH order for Advent/Christmas/Epiphany; the Hillert setting for Lent/Easter; the Bunjes setting for Pentecost and the green season. Like the changing of the colors, the various settings have come to signal the seasons in a pleasant sort of way.

The coming of Advent and old TLH p. 15 are as welcome as the smell of Grandma’s snickerdoodles baking in the kitchen or a pot full of Christmas cider cooking on the stove. I grew up on TLH and learned to sing 4-part harmony from its regal Scottish-Anglican chants, moving progressively from alto to tenor to bass. I love the archaic language, which nicely parallels St. Luke’s use of high classical Greek to tell the infancy narrative of Jesus in epic proportions. There is a stateliness and timelessness to this venerable setting that appeals even to those who have never heard of The Lutheran Hymnal. It is most appropriate for a season so steeped in tradition and nostalgia.

We’ve always struggled as a congregation with DS 1, LW’s homely Leah to TLH’s Rachel. The modern language didn’t work; the melodies were tweaked just enough so you couldn’t rely on memory; the chant was replaced by a frantic musical line that sounded familiar but then went off on a discordant detour. We were thrilled that LSB has restored this timeless classic. We don’t mind the slightly updated creedal language, since we’ve been saying it that way from LW since 1982. We still trip over the whole note of “Thou only art the Lord” in the Gloria in Excelsis; LW had shortened it to a passing eighth note.

I must admit to getting a bit emotional when I hear the congregation’s response “And with thy spirit” to my pastoral salutation, “The Lord be with you.” What a beautiful exchange of blessings between pastor and people. I so wish we could have made it a uniform response. I do not know of a single LW user who would not have gladly traded in “And also with you” for something so dignified and meaningful.

I have to glance at the bulletin to remind myself of the Creed, offering, and prayer of the church. When we used LW, I took the liberty of regularizing all three services so that these occurred in the same place and order, with the Creed following the Gospel. John Kleinig, who worshipped with us one Sunday, chastised me for this saying that Lutherans ought to see the both/and character of the Creed as proclamation and confession (sacrament and sacrifice, if you will). When LSB came out, we agreed to do it “by the book” to bring our local rubrics back into line.

I love the Votum at the end of the sermon - “The peace of God, which passeth all understanding….” I don’t use the faux-Jacobian, but speak it in koine English. I’m reminded of my pastor who baptized and catechized me, whose 45 minute sermons always ended blissfully with the Votum. I stand in the same apostolic succession in office, though I’m somewhat briefer in proclamation. I also love the “Offertory” sung as a response to the Word preached and heard, David’s “create in me a clean heart, O God” from Psam 51. It’s a lovely setting and serves as an appropriate interlude prior to the hustle and bustle of wallets, checks, and clanging offering plates. What will we do ceremonially when the church goes paperless? Will the ushers come down the aisle with a card swiper or will they simply be wired into the pews? I think about such things during the offering.

One thing I miss in DS 3 is some sort of offering hymn. If you’re going to have a offering procession, you ought to have some traveling music to cover the parade, otherwise the ushers won’t know when to march. We use stanzas 1 and 3 of Lord of All Good (LSB #786), which fills the need quite nicely. Speaking of the offering, we also do the much-maligned greeting of peace just prior to the offering procession. Jesus did have something to say about being reconciled to your brother before presenting your offering, so we figure He’s OK with us greeting each other in His name and peace.

I’m not so sure about the chanted Our Father. I can chant the phone book, so chanting isn’t the problem. The people seem to want to pray the Our Father together, and I don’t blame them. It is the family prayer. This season, we’re praying it all together, and no, we’re not singing “for Thine is kingdom…Amen” at the end. Some TLH customs deserve to be lost. I think we’ll go back to having me chant it during Epiphany. There is much good in having the pastor be the corporate voice of the congregation’s prayer, including the Our Father. Oh yes, when I chant, then the congregation sings the termination.

After a year’s use of DS 1 and 2 in LSB, I find that I miss the eucharistic prayer when using DS 3. I greatly appreciate what LSB has done in restoring to the liturgy the rich prayers of the Holy Communion with their summary of salvation history bringing all of Christ’s work to remembrance in the Body and Blood here given. Still, the bare Verba of DS 3 serve as a fine Lutheran liturgical minimum, a back-to-basics reminder that it is the Word of Christ alone that makes the Sacrament what it is and not our prayers. I always chant the Verba to set them off from everything and slow things down a bit. Since I have an eastward altar and my back to the people, intonation is everything.

All in all, my experience with DS 3 this Advent has been like a December phone call from a dear old friend. We know each other’s thoughts and patterns; we can almost finish each other’s sentences. It’s good to hear that familiar voice again, speaking out of my childhood growing up under the grace of Baptism. There is great comfort and safety in the old and familiar, especially as there is “change and decay in all around I see.”  It is good to know and worship the One who changeth not.

11 December 2008

Compass Points and the High (or Low) Altar

Dear Brother Blackbirds, and those who read and lurk:

I want to commend to everyone an article placed into the blogosphere by Rev. Larry Beane (See Link Here to Fr. Hollywood's Blog, See Article Here).

Oh, the wonder of having a large daily newspaper in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the veritable "Bible Belt" (where one of my own dear lambs labors at Oral Roberts University on a soccer scholarship, enduring much pentecostal, anti-liturgical/sacramental bleeecchh), actually publishing an article on liturgical matters, and seeking to teach people liturgical terms, and getting perspective from another liturgical pastor (and a confessional Lutheran, LCMS one at that!) - we should give thanks for these things. Make sure you read the "side-article" where Pastor Beecroft is interviewed! We should write to this reporter and thank him for such an article, whether we agree with its conclusions or not!

Now I personally emailed this article to a few pastors I know, and one responded. He feels strongly about being able to face the people at the Verba. He wrote,

"As I understand it, this [changing direction] was Vatican II's attempt to engage the people, get closer to them, so they abandoned the high altars and installed the tables in the midst of the people. I had heard that Benedict wanted to get back to the high altars. I guess it's finally happened.

Architecturally, the RCC had the wrong idea in facing the people. Facing the altar implies sacrifice as the priest offers of the sacrifice of the Mass. Thus, facing the people really gave the opposite idea.

My understanding is that Lutherans face the people for the Sacrament, indicating that these are gifts from God to the people. Thus, a position that speaks grace not sacrifice. Lutherans have had the right theology but often the wrong architecture."

He goes on to say that he would be happy with correct teaching on the Lord's Supper in our circles, considering all of the grape juice and open communion that flows forth out in our own backyard of the LCMS. In the end, facing one way or another is adiaphora, and the best thing whichever way the chancel is set up would be for us to have a Biblical (that is, Confessionally Lutheran) Sacramental piety and practice. However, our practice confesses what we believe as well! So for us, what does using a free standing altar confess? Is it what this pastor says?

Pastor Beecroft says in the article, "It [facing the "high altar" at the Verba] reflects a sacramental ritual that helps direct the people toward the transcendent... it pulls the community away from themselves and to that which is beyond us. It certainly has helped my piety as a pastor." Pastor Beecroft's congregation in Tulsa had gone back to a non-free standing altar from previously using one. The Roman bishop of Tulsa makes the point - "Everyone is the same from the back. Eyes are on the crucifix, not the priest."

Did we switch to altars away from the wall, and facing the people at the Verba (at least, some of our congregations), because of Vatican II? Or have Lutherans before this time period ever used free-standing altars and faced the congregation at the Verba, as my friend seems to indicate?

It seems to me that Dr. Weinrich in "Early Church History" class, in illustrating some of the Early Church Fathers' understanding of the definition of Church, drew pictures of altars with Bishop facing People, that wherever the Pastor and People were gathered around Christ's Sacrament and Word, there was the Church. Perhaps he was not illustrating so much the actual way it looked so much as the concept of gathering around Christ as His Body. Pastor Stuckwisch can correct me, he is the "A+" student in that class, as are others (I struggled and contended for my B+, thank you). I therefore hesitate to use names of our ancient Fathers in the faith. Does the free standing altar have precedence before our modern mis-mash thanks to Rome's triflings?

Some Lutherans have insisted on a non-free standing altar, I think precisely because of wanting to be anti-Roman Catholic in practice. That argument is easily handled, of course - we ought not do or not do things because Rome does or does not - we would never Baptize infants or read the Gospel if we worried so much about Rome.

The question is of particular interest to me. We (my congregation) have a mission plant here in Texas, and they have built their new sanctuary. The altar in the new chancel is currently "on the wall" - it has not yet seen service - and it is that way because the mother church's altar is that way, and because of a bit of what some would call "bronze-aged" Lutheran piety (understanding the definition of Lutheranism as being "not Roman Catholic") that is part of our history here.

We will be dedicating said sanctuary in January. There is time and opportunity to teach and instill a healthy, genuine, welcoming Lutheran sacramental piety, which indeed we (the Senior Pastor and myself) are teaching and confessing gently and with care. But what should we teach them about this matter of the chancel and the altar in the new sanctuary?

10 December 2008

Gloria in Excelsis and Advent

This is not a rant against liturgical tradition nor is it a potshot against the rubrics of the Lutheran Service Book, nor is it a troll to stir up strife among the liturgical cathari.  I am sincerely seeking honest discussion.  The rubric of LSB for the Gloria in Excelsis states "During Advent and Lent, the Gloria in Excelsis is omitted."  (I'm quoting from the rubrics for DS 3 and note in passing that TLH had no such rubric at this point.)

My question is "Why?"  Is it simply a kind of "liturgical fast" from the Gloria so that it can be heard with renewed vigor at Christmas/Easter?  

In the past years under the discipline of LW, I dutifully substituted a stanza from O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, as stated by that hymnal's rubrics.  This year, after the first Sunday of Advent (using DS 3 as is our custom during Advent/Christmas/Epiphany), I made the radical pastoral decision to (gasp!) disregard the rubric (mea culpa!) and forge ahead with the Gloria in Excelsis.  

Practically, it sounded terrible going straight from the bare three-fold Kyrie to the chanted Salutation and Collect.  Clearly something had been sawed off.  The Gloria is the ordinary hymn of praise for the service of the incarnate Word.  I know it's a relative late-comer into the liturgy, but it has been around for at least 1400 years, so it's hardly an innovation.  

Liturgically, I don't approve of the idea of making any Ordinary into an option.  This encourages liturgical mischief.  

Pastorally, it makes no theological sense to remove the angelic song of the Incarnation on any Sunday, much less a Sunday in a season of preparation to celebrate the feast of the Incarnation. 

If every Sunday is a little Easter, isn't every Sunday also a little Christmas?  (I'm going to ask the same thing about the suppression of Alleluia in Lent, but we'll wait for the -gesima Sundays to take up that one.)

I'm going to refrain from commenting, but will eagerly await any insights and discussion.