12 August 2003

Lutherans, liturgy and society

Reading Richard Lischer's Open Secrets has prompted me to think about Lutherans once again. I spent nearly half a decade in the mid-1970s in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. There I attended Bethel College, a Baptist undergraduate institution. Bethel was something of a Baptist island in a Lutheran sea. Minnesota is, of course, heavily Scandinavian in influence, so the prevalence of Lutheran churches would scarcely be surprising. Moreover there are a large number of excellent undergraduate universities in the region, with Lutheran-affiliated institutions a dominating presence.

The glory of Lutheranism is definitely its liturgy in general, and its hymnody in particular. Unlike the Reformed churches, the Lutheran churches took a more moderate approach to reforming the liturgy, retaining such elements as the Gloria in excelsis, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei, that is, the so-called ordinary of the mass. They further retained the traditional western one-year lectionary, which the Reformed abandoned.

Luther himself took the initiative and composed a number of hymns, some of which might be described as christological paraphrases of the Psalms. For example, "A Mighty Fortress" is such a rendering of Psalm 46. And "Out of the Depths I Cry to You" is Luther's interpretation of Psalm 130. Luther stands at the beginning of the tradition of German chorales, many of which, like the Genevan Psalms, were highly rhythmic and possessed something of the flavour of renaissance madrigals. Nearly two centuries later J. S. Bach would arrange these to conform to the more baroque patterns of his era.

The full richness of the Lutheran liturgical tradition can be found in the Lutheran Book of Worship, the chief resource for worship in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. I particularly like the liturgies printed in the front of the volume, complete with the musical settings. Unlike Anglicans, who generally have to shuffle between two or more books in the course of worship, Lutherans quite sensibly have everything in a single volume.

However, it has always seemed to me that the chief weakness of the Lutheran tradition is its relative lack of a cultural and social witness, which is rooted in its two kingdoms theology. When Lutherans find it necessary to take up such a witness, they generally have to look outside their own tradition. Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes to mind here. In our own day Jean Bethke Elshtain, whom I find a joy to read, is quite evidently influenced by Roman Catholic social teachings. And Richard John Neuhaus, once a Lutheran pastor, jumped ship entirely and became a Catholic priest.

Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, I've actually attended very few Lutheran worship services. But some of my favourite hymns are the old chorales, often translated into English by Catherine Winkworth. The singing of "Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness" during the eucharistic celebration never fails to move me. Though I am definitely a Reformed Christian and an heir of John Calvin, I nevertheless gratefully acknowledge a debt to Luther and his followers.

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