Monday, April 05, 2004

On the Relationship Between Liturgy and Preaching (especially during Holy Week)

In the latest issue of Word & World, David Ratke and Walter Sundberg make differing assertions on whether Wilhelm Löhe can be classified as a neo-Lutheran. Their differing appraisals rest, at least partially, on Löhe's "renewal" of the liturgy and re-integration of the service of the Word and the service of the Meal.

The practice in the time of Löhe was actually quite similar to the Lutheran liturgy in Slovakia that we experienced while living there as missionaries. The normal service is a service of hymns, prayers, and sermon, lasting about 1.5 hours. During "high" seasons of the year, like Advent and Lent, a Communion service is offered after the benediction in the first service. Everyone leaves the church, and then those who desire communion come back in (or arrive for the first time) for the service of Communion. This de-tached rite was quite foreign to me, given the liturgical renewals that had happened in the ELCA and other denoms in America in the latter half of the 20th century.

Apparently, Löhe in his context simply got rid of the benediction (or post-poned it to the end of the combined services), attached the two services, and thus re-constituted the divided synaxis. He did this carefully, and over time led a # of liturgical changes based on his study of historic Lutheran, Catholic, and Orthodox hymnals.

But returning to the relation between liturgy and preaching, although Löhe himself was a great and faithful preacher, his liturgical renewals (according to liturgists) had a greater impact, so that today in many churches influenced by Löhe and other neo-Lutherans, the meal is back, but great preaching is not necessarily. At least so Sundberg says.

As is well known, Luther himself said services should not be held if there is no preaching. This makes problematic such liturgical renewal movements as those recommended by the Society of the Holy Trinity (of which I am a member), because they recommend a return to the praying of the daily hours, and these prayer orders do not always recommend a sermon (Compline, Mittagsgebet, etc.) The liturgical renewal movement has also recommended other services, especially during the Easter season, that can be done with or without preaching. It has, in this context, become the habit of some churches, for example, to do the entire lectionary reading for Passion Sunday, together with the liturgy of the Palms, and then let these liturgies stand in for a sermon or replace it.

Certainly, one gift of the liturgical rites for Holy Week is their profound attention to the salvation drama attested by the gospel writers, Christ's death and resurrection. And the more faithfully and creatively we pray these texts, chant these liturgies, repent and celebrate, the better. But it is my contention (and here I agree with Sundberg), that it is the preached Word that still holds a central place. We cannot simply read Scripture out loud and be done with it. This is a practice lacking in pneumatological depth, for the simple reading of the Scripture does not do what it is the Spirit seeks to do, which is to proclaim a Word that is true to that original Scriptural word. The Spirit will not preach anything that has not been taught before- but the Spirit will indeed preach Christ in this new place, at this new time, and will do so through means, through the preaching of those who are called to this divine office.

In this sense, liturgy cannot be a replacement for good preaching. True liturgy will structure the worship of the congregation in such a way that there is true leitourgia- and part of this leitourgia is the work of the preacher, each and every time the church gathers together.

A practical aside: Often our churches are committed to completing a worship service in one hour. With the re-introduction of sung portions of the liturgy like the Psalms, the Kyrie and Hymn of Praise, plus Communion at every Sunday service, this one hour of worship has seriously curtailed the historic Protestant practice of substantive and lengthier preaching. It may be the case that liturgists and homileticians, pastors and lay leaders will need to advocate for longer services, so that the liturgy and proclamation can be given their rightful time.

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